Art News & Views

Abstract Rhetoric:

Broadly, the negotiated space of national/international, in a subliminal manner brought two kinds of subject positions in the Indian art world. First the confrontational and the heroic- outsider to the mainstream and its institutions who upheld a subversive revolutionary identity, and the second that verge on the solipsistic guise, whose reclusive symptoms manifest often through a disquieting expressionism by using the premises of abstractionist formalism. Jacques Derrida called the yearning for disembodied knowledge within Western thought its “heliotropism”- its turn towards the sun in its eagerness for a bright and universal truth, metaphysics pretends that it can do without metaphor, rhetoric, myth, without all the imperfect poetical colouring that animates ordinary language. According to Derrida, the white European replaced the ancient truths of storytelling and poetic transfiguration with pale and bloodless abstract philosophy-that's western minimalism but what about us?

To talk about specific genres, we somewhat stumble upon some other kind of difficulty here for any foreclosure to it has already proven disastrous and an incomplete study. In the fractured times after independence, an entire generation of feisty, anxious and aspirational artists came into their own in a heroic attempt to find a voice. How do we account for the uncritical rather intent reading of these works into categories as belated, ahistorical and unoriginal- are we in urgent need of a critical apparatus, one capable of reinventing the possibility of a meaningful engagement with the ambivalent works of this complex generation- post independence, postcolonial. This idea that these artists were thrown into the middle of whole process of art making is a revolutionary idea- a critique of modernism. They do not begin at the beginning or end at the end. Instead of drawing out the character on providing a catalogue on abstraction this essay mainly makes a selective attempt to re-embrace some of these artists that helped in producing a corpus of radically abstract language in Indian Modern Art.

Jagdish Swaminathan(1928-1994) never seemed to have lost the concept of painting itself as a political act. The manifesto of the group '1890' which he formed was quite clear about that stance, though his definition of what is meant by “political” changed over the years. Early on he felt that artists should be activists and that their work should reflect the commitment, though his own specifically political beliefs for the most part, found expression in his poems and Marxist activities. Later he began to think of “politics” in a more fluid and embracing way.

In his catalogue of the show at Kunika- Chemould Art Centre in 1969, he wrote:” But if I had an artist's scruples in politics I perhaps brought something of the revolutionary's ruthlessness into art.' “The ruthlessness was evident in the native accent of colour which in the western art historical terms represented a kind of rationalized regionalism” recalls Geeta Kapur.  She writes “He was still a prisoner of the category of crutches: the certainties offered by the geometric mode of art making continued to be the ruling values of his pictorials until the show of 1969.”

When he referred to art as a 'progressive force” in society, he framed this notion in formalist utopian terms, speaking of the 'emotional reality' of colour and line, and insisting upon the universalistic formal vocabulary of abstraction that viewers initially baffled, learnt to share later. No actual tradition of the past engaged him, and the adivasi presence to which he harked was the space of the present, the only possible presence for the artist then. J. Swaminathan even made us share the joy of tribal art too. It was an odd stance, really, coming from someone, who disparaged prescriptive, programmatic utopianism. The real political bottom line in Swami's aesthetic, however, seems to lie in his conviction- that his painting was democratic in a most total sense. His abstraction, he insisted, was in every case founded on mundane things, his inclusion of vernacular texts, and household paraphernalia glowed with Adivasi wisdom in principle permitted viewers from all walks of life to have a flash of self identification in front of his paintings and let them claim his pictures as their own. He always included himself in the culture he portrayed. Group 1890 was created in answer to a personal need. The group was formed in a meeting of artists from various parts of the country held at Bhavnagar on 25-26 August, 1962. It derives its name simply from the number of the house of Jyoti Pandya, who was host to the conferring artists. The artists were Jeram Patel, J. Swaminathan, Ambadas, Gulammohammed Sheikh, Himmat Shah, Eric Bowen, Jyoti Bhatt, Rajesh Mehra, M. Reddeppa Naidu, Raghav Kaneria, Balkrishna Patel, S. G. Nigam. Jeram Patel was the secretary and Swaminathan the ideologue. The first exhibition of group was held at Rabindra Bhawan, New Delhi, 20-29, October, 1963. “As a long time trade unionist, he knew that man is a unity; he is many. So how could he fight his battles as a painter alone, in an unfriendly environment? He needed painter friends as interlocutors.”- K.B. Goel. If not artists, their works certainly were. As artists they were relatively unknown and so were in the same situation that Swaminathan was then. But the anxiety of influence was more pronounced in their works. The tragic isolation of PAG has driven home this lesson.

“Group '1890' at best was a meeting of mavericks.” reminisces Ghulammohammed Sheikh in an imaginary letter to Swami soon after his death in 1994. “We spoke incoherently and in monosyllabic terms, often past each other's ears and eyes. Our night- long discussions at the residence of our kind hosts, the Pandyas, sounded more like multiple monologues than a dialogue”. The tonalities pushing and pulling and overlapping in space in his wall series with ritual' wall markings. But to stand in front of the painting is to experience the resolution of all these elements that gather into evenness that absorbs the areas of divisions into a unitary whole. The other part of the oeuvre is in his extraordinarily sensitive modulation of tints and shades. After having reduced his colour to no more than a scale of values, he pursues tonal painting with fervour and discipline valourizing the activities of his mind, evaluating, weighing and balancing the relative strengths of all that it encounters in its search for order and the unresolved complexities. The erased areas between them have taken on a new resonance that pushes us to the constructive markers. The paintings work best when the salient elements are all held in tension on the same plane, with no element appearing to overlap or underline any other. This gives his paintings that quality of a world whose contents might be said to be suspended in a simultaneous presentness of being. Despite his presence vital presence, Contemporary Indian Art never knew what to do with him. His late works reminiscent of Adivasi art had no direct precedents and left no disciples but the dichotomy remains that he inspired a generation of abstract painters who initially emulated and later changed their styles. The expressive range of work 'Wind' and 'Mountain' series of the late sixties and early seventies to later day earthy, consummative work of the eighties seem fixed in a certain jumpy, insistent optimism. At the end of it all, in whatever way one designates him in the history of art and ideologies, Swaminathan is an artist who rhymes the movement of the eye and the hand and turns it into the movement of the signifier through and beyond an iconic image; through a dissembling decodable language.

Let us now look at the body of work by two distinguished members of Progressive Artists Group (PAG) formed in the year India gained Independence. The artists lived in small congested spaces and traveled long distances to meet at Chetana restaurant or the Bombay Art Society or by the sea at Marine Drive and at Rampart Row. “The real common denominator for us was significant form. We were expressing ourselves differently, we had different visions during the early days but what was common was a search for significant. Each in his own way, according to his own vision” (-S.H. Raza). In V. S. Gaitonde's(1924- 2001 ) work, who joined the group few years later; meditative silence that culminates from lush amalgamations of restless lines that seduce atmospheric fields, and framing edges to define a somewhat unreal space that is temporarily free from inane strictures. In his work, where images have the opportunity to displace objects, and subjectivity has the chance to hold reality at bay; paintings waste no time in pushing  these freedoms  to their limits from where his painting evolves, a major and a minor area of concentration usually start to play off one another. In her essay on the Group PAG for the show  at NGMA in 1996 that marked the opening of its Bombay chapter, Yashodhara Dalmia writes 'a strong abstractionist, V.S. Gaitonde transformed early landscape painting into works of great lyric transcendence'. Tyeb Mehta, who was a close of his observes, “There was something about Gaitonde's work- of course he was very much influenced by Klee- it was very imaginative and poetic. He did figurative work earlier but soon turned to abstraction. He was very close to Palsikar and Mohan Samant- technically, not image wise. They created their own colour by rubbing cowrie shell on colour into another and create unbelievable texture and colour nuances. This was a technique developed by Palsikar”. Gaitonde's colour surfaces are translucent creating almost an underwater ambience with beams of light penetrating the depths. Even the red of his work gets transmuted into light leading to an almost spiritual sublimation. The linear elements run back and forth between these two masses, and occasionally establish distant satellite areas at the end of their sweep. Despite his direct address and immediacy of marking however Gaitonde's work creates a meditative, and sometimes luscious, atmospheric depth that draws the viewer in. Here, accumulating, linear density is reminiscent of the anxious scrawls that seem to be both forming and yet so tormenting and eating away the drawings churn with the rain, stream and speed whose forms are emerging and dissolving in mist and light and dynamism that constitute an internal landscape. The search is spontaneous and a bodying forth of feeling delivering the pleasures of traditional gestural abstraction in a personal or expressive idiom, which is particularly his genius. The vernacular alphabets, the thin lines not too long and calculated to record any single, sweeping movement of the artist's arm, replace spontaneity with the conscious manipulation of its evidence.

Within the relatively quiet frame there is intense activity; obviously, the energy made visible is controlled, and one has to watch closely the expressive visual modulation of color into which are woven interlocking planes which are so thin that they may go unnoticed A definite silhouette which encompasses formal structures, for another, his studies become unpretentious, the flat paint body seem less important than tone, an effacement of one layer followed by another setting a vector, shadow set against deeper shadow, marking the points where their forms reflect, intersect or overlap, the frame within the frame diverges instead of converging, illuminating areas as vivid streaks of lighting descending into a light drizzle, a kind of lunar aesthetics grow on the viewer as our own experience abides in another pictorial space. A return to luminosity pervaded with a dynamic equilibrium of forms and a measured progression. His penchant towards abstraction deepened resulting in a strong affinity towards the unraveling of the innards of a form. This change has given rise to landscapes charting the mind's subterranean terrain with a blood-rushed ecstasy. The canvases done in earlier years show a move back towards the irisicidence but with newer and stronger symbols filling the space; they seem to suggest an earlier preoccupation with his fundamentally elegiac temperament. It becomes interesting at this point how his small works, the abstraction fights for its life, seeking instead to hold on to that tenuous thread that connects its operations to those of the world, whose appearances, at least are conspicuously absent from their frames. The small vessels seek to break out of “the purified domain of light and colour” that he establishes. He introduces a measure of those “unresolved complexities of ongoing life”. In any event, he brought in a greater number of variables and established a different take on getting back to basics. It is a metaphoric mode of self-presentation: self understood as quasi self, for it has no perceptual components. The presence of the wall is sheer because the perceptual components are woven into the surface: what we are exposed to is the phenomena of sheer surface in which is included the neutral white surface space of the canvas inasmuch as it is part of the woven layers of colour tonalities.

When his painting is not before us the recall sensations stay with us; the interaction between repetition and recollection has already become a part of the memory. What stays in the memory is not so much the repetitive nature of the surface but the sensations one had of it. “My entire outlook changed when I came to know that the Chinese have no epics to boast of for the single reason  that an epic covers a long period of  time  and its basically wrong to say, for instance that any age can be heroic. Any abstract feeling can be valid for a single moment. On is not in love eternally, even if the feeling is there. The ecstasy of the moment cannot be stretched over a long period' (-in conversation with S.G.Vasudev). Such a painting represents an immense shift in our sensibility; the intensities of the sensation are more acute while gripping our psyches, engaging our bodies and filling our minds. The images here are replete with images retrieved from the times and spaces he has navigated inwardly and intensely with an indiscriminate abandon and unconfined.

S. H Raza (born 1924) aims at pure plastic order, form order and concerns the theme of nature. As a counterpoint to the figurists who began as a landscape artist and progressively turned more and more towards abstract. Both have converged into a single point and become inseparable; the point, the bindu- symbolizes the seed, bearing the potential of all life, in a sense to express this concept, Raza resorts to the principles which govern his abstraction. The marks of edge, tradition and handling become part of the living image. So do the measures taken to retard, decay and fend off damage; his abstraction implores us to look at the rest of painting as if it were abstract. In his work is never anything more than a refinement or a mannered distortion of components of pigment, totally consistent with previous history of painting, and capable of very many of its effects, though the metaphor of illumination is basic to his language. The compulsiveness of the little gesture out of which they are made lends them a private, even hermetic character, especially is white series where he repeatedly proclaims the neutrality and emptiness. He chooses to paint in white at times and in part, to discourage any interpretation of sorts. Moreover, the application of color also reveals distinct purposes, where paint body produces a kind of textual differentiation enumerating various forms and corresponding traditions. The disclosure of the sacred wall, personal discovery as it. By the late eighties, there is a detached coolness, an enlargement of the theme which enters Raza's work as he begins to make paintings like Germination where the seed is like womb of the earth containing within it an infinite potential for life.

The push of compulsion against the narrow range of overall effect is what gives Raza's paintings their power and serenity. His body of work stretch before us comfortably encompassing our field of vision with its complexity held in check by its reticence of colour, the lush amalgamations of concentric lines, the solemnity of its measured cadences and the austerity of its black, white, ochre and gray tonal range that all the elements despite their values and divisions, mysteriously occupy a single plane and share the surface with graceful equality.

Nasreen Mohamedi (1937-1990). is regarded as  was one of the most important Indian artists of her generation, and her paintings, drawings and photographs, produced from the early 1960s to the late 1980s, constitute a key body of work within the modernist canon. She studied in London and Paris during the late 1950s and early 60s, and returned to India to teach at the Faculty of Fine Arts, MS University in Baroda. In India, her austere, small-scale drawings and use of minor gestures contrasted with the figurative narrative works produced by many of her contemporaries. From her early colourful and monumental that had the appearance of a landscape with vast expanse to an increase use of blank ink that extended her play with tones and hues of sixties she slowly turned into bold calligraphic brushstrokes, made more often by a free movement of the wrist than by the control of her fingers. In the early seventies, just about the time she came to Baroda to teach drawing, her work makes a definite move away from nature- bound imagery in the direction of an abstract language. Giving up the free, calligraphic brushwork and its immediate tonal and textural seductions, she begins to use straight lines measured and drawn with the help of a geometrical scale. Mark by mark, small ink drawings thus evolve into a grid like structure. She later gave up the grid a decade later.  She also did few pencil drawings towards the end of the eighties on graph paper, where she seems released to plot swirls and ovals.

In art-historical terms, Mohamedi's practice can be seen in relation to an earlier generation of Indian abstract artists such as Gaitonde, and from an international perspective to works on paper by Agnes Martin or, through its invocation of utopian abstraction, to Kazimir Malevich and the Suprematists. Unlike that of Jeram Patel, Nasreen's work is immersed in perceptual reality rather than inward landscape. This difference, if seen as her 'choice, may probably also explain the shift from the free calligraphic shift approach of her earlier work to the grid of the seventies. While her drawings from the late 1970s onwards tend toward the resolutely abstract, they intimate cultural references which become explicit in her photographs in which historical architecture suggests an aesthetic link to both modernisation and an Islamic heritage. In Mohamedi's diaries, made over a period of thirty years, textual and graphic interventions also attest to the close links between her inner life and her practice as an artist.

Her rarely seen drawings, paintings and photographs with unique archival material from her studio, and provide the occasion to further position her practice both within the history of Indian art and in relation to an international avant-garde.

Tracing an alternative modernism; here, wondrous shifts between intellectual processes and explicitly physical activities reunite the life of the mind with its bodily ground:  high art's most exclusive realm returns its pleasures to the enlivened physiques of its participants. Within the relatively quiet frame there is intense activity; obviously, the energy made visible is controlled, and one has to watch closely the expressive visual modulation of color into which are woven interlocking planes, which are so thin that they may go unnoticed. “Nasreen work demonstrates a significant aspect of art in Baroda, namely, its aesthetic involvement if with the immediate world of perception….Nasreen's mode of evaluating lines- giving their movement and density a memorable quality-is comparable to the way Bhupen evaluates density and colour. Both artists eschew formalism while developing an iconography of visual properties themselves. Their work-spanning a Minimalist position to the ultimate in figurative art along its shared value- gives a parenthesis in which to talk about art in Baroda in the seventies and eighties”(- Envisioning the Seventies and the Eighties, Ajay J. Sinha. Contemporary Art in Baroda, 1997).

Jeram Patel (born 1930) exudes a certain confidence in his abstracts, black on white series, as some critics refer as black and white drawings. But the sharpest articulations take place when Jeram plumbs into the depths of his black-which is massive and subliminal.

Even when he does not use the circle or that black patch on white as an image, it presides over his work as a talisman, an emblem of a perfect state of mind. He developed an inward stance consistently along three types of work. Firstly he mixed enamel paint, zinc white, sand, fevicol and other materials to get a thick, gritty, pasty layer of bright colours on canvas, to which he attached bits of metal and nails; these paintings evoked landscapes abandoned, secondly he gouged out with a blowtorch laminated plywood leaving blackened scars and thirdly pen and ink drawings on imperial-sized paper creating silhouettes with nib or brush. Much of his language purposes an alliance between the ragged idiosyncrasy of the self and a unique form (or, one might say, a prominent Euclidean individual-the swirled circle). In these works, this imperturbable presence absorbs the agitations of the self or would say exude a certain degree of stasis. Outlines wobbled, paint spread; circles becoming ovals-He shifts to and forth simultaneously from large to relatively small formats, working with closer to the surface with a sense of intimacy in small and a sense of distance and space in large works that adds a sense of monumentality and markers used instinctively to stimulate the surface. It is necessary for him that his painting follows an internal spontaneous spirituality and becomes a self-generating organism. A hidden recess of creativity to be fathomed only by the spectator. Ajay Sinha observes” When Jeram came to Baroda in the early sixties, his imagery drew heavily upon the torn and tormented Picassoid figural type reminiscent of Souza…while these early paintings and assemblages on plywood remained rigorously abstract, his subsequent drawings were full of figural imagery-with intermittent spells of non-figurative breaks. As the years passed, his paintings as well as his drawings became stark, bare, reclusive and minimal, owing perhaps to his interaction with fellow artist and companion Nasreen Mohamedi. Jeram's and Nasreen's work grew in tandem to become spacious in scale but shrunk in actual size...”

How does one treat or look at the disparate genre that is produced. Treats, that is to say transforms, exchanges, trades negotiates, leaves nothing of the pre-established classifications intact and play all the meanings- gender, sexual, grammatical and visual. Now the novelty of these exciting and powerful artists discussed here born precisely of this articulation which considers them together, and the triple practice conjugating questions of various orders, a treat to watch them work in this perspective gives a specific turn to the problematic in so far as it is indissociable from those beyond art. The images or the visual texts that mediate through our own experience we jealously guard and with skills we guard our symptoms. They are something we wish to give for they speak our desire. But the same desire may find other forms of representation and interrogates painterly values at the same time. The beauty and idea of these  works hold us in extreme promises to challenge representation as “formidable tool of domination” but to a redefinition of a visual text because its high time to realize we will no more be restricted by debased modernism and redefine the definition, of  realism, abstraction and cultural representation.

By Nanak Ganguly  




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