Visual Ventures into New Horizons: An Overview of Indian Modern Art Scenario
by Saba Gulraiz
Changing hues of times cast their shadows upon the people living in those times or we may say people as a dynamic force dare to question their times and attempt to subvert their moods. In the last few decades of Indian art our time has recorded two opposing tendencies where artists are propagating similar /old ideologies on the one hand, while on the other, there are artists who are establishing new thoughts, breaking themselves free from the fixed or flat canons, emerged out of which are the new articulations. Both these tendencies make Indian art traditional and modern as well. On the one hand, artists are securing their indigenous identity and culture while on the other, they are also questioning their own existence in a broader context. This self-questioning and confrontation reveal to them a world of new thoughts. This latter tendency has generated a modern outlook. Not only this, man's advancement and exposure, in the course of time, have also changed his surrounding environment in favour of universality as against regional academism. This transition has not only broadened artists' outlook but has also liberated art from the burden of its stereotyped functions or historicity. Thus, our attempt to bind art into any regional boundaries would be a futile act.
Time has always been called as abstract and this abstract time has given us some precious artists whose role is crucial in shaping India's modern identity in the world art scene. MF Husain, SH Raza, Tyeb Mehta, FN Souza, Ram Kumar, Swaminathan are among such artists who have emerged as a dominating force in the global art scenario. One can't fail to notice their pioneering role to take Indian art on a new course by breaking it free from the closed concepts. They serve as a stepping stone in building a strong foundation for the young generation of artists and have set examples of visual expansion for them.
MF Husain is among such artists whose sensibilities are deeply rooted in the Indian society and its ethos. Stamped with his individual style, in his art, one can easily see Indian life throbbing with all its vitality. He transposes the Indian mythical world into a contemporary idiom and probes into the essential questions of a common life in India. In spite of various hardships he endured since his childhood, Husain never let them sap out his vital artistic energy. Instead, these hardships gave him immense strength that is quite evidently visible in his brush strokes. Do we, today, see our young artists working with the same passion while securing integrity of their own existence? Such questions come naturally when we look at Husain's unfailing spirit. We have never seen Husain to have bound himself by any restraints or spheres of influence that would bridle his creative leap. We know Husain as an artist with ceaseless creative abilities which he has proven by exposing himself to other genres of art including photography and Indian cinema.
Unlike Souza or Raza, Husain has never been fascinated for a life in the West and has always given preference to live in India, though it's another matter that he was compelled to leave his country. Artists like Husain are an answer to those safe guards of our society who very often remind artists of their responsibility towards their society. Do they also have any sense of responsibility for artists like Husain? Such pertinent questions will keep coming as long as people's sensibility is alive, otherwise our society will become a cold mechanised system where culture will be threatened of its own existence in the name of culture itself.
FN Souza, the founder of progressive artists group, did not share a common style with Husain, what he shares with him is a modern outlook. Neither his art nor his person had ever been succumbed to the conventional credos of society. He believed, “The true artist can never be pressured by society, his compelling art shirks off all pressures except the pressure of Art!” Thus, Souza made his mark as a painter with a deviant outlook. As both to the level of conception and execution, Souza's approach is exceptional; an approach underlying which is the spirit of revolt. In his initial approach there are portrayals of the Goan life scenes, but with the artist's psychic development and his migration to London and then to New York, his art grew into another level of maturity. He himself had asserted, “My work changes in sync with the evolutionary process of time, matter, space, energy and gravity in order to make life. The universe is a living, evolving entity and I am a part of it. Therefore, my art is a living activity which has grown and developed along with me from the time.” (Autobiography, Words and Lines, 1959)
In his major corpus of works, his subject matter is mostly the nude female figures. If we talk in the context of his subject-matter, Souza seems to have done a discreet research into the seams of varying female forms along with their emotional and erotic connotations. Through his strong lines, Souza lays bare his love, anger, anguish and passion for his women. For Souza, woman is a mystery and his attempt to solve this mystery is possible only by peeling off all her possible aspects. For him, woman is a puzzle both perplexing and amusing. Sometimes, he seems to explore all her contours while at the other, it seems as if he is trying to comprehend the underlying meaning wrapped in the aesthetics of these curves and contours.
At one time Souza's idiosyncrasy had incited a stern objection, labeling him being salacious. However, I feel, one should approach his art in a totally different way where he draws a thin line between nudity and sheer nakedness. Though leans heavily on nudity, Souza rarely turns obscene. The young artists of today inspired by Souza need to understand this thin line that gives us a proper insight into his particular approach.
The stalwarts like Souza and Husain established their names in the global art world and set the standard for others through their in depth passion, perseverance and clear vision. It is crucial to understand qualities of their art if one wishes to understand a true definition of lines, colors and forms, as whatever may be the subject matter, one can not overlook these basics of art. Souza's treatment of his figures may not match with the definition of beauty as understood in the traditional terms, however, his own artistic vision and individuality make them formidable.
When we talk of the contribution of modern masters in taking Indian art into a broader horizon, we can not fail to mention the contribution of Sayed Haider Raza to it. Raza, a significant part of progressive artists group, started off his artistic journey with landscape. In Raza's oeuvre, we can see an intense visual and spiritual sensibility. Away from figuration, Raza moves into an entirely new direction where his eyes seem to weigh the natural forms of plains and skies while his soul, drenched with all the hues of earth, seems to ride on the rise and fall of dark and light shades of 'Nature'. In his world sun makes a rosy hue with its burning bright streaks, while the deep darkness of the night sometimes suffuses in the vast expanse, at the other, compresses into one centre point, a bindu, a void.
Artist's penetrating eyes when see through its compressed position, nature's colours, with all their freshness, appear to interfuse into each other. Such visual melodies create a halo of magic. Raza's penetrating vision leads him into a realm where all the mysteries unwrap them up and he could hear their vibrations clearly. These unfathomable mysteries of earth reveal to him, a truth afar from the defining barriers of reality where the true meaning of creation unfolds itself.
J Swaminathan as an artist and a thinker was endowed with a refined sensibility and penetrating intellect that stirred a fresh wave of thinking. In Indian artistic context, his role is a significant one in forging an environment in favour of abstraction. Not only his position as an artist but his bohemian style and his authority as a thinker gave him a distinct identity. His sustained interest to seek a new knowledge from the perception of his own logic contributed to his making--an artist-explorer. Attainment of this knowledge gave Swami's forms naturally a different dimension and meaning. His forms have a meaningful relation with the space. The recurring imagery of bird and mountain in Swami's work is nothing but his own aspiration where the bird is that panoramic vision of the artist that leaves all the barriers of common perception behind and takes its flight into a vast space. This flight of imagination, free from the weight of gravity, imports it into wide open lands, surpassing the visible world. Indeed, I wonder, if Swami, himself, is the mountain that yearns to shake off its physical reality only to emulate the bird and share with it the same ecstatic state.
Among the Indian contemporary masters, Manjit Bawa is one of the significant names not only for he has explored the fresh possibilities for visual expansion but to synthesize the soul of pure Indian culture with the modern style of painting. Being deeply inspired by the true colors of Indian culture and Sufism, this artist has created a new epithet of novelty and freshness. Love and non-violence, these principle truths of life, are well communicated by his use of mellow colors and varying configurations. His wonderful images delineated with great virtuosity remind one of the utopian world of Sufis and Seers. There is no didactic tone, but the message is itself conveyed to a discerning viewer. Regarding Manjit's figures one may say that they are not natural depictions but the way they mirror artist's own attitude and flexibility to embrace the whole world of creation is quite natural. Like a Sufi, he wants to receive all with love and humility. His bards like figures, whether isolated or congregated, seem to be the parts of some scattered dreams of the artist. Somewhere, we can catch a glimpse of a warrior who is given the rank of a saint. Clad in white attire, he is in the posture of a battle but the sad expressions of his face tell a different tale. Such and other images are clearly located in the comfort zones of some past memories of rural India. But this again is an illusion, as they might have some Medieval or Ancient identities; their message is for all ages. Looking at his creative output, one can clearly understand these visual aesthetics and their universal appeal.
Along with few others, it is these masters of outstanding contribution who gave an infallible light of new vision. While treading on new paths, they all have rejected old dogmas to create a current of true and new ideas. Their creative impulses are free from any inhibitions. Each of these masters have redefined Modernism in his own powerful style, remarkably different from the other. When Husain was pulling art off the garb of western mannerism, Raza was venturing out to seek visual and spiritual possibilities in a rather abstract language. Whereas, Souza was accepting challenges to create his own linear language in his portrayal of nude figures. Not only his craftsmanship, his themes and subject matters were his radical denial of the conventional iconography. Simultaneously, Swaminathan was reinterpreting modernism by breaking the notion that an art can be called modernistic only by emulating the western ideas and expressions or by following 'ideological goals'. Thus, realizing the need for 'self-expression' and 'self-search,' he evolved his own metaphoric language. Apart from his enquiry into Indian tribal art for his own artistic idiom, his active role in bringing it into the mainstream art is his unique contribution to modern contemporary art. Manjit Bawa had a different vision altogether, the roots of which lie deep in Indian Sufism. Such unique insights and experiences have produced works of art that serve as a stimulus for the coming generations. To encapsulate, it will be sufficed to say that the spirit behind these artistic developments is everything that awakens the sense and sensibilities of an artist.