Art News & Views

Mumbai Art Sighting

May – June 2011

by Jasmine Shah Varma

Private Eye

The Homi Bhabha Collection of Tata Institute and Fundamental Research (TIFR) on exhibit at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai is a perspective on the artistic practices of a newly independent country. At a time when newly independent India's contemporary art trajectory was not yet laid out nor was its identity defined, Dr Homi Bhabha, the physicist, started collecting works of young art practitioners of his time. Those artists are now regarded as the Masters of Indian Contemporary Art the Moderns. This exhibition provides us a rare view of their early paintings and sculptures collected in the period between 1952 and the early 1970s. These works have always been displayed in the institute's premises and are on view in public for the first time.

Curated by Mortimer Chatterjee the works assembled at the NGMA have been selected from TIFR's collection of 250 plus artworks by artists such as Ram Kumar, MF Husain, FN Souza, Tyeb Mehta, S H Raza, Jehangir Sabavala, AM Davierwalla, Badri Narayan, K H Ara, Krishen Khanna and V S Gaitonde. Also featured is Bhabha's artistic side. He also drew portraits and painted abstracts which are on view in the show. A rarer site is Walter Langhammer portrait of art critic Rudi von Leydon two figures that encouraged and influenced the Progressive Group as well as Bhabha's art collection.

The exhibition leaves you wide-eyed for these are works that are never seen before and different from the established signature styles by these well-known artists. Among them showing here serendipitously is SH Raza's watercolour sketch (1948) of CJ Hall, which is now called the NGMA the venue of the current exhibition. CJ Hall was a public space that opened in 1911 and it housed musical concerts, political meetings and art exhibitions back in the day before it was converted to the present day NGMA. The work on paper is a live watercolour sketch of the place, people for an event.

An array of works by abstractionist V S Gaitonde provided a glimpse into his figurative works and other early experiments in non-figurative art from 1953 onwards. One can see the genesis of his intense, calculated lines and forms that mark his later works. Another set of works that serve as an eye-opener are that of K H Ara who is popular for nudes and still life. In this collection is a largest known work by him with an unusual theme Christ's crucifixion. Titled 'Lest We Forget his Sacrifice' (1976), the watercolour on paper is a forceful emotive work made for a special exhibition held at Kekoo Gandhi's Chemould Art Gallery. A landscape in oil is also remarkable and unusual for Ara's repertoire. Seeing these digressions, as they may be, one wonders what limited the artist to largely explore the themes of still life and nudes.

Much importance is given to the collection of works commissioned for a mural at TIFR. A competition was held in 1962 where artists were asked to submit their detailed sketches for a mural  perhaps this was the first time they were attempting a large scale work. Eventually M F Husain's Bharat Bhagya Vidhata was selected as the winning entry and the 13-metre mural became part of TIFR's assembly of artworks. Also on view at the NGMA are entries by other artists who participated including Raza, Jamini Roy, N S Bendre, R D Raval, B Prabha and KK Hebbar.

The sculpture collection includes large number of works by Davierwalla and a selection of works by Mahendra Pandya, Raghav Kaneria, S Nandgopal and Piloo Pochkhanawala. Central attraction however is Sir Jacob Epstein's 'Head of Einstein' on bronze.

The exhibition is not just a grouping of individual works and artists but a narrative of early years of Indian art and the shaping at the hands of Homi Bhabha and his successor MGK Menon. The story is about the art world but also has meta-narrative of the changes the country was going through in every way. The exhibition is on till June 5, 2011.

Interpreting a City

The Bhau Daji Lad Museum situated in Byculla has started a series to engage contemporary artists with its history and archives under the helm of its honorary director Tasneem Zakaria Mehta. In 2010 Sudarshan Shetty was invited to respond to the museum's archives and artefacts. Currently Jitish Kallat's suite of works titled 'Fieldnotes: Tomorrow was here Yesterday' are on view along side the museum's collection. His works are so well integrated with the museum's collection that one had to do a little treasure hunting to view his works.

On entering the premises one is confronted with bamboo scaffolding, the kind that one sees practically everywhere in Mumbai where new buildings are coming up or repairs on older ones are a constant. The bamboos are convincingly made of resin with reliefs of animal forms devouring each other. These sculptural relief motifs of one creature eating another are also seen on a giant scale kerosene stove made of painted black lead and steel. In spite of its size, the way it is placed in the museum and its execution is such that one almost mistakes it for the museum's artefact. These motifs are inspired by the friezes and reliefs seen on Mumbai's Victoria Terminus edifice. The grotesque forms allude to the survival of the fittest attitude that Mumbaikars have to instill in their day to day life.

In these works which have been made over the past two years or more, Kallat has tried to capture the essence Mumbai and its people. Mumbai metaphors like the cliched dabbawallas, local trains and station have been done to death. Kallat's interpretations are refreshing as seen in the photographic series 'The Cry of the Gland'. There are 108 frames of that many male shirt pockets holding sundry objects from medicines, ball pens, note pads etc. They say a woman's handbag says a lot about her; Kallat's portrays the identity of the common man via his pocket. Each pocket bears a story making this an engaging documentation.

Another work that integrates convincingly and reveals the character of a metro city is “Anger at the Speed of Fright'. In a large glass showcase, just like the permanent ones in the museum, Kallat has placed painted resin figurines of men rioting and khaki suited hawaldars with the ubiquitous but powerless lathi in hand. This scene is not just Mumbai-typical; it reflects the country at unrest. The poignancy of Kallat's work comes through when it is contrasted with the neighbouring museum display of figurines of man-woman couples representing various communities in India in their traditional dresses, standing peacefully with a smile painted on. The idealistic portrayal done years ago versus Kallat's interpretation of the times today drive home a point.

There are several works in multiple media spread across the museum that capture the quintessential characteristics of Mumbai  a city in constant transition, a restless city that lives by the seconds. All this is integrated with the museum's pieces, some of them made by students of the JJ School of Art in 19th and early 20th century has created a dialogue between art, architecture, history and today's social conditions. 'Fieldnotes: Tomorrow was here Yesterday' is on view till October 2011


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