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India through the Lens of Art: Part One

Updated: May 22, 2022

by Shujaat Mirza

Exhibitions that promise to showcase the journey and progress of art over the years attempt to also define it through the filter of choices that were made in relation to the art that they present before us. In the The Art of India 2022 exhibition held last month at Gandhinagar, Gujarat, organised by The Times of India Group, Curated by Priya Adhyaru Majithia and co-conceived with Harit Mehta, we get a sense of a considered choice as we see the works spreading meaning across the display walls and panels, talking to each other, as it were, in an intermingled collective body of reference, and taking us on a particular journey. Exhibitions that make a brave leap of faith fiddle with our own understanding of art, giving us a dialogic realization as we converse, face to face with the objects of curation. It is like leafing through a book; even as we do so, we get so involved and moved that we return to some specific passages while simultaneously taking in the large canvas that the vista opens up for us. Or, it is like seeking to look under the enamel to find what constitutes its core and from thereon to find a code that takes us to its coda. The slow familiarity of the exhibition space and works envelops us as we revisit the works that offer something more on each re-reading. Any further attempt to find the zeitgeist only adds fuel to more elusive and partial reconnections and recollections.

When we call something definitive it is essentially a factor of choice, taste and comfort and this is precisely why art is rewarding. It doesn't get derailed by the possibilities we can conjure up or the missing details we have overlooked and it significantly enhances our understanding of the vital signs of the cultural cross-fertilization and efflorescence at work. As I wade through the sweeping and immense body of representative works from artists past and present, I will attempt to sort out connections akin to the way in which we run software across the system to compute the larger picture and make a mind map. Thus another objective of this review, then, is to leave a paper trail for others to track further.

The exhibition seeks to ambitiously map the length and breadth of the Indian art scene through the last 75 years and what it means to be Indian in the profoundly precise intimations and intimidations of our continuing national journey. Taken in this light, the show is a bold attempt to locate the rich contributions of the recent and not-so-recent past that are both known and lost in time and also to accommodate the imaginative leaps and liberties we have taken in the present, even as we carry the burden of the past and wrestle and reckon with the challenges of the future. Do we measure up to the promise of the tryst with destiny that Nehru famously alluded to in his Independence Day speech? Do we follow in the footsteps of our esteemed forebearers even while being foregrounded in the dizzying flag of a dreamscape to be unfurled and an awakening to be achieved? What we make of our fluid and evolving art is a fair pointer to the directions we shall take and offers us a window to our world. In the way art explores these dimensions, we get more honest answers than we get from our polity, since art absorbs and assimilates all the cultural and socio-political churn without being preachy, obvious or didactic.

Spread over 75,000 square feet in its physical form and also with an online display that continued till 18 May 2022, The Art of India, incorporates the dynamic journey of Indian art as we celebrate 75 years of our independence, in a ‘phy-gital’ dual mode, with works, some extremely rare, of more than 250 artists past and present, sourced directly from the artists, their families, reputed galleries and personal collections of collectors, many of which are displayed for the first time publicly. A welcome feature is that a focus on artists from Gujarat has been retained; also on display are works of the students and faculty of the C.N. College of Fine Arts, Ahmedabad – a wonderful gesture that attempts to break the artificial walls of elitism around art.

The exhibition starts with a section dedicated to the pre-moderns. There is an eclectic mix of works that vary in theme and treatment that give us a fair sense of the versatile and multifaceted genius of Indian art during the early part of the last century. One of the most striking works is Somalal Shah’s nuanced watercolour that borrows elements of the Indian miniature tradition with a fidelity to the hues associated with the paintings at Ajanta and Ellora, which shows his familiarity with them. The female figure in the painting uses hand gestures that are reminiscent of the Buddhist mudras. The feminine aspect is further accentuated by the almost androgynous male figure behind her which harmonizes the imagery with a tranquil artistic purpose as the couple seems wrapt in the musical rendition even as the female figure seems to be facing the viewer with a direct gaze.

This section also has an ink-on-paper work of Nandlal Bose that is a detailed, authentic rendering of a divine image from the ancient times, most probably from South India, and reminds us of his frequent use of ancient Indian motifs in the illustrations that we see on the pages of the calligraphed copies of the Constitution of India, that were sketched by Bose and his students.

Another interesting work is by Shiavax Chavda, known for his colourful abstracts (that later on are perhaps seen in Sohan Qadri’s works), as well as for his paintings that attempt to capture

the fluidity of dancers in their natural flow. In this painting, which is a work of rare beauty, we can feel the translucent luminosity of traditional Mughal era jewellery and the resplendence of the colours spilling over like an array of soft light across the canvas and hints at his broad familiarity with the native ethos. It is almost a bejewelled grandiose kalamkari in abstraction.

M.F Husain’s ‘Mother and Child’ is a seminal work that touches upon a recurring theme in the master’s works – of the loss of his mother at an early age and the profound effect it had on him and his subsequent outlook towards art and life (which was something he never reconciled to but attempted to mitigate through his art). His use of symbolism peaks in this work wherein the blue trouser of the child represents long-held grief that finds relief in his mother’s thoughts, who is dressed in whites, traditionally a colour of a shroud and hence death, who comes from another realm to comfort him. The oil lamp is strategically held on her body and not inside the mihrab behind her, where it might usually have been kept, making her an embodiment of light or noor, leaving a yellow afterglow across the background wall. The beauty in Husains’s art is its hidden complexity and the internal dialogue between the different elements which we might miss if we gloss over their interplay. This brings to mind Haldankar’s famous work, ‘Glow of Hope’ and the continual journey of this image of a lady with a lamp in Indian art.

In Vishwanath Nageshkar’s work we see a tragedy unfolding as the girl puts her arms around her dead father’s legs, who has a halo around his face, hinting at some pre-eminence and thereby hangs a tale – we see a dark and uninhibited state of a very violent death, covered in patina and rusty shades symbolic of decay, dismemberment and disintegration.

There is a very enigmatic sketch by Sailoz Mookherjea, which for want of context, one can only assume is about the carceral and encapsulates the looming sense of control and force of authority in the pre-independence colonial era. The element of silent upheaval in the background is palpable.

This section includes the works of many other artists including Jamini Roy, N.S. Bendre, Rabindranath Tagore, M.V. Dhurandhar, and S.L. Haldankar.

The next few sections shift the focus to the moderns, progressives and other practitioners whose art flowered mostly in the post-Independence era and contributed richly to the development of an Indian ethos. Premised on and buoyed by the headwinds of a free concourse of new ideas, thoughts and experimentations platformed on a confident individuality and soul-searching introspection, the artists came to a place of shared and separate understandings of their place in the world in relation to the demands and pulls of the times and their own inner voyages.

Paritosh Sen’s 'The Girl with a Broken Doll’, (2005) can be seen in reference to Husain’s abovementioned work, with the girl’s blue skirt again signifying a sense of loss, perhaps of childhood, as in the fishing community from which she perhaps hails from – a carefree childhood is sacrificed at the altar of making the family ends meet. The ocean’s blue standing in sharp contrast to the earthen hues of the shore is suggestive of being simultaneously trapped in the interplay of two worlds. Macabre and poignant at once, the painting humbles us in its sense of crumbling humanity.

Picasso has remarked somewhere that it’s most difficult to draw like a child, and in K.S. Kulkarni’s ‘Horses’ we can see seemingly scrawly and bold strokes, reminiscent of cave paintings that connect with indigeneity and assert a native authenticity like Hussain’s cubism-inspired horses, which were also an acceptance of lay simplicity, as he himself has famously said, “I sell horses to make movies.”

In Abdulrahim Appabhai Almelkar’s untitled painting of a potter family, the strong curvatures and defined physique never descends to the level of voyeurism and even as each figure looks away from one another it isn’t a faraway look of stoic suffering. Rather, we see an inversion of socially defined gender traits, with the women looking more robust and stronger than the seated male, who seems diffident and less sure, unlike the surefooted gait of the women. We also see here the predilection to use blue as a sort of slight touch of grief enigmatically.

Also notable is Somnath Hore’s minimalistic sketch of two figures in pain and perhaps love as they have a rose held closely to themselves, and with the hands of the female with her head covered in white, which could be a reference to widowhood, enveloping the visage of the male Christlike figure, whose almost closed eyes hint of dying, while her vacant, remote expression suggests a loss of moorings. It shows how a master artist can make even a simple work mean a lot more – the elements available to us only on a close observation.

A small ink sketch by V.S. Gaitonde that has the sharp acuity of some of Picasso’s sketches and the semblance of glazed eyes captured in such a short span makes one wonder whether we do justice to his art by just seeing his contribution in terms of being one of the foremost abstract painters and neglect this other side to him. There is fleeting vulnerability in the portrait as it stares at us to initiate some sort of communion.

Apart from these works, there were on display the signature music player sculptures of Krishen Khanna that one absolutely falls in love with for their sheer exuberance and sense of joie de vivre as the fluid lines suggestive of the flow of abandonment while being immersed playing music seems to leap out of the sculptures. There is a charcoal sketch of his as well of a woman carrying her dead child that captures the loss pulsating through her standing frame.

Another notable work is a Biren De landscape that faithfully resurrects a rural idyll.

The exhibition also brings to light an impasto painting of one of the forgotten master artists from Gujarat, the maverick and mystical K.R. Yadav who never cared for worldly pursuits and lived a reclusive life devoted to his artistic passion. It captures a particular phase of night when the moonlight just about illuminates the figures, lending them a touching beauty.

Bhanu Shah, a veteran artist, shows how abstraction can incorporate a hidden figuration through subtle strokes and play of tones. In his work one can feel two figures either clashing or breaking into a folk dance; in his stylization we can see a connection with Shiavax Chavda’s work that we discussed earlier. These invisible continuities are the formative visions of an emerging tradition that the moderns conjured.

Gajendra Shah’s work is a homage to the idea of homage and stations a pilgrimage place within the confines of a skyline of temples and boats covering both ends of the work within which we see figures immersed in devotion. To be able to capture so many details in a small frame is a brilliant exposition of the art of the possible. The trick is to hop over perspective and yet keep it grounded by the muted, earth tones to the necessity of a prayer-like discipline.

In K. Llaxman Goud’s portrait we see a rustic woman who has no guile and is unburdened of any forced sophistry.

Prabhakar Kolte’s abstract work is populated with the feeling of something dripping across and intruding into the canvas like a ghost-like figure, while the colour scheme adds a touch of Indianness, conceding to the tradition.

In the second part of this review we will turn our attention to the other sections in the exhibition that feature contemporary artists. Do watch out for that!

(All images are courtesy of Shujaat Mirza and the respective artists.)


Shujaat Mirza is an intrepid art aficionado, curator and critic, with a passion for

multidisciplinary art. His primary area of interest is art at the intersection of visual aesthetics and verbal semantics. He is also a poet and writer and his work has been published online as well as in literary magazines.

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