Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
TRANSITIONS : September 12, 1999
Great creative journeys
The very transitory nature of human existence in the 20th century has pushed art practice through the revolving door of rapid transitions. From determinedly Indian to flagrantly international, from picture within a frame to the "useless" art of installations, from art for the nation to art for the self or commerce, from the romance of rural India to the blight of the city, from art as vocation to art as profession, from woman as an ideal to woman as an autobiographical subject, from art as a narrative to art as a blackboard of concepts. The number of transitions is rapid and certain only in their impermanence.
But perhaps the most consistent transition in art has been from a rural to an urban ethos which becomes a zone to define the values that are inherent in them. From a celebration of nature, the body of art has moved in the last decades to a dismayed critique of its gradual annhilation under the onslaught of urbanism. In this onslaught some artists have seen a virile energy, a new hope, even a sly recognition of new possibilities. Whatever their position, a handful of artists have articulated a distinct new vision, of painting the Indian city.
The paintings of the Indian city of the Nineties makes such a distinct impression because as a phenomenon it is relatively new. As the progenitor of modern Indian art, the Bengal school and then the Santiniketan artists revelled in the idealised landscape. While the Bengal school artists used elements like the tree, the moon, the solitary pathway as symbols of an aesthetic vision, Santiniketan gave us the first homegrown version of the Indian landscape. Nandalal Bose, drawing with meticulous attention, goats put to pasture or visions of rice fields, their harmony broken only by clumps of trees, met with an effective counterpoint in the energetic rhythms of Ramkinkar's enthusiastic vision of the hills and valleys in North Bengal. Whatever their inclination and style, they instilled in the landscape a sense of wonder at its innocence and by extension, to the dignity even in frugal joys of the Indian rural dweller.
However like cinema, art of the Independence era rapidly began to express a tetchy dissatisfaction with life. The locus of attention became the chaotically burgeoning metropolitan city and its shaky inability to deliver the emotional promises of Independence. Two artists who devoted their attention early to the city were Ram Kumar and S. H. Raza. It is important that they engaged with the subject directly, and not through any form of allegory or parable so marked in the works of, say, Akbar Padamsee, F. N. Souza or the paintings of Krishen Khanna of the Sixties. Raza's "Cityscape" (1946) and "Baramulla in Ruins" (1948) both reflect his anguish over partition and the vulnerability of a Muslim in Mumbai during the riots.
He said "On the one side there was a national tragedy. As personal history for my family these critical years of 1947 to 1948 were those of tragedy and separation. In July 1947 my mother died in my house in Bombay; early in the next year in 1948, my father passed away in Mandla. Linked with this period of riots and killings and hatred there was my private history and my personal sense of loss." (quoted by Geeti Sen in Bindu, Space and Time in Raza's Vision). In his work on the devastation in Baramullah, it is the enduring damage to this Kashmiri town that is etched - human beings are conspicuous by their absence. This feature of the unpeopled city became marked in Raza's paintings of cityscapes in his early years in Paris. "Black Sun" (1953), "Haut de Cagnes" (1951) have the harsh heat and intensity of clusters of dwelling units and factories completely bereft of people. The effacing effect of urbanism is emphasised by the starkness of the scenario.
EARLIER, MY VISUAL
By way of contrast Ram Kinkar's early paintings and figures dominate the city, in a manner that underscores their ordinariness and vulnerability. Geeta Kapur in her essay "Ram Kumar City-Exile" describes how he uses the city like a stage backdrop for the vulnerabilities of his middle class urban figures in paintings like "Sad Town" (1956). By foregrounding his figures Ram Kumar effectively separates them from the bleak ineffectual town in the background - the effect is to magnify the monotony and anonymity of urban existence. In time, Raza and Ram Kumar were to both turn to the abstract landscape. Ram Kumar's paintings of the populous city of Benaras are a further denial of human presence. The figure not only disappears but the city is exalted until it becomes a metaphor of a state of mind. The obscuring of the features of the cityscape become a convoluted channel of introspection.
In the work of Sudhir Patwardhan, Bhupen Khakhar and Atul Dodiya, the city remains essentially the same even though its nuances are effectively different. All three artists hail from Mumbai; their journeys are thus not towards, but within, the city, its harsh challenges and compromises.
Khakhar's urbanism is both mocking and celebratory. His heroes are the little men of the bylanes of Baroda and Mumbai, petty shopkeepers who evoke associations of rexine and chipped teacups, who, nevertheless, are conspicuously different in their flagrant homosexuality. Khakhar belongs to the school of magic realism, and his city blends the reality of the crowded street with sexual fantasy. Khakhar's city is hugely influential because the cultural ethos of his characters is a seamless continuum of the larger environment. The red flag bearing workers of "Factory Strike" (1972), rigid and differentiated from the two industrialists alone in the factory compound has made way for an easy environment of gurus, potters, teashops, lovers, all represented in virtually the same scale of values.
Sudhir Patwardhan's urbanism has a stronger moral edge. Railway and bus commuters, construction labour, the by now famous solitary man in an Irani restaurant are his dramatis personnae. His narrative has a certain sameness, of the anonymous individual, possibly a lumpenised migrant, directly confronted by the challenges of the city. Patwardhan's figures may be mundane but they are dignified by the effort that they invest in the everyday acts of survival.
The early paintings of Atul Dodiya depicted Mumbai with a photographic verisimilitude. A view from the terrace, of clothes drying on a line, with grey buildings in the background, staircases, spectacles and shaving equipment, the seemingly inconsequential details of everyday life gave a Hockneyesque vision of middle class urban living.
In a recent exhibition of work presented by Vadhera Art Gallery, Dodiya brought in many of the visual influences that control public imagination and desire, manipulate taste and keep the wheels of consumerism spinning. In an ethos where factory fresh is the best, he made a painting like "A Poem for Friends". Below a Bollywood still of women dancing and a drawing of a bathroom commode, is a long list of services that includes Dairy Equipment, Laundry Services, Chantilly lace, etc. This is the common dream of the city as cornucopia, one that satisfies every demand, ironically captured by Henri Cartier-Bresson with the same sharp irony in his photographs of Bombay of 1947. Dodiya's easy use of the elements and images of the city, like "Sholay's" Gabbar Singh, gods printed on calendars reveals the great transition that the artist makes in using inherited tradition. The art of the city has not only started to question the idea of sacred tradition but also to create its own symbols and icons. In the process an enormous journey is traversed. The values of an innocent rural India have been uncompromisingly replaced by a view of life in the urban fast lane.
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