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India is as Contemporary as the West.

  • Suneet Chopra
  • Journal
  • July 25, 2016
  • (0)

There is a spurious trend in art writing doing the rounds nowadays. It distinguishes between European and US hand-me-downs and our own contemporary art as it has developed since the twenties of the last century. The hand-me-down art of the West is treated as “contemporary” while contemporary Indian art is treated as “eclectic”, a mix between past and present and not quite there as it were. The word is used to cover up the far more varied approach to harmony in our contemporary art. There is no wall between painting and sculpture or between figurative and abstract as in the far more limited vision of Euro-American art.

Nothing could be more slavish than this approach. Indian contemporaneity is “with the times” along the scale of our development and at par with any contemporary aesthetic expression in the world. In fact, it is in some fake watches replique montre ways even more advanced from the angle of the harmonies it has achieved, than the art being glorified as ‘post-modern’ in the West nowadays and by a number of converts to it in our country too. This is largely because our cotemporary art coexists with a variety of schools of folk and tribal art which our artists have grown up with and evolved out of naturally. Ram Kinkar Baij, Jamini Roy, Meera Mukherji or Jogen Choudhury did not have to go across oceans or browse in museums like Gauguin, Picasso and Klee to connect with them. They were part of their environment, so they related to them far more deeply than artists with merely a visual contact with such art traditions.

Ofcourse, a number of elements are common to both Indian and Euro-American contemporary artistic expression, or for that matter, any contemporary art. First, it represents a broader vision than the self-centred posturing artistic traditions of eighteenth and nineteenth century art of the world empires. European artists like Matisse went out of their way to emulate the compositions of Persian miniatures. Van Gogh looked to Japanese prints and calligraphic art. Picasso looked to West African sculptures and even to the stylized rounded busts of the popular Bengal art of the Battala prints. The Bauhaus artists, who exhibited in Kolkata in the early twenties, were deeply influenced by the Theosophists and looked for inspiration towards a wide variety of replica watches uk replica watches tribal and colonial aesthetic traditions. But they admitted frankly that their appreciation of these forms of art was purely formal. Our contemporary artists have a far deeper understanding of the social context and conditions of execution than Western artists did.

Our contemporary artists too broke away from imperial artistic tenets like producing art that was European in style and technique but imprisoned in its content by its subject matter of epics and ancient fables as Raja Revi Varma did. Some of them, like Abanindranath Tagore, looked for pre-colonial stylistic roots, like Mughal miniatures at first, but eventually, like Rabindranath and Gaganendranath, settled for drawing on the vibrant and unexplored elements of unconscious and spontaneous expression to distance themselves from the imperial stereotype of representational art. Others turned to the art of the tribal people and peasants, who were the backbone of the resistance to the British empire. In fact, among the tribal art-works collected by Jamini Roy was a Santhal painting representing the tortures the planters and their wives subjected the tribals to. So, it was the respect that the fighting masses had earned among the Indian people struggling for independence that decided the break from imperialist art and its alternative sources of inspiration in our contemporary art.

At the same time, once India rolex replica watches became independent, greater confidence allowed the Mumbai group of artists, who began as the Progressive Artists Group, the most persevering being F.N. Souza, M.F. Husain, V.S. Gaitonde, S.H. Raza and Tyeb Mehta, with Akbar Padamsee and Krishen Khanna joining them later, to interact on an equal basis with their Euro-American counterparts. Their new vision did not require the defensive elements of the break with imperial art that the earlier artists looked for. They were prepared to act on the same stage as a Picasso, a Miro, a Rauschenburg or a Hockney as equals. This interaction allowed us to move to the concept of the New Delhi Triennales, which had internationally known figures like Mulk Raj Anand to underpin them. That is why the earlier Triennales were far better path breakers than today, when we lack that self confidence that we had developed during the national movement and after.

Our contemporary artists actually got far better patronage from the state than the Euro-Americans got from theirs. The Bauhaus and Santiniketan were both founded at about the same time in the nineteen twenties. Both were private institutions. But while the Bauhaus was shut down by Hitler in 1934 as degenerate art, Santiniketan flourished and has become a university. This outlook of the Indian ruling classes became the basis of the setting up of the Lalit Kala Akademy. The fact that the Indian ruling classes emerged out of a national liberation struggle definitely helped to strengthen the roots of our contemporary art, which found them willing to accept both original styles and a radical content far more easily than the ruling classes of the West.

It was this sort of support for an art that was both radical and original that allowed our contemporary artists to hold their own in a swiftly globalizing world where artists like F.N. Souza, S.H. Raza, Akbar Padamsee, Balraj Khanna, Sohan Qadri, Ranbir Kaleka, Shakti Burman and Satish Gujral, to name only a few, had begun to test the waters. In this period artists like Himmat Shah, A. Ramachandran, Manjit Bawa, Vivan Sundaram and Arpana Caur came out as a sort of resistance. But many of them have shifted to more acceptable themes and imagery of late. At this period, however, both the Akademi and the ruling classes had become a trifle backward-looking and a cult backing revivalist artists like Ravi Varma began to come to the fore in their appreciation as never before. Others, like Balbir Singh Katt, the head of the Fine Arts Department of Banaras Hindu University, who disappeared without a trace ostensibly when he opposed the corruption the communal elements had unleashed in his teaching institution, paid a heavy price for being committed to their art rather than curry favour with administrators and distributors of funds. The question of loaves and fishes became something to fight over rather than aesthetic issues and principles. In such conditions originality and excellence play second fiddle to producing salable hand-me-downs and even fakes.

Still, what is remarkable is how much experimentation is going on. Our artists are entering the field of fusion rather than just being influenced. This is evident from the works of Ghulam and Neelima Sheikh, T.V. Santhosh, Siddharth, Apoorva Desai and Krishnamachari Bose, not to speak of those like Karan Khanna, Sandeep Biswas, Diwan Manna and Vivek Vilasini, who blend the qualities of painting with light and colour with the technique of photography. This blend of many sources is evident also in the works of Neeraj Goswami, Akash Choyal, Om Pal and Meena Sansanwal; but perhaps the brighest stars that could emerge on the firmament in future are Rajesh Srivastava and Anoop ‘Akhar’ Pandey. The one, self-trained in Bengal, the other from Jharkhand and Chattisgarh. It is interesting that neither of these artists has emerged out of the leading art institutes. Pandey is from the back waters of Jharkhand and Chattisgarh which have powerful traditions of tribal art and sculpture. In a sense, he represents return to the source of our contemporary artistic tradition. Similarly, a young group of artists schooled by sculptor R.K. Tikoo in Jammu and Kashmir have contributed a considerable body of original art. This geographical spread itself gives one an idea of how much more vibrant and live our own original art is in comparison to the hand-me-down brands of journo-art.

Finally, when we come to sculpture, it is not surprising that the land that gave us the Mohenjodaro dancing girl, the polished Didarganj Yakshi, the Sarnath Buddha or the massive Bahubali of Shravanabelgolla has a contemporary sculptural tradition second to none in the world. Among the more powerful sculptors who stand out are Ram Kinkar Baij, whose Yaksha and Yakshi stand in front of the Reserve Bank of India, Adi Davierwalla whose ‘Falling Man’ at the Bhabha atomic research centre became an inspiration for so many artists, including Tyeb Mehta, while younger sculptors like K.S. Radhakrishnan, Atul Sinha, M.J. Enas, Navjot Altaf, Venkat Bothsa, Krishna Kumar, Vivan Sundaram and Arpana Caur have, in different works, masterfully blended the mural, the relief, sculpture and the installation into a single genre that encompasses a wide range of elements from the icon to the installation. This too, would not have been possible had this genre not developed naturally from our tradition of masked dances like the Kathakali, dance drama performances like the Ramlilas, and floats (jhankis), many of which took place in spaces defined by our classical architecture, reliefs and sculpture. Given the wealth of possibilities around us in our contemporary art, we really have no need to go around copying the works of others. There is no harm in learning the best from anywhere else in the world, provided we digest it and simply do not regurgitate the undigested experience of others which we may have understood partially or not at all.

Suneet Chopra
Art Critic, Writer

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