Artists: Notes on Art Making

Published in Art Journal, Fall 1999, Vol. 58, No. 3, pp. 40-47

Since India’s independence from Great Britain in 1974, Indian artists have worked through a nexus of conflicts of identity: East versus West, tradition versus modernism, nationalism versus internationalism. Until the 1940s, artists responding to pre-independence nationalism sought to express “Indianness.” Influenced by traditional miniature painting and folk art, their paintings featured Indian subject matter, typically derived from Hindu mythology and Mughal history. These works were often painted in overlaid washes of transparent watercolour on paper, rather than oil on canvas, a medium associated with the materialism of Western art. After Independence, many artists sought to be “international” and experimented with abstraction. By contrast, artists of the current generation, such as Manjit Bawa, T. Vaikunthan, Jaya Ganguly, Shipra Bhattacharya, and Chandrima Bhattacharyya, demonstrate the endurance of traditional Indian culture as the wellspring for artistic enterprise, as well as the new found freedom to challenge tradition.

Manjit Bawa

In a 1996 interview at his studio in the Imperial Hotel in New Delhi, Manjit Bawa (b. 1941) seemed dismayed when I asked him why he portrayed Krishna playing the flute for a group of dogs. “It is not Krishna,” he said. “It is Ranja.” But when I looked incredulous, he added, “Even if it is Krishna, it doesn’t matter - Ranja is also a flute player, and Ranja was a divine lover, more than Krishna, because Ranja gave everything for love. Krishna never gave everything for love. Krishna was in love with Radha, and he left Mathura and went to Jorka to his kingdom. So if it were Krishna in my painting, he should have a [peacock] feather on his head.”[1] While the blue skin associated with Vishnu and his avatars - especially the cowherding god Krishna- makes for a confident identification, Bawa’s motives and consequent reasoning for calling this figure Ranja were thought-provoking.

Bawa was deeply shaken by Hindu fanatics’ ruthless 1992 destruction of the Babri Masjid, a mosque of the Babur period built in 1528 in the ancient city of Ayodhya. A majority of Hindus believe that the Rama Janamabhoomi Temple, marking the birthspot of Rama, Seventh Incarnation of God Vishnu, was levelled and that the Babri Masjid was built on its rubble. While this mosque had been an object of contention and physical attack for centuries, the widespread riots and violence unleashed by its final destruction were unmatched since the partition of India in 1947. Bawa regarded this event as symbolic of an uncompromising fundamentalist mentality that is threatening the very fibre of Indian society, its political system, and even personal freedom. “How could they do this? How can you break a mosque? It is a disrespect to the other people living in this country who have been here for centuries. So many things that came from Iran are a part of my culture - stitched clothes came from there, the way of preparing food in this region, the gardens- and you can’t break my culture. The fundamentalists are breaking my culture. So I do paintings like Ranja with dogs.” Manjit paused. “The dog is anti-Hindu and anti-Muslim both. Showing the dog is anti-religion. When critics ask me how I could make this painting insulting Krishna, I say it’s not Krishna, it’s Ranja.”[2]

It is ironic that Bawa identified Ranja, the tragic victim of racial/tribal prejudices in a Punjabi version of Romeo and Juliet, as the protagonist in this painting. Nevertheless, like Krishna, Ranja was a cowherd with a flute who serenaded buffalo, as well as his beloved Heer. Heer was forced to marry her cousin when her romance with Ranja was discovered; when she rebelled, her family poisoned her, and Ranja died of heartbreak on her grave. Though Ranja is a traditional folk hero, the story is well known all over northern India. It has been popularised by Punjabi Sufi poets, such as Waris Shah, Bule Shah, and Sheikh Ahmed - whose verses Bawa quoted intermittently during our interview. A couplet from one that served as the inspiration for this painting reads, “Nobody would listen to my flute; I’ll play for the dogs.”[3] While conservative Hindus who interpret the figure as Krishna might be offended by the imagery, Punjabies who accept the flute player as Ranja would be equally distressed.

Several years ago, Bawa took on the ambitious project of creating a cardboard circus for the Imperial Hotel in Delhi; when I visited, some of the props were leaning against the walls in his studio. This project inspired Circus Fantasy, a curious painting that manifests Bawa’s fascination with duality and incompatible juxtapositions. Circus themes conjoins images from Hindu mythology and those from the Christian traditions. Lions, tigers, elephants, horses, monkeys are prominent in both realms, while the human dimension is represented by circus performers and by dancing or demon-slaying Hindu gods and goddesses. It is as if Bawa has transformed half the Hindu pantheon into a circus. His bifurcated forms offer multiple views of the actors, while details of Hindu myths are freely interpreted. At top centre, as described in the Bhagavata Purana, a purple Krishna balances Mt. Govardhan on his little finger. It is not convention, however, that the God should stand on the hump of a brahma cow. The same cow is about to lick- or kiss - the acrobatic figure floating sideways in front of it. An almost fierce lioness lunges at the oblivious Krishna, who is posed with his flute in the bottom left corner. Bawa enjoys humour and likes to incorporate whimsy and irony into his paintings.

At bottom centre, a lifeless body draped over hairy brown legs brings to mind Michelangelo’s Pieta, but the lifeless body is that of the demon Hiranyakasipu, killed by Vishnu in his Narsimha (Half- man, half- lion) avatar. That the image parallels the posture of Christ on Mary’s lap could not be accidental. The Christ-like head, which doubles as the head of the body beneath, tilts back to witness a sword-brandishing figure threatening a bird. Though missing the usual ten heads and arms, the attacker is meant to signify Ravana, the demon king of Sri Lanka, who kidnapped Sita, the beautiful wife of Rama, another of Vishnu’s avatars. In the Ramayana, the story of Sita’s capture and subsequent rescue, Ravana does battel with a giant bird (Jatayu) that tries in vain to save Sita. Bawa insists that the myths he chooses to paint are of no particular importance but should be easily recognisable. His real interest is in the manipulation of colour and form. He does not admit to metaphor, but we cannot ignore his subversive tricks.

T. Vaikunthan

With insinuation and wit, Bawa lampoons Hindu mythology; similarly, T. Vaikunthan (b. 1942) capitalizes on village culture. A city dweller from Hyderabad, the capitalofthestate of Andhra Pradesh, Vaikunthan paints small, colourful acrylics that are a reminder of the rural roots that the educated elite could find embarrassing. The Holy Man comments on the corrupt religious poseurs who prey on villagers, particularly women. In this work, a village woman turns her head from the white-clad holy man to look at a parrot, which symbolises connivery and deceit in Indian art, indicating that she recognises the insincerity of his intent. The pose also implies a sexual transaction. As the holy man pushes closer, the offended woman lifts her sari behind her neck as a shield. His awkward hand gesture adds to the impression of his unethical intentions.

Vaikunthan’s themes are based on first-hand observation and experience. The shaved head and sectarian mark on the holy man’s forehead are attribute of the priest; the white mark contrasts with his dark skin colour. The caste system, based as much on skin colour as on profession, fosters the belief that darker pigmentation belongs to lower castes and villagers. While Vaikunthan’s images imply a certain haughtiness, the near-poverty conditions in which he lived when I met him in 1993 ad his exceedingly humble nature refute this assumption.

Vaikunthan’s foray into village life was the result of a fortuitous opportunity. In the 1960s, when he was a student at Hyderabad’s JNTU College of Fine Arts, he recalled, “We copied prints of old masters and drew from casts, did life study and composition, all from that [nineteenth century] tradition.” [4] He then became a dedicated abstract painter, until her matriculated at M.S. University Faculty of Fine Arts in Baroda. “There we had ongoing philosophical discussions: Where is our art? Are we just following the West? What should we do? How should we do it?” Such questions led Vaikunthan to abandon abstract for figurative painting.

The real moment of truth, however, came after he left Baroda, when a friend asked him to assist with a film about the village, “I needed to research life in the village, so I read a lot and spent three or four months in Burugupally in the district of Karimnagar. As part of my research, I did drawings in pencil and wash. Unfortunately, the film was aborted, but the experience became my new idea for art.”[5] Village women in particular interest Vaikunthan because if their colourful dress and their gestures, but especially because of their social influence. “Village women live in a very different world; their faces are distorted from the hard work they do; there are few thigs they have or need.”[6] The women he paints are large and husky. Involved in daily chores or braiding their long black hair, they are frank and self-absorbed, but decidedly unrefined.

Jaya Ganguly

Vaikunthan’s nostalgic, though somewhat sardonic, depiction of Andhra village women is entirely different from images by Jaya Ganguly (b. 1958) of Calcutta prostitutes, whom she regards as heroines in the battle against female repression. Her frenetic, energy-filled paintings are a response to her sense of entrapment by the constraints of tradition- bound Bengali society and the pressures from her own conservative family. When she decided to enrol at the Indian College of Arts in Calcutta, Ganguly’s father refused to give her financial support. Though her mother and younger sister offered moral support, Ganguly credits her success to her fellow students, who shared art supplies and encouraged her in those difficult years. Her family expected her to marry, have children, and lead a traditional Bengali life; putting her career as an artist first was no acceptable. Yet, Ganguly was determined to fulfil her artistic ambitions before marriage.

The Indian College of Arts is located in a neighbourhood with a mixed population of labourers, shopkeepers, and professionals. The prostitutes in particular fascinated Ganguly. They represented freedom from the strict dictates imposed on women in conservative Bengali society; at the same time, she empathised with their lives of drudgery and degradation. Returning home from class one evening on a city bus, Ganguly shared her seat with a prostitute whom other passengers shunned. As the passengers moved away in horror from the haggard woman holding a cigarette defiantly between her lips, Ganguly became angered by their behaviour. In response to this incident, he produced a series of paintings entitled Sex and Sorrow. In one painting from this series, she portrays a prostitute with a red belly spreading her legs in a provocative gesture. Emanating energy, she is grotesque, yet, with a yellow flower pinned in her jet black hair, desirous of appreciation. Another painting from this series, Devadasi, depicts a temple dancer who is also a prostitute. Before the British colonized India, girls assigned to temples would dedicate themselves to the gods and dance as an expression of devotion. As Hindu supremacy was challenged and the temples lost their patronage, prostitution in the ranks diluted the devadasi’s sanctity. Eventually, the term became synonymous with temple prostitute. Ganguly’s temple dancer-prostitute carries candles for puja, part of the ceremony in worship of a god. Wearing jewellery and revealing her breasts, she emulates the stone musicians and dancers that grace medieval Hindu temples.

Now a part of history, devadasis would have been part of the temple community in the area where Ganguly was born and raised. Her family home is located on Kundu Lane in the immediate area of the Kalighat temple, one of India’s most famous pilgrimage sites and Calcutta’s most vital religious centre. Dedicated to Kali, the black goddess - a symbol of destruction and conversely of curing disease - the temple was a centre for a host of religious accessory hawkers, as well as prostitutes. In addition to the kum kum or sacred powder and fruit and flower sellers, the Kalighat folk artists frequented the area. Although they left just before Ganguly was born, their artistic legacy attracted national and international attention. Today her old neighbourhood is home to aspiring young painters and writers, and Kalighat folk art continues to play a vital role in shaping form and content in her work.

Paintings from the Sex and Sorrow series repeat the bold, curving outlines and simplified forms of Kalighat folk art. Ganguly’s version of the cat with a prawn in its mouth, a poke at religious hypocrisy, is a personal rendition of a popular theme among Kalighat painters who paint social satire and genre subjects, as well and gods and goddesses. According to the British art historian William G. Archer, “this subject was supposedly satirical of Vaishnavite preachers who, sworn to practise the strictest vegetarianism, were prone to eat fish on the sly.”[7] Ganguly’s cat, on the other hand, is disturbingly frightening. This snarling animal that protects its prey is a metaphorfordefendingpersonal integrity and maintaining control over one’s life. It is, in effect, a self-portrait.

Shipra Bhattacharya

Ganguly’s prostitutes, temple dancers, and ferocious wild-eyed cat are a far cry from the sensuous and romantic paintings of Shipra Bhattacharya (b. 1955). Whereas Ganguly resents the constraints of middle-class Bengali society, Bhattacharya finds inspiration in the lives and dreams of Calcutta’s masses, “who hardly care for the artificial decorum of the social world.”[8] Desire V (1997) depicts a ritual ubiquitous in India, in which female friend and relatives sequester themselves to talk about affairs of the heart. The woman in a blue sari on the bed is the focus of the discussion. The flower pressed delicately between her thumb and forefinger indicates that she pines for her beloved. While young women in Mumbai (Bombay) and New Delhi wear jeans and find husbands for themselves at college or the office, most marriages in conservative Calcutta are still arranged. Therefore, if the woman has come to known someone outside her family and fallen in love, she has a problem. Her two confidantes are decidedly perplexed; one sits on the floor offering advice or consolation, while the other shows her dismay by putting a finger to her lips. Bhattacharya’s theme and presentation are derived from a popular convention in traditional Indian miniatures, in which the pining beloved languishes on a bed surrounded by compassionate friends and maidservants. Though the furniture is modern and the saris are contemporary, the vertical perspective of the checkered floor and the titled bed are characteristic of seventeenth- and- eighteenth- century painting, in which men and women alike hold flowers or small beautiful objects as a sign of good breeding and sensitivity, and, when, surprised or in deep thought, put a finger to the lips.

Desire II is a dream- like vison of primal Indian romance. In a wondrous garden- more than a reference to the Garden of Eden - a handsome, smooth-bodied youth offers a flower to his sweetheart. He is brown, and she creamy white. The ideal Indian pair, they are derived from ancient fertility figures - male yaksha and female yakshi - that inhabit all aspects of nature. Represented in sculpture since approximately 200 B.C.E, the yakshi has always been conceived as a voluptuous creature with large globular breasts, small waist, and exaggerated hips and thighs. Bhattacharya’s female fatale, entwined by the vine that signifies her tie to nature, has tubular arms that echo the essence of the creeper. Her partner, emerging from the centre of the flower, is literally the spirit of the plant - a common definition for yaksha/yakshi.

Desire V and Desire II mark a recent change in Bhattacharya’s work. A few years ago, she focussed on the colourful and diverse activity of the bazaar. As she has written, “This particularly disorganised and scattered life of the market people [attracted] me very much.” [9] Tempera was her chosen medium; used in combination with parallel strokes of a charcoal pencil, her paintings were earthy and idiosyncratic. The widespread use of tempera, especially among Bengali artists, honours Indian tradition by rejecting more popular imported Western media. More recently, however, Bhattacharya has shifted to oil on canvas, giving her genre scenes a cleaner, brighter appearance. This work indicated that Bhattacharya’s personal and cultural identity is not enslaved to medium or technique.

Chandrima Bhattacharyya

Chandrima Bhattacharyya (b. 1963) is known for her whimsical and lively anecdotal narratives of contemporary life at Santiniketan that, no doubt, would have pleased its founder, the venerable Rabindranath Tagore. A poet, song writer, and novelist - Tagore made his mark as a painter thirty years after he had won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1914. His revolutionary arts college at Santiniketan, located in a lush landscape two hours by train northeast of Calcutta, ranks with M.S. University in Baroda as the country’s best. From the 1920s through the 1940s, Nandalal Bose, one of India’s most revered artists, headed the painting department at Santiniketan. Now the college draws the best young artists from all over India to study with renowned painters such as Jogen Choudhury and K.G. Subramanyan. Bhattacharyya earned two degrees from the college - a B.A. in ceramic design in 1987 and an M.A in the history of art in 1989. Her finely crafted, densely packed motifs derive from recent and past experiences, first as a student and then as a wife and mother.

Evoking the mystique of this legendary campus community does not preclude the incorporation of disturbing elements of social reality - indiscretions, aberrations, and private idiosyncrasies. Trilogy of Solitude is a flashback from the days in the dorm before marriage and children. Some of the memories are authentic, some fictional. Like college students almost anywhere, especially in the heat of summer, the girls spend time relaxing in front of the television. More surprising, however, is their revealing attire. Shorts and halter top might be seen on the streets of Mumbai or perhaps even in New Delhi, but a voluptuous bikini-clad student is unbelievably daring in the context of Bengal’s ultraconservative society. Women sunbathing on the balcony - one is nude - have stopped the voyeuristic cat dead in its tracks. [10]

According to Bhattacharyya, “The central themes of the life of many girls in the hostel was dressing up and going out to meet their beaus in the evening… their world revolved around their own activities and that of their boyfriends.” [11] Bhattacharyya places a lovelorn girl on the balcony in the starry night, lost in thoughts of her beloved, a romantic myth with deep roots in the Indian psyche. Bhattacharya’s pastiche is a late millennium version of the nayika or the beloved, whose various emotional states constitutes one of the most popular themes in eighteenth-century Hindu painting.

Other paintings, such as They Come in My Dreams (1992), conjure up the microcosm of Santiniketan from more recent memories and experiences. Juxtaposed narratives emulate the claustrophobic environment that encompasses both the professional and domestic life of its citizen. The quaint, plain stucco bungalow that Bhattacharyya shared with her husband and two young children is the fulcrum for unfolding events. She captures the endless maze of trails that wind through lush vegetation and disappear over a rise or down a gully in the dark spaces that wind through the composition. The voyeur and the open view of bathroom activity indicate that little goes undetected within the insular college community. Everyone there can attest to the mischievous urchins who climb over brick walls to steal fruit from backyard gardens. The ubiquitousnayikareappearsunder a shade-giving tree, her euphoric state in utter contrast to the old woman who stares upwards at a couple admiring the star-filled sky. This Bhattacharyya’s quintessential Santiniketan, in which “Dark starry skies evoke a strong nostalgia for scented summer nights with their pleasantly cool breeze and deep shadows of large trees, brought aloe by the distant strumming of guitar and conversations of students enjoying the balmy evening.” [12]

The work of these five artists exemplifies the breadth of cultural experience that informs contemporary Indian art. Bhattacharyya’s paintings wed romantic nostalgia with present day realism. The philosophic and time/space disparity she employs is favoured by a majority of contemporary artists. With iconographic zeal, Bawa reconfigures centuries old iconographies of Hindu gods and goddesses. Ganguly refers to Kalighat fold art in her crusade to dislodge entrenched social traditions. Vaikunthan captures indelicate qualities of village people that most city dwellers believe they have transcended. And Bhattacharya celebrates notions of romance inherent in Indian culture. Educated and informed, knowledgeable about world art as well as their own, these Indian artists still find the best inspiration at their doorstep.



[1] Interview with Manjit Bawa New Delhi, 1996.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Interview with T. Vaikunthan, Hyderabad, 1993.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] William G. Archer, India and Modern Art (New York: Macmillan, 1959), 112.

[8] Shipra Bhattacharya, “Text on My Paintings,” 1994.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Regarding her interest in cats, Bhattacharya has written: “Cats with their stealthy habits and quietness evoke a feeling of the sinister and unpredictable in me. I have used cats repeatedly from the beginning

[of my career] in almost all my drawings, as a recurrent motif… either sitting or standing quietly in a corner observing bathing nudes or intimate lovers; or walking away with a stolen fish… a scene which perhaps adds a bit of dry humour to my otherwise humourless works”; letter from Chandrima Bhattacharyya to the author, 1994.

[11] Letter from Chandrima Bhattacharya to the author, 1997.

[12] Ibid.
Published in Art Journal, Fall 1999, Vol. 58, No. 3, pp. 40-47.
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