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Overview of Modern Indian Art

The twelve artists discussed here with reference to the "Modern Art Show" organised by Saffronart and Pundole gallery in New York in May 2001, with a few exceptions, emerged in the Indian art scene and produced their major works roughly within the first two decades after independence. This time span is significant because it is the duration that modernism, as an aesthetic position has been dominant in the visual arts in India. Excluding perhaps Jogen Chowdhury, the artists in this show have been part of and have significantly contributed to that apolitical trajectory in Indian art practice that is normally described as the "formalist modern".

This aesthetic orientation of formalism however would cease to be the governing principle of art making in India by the late sixties, giving way to a pop post-modernism. Thus, it is between the magical year of 1948, when the progressive Artist's group (P.A.G) burst onto the Indian art scene and the early work of a Bhupen Khakkar that many of these artists should be located in stylistic and conceptual terms.

Let me promptly list these artists then: M.F.Husain and S.H.Raza founder members of the P.A.G, V.S.Gaitonde and Krishen Khanna members when the group reformed in the 50s, Ramkumar, Tyeb Mehta and Akbar Padamsee fringe members of the group.

All fall well within the first decade of the development of modernism in India. Even those painters in this show who emerged in the late sixties or later, and fall outside this temporal distinction can indeed be seen to be part of the same lineage. This is so because they take the modernist impulse forward to one of its possible conclusions; I have in mind here the abstracts of Laxman Shreshta who matured in the mid sixties and Prabhakar Kolte who began his career in the early 70's. The artists assembled here in this show illustrate among other things this interesting transition, from a representational art to a purely non-representational one.

I have used the term "formalist modern" in a seemingly general way to describe these artists and their aesthetic orientation, but it has to be recognized that each one of them displays a complex and singularly unique approach to painting and the real. That is, given the restrictive (qualified) boundaries of the problems that they set up as being imperative to art, their ways of solving them were as diverse as it could get, after all, many of these artists rode the post-independence wave of a brazen internationalism, which meant contemporary western stylistic options were aplenty and were for the taking. The formation of the progressive artist's group (P.A.G) in the year 1948 is pivotal to the development of modernism in post-independence India.

F.N.Souza, the group's driving force, sought to give this configuration of six painters - S.H.Raza (b.1922), K.H.Ara (1913-85), M.F.Husain (b.1915), H.A.Gade (b.1917) and S.K.Bakre (b.1920) and himself a socially responsive approach to art. Remaining true to his early communistic leanings, Souza advocated an art that would bridge the gulf between the artist and the common man. This idealism however did not last long, so that by the second year of the group's existence, in 1949, his commitment was to the eternal laws of "aesthetic order", "plastic co-ordination" and "colour composition".

The desire to break with the past and to fashion an art practice that was modern and Indian at the same time, meant looking to what was considered to be the most advanced European art styles of the time. Cubism was one of them, and the French expressionist tradition another. Generally though, Roualt, Van Gogh, Klee, Modigliani, Picasso and Mattise became the inspirational figures whose manners were then freely adopted, some times in a straight forward embrace by the aspiring Indian artist.

The impulse to look outside of one's own culture and tradition in the quest to be modern, that is, to break with the past was not exactly new in India. It was just that the progressives were the first group of artists who emphasised it with such singular commitment. Gaganendranath Tagore, Rabinindranath Tagore and Amrita Sher-Gill had all looked to western modernism to forge a new path for Indian art in pre-independence colonial India

One simple problem with such an all out appropriation of western forms and style, and indeed some would argue that it is still the key problem now here in India, is that it is not possible to use them with the same original intentions, since we are dealing with a different social and cultural context altogether. So the newborn modern Indian artist had to find a way of fitting together a borrowed form and an indigenous content convincingly. While some, like Souza dealing with ideas of alienation could easily combine an expressionist idiom with its attendant anguish, others like Hussain, who did not model themselves on such an image of the artist, a concept with its origins in the west, had to find other ways of utilizing those new forms. In what follows we shall examine how modernist elements took a distinctly Indian inflection in the hands of the painters represented in this show. It is only right that we start this narrative with M.F.Husain, considered to be the most "Indian" of them all.

M.F.Husain has been the most enduring symbol of the nation's secular ethos and the most viable mascot of modern Indian art. So sustained has been his presence in the Indian media that his status is almost equal to that of a film star. The fact of his apprenticeship to a cinema hoarding artist, his humble Muslim background, his eccentric appearance and most of all his boundless energy have all created a larger than life persona capturing the imagination of a nation.

Husain's "Indianess" perhaps comes from his desire to get in touch with "Indian reality" and his instinctive welding together of highly disparate elements such as the Indian folk, the popular, the epic and the classical in a modern painterly language. His conception of India, its past, present and its future are squarely located in the "rural ", the attendant romanticism giving it that utopian dimension. After Sher-Gill it is he who has attempted to render the face of the villager, who is often placed in a timeless and unspecific locale surrounded by his tools and his animals in his work. This was in the mid fifties when he shot to fame.

Husain has worked with a range of different media since then and tackled a whole gamut of themes. Mahabharta, Varanasi, cyclones, have all touched the artist. His boldness and courage with artistic material when not habitual has produced exemplary work and also some intuitively unconventional ones such as the kite paper collage work. One of his famous series of paintings is that on Mother Teresa, and there is also his continuing obsession to fashion the ideal Indian woman, a project reminiscent of Ravi Varma's own at the turn of the 19th century. Add to Cart "" then %> /Offer/AddProduct/3647" > Add to Cart -->

Krishen Khanna is a staunchly figurative painter who has been preoccupied with presenting the "human predicament". In the game series of 1971, a painting shows authoritarian leaders on a table discussing animatedly, even as broken limbs and skeletons lie on the floor. Khanna's paintings have always dealt with the tragic and the sad. His early work were emotional notations on canvas where the figure was the only active space. Khanna's project in recent years has been to find the balance between the imperatives of painting and that of the figure. A flexibility of approach, an open-endedness and a fluid structure has ensured change and gradual development in his work.

Akbar Padamsee has hovered somewhere between the figurative and the abstract. His paintings come from a profound solitude and the viewer is bound to experience an infinite distance between himself and the image. The seduction of the paint is counteracted by the remoteness of the picture. This is especially the case with his metascapes in which is dramatised the intensities of paint as it irradiates orange and blue light. Padamsee's subjects are limited; he has done pictures of couples, prophets, and landscapes returning to them again and again in his long career.



Tyeb Mehta too has worked with a limited repertory of images. The image of the rickshaw puller, the trussed bull and the falling man has spawned a number of paintings and sketches down the years; some of which are included in this show. The obsessive and repeated exploration of the image rather than the ideas of social injustice that a subject such as the rickshaw puller may suggest has the effect of transforming them into icons. They stand for a generalised idea of pain and suffering of daily existence. Unlike an expressionist like Bacon who had already been consecrated in the London art scene when Mehta was staying there, his agony is expressed through a deliberate and restrained language and a flat method of execution. It is much like a stratagem it seems to gain control over and conquer pain and in his best works the consequent feeling is that of an imminent implosion.

Attempts to come to terms with a painful reality always led these modernists to tackle obsessively purely aesthetic problems. Tyeb Mehta has said that his works essentially deal with introducing oppositions and controlling it. This overt preoccupation with the demands of painting, its construction is true of a painter like Ram Kumar also.

Ram Kumar's early work after his return from Paris in 1951, and like Tyeb Mehta dealt with the subject of alienation in the urban space. Bemused figures stand in a cubist inspired architectural backdrop. But by the end of the decade and after a trip to Greece where the landscape had had a liberating influence on the artist, Ramkumar would eliminate the figure completely from his work. While one would think his shift to landscapes would stand as a therapeutic counter to the constrictions of the city, Benaras and Sanjouli appear far from being a spiritual utopia of endless vistas. Ram Kumar's persistent use of tightly packed cubist planes to organise his canvas and his practice of leaving areas on the surface relatively untouched means that these cities too appear as dilapidated, as ruins and as claustrophobic as any urban situation. For an artist as conscientious and careful as Ramkumar it seemed there could never be any easy solution.

This would change shortly though when in 1969 Ramkumar shifts to a landscape abstraction. The paint application becomes thinner and pictorial planes interact in a more dynamic way. It is a veritable celebration of painting. Large areas of colour breathe freely and the viewer's eyes move unreservedly across the surface of these remembered landscapes.

S.H.Raza began his career as a painter of town and cityscapes. Typically his pictures of the early 50's were cubist influenced, the architecture would have a geometric emphasis and would be composed non-naturalistically. They were reminiscent of Ramkumar's urban pictures but without the figures. Unlike his progressive group colleagues Husain and Souza, the human figure never preoccupied Raza. So it was inevitable that after settling in Paris he opted for an expressionist method, pitting against one another the emotionalism of colour and the rationality of linear values. It is here that his abstract phase begins and by the early seventies he develops his neo-Tantric influenced idiom that he is now known for.

It has been said, in defence of Indian abstraction that it is justified by the long and profound philosophical idealism in Indian thought. This is perhaps the only defence possible for it did not arise from a desire to "remake" reality and to overthrow realism, for unlike Europe, we never had a realistic tradition to speak of in the first place. Thus, it has been argued that Indian artists, even the chastest of them, never could eschew a reference to reality, never could forsake the world completely. But, if there was anyone who came close to doing this in those years it was V.S.Gaitonde.

V.S.Gaitonde broke into abstraction at around the same time as Raza and is one of the few artists who never went back to figuration. His Klee-oriented phase of stylised women and birds in a still and flat landscape led to experiments in serigraphy and monochromatic ink drawings. Evident in this development is a gradual but definite rejection of all representation, which seems to run analogous to the artist's own withdrawn persona.

His art then evolves into large, single colour and vertical oils that are distinctly contemplative in mood. A series of horizontal lines gives these pictures their structural integrity on which the artist continually reworks the pigment. He would rub, scrape, dissolve, and reapply until the texture that is sought after is achieved. It is as if the paintings are the result of a prolonged natural event rather than an artistic construction.

Laxman Shreshtha along with Prabhakar Kolte are two artists who have carried on with their personal abstract vision even as the contemporary Indian artist of the late sixties ok to new ideas. In a sense both squarely missed the modernist party but have sustained its basic ideas.

Laxman Shreshtha came to Mumbai from Nepal. After abandoning his impasto technique he adopted a meditative and an introspective approach. Dualities of man/woman, rural/urban, man/nature are at play in his work in an extraordinarily sublimated way. The calm of his landscape-based abstractions is the scene the spiritual drama is being played out. This terrain however is ambiguously rendered giving them the qualities of what the artist calls "intrigue". These landscapes do not emerge from any references to a particularised locale, but as if from the deep recesses of the spirit assuming the form of a landscape in the viewer mind. There is a reticence in these works; it is as if the artist wants to leave us stranded and agonized at the threshold of meaning.

Prabhakar Kolte, like Ram Kumar and Gaitonde arrived at abstraction after a brief stint with figuration. Employing child like drawings in the manner of Paul Klee, Kolte began to combine elements of abstraction and representation, in a non-discriminate and integrated manner. Stylised motifs of windows and faces, geometric and nature symbols became qualitatively equal when faced with the artist's avowed intention to do "painting about painting itself". Klee in exile created a dream like inner world when the world around was anything but innocent. One may ask what the engendering factors of this mode were in our own context, are these paintings related in any way to the anxieties of the nation in the 70's? If there is an ambiguity in Kolte's work during this period in its relation to the outside world, by the beginning of the next decade his works make no concessions at all to it. Kolte represents I think the logical end of the abstract impulse in the modernist interlude.



The renunciation of a Gaitonde, the solitude of a Padamsee or the alienation of a Ram Kumar is complemented here by the isolationism of Ganesh Pyne. The difference however is the emphasis on content, and a corresponding lack of formalist preoccupations and an obsession with technique. As a way of coming to terms with the intimidating world Pyne resists it by reverting to a fantastic world of childhood stories and anxieties, where past and present become virtually indistinct. Typically his meticulously detailed pictures in tempera deal with subjects of death, notions of the eternal, the mythic and the actions of memory.

Laxma Goud seeks to introduce the raw eroticism of the rural in his prints. He posits this primitivism and abandon against the moral prohibitions of the urban. The celebration of the erotic parallels the philosophy of "joy" that governs his picture making. The organic oneness of male, female, animal and nature continuities are sketched out in an idyllic rural backdrop.

Jogen Chowdhury's critique of the urban consciousness is possibly the most direct of all the artists here. His supple forms recall decaying flesh and the Ganesha icons that he persistently paints as if made of skinned flesh is not to be seen as blasphemous denigration of the sacred but metaphors of spiritual degeneracy. His pictures of couples recall the kalighat patuas(link to the article o Klighat in the art guide section) and their acerbic social critique of loosening morals amongst the rising English educated middle class of 19th century kolkata. Jogen combines beauty and ugliness, the sacred and the profane, the vulgar and the cultured through a vibrant sensual textural concern for linearity. A strange beauty arises though, out of the putrid and the corrupt much like a disquieting moon arching across the sky over a burial ground.

Jogen was part of the second generation of artists after independence who were more committed to dealing with social and political issues and more vocal in their criticisms. Artists such as Nalani Malani, Bhupen Khakkar, Ghulam Mohammed Shiekh, Sudhir Patwardhan, Gieve Patel were part of this employing a pre-dominantly realistic idiom. The question of form and its choice became dependent on the kind of subject matter that these painters were preoccupied with and their language arrived from there and not the other way around.

The modern painters that we have been discussing on the other hand, had to bear the burden of a western tradition that seemed so far ahead that they set themselves the impossible task of catching up. They cleared the ground for the future artist by exhausting very quickly modernism's aesthetic challenges. Doggedly pursuing an ideal of form in the face of the very real anxieties of influence the first generation modern artist appears truly heroic.

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