An insider's account of the birth of Modern Indian Art
Excerpts
 
Criticism in India, Cultural Forum, June 1959  

If much of criticism today is non-functional, it is because many artists believe implicitly (and correctly, I think) that critics do not take their art seriously. This is because critics, too, have begun to take art for granted. They have lost sight of the place of the artist in society; and they have replaced the understanding of the creative process with the flotsam and jetsam of European art criticism. Critics are timid, non-committal, and have no zeal to crusade for art. They have neither the courage nor the stamina to wage a relentless war against false and mistaken values. If criticism is to be informed and free, the credo, and its sanctity, must be constantly borne in mind, and the right of the critic to hold an independent opinion must be maintained. It is the duty of the critic to find channels for voicing this freedom of opinion. No person becomes an art critic by writing six column inches of “appreciation” ten times a month. He must do better and more.

 
Khakkar’s One-man Show of Paintings, Times of India, February 22, 1970   

It happened on a Wednesday evening. I saw first the photographers. There were painters – Jeram Patel with his Nikkormat and Husain with his Bolex on a tripod. The Government of India’s television team had stepped aside, perhaps to make way for the painter-cameramen. When called upon, they threw some light on the art and the artists with occasional blasts of the sungun.

The scene was Kunika Chemould Art Centre where Bhupen Khakkar is holding his one-man show of paintings. The occasion was the Press Preview. The event a kind of happening. The author of the exhibition, Bhupen Khakkar, posed holding a mike before his own composition Old Man with a Transitor and Husain expended some footage on Jeram Patel seated before Khakkar’s Painting called M.F. Husain Near a Tonga After Visiting the Darga. Nasreen Mohammedi and Geeta Kapur, painter and art critic respectively, were dressed in the costumes of a past generation. An hour before they were to crack the jokes – promised “on request” in the gulabi wedding style invitation card – these girls were shot (with the camera). So the facts of the situation got projected on the focal plane and negative material stored away the sentiments expressed. Buttons were pressed, shutters opened and the cogs turned.

One saw something of the top of Khakkar’s landscapes, a moon emerging from a cloud, a boat sailing away, or a red road ascending into the picture frame. Being a Sunday photographer I did my own thing, which was the best thing to do under the circumstances as everyone was pepped up and it happened to be the kind of thing that didn’t happen very often in Delhi.

Then it was over. It was brief and intense and the public (curious as people are) walked in. The performers who were crouching, gesticulating, directing and scene-shifting stretched themselves, fully grouped, conferred etc., and the paintings got blocked, though not completely as one saw views of palm groves, and white horses and garden paths, and these backdrop material looked far away and small and curiously static, as excerpts.

Wednesday was not for seeing the paintings, I should have consulted the horoscope or guessed. So I went home deciding to do the other thing on Thursday but, in regard for the church and the darga in the paintings, I am putting these observations down on a Friday for whatever they are worth.

 
Twelve Compositions with the Figure by Tyeb Mehta, Thought, Feb 19, 1966 

To portray a world of people in which things happen without reference to phenomena, or to other persons and things, is tough for any painter. To succeed, he has not only to portray a world: he has to create one. He has to look away from the world of appearances and look into a world which is primarily of his own making. The elements, images and events that are of significance in the outer world have to be transformed so that they correspond to the mood, the motif, and the aesthetic design of a work of art. Such art can be figurative or abstract. The style does not matter. We measure sensibility by these norms. Only the artist who can control these principles can make art happen. If art does not happen there is no access to the heart of the matter.

Going by these considerations alone, it is clear that Tyeb Mehta is a considerable painter. His contribution to contemporary Indian painting is clarity and integrity His painting is neither figurative only nor is it abstract only, whatever these categories mean. His painting is both; and I think that he wants these two worlds or categories fully represented in his work.

The figure is seen in part, or wholly; it is diffused in part, or wholly. The background is diffuse in part, or wholly. These figures are falling, seated, reclining. Their faces and expressions are clear. There is a similar facial structure in most images. But their expressions vary. Though they are mostly open-mouthed the faces wear expressions of exhaustion, gaiety, surprise, a death-like ghastliness. They gesticulate and grasp at things. Their voices reverberate, though the reverberation is in a measure of colour. There are mute colours and shrill colours and colours that denote quiet and peace, of the dead and of the living. As these figures live out their lives in paint their past and future are lumped together in the premise of paint. They are linked inexorably to this locale. They are strangely naked yet completely dressed, for it is feeling and not flesh that is revealed. And this feeling is not of the flesh satisfied or strained but of the spirit, which is timeless.

 
The World of Sailoz Mookherjea, Thought, Oct 15, 1960 

Whenever the gul mohars flower and the jacarandas underline the blue of the Indian summer, memories of Sailoz Mookherjea will crowd and blur, for Sailoz in life was a continual and colourful blur. And his art was himself, always. And recalling the Sailoz that was, the man, and conjuring up those pictures that he painted I begin to feel a kind of thirst, a call of the summer of the senses inside me that is a sort of blur. I recall Sailoz, glass in hand, looking over the gul mohars in Connaught Place. Sailoz in a sunset of sadness that is between shades of the loneliness of the supremely finite artist, always between illusion and reality.

The world passed by Sailoz Mookherjea in the Connaught Place restaurant in those days when drinking in public places was not prohibited – youth and gaiety, figures in money and flesh, men and women who could buy art, but didn’t, those who would never understand it, and men and women who would stop begging if only it were not so profitable. The mercury vapour lamps burned; the redness dimmed, and for Sailoz the past and the future bubbled like the soda in his whisky. In a world where isms had begun to vie with one another and the young were beginning to forget the old, Sailoz sat looking over his whisk – at weariness itself. Sunk in a cane chair on the corridor above the shop that sold pastries, sweets, cheesestraws, and brown bread, there was this middle-aged artist entrenched in youth. That was Sailoz almost ten years ago.

If you went up to see him, you had to climb a stairway the walls of which professed a fresco. Whatever rhythms the band upstairs frisked, a giant cat from the decoration looked at you from behind a motley facade – unwinking, unkind, callous and preying. I would give anything now to have Sailoz photographed against that cat. Gentle and fragile and birdlike always, Sailoz and the cat, it seemed, stood on different walls.

This is speaking sentimentally of the past for it was somewhere between these harsh realities that Sailoz took notice of me for the first time when I was younger and had just begun to write art criticism as a form of literary exercise, and I knew less of Sailoz, how he was placed as a man and as an artist. I knew one thing then, intuitively – that art criticism, to be real, had to live a life of words. That is the ultimate truth about criticism. I know that Sailoz then knew one thing, and that he practised it consistently – that painting, to be real, had to live the life of an inner necessity. He never painted what he believed was beyond him. Sincerity, therefore, came naturally to him.

But to return. Sailoz gave up the company of his glass and of whatever cronies that surrounded him to tug me by the sleeve. “Very good,” he said, and I saw that his eyes were bleared. “Your article, very fine.” Then he smiled, very briefly. Then he sat down, or was tugged back into his seat by steadier friends. He shook his head in deprecation of the unknown. Then he pointed a finger at me. “Must write,” he said. “Very good.”

It was not a review of his work that had prompted this compliment. He was not painting much, then. Later some observations of mine made Sailoz take up the brush again. “You will see,” he said. And there was a twinkle so characteristic of his sober sight. “I have works,” he went on. “Come. Quietly I am painting. Some landscapes. You will see.”

 
Ram Kumar, Kunika Exhibition Catalogue, Nov 1961 

Ram Kumar is now in Ranikhet, between pines, 6000 feet high, happy that he can paint in peace those landscapes of the mind. I do not know if he has his back to Banaras or his shoulder on the wheel of fortune which, he used to imagine, crushed humanity so cruelly. But there are some things that I know about him, if he is Ram Kumar. I know he is facing a canvas, or a book, or some quiet corner of himself. Or he must be writing, in that small, neat, feminine hand, letters to friends and literature for the public. If he is not doing any of these routine things he must be talking passionately but with that calm so characteristic of him. That is because he is sincere and serious. There are a hundred other things that he might be doing, of course. Things that we do. But with what consequence? A quiet man, a quiet painter, and a painter of the remembrance of things past, this is life for Ram Kumar.

Style is the man, and good style is simplicity in the interest of significance. Despite the complex themes of the paintings, the Ram Kumar style, I dare say, is simplicity itself. A great theme is nobly handled. There is maximum of articulation with the minimum of apparatus. A stripped style, paint in the nude, if I might essay a metaphor. These greys are quiet as nudes are quiet. They are virtuoso greys shot with green and blue and lemon-yellow. With a base of ochre or red sometimes.

The themes now are not people or mountains or streets or trees or rivers or mudbanks. Large themes, the paintings are bird’s-eye views of large tracts of nature. Things are seen from a height, and for a great distance. Hence, the element of mist and of mazes. Of much that is remembered and much that must be imagined. There are small calligraphic strokes, little dashes and dots of excitement, some triangles to lend thrust, some full and encrusted circles of isolation. A marked relief appears in these paintings. The people, as people, have disappeared – the streetwalkers, the embittered intellectuals, the clerks, the waiting, worried and watchful wives, and the crossed-eyed instigators of double-crossed lives.

Half of the old Ram Kumar has gone into retreat – the perplexed, prognosticating Ram, Peace-Council worker, the workers-of-the-world-unite man. The painter that was a kind of insurance man in aesthetics. Most of the slogans have gone, too. And the processes that materialise suffering. That was a phase which was jolly good while it lasted. It had, when Ram Kumar was not melodramatic, a kindly, tender pathos. It put the people in the front, and the landscape, or cityscape, in the background. The two were related, of course. But they had a kind of relationship actors have to the decor. The dramatic was Ram Kumar’s demon then. The muse is now lyrical and Ram Kumar muses gently, with melancholy, or nostalgia. No, these people have not all gone away. They lurk behind the landscapes, under those drifts of feeling, unconscious figurations typical of the old constructions. The old urge is sublimated and censored by the dream process, a creative process which promotes and pushes up these images.

 
M.F. Husain, Extract from Husain, published by Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1971 

Thirty-six years ago, in Indore, Maqbool Fida Husain won a gold medal for painting. This was not a landmark for a painter who has never valued prizes: it was a convenient milestone and its relative position in time helps us in sizing up the body of work he has produced. I almost said “produced and left behind”. But that would not have been true, for though Husain has refined his art and has made great strides, he has, like the itinerant and gypsy that he is at heart, carried with him the whole “bag of tricks,” and the painterly equivalents of the crystal, the talismans, and the fortune-telling cards. It would be no exaggeration to say that Husain’s art has a fatalistic aspect for Husain as well as for those who know it. Husain is fated to paint the way he does, as I shall try to explain. And those who have entered the charmed circle and are possessed by the magic of his art will be fated to love it for all its strange harmony.

Though I have known Husain both as friend and critic, I have experienced, to my regret, only a portion of the production of these past 16 years. But besides the hundreds of paintings, drawings, and sketches I have seen, most of them now no longer in the painter’s collection, I have also seen some of the life processes that have made the premises of these paintings. These are among the possessions I cherish; and this and this and this, I say, is in our collection, in Husain’s and mine.

I have seen Husain at work, painting at leisure or under pressure. I have seen him in the midst of his own work, at an exhibition or in his studio – and there he was, a man in the society of art. I have seen Husain in the company of other artists when he was an artist in the society of men. For in these times and under these varied circumstances, this tall, gaunt, genial person, bearded, and now crowned with a patriarchal thatch of grey hair, has kept his distance and has preserved for himself, for the artist in him, the secret of what can best be called immediacy.

I have been at openings of Husain exhibitions when the painter himself did not turn up. We have cursed him out when he did not show up at a party where he was expected. Or Husain has hustled us off to a party he had been invited to, only to slip away and desert us. Or he has appeared suddenly when he was thought to be away and has collected us, rounding us up one by one, to dine at Flora, his favourite restaurant near the Jama Masjid in Delhi, or at the Coronation in Bombay. Often the generosity exceeded the needs of the occasion and we found more food and company than we could cope with. Not being a snob, Husain could not have cared less whether his guests had things in common. House painters and carpenters have sat with artists. These might have been awkward occasions, but there was no need for protocol – Husain’s humility and his personality were pervasive.

Of course, we have also gathered at his place on those truly memorable occasions when we sat on the floor in the company of music (which he loves) to eat, drink, and be merry. And this teetotaller would come out with a stock of Scotch and soda and enjoy our rising spirits. On these occasions I have heard others talk knowingly or grandiosely about art, discuss this painter’s work or that exhibition, defend or dissect this man’s production or the perpetrations of that group. Men put so much energy into words, even if they do not believe all that is said. Husain puts that energy into paint. But when he wills it and wants to write – he writes poetry – he writes well. And the poetry is so sparse and thin and immediate that some of us have told him (in jest) that the quality of the verse is most consistently the best part of him. Consider this personal testament, for instance:

Send me a snow-clad sheet of sky
Bearing no scar.
How shall I paint
In white words
The encircling contours
Of your boundless mourns?
When I begin to paint
Hold the sky in your hands
As the stretch of my canvas
Is unknown to me.

 
Biren De: Kunika Catalogue, Kunika Exhibition Catalogue, Nov 1961 

There is a small room in Biren’s home which is haunted with the past. It is a small portrait gallery which will startle anyone who has merely seen the work of this phase. A green-eyed blonde in leopard-skin dress stares at the spectator coldly, an effeminate youth with a soft big mouth, once an architecture student who went off to become a farmer in Rampur, wears the expression of youth and all the marks of Biren’s youthful start as a portrait painter. Then there is one composition in which a figure prostrates himself before what seems to be a patriarchal image on a throne. There is also an early attempt at making an abstract – a painting which is constructed of elliptical forms all arranged like sun-dials in perspective which Biren calls “God” or “Energy”. The blonde is fair and feline, the student is brown and pensive. The composition is in blue and red and yellow and brown and the abstract— painted in 1948 or thereabouts, is in green-blue-grey. That is where Biren began.These works all date back to the early fifties and earlier. Biren keeps this portrait gallery, I sometimes think, as an archive of the truth about himself. From out of this collection he presented me, last year, my portrait painted by him in 1951, a work entitled, I must confess, grandiosely, Portrait of a Writer. Yes, I write. And that, I hope, is the truth about myself. I have access to that inner room. Have had it for the past 12 years. We have shared many things, and we have kept, I think, some things private. Biren has never taken me seriously, and that’s good. And I have never taken him seriously too. That’s funny, for he takes himself seriously. I take art seriously enough, but personality, I don’t know. Still, out of this muddle of friendship and loyalties, I have to build up the past so that the present is valid.

 
On Grafitti, Spaghetti, and Social Comment, Times of India, March 20, 1976

On the face of it, the recent paintings by Vivan Sundaram are immaculately executed, vivid and lively with the sort of broad movement and minute detailing which one expects in good painting, whether modern or otherwise. The works have a contemporary accent, and a contemporary feel for colour (jazzy and op), and a definite slant as regards the implications of the themes. In any case, the exhibition is entitled “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”. So far, go good.

The artist quotes Harold Rosenberg, the American critic, perhaps to justify what he has done, namely, the “double rumination of the artist upon his aesthetic legacy and upon his own appropriation of it as the source of meaningful creation in this epoch of historical self-consciousness.”

Miss Geeta Kapur writes in the introduction to the catalogue: “Judging by the objects depicted, pile carpet, lace table cloth, leather chair, snazzy bathtub, Vivan’s reference is presumably to that section of the Indian bourgeoisie that has fulfilled its apprenticeship to the colonial masters and can now boast an international status, living as it does in penthouse apartments and five-star hotels.”

I regret I do not see such pertinence in Vivan’s paintings. In fact, Vivan is haunted by the spectres of op and hard-edge trends in painting. To use these devices, in a tongue-in-cheek manner, howsoever successfully, is to admit being indebted to this stock. And when the framework of satire does not quite fit, as is obvious from the effects these painting produce, the irony is lost. It is also apparent that Vivan is aware that op and hard-edge trends, in recent years, have softened and have become wispy, meandering, and confetti-like, and confectionary in quality, in great part as I remember from the thousands of specimens of abstract expressionism that I saw in the United States. Vivan has selected what in his opinion are surefire images. But this is an instance of artistic oversight.

I therefore prefer any day Andy Warhol’s Electric Chair to Vivan’s Chair 2, and Juan Genoves’ Target series to Tilted View 2. Also I cannot help but feel that Vivan has not taken Rosenberg seriously enough. He has not discarded what is “dead of the painting of the past” but has undertaken to resuscitate what is dead of the art of the most recent times, of the last decade, particularly as it manifested itself in America.

This is not to say that some of Vivan’s paintings such as Parched Earth and Bloodbath are not impressive, as paintings, notwithstanding the stylistic ingredients incorporated from the West. But I miss altogether the historicity and the satire, and I must state categorically—because of what has happened in Vivan’s painting, and what is happening in the art scene in India—that those who live in glass houses should not throw stones.

With a rich and lush pictorial vocabulary, such as we see in Vivan’s painting, the painter at best can make a pleasing and satisfactory “picture”, to quote him, but not a social comment, unless you believe that spaghetti, confetti and graffiti, are social comments.

 
Artist ‘Earnest’ but Art ‘Bore’, Indian Express, Jan 7, 1962

There are two perspectives an artist must have if he is to put across that personal thing called art. He must have an inner perspective, that element of vision which determines for him, and makes palpable for others his limits of experience and technique. He must also have a world picture ordered by his interests. It is the extension of the one view into the other that constitutes the design of art.

In this exhibition of 41 oils at the Fine Arts Gallery, Jehangir Sabavala from Bombay shows little evidence of the kind of perspective. He essays a serious Christian theme associated with a whole archives of experience—human experience—with a Quixotic bravura. Descent from the Cross I, for instance, is a stained glass window concept puddled over. Sabavala’s painting is a version of that great scene as it might have been a reflection in a puddle distorted by raindrops.

The type of reality Sabavala is closer to is the oft reiterated theme of ducks. He has observed these amphibians and loves to conceive of the species as a kind of roseate flower made of mud, the element they perhaps love best. He calls the same experience by different names The Orange Ducks, A Brown Gathering, Kaliedoscope.

The nature of flight and wings of one kind or the other fascinates him. In some paintings he displays a “I must go down to the seas again” enthusiasm and ships and sails are his second favourite. But there is no horizon that a true sailor loves in these paintings. Nor is there the metaphorical horizon that would guide the painter answering a “wild call and a clear call that may not be denied”. So fond is Sabavala of sails that they drift into a work entitled Phantoms of the Night. The same form of the naked tree seen in the picture of that name, stands relieved before some ghost ships. It is the spectator who is at sea.

The fragmented, faceted manner of delineating the forms in paint adds to the general confusion. Sabavala is earnest, but his art is a bore.

 
Jehangir Sabavala, Painter of People, Times of India, April 19, 1976

In the past 20 years, Jehangir Sabavala has held four exhibitions here—in 1956, 1962, 1966 and 1972. It is, therefore, not necessary, to discuss his development.

Some artists change and some evolve, but in the work of every sincerely committed artist, what is significant and what comes to be noticed ultimately, is the element of refinement of expression through which much more is conveyed with fewer means and with almost effortless ease. We see this in Jehangir’s progress from 1965.

There are artists who are precocious: those who are frigid: and those who are licentious and facile. Jehangir is none of these. He has worked hard, thoroughly and steadily, and nurtured his vision meticulously, with a methodology of his own.

In this review, I am concerned only with the principles that define his mode of expression—the way Jehangir voices his views on painting through paint.

First, though Jehangir does not sacrifice the sensation of colour in painting, he does not use colour to shock. Tone is an ingredient in his work, and the quiet of the greys derived from blue and green, reinforced with shades of early autumn, yellow arid brown and red are his preferences. In such a palette it is difficult to find a discordant note.

Secondly, the landscape is Jehangir’s theme. Yet there is a reference to the inscape—in Disintegrating Reverie, Wanderers in the Mist, The Lost Tribe and The Radiant Cloud. Forms echo one another; the figure in the scene, the faceted tree, the embodied mountains, the suggested shadows, the ambient clouds, precipices over which the water cascades, like dissolving muslin, the undulating sand, etc. And in this tone arid with this quiet assertion that things echo one another, that the one contains the many, and that varying wavelengths and related aspects create the prospect, there is the typical Sabavala “field” of painting.

This is the repertoire of the romantic painter who is also committed. There is the relevance of distance, time, perspective, mood. And notwithstanding the element of the dream there is an earnestness (and an acceptance of limits) in Jehangir’s work which his foursquare anti vital. Foursquare because each painting is built solidly facet by facet, and tone on tone. Though parts hold together and the totality is live and refreshing.

I consider the work vital because people—the honeymooning couple, the man in the street, the cultivator, and the factory worker, as well as the intellectual—will see some or all of these constituents of the vision.

Jehangir is a painter of our times, working along lines that he understands. These 15 paintings convey or express conceptions which are based on perceived experience of things as they are.

This is the fifth exhibition of the work of a significant artist who has grown, and evolved intrinsically, these 20 years. His message is very simple and because of it difficult to paint. It is: Time and tide wait for no man.