Life and Art of Sadanand Bakre
by Dr. Nalini Bhagwat
Sadanand Bakre occupies a position of prime importance in Modern Indian Art as a formative influence by his abstract use of colour and meaningful distortion of forms in his sculpture and painting. It was he, along with his fellow-painters of the Progressive Artists Group, who by innovative approaches helped to bring a breakthrough in the old realistic style in Indian art which was prevalent for nearly a century. Late Sadanand Bakre was born at Baroda on 10th November 1920, in a prestigious family. His grandfather held a high position at the court of Maharaja Sayajirao of Baroda State. His father was a civil engineer, who was an expert in handling weapons and knew a lot about ayurvedic medicine. He was a great lover of music as well as a good wrestler. He was assigned as chief engineer to construct the railway bridge on the Tapi-Narmada River in Gujarat, by the British Government. Later on he joined B.M.C. as a road engineer at Bombay. Sadanand had his early education at Baroda. In his childhood he remembered that he used to draw human figures on the wall. By using the shadow on the wall he tried to stick newspapers according to the area of shadow. Once he painted the figures on the walls of a temple, while his servant held little Sadanand on his shoulder. When the family shifted from Baroda to Bombay, Sadanand joined the Gokhale Education Society’s school at Grant Road near Congress House. His drawing teacher noticed his inclination for drawing and encouraged him to draw and paint. At the age of 16, he had his first solo exhibition of drawings of figures, pastel work, still life, water colour landscapes and even clay models of drapery, at the Gokhale Education Society’s school. Sadanand was inspired by the support and appreciation he received at this exhibition.
Fortunately enough, a well-wisher introduced him to Charles Gerrard, the Director of Sir J.J. School of Art. Gerrard was very much impressed by Sadanand’s drawings and immediately gave him admission. Thus, Sadanand joined the Bombay School of Art, without the knowledge of his father. Since he had no money to buy the painting material, he joined the Sculpture Department of the school in the year 1939, where the clay, plaster and tools were supplied by the school. Sadanand was much impressed by the copies of Greek and Roman Sculpture displayed in the studios. In those days students were trained under the strict discipline of Academic Realistic style, which Sadanand grasped immediately. Soon Sada (his nick name) with his talent and hardworking nature learnt the technique of modeling in clay, making a plaster cast and bronze casting as well. Owing to his innovative nature, he experimented in various techniques of sculpture and achieved brilliant success in the school examinations at the end of his 3rd year. He got scholarships and prizes in the school exhibitions. He also started winning prizes for his sculptures, in various art exhibitions. In 1944 Sadanand completed his education and got Diploma in Sculpture and was awarded Lord Harding’s Scholarship. He stood First in the class and won Lord Mayo medal, as the Best Student in Sculpture. He was also given the fellowship of the Sculpture Department. Bakre’s rebellious temperament was always in search of some new method, material and form of expression. He often had arguments with his elders and especially with Prof. Goregaonkar, who insisted on the use of realistic rendering methods in sculptures, and was angry with Sada’s new experiments. Sada, therefore, did his work in the classroom, according to his teacher’s instructions but at home he tried his experiments and explorations in modeling as well as alloys of different metals. All this he did in his kitchen at night when everybody in his family was fast asleep.
Sadanand also worked for small jobs for raising income which he needed for his experiments. His neighbour, Shri Marathe had expertise about radio making who assembled a radio for the first time in India. Sada at the age of 9, tried to learn from him. He bought Marconi-radio from the old market and dismantled it to know about the mechanism. He mastered radio-repairing at the age of 12. Shri Marathe admired Sada’s talent and introduced him to Wadia Movie Cinetone to learn technique of developing and editing the film. This knowledge also helped for his earnings. He accepted private commission works while he was a student of the Sculpture Department. He modeled 27 ft. high seated clay figure of Smt. Durga Khote, then the heroine in the film Aamrapali. He had to work for it standing on the high scaffolding, which was made from combining three ladders. This sculpture was destroyed afterwards. Sadanand learnt to make paper flowers from a Chinese girl staying in the Fort area. Sada’s friend, a Parsi girl, Sheila Pasricha, always helped him, who admired his work and taught him correct English. Another friend, Newton D’ Souza (later famous as Souza), was in the Painting Department, who shared with him the dislike for realistic style of painting. D’ Souza also wanted to find some new style of expression due to his rebellious nature. Friendship with D’ Souza led to joining hands to lay the foundation of Progressive Artists’ Group subsequently.
Metro Theatre was being built by Metro Goldwin Company, where Principal Gerrard sent a team of students including Sadanand for mural painting in the theatre. From this experience he learned the technique of colour application and rendering shade and light (chiaroscuro) properly. He explained that this mural was painted on very smooth sheets of papers by using the screen technique. Afterwards he experimented to make a canvas by applying rice paste and shellac on thick cloth. Sadanand was in search of new materials, which would be more effective in taking piece-mould of sculpture. Normally in the art school the students of sculpture were asked to use soap water for making a piece-mould. But, Sadanand found that clay-water gave a better effect. His teachers, especially Prof. Goregaonkar, disliked his experiments, and so Sada used the method of soap water in the school. However, he was careful to dissolve well the soap completely in water before using it. But at home, he would dissolve the clay in water and use it for taking out a mould. This gave a perfect result and even slightest thumb impression was seen on the moulded piece. He used very thin pieces of brass foil in between the front and back portion while taking out a mould. This gave a thin line from the shoulder, which went upto the head and continued down up to other shoulder. According to him such line was the evidence of the skill of the sculptor in taking out a plaster cast of the clay model. He came to know that many students of sculpture were not careful and so he never allowed others to take a piece-mould from his clay sculpture or even bronze casting from his plaster cast. Thus, by his hard work and experiments, he achieved mastery over the technical aspects of sculpture. He also tried his hand in metal alloys and achieved an alloy by mixing copper and aluminum, which was so hard that when it was highly polished, it gave mirror-like effect. Sadanand surprisingly turned into a different direction, instead of developing his carrier as a sculptor, even when he achieved highest success in the Diploma Examination. He joined Civil Aviation Flying School of Government of India at Saharanpur. After the training, he was sent to the Karachi Airport. But, soon he gave up the job in 1946 and returned to Bombay. He continued to execute commission works.
In 1947 India got the Independence. The artist community was thrilled and participated in the celebrations with full enthusiasm. K.H. Ara (a painter) painted a large horizontal painting of procession of the celebration of Independence of India. He sent it for the annual exhibition of the Bombay Art Society. However, it was rejected with the excuse of lack of space for his painting. Ara was so angry that he discussed the matter with likeminded friends, Sadanand, D’ Souza, Ara, Raza, Gade and Husian. A meeting was called for expressing their feelings about the policy of exhibition committee of the Bombay Art Society and the authorities. As a revolt against it, they founded ‘The Progressive Artists’ Group’. They also formulated a manifesto declaring their aim and purpose of bridging the gap between the painters and the common people and breaking away from the Academic Realistic Style of Art. Sadanand Bakre was the only sculptor in the group though he was also a painter. The members always came together for discussions and helped each other. Meanwhile, Bombay Art Society changed the rules and allowed artists to exhibit in both the categories of painting and sculpture in the annual exhibitions. Sadanand took full advantage of this change and sent his paintings as well as sculptures for the annual exhibition winning prizes in both sections. In the year 1949 he achieved brilliant success by winning both the cash prize and the silver medal for the best sculpture. He also won the award for the best work in the oil colour section for his painting. In addition to that, his sculpture of ‘Miss Narielwala’ and his two paintings were bought by Director of the Baroda State Museum, Dr. Herman Goetz. He won the Cowasji Jehangir cash prize once again in 1950.
The members of the Progressive Artists Group had their first group show in 1949, inaugurated by the eminent art critic Dr. Mulkraj Anand. As the only sculptor in this group, Sadanand’s sculptural works though small in size, were particularly noticed in this exhibition. He used powerful distortion in his sculpture ‘Mother’s Pride’ by exaggerating the form of her bosom. According to him he expressed the idea that everywhere in the world (from North Pole to South Pole), motherhood and mother’s pride for her children is the same. This female sculpture was small but expressed monumentality. The well known critic Shri Jagmohan wrote about this sculpture..... “an enlarged copy of this sculpture will be very effective in front of any maternity hospital”. Sadanand Bakre used variety of materials for his sculptures effectively. His ‘Centaur’ was carved in wood. It explored abstraction of form and the beauty of the grains of wood. His ‘Acrobat’ was in cement concrete, treated with very sensitive texture. His portrait bust of Sir Cowasji Jehangir was in plaster. He used slight distortion and expressed the inner intricacies of Sir Cowasji’s personality. This sculpture is presently in the collection of the National Gallery of Modern Art, Bombay. The Sunday Standard wrote “Bakre’s sculptures, ‘Woman undressing’ and ‘Centaur’ once seen, can never be forgotten”. Herman Goetz, the director of the State Museum, Baroda was so impressed by this exhibition that he invited the Progressive Artists Group to hold exhibition at Baroda, in the State Museum there. At Baroda, the exhibition was inaugurated by Mrs. Hansa Mehta, the then Vice Chancellor of the M.S. University of Baroda.
Bakre’s one-man show at the Bombay Art Society’s Salon at 6 Rampart Row was inaugurated by Wayne M. Hartwell, the American Counsel General. It included sculptures and drawings. Hartwell was immensely impressed by the works and wrote, “Small in size but impressive for his energy and creative ability. S.K. Bakre is one of the few modern proofs that India’s strong sculptural tradition still lives.... at least one sculptor is aware of the world in which he is living.” The review in the magazine, Aesthetic, said “Bakre is a treasure that India will have to hold safe ... The drawings and his ‘Bull’ were simple, but superb.” The critic of Eve’s Weekly wrote...: “The work of Mr. Bakre is of a very high standard and whether he models in the straight forward manner or with the modernistic trend, his art is true and outstandingly good. Bakre would stand well in competition with sculptors of any part of the world... He seems to reach perfection and it was a sheer joy to see the clean cut lines and excellent curves of the figure.” Sadanand collected money from the sale of his works from this exhibition; selling all his belongings (even his shoes) and took a courageous step of leaving for London by the ship S.S. Ranchi in May 1951.
In London everything was new. He did not know a single person there. He had to struggle hard for earning. He tried all sort of odd jobs like, coal miner, porter at hospital and even at the railway station, postman, a grave-yard mason and carver etc. In 1952, he was employed at the Indian High Commissioner’s Office for photographic work in Shipping Department. His former knowledge of photography helped him in getting this job. In the year 1953, Sadanand had an Exhibition at Zurich at Gallery Palette along with Souza and Husain. In 1954, while he was window shopping at a jeweler’s shop at the Bond Street, London, after observing a certain piece, he made a sketch for the improvement of its design. Luckily, the owner of the shop came out and found Sadanand making the sketch. He became curious and asked Sada about it. He said that he was attempting to improve the design. The owner was impressed and gave him a job as a jewelry designer. Sada designed a fancy bracelet in which he inserted a picture of the world famous musician Elvis Presley, which once inserted could not be taken out. In those days there was a craze for his music and so the bracelet became popular. More than one lakh bracelets of such design were sold. The owner was very much pleased and raised Sada’s salary. Sada designed pieces in gold, silver and platinum. By this time Sada got established in London, and acquired his own flat. He got married to a German lady, named Dorothy. He was in a position to help the fellow members like Souza and Husain. Owing to his knowledge about the various musical instruments, Sada also helped the trumpet player Sachimo. When one member of his group was absent, Sada took his place and played the POP music after undergoing some training. He helped an old couple by repairing their brass musical instrument which was broken into pieces. He used soldering of silver for it. The couple was pleased and offered him a piece of rare seasoned wood. Bakre carved his crucified Christ which was very expressive and very dear to this heart. Bakre neither exhibited it nor sold it to anybody else. Bakre has used powerful distortion in this small but expressive sculpture. He made another identical, though bigger figure of Christ, fixing it to a wooden board. This sculpture was exhibited later on.
Bakre started exhibiting his paintings at London’s Hyde Park. He, with wife Dorothy loaded the paintings in a push cart and walked at night to the park. By the morning they displayed the works and returned in the evening. Similarly he displayed his works in other parks too. He claimed that he was the first painter to do so. The other painters followed him afterwards. This proved to be advantageous and he sold many of his paintings in this manner. Till to date this place has been reserved, in the memory of Mr. Bakre. From 1955 up to 1964, he exhibited at different galleries in London, Paris, Switzerland and U.S.A. The Guardian, London, wrote about him, “His skill as a sculptor and his power of convincing images as painter are exceptional ... to whatever stimulus urges him to paint, and he responds energetically and without hesitation and the imagery is always compelling.” The review by the South Kensington Post, London, wrote in 1961, “His creation may not please everyone but they will certainly jolt them.” The review in the Times, London, noted that “Mr. Bakre never seems to go wrong with colours… strong pure tones mix boldly and easily, and there is warmth in every picture... each work still represents something that he sees first in his mind’s eye.” This critic was very accurate in judging Bakre’s works. In 1965, Sadanand made a short tour to India. His friends in India, E. Alkazi and Kekoo Gandhi, insisted that he should visit India and have his show at least once. Thus, Sadanand came to Bombay for few months with his wife, Dorothy, and had one exhibition at Kekoo Gandhi’s Gallery Chemould. In his review the renowned art critic, Dhyaneshwar Nadkarni, admired qualities of his paintings based on architectural forms while his painting, ‘Waiting for Trial’ had a powerful expressive quality.
Finally around 1980-83, Bakre came back to India accompanied by his wife Dorothy. He wanted to settle in a quiet place and as he loved the environment of Kokan, he settled at Murud (Harnai), near Dapoli. He bought a house with ample space at the backyard, which had trees of amla, nutmeg, jackfruit and mango. He designed the metallic round staircase. He was engaged in many experiments in terracotta as well as metal alloys. The Gallery, Sone-et-Lumiere, at Cuffe Parade, sponsored his two exhibitions, one at its own Gallery and the other at Jehangir Art gallery. These exhibitions showed his sculptures, paintings, graphics and the prints of his paintings as well. Bakre attended the function of release of the book ‘Moderns’ by Yashodhara Dalmia at the National Gallery of Modern Arts, Bombay. In the year 2004, he was felicitated by the Bombay Art Society by offering him Honour of ‘Roopadhar’ along with the amount of Rs. 50,000/-.
A brief survey and analysis of Bakre’s creations in painting and sculpture would give some idea of his gradual development from academic realistic style towards total abstraction. The early work during his student career around 1940s is seen in his portrait sculpture, ‘My Father’, and the idol of ‘Krishna With Cow’, in white marble. Both these reveal his conventional technical mastery. The next phase emerged when he joined the Progressive Artists’ Group in 1947 and changed his style from realistic to simplification and abstraction. His works, ‘Mother’s Pride’ (plaster), Acrobat (concrete), Horse (wood) and his portrait bust of ‘Sir Cowasji Jehangir’ (plaster) show the radical change. He adopted distortion and abstraction of forms. He introduced the surface texture also in his sculpture (e.g. Miss. Narielwala and wooden sculpture: ‘Horse’).
By 1959 and during early 60s’ he started using spiky forms. This is seen in his paintings as well as in his sculptures. His painting ‘Midday Sun in London’ (oil on canvas), as well as his sculpture, ‘Red Shoe’ (alloy of copper and lead), are best examples. His colours are exceptionally bright. After 1963 the forms become more simplified and the use of flat, bright colour is seen in his “still lifes” as well as in his landscapes. The finest example is his painting, ‘Backyard of Pablo Casals’s Home in Spain’. Simultaneously, he painted paintings like, ‘The Mongoloid Child’, 1961, expressing sympathy towards the child. Around 1969, architectural forms were introduced in his paintings while retaining the use of bright colours. His painting, ‘Place to Live’ shows the multi-storied architectural forms with sloping roofs as well as domes. The painting ‘Waiting for Trial’, shows the head of a prisoner surrounded with walls. It reminds the state of mind of Christ engrossed in thoughts. During 1980s and 1990s total disintegration of form is observed in his paintings, ‘Man with Bowler Hat’ (oil on canvas, 1988), ‘Pollution’ (oil on canvas, 1994). After coming back to India he rarely exhibited his work but around 2002 he said, he had in mind the idea of a sculpture, ‘The Sun’, on which he remained busy for years. Unfortunately, it could not be completed.
Bakre breathed his last in the year 2007 at his house in Murud by heart attack. His death was a great loss to the artist community. An all-rounder, a knowledgeable technologist who was versatile in handling the methods and materials, and having a powerful expression in both his paintings as well as his sculptures, is probably born once in hundred years. He has to his credit in association with his fellow artists, of introducing the modern ideology to Indian Art.