The Remaking of Indian Painting
by Keshav Malik
(Image-Beyond Image/Contemporary Indian Paintings: From the collection of Glenbarra Art Museum, Japan
New Delhi: January 4-January 25, 1997, National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi;
Calcutta : February 5-February 16, 1997, Birla Academy of Art and Culture, Calcutta;
Bangalore: March 15-April 5, 1997, Karnataka Chitrakala Parishad, Bangalore;
Mumbai: April 26-May 17, 1997, National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai)
As we look back to India's pre-independence years prior to 1947 (and much before the works in this show were done), the horizon of art consisted of the generally myth or legend-laden compositions by artists.
Well, here was an art for the traditional family. In these pictures, as in the many mythological films of the period, the racial memory was sought to be activated. It appears as if the creators of these works had precise blueprints-of what they were about. Subject-wise there was plenty to choose from the rich deposits of common lore. It appears as if several - if not all - of the artists of those days lived in an ideal world quite removed from the social or physical area of their lives. This last found little echo in the then standard work. These paintings seem to have been 'dressed up' for the occasion. Here there were no loose ends, the parting in the hair is correct, everything is just right. The conventions of grace informs the maidens, wisdom shines from the miens of the yogis, the gods and the goddesses play their parts as expected. In most of all this, the artist (unlike the creator of the mock or bizarre religious art then, or of today) subordinated himself to the tacit understandings of the ethos. And even when the impoverished rural scene was drawn upon it was observed with a brush that provides a fine gloss.
The process of change in tone was inadvertently set in motion (apart from purposeful efforts by the outstanding figures of the Bengal School), even much before 1947, as with Gopal Ghosh. A new synthesis was in the making with, as yet, no final or definite outcome. The treatment of space was recognizably new despite the surface thematic 'Indianness'. East Asian techniques, of course, had also been incorporated. From the Persian influences which once set miniature on its course, we now had the two poles of the west and east teasing out the old Indian content. Some of the artists of this generation kept growing to evolve more individual styles in the course of time these were those like H.A. Gade and M. F. Husain, among others.
The painters who came to maturity in the early fifties were often trained in the west: F. N. Souza, Ram Kumar, Akbar Padamsee, S. H. Raza are only a few of the names that come to mind. Though the outstanding Biren De remained rooted to the soil. Some of these painters were heavily under French influences. But this did not seem to cause any conflicts in their minds, as it might have to their predecessors. This was the vital difference. Without feeling alienated they accepted a clear-cut artistic identity - one challenged as 'western' by the older school, one suspect for more years to come, and that even well after independence. It took another decade almost for the issues to become settled. The distinction between 'oriental' and 'occidental' in describing art vanished some time in the sixties, at least in major venues of Indian art. Quantities had imperceptibly changed the quality. As the new art became familiar it did not seem 'foreign' to some at least of the new generation. It had come to stay. And much as this now Japanese-based exhibition testifies.
The creative discontent of these artists was with established positions or views, and they proceeded by a dialectical process to arrive at a new syntheses. It was a method of questioning rather than one of disowning the handed down styles or the heritage.
The whole modern movement was an expression of the secularized, individuated self that could be endlessly creative because it was not tied down to crippling social or institutional norms and conformities. The area of choice and the scope of the spiritual were widened. Only in immature hands, with freedom, came the itch for originality at any price. But with the best of them valuable human experiences were reflected in fresh works of art.
The liberation from fixed forms and rigid cultural demands has not been turned into license. The experience that such art works provide is touched by reverberations of significant values. It is fruitful in so far as it provides much food for thought for the painter himself- in terms of interesting technique; even as it pleases the viewer. The finest of them make use of art's experimental acquirements to build abiding creations, such as the works of Raza, MF Husain, FN Souza, Biren De, etc.
Whether because of limited technical means, or out of conviction, the technical experiments in painting since Independence have been restrained - a confrontation mainly between the conventional brush and canvas (or with stone and chisel, rather than a search for multi-media or the mobile and so on). Only graphics show a greater technical experimentation.
It is not as technical experiments, then, that modern Indian art has been significant, but in the growth and expansion in the meaning of the individual works of art - be it a painting or a sculpture. The works of the very many abstractionists or colourists like Ganesh Pyne, Kartick Pyne, Krishen Khanna are much in line with the international trends but still distinguishable. These artists have really brought a new vision through experimentation in planes or colours. There are still other artists like Arpana Caur and Ganesh Haloi who have broken new grounds in terms of a fresh branching off from the international movements. Bikash Bhattacharjee, Gulam Sheikh, for example, are fine artists who have absorbed their western cues to create superb draftsmanship and to convey significant experiences. Similarly, MF Husain, despite ups and downs and despite his Indian contents is also a true ground breaker. Arprita Singh in her painting of the last decades too is a successful 'experimenter'. Here is a painter who has explored her heritage and brought a refreshing angle to painting. It is a new departure, whether or not we react to it. Similarly, despite superficial similarities with the work of some western artists the late Sultan Ali brings a not-to-be-denied, integrated vision. These painters stand out from the rest, when one is thinking of experimentation. Raza and Biren De are the so-called Tantrics. They have attempted to break out of the beaten paths of configuration or bland abstraction by private escape routes. Some have struck out still other paths merely by caricaturing social reality. Many an artist's works though more oblique nevertheless can be deadly. Krishen Khanna could be added to this list of those who, not content with a current neo-romantic delicacy and visual lyricism, have widened the area of art by adding a harder prosaic element to it. These sundry additions of dimension to the House of Indian Art, collectively, add to its heterogeneity and, therefore, its interest. It is this quality that Indian art has gained by the addition of genres. The passage of time, since the coming of this exhibition in the nineties, has only added to its lustre.