Fan-ning art: A look at Indian artist Jatin Das’ vast collection of ‘Pankhas’

For an urban audience addicted to instant air cooling, a trans-national collection of hand-made fans might be of little interest, until you visit an exhibition showcasing artefacts belonging to a rare and dying tradition. The exhibition has been curated by Indian visual artist Jatin Das, a well-known researcher and archivist of the craft of hand-made fan.

Odisha-born Das, who has many paintings, murals, sculptures and other visual art forms to his credit, has been collecting hand-made fans of different shapes and sizes for the past 40 years. It all began one summer afternoon, when he had a friend over to his Delhi studio. His friend was unhappy for some reason, and as he picked up a hand-fan to lighten the mood he said in jest, “let me stir the still air.” Little did he know the phrase would be the title of a book on Pankhas, which is due to be released soon.

Since then, Das’ abiding interest in hand-made pankhas has not only taken him to the length and breadth of the Indian subcontinent, but also to regions as far and wide as Africa, Middle East and East Asia. His collection, which comprises of thousands of fans created with all kinds of organic materials (bamboo, cane, date palm), was recently mounted at New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA).

His archive also includes, paintings, prints, miniatures, photographs, poems and films on the subject. Entirely funded by money received from the sale of his paintings, the archive is the result of a full-fledged project that has involved documentation, research and archiving of this dying form. Over the years, the artist’s collection of fans has grown because of gifts received from friends all over the world.

These objects have had a worldwide audience, beginning with their maiden exhibition at New Delhi’s Crafts Museum in 2004, followed by shows in Kolkata, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Zurich, London and Washington DC.

“Although the cost of making the pankha is minimal, the workmanship, effort and personal touch make these delicate objects invaluable. I feel sad when a beautiful craft of India disappears due to lack of interest, utility or outlet,” said Das.

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Palm leaf fans from Alekh Baba monastery, Dhenkanal (Odisha)

Seen together, the fans made of zardozi, applique, mirrors; carvings from woods; some of them designed from feathers, bamboo, cane, palm leaves, paper, natural fibre and batik cloth transform a forgotten art into an alluring craft, the IGNCA exhibition shows.

The exhibition offers a historical and artistic insight into an art form that was once popular in hot and tropical countries of the world. As electricity came into our homes, the use of this art form has become largely redundant, even though people in Indian villages still use it.

Mainly sold in village markets during summer, the hand-fan is seen as a symbol of communal and personal engagement. The sight of a man fanning himself to sleep on a charpoy, or a woman fanning her husband as he eats his meal are common instances of the role of a fan in rural life. The hand-fan, Das notes, could be a tool for seduction and romance as well.

Of course, the hand-fan has been deployed for grander purposes, such as in the courts and offices of Mughals and colonial rulers; and during large congregations at temples. Costing millions of rupees, the royal fans have silver and gold handles, embroidered with silver thread or zari. Personalised and ceremonial fans are also part of the archive, with many of them being centuries old and regarded as a “priceless antiques.”

During his search for hand-fans and traditional crafts, Das found a group of monks in his home state devoted to the traditional art of crafting large circular fans made of palm leaves and stems. The collection has several fans from the monastery, one of them is more than a hundred years old. Other present-day examples include a large but neglected hand-made fan at Kochi’s St. Francis Church, the first church built by the Europeans in India. The Mayurbhanj palace, also in Odisha, in another landmark where this dying art form is still being preserved.

The craft of fan-making has been primarily done by women and girls in India, and at the heart of India’s pankha art history are stories of India’s rural folk who, for generations, have made this art form a source of livelihood. As India aims for full electrification of its villages, the pankha faces the onslaught of being completely switched off.

Can you take the stench of Mumbai’s Sassoon Dock? You can’t, but maybe you should

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Installation “Idea of Smell” by artist Hanif Kureshi (St+Art India Foundation)

If you are put off by the lingering smell of fish at Mumbai’s Sassoon Dock, a new art project in the city will make sure you cannot miss the stench even if you cover your nose.

As you enter the St+Art Project galleries at one of Mumbai’s oldest docks, an installation titled the “Idea of Smell” invokes memories and figments of imagination associated with different kinds of smell.

“You walk through a room where words, suspended in the air, activate your memory. And just like that, Kureshi evokes a range of emotions — from the visceral with sentences such as ‘Perfume of your ex’, to the endearing with ‘Mom’s cooking’, to downright repulsive with ‘Vomit’,” read a story on the art project in the Hindu Businessline newspaper.

The Sassoon Dock, built by a Jewish merchant in the 19th century, is home to one of Mumbai’s oldest wholesale fish markets, where frenetic business activity begins around sunrise. And yet, according to the art project organisers, Mumbai’s residents are not familiar with it, despite it being located in the centre of the city.

The St+Art Project, previously seen in the Indian cities of Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, and Hyderabad, has transformed the Sassoon Dock into a vibrant space for large-scale murals, installations and other mixed media artworks. Artists from Singapore, France, Mexico, Denmark, Austria, Spain and Australia have contributed to this project.

This initiative has re-introduced a forgotten landmark to the people of Mumbai, so much so that a visit to the waterfront gallery has become a must-do for the city’s residents. Social media websites are teeming with pictures of this two-month long event that puts the spotlight on a range of topics–the lives of the fishermen community (one of Mumbai’s oldest inhabitants), the polluting coastline, Mumbai’s relentless construction activity and the receding historical and traditional facets of the city.

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Mural, by artist Guido van Helten, showing a woman from the local fishing community

The Project, that came to India in 2014 with a group of artists, designers, photographers and film-makers, has democratised public spaces which are mostly dominated with political, real-estate, corporate, and religious advertisements. This new phenomenon, involving massive artistic creations done on landmarks of cities, creates the sort of engagement with public spaces that seems to be missing today. The “Idea of Smell” installation is one such attempt, among other 25-odd artworks, to re-establish that missing link with the city.

As an increasingly stressed and over-worked city population finds refuge in film theatres, shopping malls and cafes on the weekends, the engagement with art, culture and history of a city has become the pursuit of a comparatively smaller audience. In response to that, the St+Art Project is being perceived as a myth-breaking initiative, bringing home the point that art does not always belong to the realm of galleries and museums mostly frequented by the social elite and art connoisseurs.

In its own political—but subtle—way, the Sassoon Dock Art Project is also contributing to the conversation over the proposed redevelopment of historical and ecologically sensitive public landmarks of the city. The dock is one such landmark, expected to be transformed into a modern fishing village that will include an air-conditioned fish market, a museum, an amphitheatre, a food street and promenade for tourists.

 

As the day wound down and visitors began to leave the dock, I took in the sunset casting a pale shadow over the fishing boats. And I wondered about the future of this fishing dock and its people who have made this place what it is, as it braces for a multi-crore-rupee makeover.

The Sassoon Dock Art Project ends in December. Other famous spots in the city, such as the Churchgate station and Mahim, are also part of the street art project. To know more about the event, click here

Pictures from Mumbai’s theatres

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The set of Pakistan Aur Alzheimer’s, a tragic-comic play about India’s partition, at G5A Foundation for Contemporary Culture, Shakti Mills

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Qissa Urdu Ki Akhri Kitaab Ka, a satire on contemporary appropriation and censorship of historical narratives, Prithvi Theatre, Juhu

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The Father, a tragi-farcical play about an Alzheimer’s patient, at Prithvi Theatre, Juhu

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Gypsy Under the Moon, the theatrical adaptation of famous Bengali novel ‘Srikanta’, at Jamshed Bhabha Theatre (NCPA), Nariman Point

The 50:50 Home – Journeys beyond Mumbai and back

A new art exhibition in Mumbai explores the circular journeys of migrant families between the city and their villages in Maharashtra’s Konkan region.

The title of the show, “Mumbai Return: Journey Beyond the City”, personifies a life divided between the twin spaces of the adopted home (Mumbai), and The Home (the migrant’s place of birth and early life). By implication, the exhibition is also an ongoing narrative about themes of home, belongingness, ancestry, and alienation from the migrant’s perspective.

However, the scope of its inquiry and research is not only limited to the familiar themes of home and dislocation. Curated out of a research project by an urban planning collective and a think-tank studying the future of global mobility, the exhibition analyses the transformation of cities and villages as a consequence of migration.

What does home mean to the migrants? Can a migrant belong to two different cultural and geographical spaces at the same time? What is the impact of that migration on their ancestral home? How do the “circular” migrants’ cultural roots shape their life in a new city? The exhibition, on view at Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum, seeks answers to these questions through mixed media art-works such as installations, films, architectural models, photographs and the traditional Warli painting.

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“For many Mumbaikars, home is here and there, stretched between two inescapable and complimentary polarities,” says the exhibition’s curatorial note. Just as the village house is transformed into an “aspirational city house”, thanks to the new money, some residential areas in Mumbai emanate the communal atmospherics of rural life. The transforming village home and the city flat constitute “the two inescapable and complimentary polarities”, cemented by the migrants’ desire to simultaneously belong to both these spaces.

Such “homegrown” neighbourhoods are Bhandup, Ghatkopar, Naigaon, Shivaji Nagar and Dharavi, the exhibition shows. The community of migrants in these areas live in close proximity to each other just the way they would, back in their villages, according to urbz architect Marius Helten. However, the proximity may also have to do with the city’s space constraints, unlike a village that has a lot more open space.

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Public transport systems of the railways, auto-rickshaws, and buses inevitably contribute to the paradigm of the circular migrant’s life. Artist Sandeep Bhoir essays this back-and-forth movement of migrants onto a large circular “canvas”, placed at the exhibition’s entry. Bhoir’s traditional Warli art-work represents two worlds, the idyllic pastoral life and the rhythmic chaos of cities. The folk element, which personifies the Warli art form, pervades the city-village representation. Perhaps, it’s an implicit pointer to the fact that the memory of “the historical” never fades, irrespective of a migrant’s present geographical location.

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The question of belongingness continues to return, or haunt, the migrant’s narrative. In one of the documentaries shown at the exhibition, a man says he belongs 50 percent to his village and the rest to his city home. The belongingness, he adds, is complete.

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The exhibition closes on August 13, 2017.  

Shrouded in stillness, Vinayak Karmarkar’s museum of sculptures in Alibag is a surreal artistic tour

A visit to the museum of Indian sculptor Vinayak Pandurang Karmarkar can be a surreal experience. Located in a sleepy, narrow lane of Alibag, a coastal town south of Mumbai, this permanent museum showcases sculptures of famous and common people, in different moods and garbs. The first floor of Karmarkar’s house has been converted into the museum, called Karmarkar Shilpalaya. The property was deserted, except for an old caretaker woman who led us into the museum.

The property’s lawns greeted us with some of Karmarkar’s works draped in plastic sheets because of the heavy monsoon. As we climbed up the stairs, we walked into a corridor lined with more than a dozen sculptures. The corridor led to a large, sunny hall housing the full collection. We spotted Mahatma Gandhi, Lokmanya Tilak, PC Ray, CR Das, Chatrapati Shivaji, and many members of the Karmarkar’s clan, including the artist’s “self-sculpture”.

The museum was shrouded in stillness, accentuated by the serenity of Alibag, a popular weekend getaway for Mumbai’s residents. Despite the ambient stillness, the sculptures evoked a living quality, and perhaps that is where lies Karmarkar’s mastery over the form of sculpture.

In 1964, the Alibag-born artist received the Padma Shri, one of India’s highest civilian honours awarded by the central government. The award citation recognised him as one of India’s outstanding sculptors, whose repertoire includes a 14-feet high bronze statue of Shivaji in Pune.

A student of the Bombay School of Art and the Royal Academy of Art in London, Karmarkar toured Europe to study ancient and modern Western art, the citation added. His sculptures have been acquired by private collectors in England, Germany and the U.S. He died in 1967.

Despite being a well-known artist, there are only a handful of blogs about his art. A Wikipedia entry has a brief bio-data, there are no news articles either. Like its obscure location, the museum has been reduced to a tourist spot on Alibag’s map.

Here is a collection of pictures from my visit to the museum:

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Dipping into monochromatic memories with Indian modern artist Krishen Khanna

Review of a new permanent gallery inaugurated by Indian art auction house Saffronart in New Delhi

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Untitled; Krishen Khanna (Source: Saffronart)

Home to some of India’s best-known art galleries and museums, New Delhi witnessed the inauguration of a new permanent gallery in the centre of the city last week. The gallery opened at The Claridges hotel on Thursday, and is owned by Indian art auction house Saffronart. But it isn’t just another gallery where socialites and connoisseurs alike schmooze about artworks over cocktails. While the socialising bit may be an imminent possibility at any art event, what this new gallery does is celebrate works of one of India’s last surviving modern artists – Krishen Khanna, who was once a member of the radical Progressive Artists Movement.

Known for his larger-than-life expressionist style of figurative work, with its flat forms and extremely bold colours, Khanna turns to monochromatic drawings in his latest exhibition. His use of graphite (or Conte as a medium) and charcoal on the canvas creates an impression of a man “returning to his memory bank of images with a display of astounding energy, even grandeur.” (Gayatri Sinha, exhibition catalogue.)

“I have used monochrome because if there is something I want to say, it is best to avoid the dynamics of colour.”
– Krishen Khanna

About 30 artworks have been mounted at the present exhibition. Ninety-two-year-old Khanna, known for being an unschooled artist, made these drawings over the past four or five years. The works have been sourced from private collections. The exhibition comes after a recent series of his works at Delhi’s Vadehra Art Gallery, showcasing a mix of his black and white drawings, and some colourfully exuberant oil paintings.

The underlying motifs of Khanna’s present series are journey, dispossession, conflict and narratives of the battlefield – all rooted in historical events (India’s partition in 1947, which he witnessed when he was 22) and mythological/religious texts (the Mahabharata and the Bible) that have inspired him a great deal. In some of his works, the narratives of the real and the textual fuse together, and take the form of a kaleidoscope of the human condition. As he stretches the limits of the human form and animals (drawing on his expressionist influence), the canvas offers a peep into the artist’s consciousness. By implication, the artist transforms real-life events and a career-long preoccupation with these texts into an intensely subjective artistic experience.

“I have always tried to capture human emotions in my compositions – not make life studies.”
– Krishen Khanna

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‘Benediction on a Battlefield’ (Source: Saffronart website)

In ‘Benediction on a Battlefield’, a diptych painting, Khanna shows the Pandavas wishing farewell to Bhishma Pitamah before his death in the Mahabharata. It’s an image that the artist has worked on for decades, according to Sinha, and stitches together the narrative of the partition into the epic themes of heroism, conflict and “monumental” errors.

In the Benediction painting, Pitamah is seated on a chariot as he blesses the Pandava brothers. The wheel of the chariot has a special figurative significance not only because it is a recurrent motif in Khanna’s works, but serves as a pre-partition reminder of an important 18th century landmark in Lahore city. The “majestic canon”, also called the Zamzama, represents conquest and war. It may have been, Gayatri informs us, “reduced in Krishen’s childhood to a play thing for children.” After all, Khanna was born in Faisalabad (earlier called Lyallpur) in 1925, not far from the city of Lahore, a former British colony.

If the Zamzama is a reminder of the battlefield, it’s also a catalyst for displacement and mass migration, a common occurrence during India’s partition – which witnessed one of the greatest migrations in human history.

Like pre-partition born artist Satish Gujral, the bifurcation of India in 1947 is a dominant theme in Khanna’s oeuvre, who often draws migrants and their cattle undertaking a journey through patches of agricultural fields and water bodies. Given the magnitude of the artist’s canvas, his depictions offer a cinematic quality to these real-life events, without ever romanticising a tragedy. In the sheer scale and ambition of his partition series, what is conspicuous is the tentativeness, the uncertainty and the secrecy of such journeys, that may or may not lead to a home.

As Khanna marks a thematic shift from the epic/heroic to the everyday/mundane – although both are depicted in massive artistic proportions – he comes across as a champion of the subaltern on the canvas. While the engagement with the subaltern is the product of his left-leaning Progressive Artists Group, his works are distinctly un-abstract, compared to some of his peers from the collective.

“I used to do abstracts earlier and I have now moved on to human forms. I thought that the person or the individual is being neglected – the person in a particular situation who is influenced by the conditions around. I want to now emphasise the human beings caught up in their particular condition.”
– Krishen Khanna to Saffronart

Somewhat influenced by the Indian miniature painting and childhood memories of the hunt, Khanna draws the falcons and their masters – as if to suggest that themes of hierarchy, persecution and journey exist not only in historical events or grand epics, but on the streets as well.  A similar artistic and thematic trope is deployed in the largest artwork at the exhibition, a triptych, which shows a lion and an elephant engaged in a wrestling fight. Both the animals are common subjects in Indian miniature paintings. Another drawing, ‘Gaja Moksha’ (The Elephant’s Liberation), shows a crocodile slaying an elephant, who is bigger than the reptile.

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Untitled (Source: Saffronart website)

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‘Gaja Moksha’ (Source: Saffronart website)

In a career spanning around seven decades, Khanna, somewhat like another modernist Bhupen Khakhar, has found artistic inspiration from people who belong to the fringes of the bigger social and historical narratives. For example, he has drawn the loaders on city trucks, daily wage earners, dabba walas, refugees, masons and carpenters. His Bandwallas series, seen at the Vadehra Art Gallery, particularly stands out in its treatment of exuberant colours with a “muralesque” touch. In fact, the quality of the mural, far exceeding the idea of an art form as purely a living room showcase, is seen through much of his oeuvre, including the present exhibition.

The subaltern in Khanna acquires a metaphorically layered representation when he draws Draupati being dragged by Dusashna, which is an episode from the Mahabharata. The two characters, locked in a potentially sexual conflict, are seen wearing working-class clothes which makes the whole scene resemble a street side crime or violation. In the “subalternisation” of an “epic crime”, Khanna reinforces his artistic intent of unmasking the realities of the human condition, instead of going abstract.

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Untitled; Draupati being dragged by Dusashna to his lap (Source: Saffronart)

In the end, one can argue, Khanna takes a leap from his (historically and literary rich) storytelling to drive home certain fundamental truths – the impermanence of life and lurking death, irrespective of social background, class and even era. In “The Graves – A Fine and Quiet Place,” bodies of a man and a woman are kept shrouded inside a coffin, with their hands clasped to each other.

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Untitled; Signed and inscribed ‘Krishen Khanna/ K Khanna/ Garhi-1999/ Andrew Marvel “The Graves A Fine And Quiet Place” (Source: Saffronart website)

While the theme of death is unmistakable in the drawing, the clasped hands and the subtitle (The Grave A Fine and Quiet Place) are an unambiguous departure from restless narratives of Khanna’s other drawings in the same series.

From displacement, migration, loss of home, conflict and persecution, the artist finally moves onto the landscape of home (in death, however), belongingness, and a sense of things settling down. The artwork serves as a metaphorical culmination of the narrative of journey that has fed Khanna’s artistic imagination.

(Note: The exhibition will be on view until November 13, 2016 from 11 am – 7 pm. A series of works by artist Ram Kumar will be mounted at the gallery from December 14 – December 31, 2016. The gallery will also host more exhibitions and auction previews, apart from art talks and events with other galleries.)

In search of India’s indigenous modernist art through ‘Group 1890’

A review of the latest exhibition at DAG Modern, New Delhi – ‘Group 1890: India’s Indigenous Modernism’

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Introduction

The genesis of the 20th century India modern art, as with others form of modern art in West a century earlier, lay in challenging the existing order of artistic expression. In India, then, local artists were beginning to question the dominance of art forms, mainly done in realistic portrayals in oil on canvas, which were introduced by the colonialists. The struggle for a new, indigenous vocabulary and identity in 20th century Indian art took the form of several art movements and collectives, including Bombay’s ‘Progressive Artists’ Group’, and Calcutta’s ‘Santiniketan’ and the Bengal ‘school’.

One of the significant, but short-lived, collectives was ‘Group 1890’, formed in 1962 by a group of 12 artists, led by Marxist-leaning J. Swaminathan. The group got its name from the venue of their first meeting – House No. 1890 – in Bhavnagar city of Gujarat state. ‘Group 1890’ held its only – and highly successful – exhibition in 1963 in New Delhi. It was inaugurated by then Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru.

None of their works were sold, and not long after the group faded into oblivion for ever. However, given the radicalism of their works, beliefs and pronouncements on art, they gained much attention and left a legacy that gave fresh direction to Indian modernism.

The daring artistic imaginations of ‘Group 1890’ is the subject of the latest show at New Delhi’s DAG Modern, previously called the Delhi Art Gallery, which boasts of being “one of the largest repositories of Indian modern art anywhere in the world”. The exhibition at this gallery follows last year’s retrospective ‘The Art of Santiniketan’, which is associated with Bengali artists Rabindranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose, Ramkinkar Baij, and Benode Behari Mukherjee.

The current show, according to the gallery, is the first ever commemorative on ‘Group 1890’. It seeks to re-examine their story, historical significance, and traces their importance through Indian art practices and the positions they advocated. “The group rejected any artistic belief system behind its formation save the creation of a vibrant, new art. Many of the artists worked in the abstract mode,” wrote curator Kishore Singh of DAG Modern in an article.

For example, in their quest for a new artistic idiom, Gujarati artists Himmat Shah and Jeram Patel attacked the very foundation of art-making by using singed paper, often done by a lit cigarette, and, in the latter’s case, burning sheets of plywood or puncturing it with holes. Despite its transience, artworks of ‘Group 1890’ symbolised a kind of methodical madness that seems to suggest, in their experimentation, a limitlessness of form and achievement.The exhibition, on view until Dec. 14 in New Delhi, showcases works by 10 of the 12 artists of ‘Group 1890’.

J. Swaminathan (1928 – 94)

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Untitled (Bird, Tree and Mountain Series), 1972

Shimla-born Swaminathan returned to painting much later in life, despite being trained in it, thanks to his disenchantment with politics – he was an active member of the Communist Party of India in the post-independence period.

He was the first Indian modernist to explore “tantra-inspired” imagery, which comprises of staple such as the triangular, squarical and circular shapes. He deploys idioms of folk and tribal art; in one artwork he adds ritual graffiti seen on village walls, juxtaposing it with brown colour and dribbling the canvas with paint. During the 1960s, he moved to study Indian (Pahari) miniatures after experimenting with tantric art: in the “Colour Geometry of Space”, he juxtaposed earthy colours with geometric shapes.

His “Bird, Tree and Mountain” series, which held his creative interest for a long time, is known for its visual delight in the form of its “chromatic brilliance”.  Eventually, the artist moved to a simple, abstract style, using water colour on paper, marking a return to his early style.

Ambadas (1922 – 2012)

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Untitled, 1964

Born in Maharashtra, Ambadas pioneered the non-representational style of the post-independence Indian art, in which colour played a significant role. His works are redolent of the “earth process”, and by implication he uses earthy tones. And he shows what appear to be geological movements, involving the soil, wind, water, and maybe the tectonic plates. He works in the abstract mode; but his individualistic brushstrokes arrange themselves to give the semblance of an image. In the 90s, however, he returned to his early love – water colours. This shift brought a fluidity and lightness to his canvas, a dramatic departure from the subterranean worlds of his earthy tones.

Jyoti Bhatt (1934)

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‘Problem’, 1956

Gujarat’s Bhatt had a versatile training in art. He studied painting at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Baroda. In Rajasthan, he learnt mural and fresco painting. He went to Naples, on the Italian government scholarship, to study printmaking. It was in Italy that he first encountered abstractionism.

Under the influence of his teacher N. S. Bendre, he created flattened representation of still life in the cubist trope, which was a strong element in his early pictorial vocabulary. Faces and human profiles are a recurrent motif in his oeuvre; he works with them in different styles, sometimes repeating them in rhythmic pattern in a single work. In other “Faces” works, he stylistically inserts into them imageries or calligraphic forms such as Urdu words or Tibetan text. He does his human profiles in the Indian miniature mould, or the Egyptian painting trope. This graphic printmaking technique is also seen in his magnificently intricate work “Remains of the Old Bungalow”, which shows rich pictorial construction that seems to convey the artist’s commentary on themes of life, society and self in a disarray.

Gulammohammed Sheikh (1937)

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‘Horses’

Contrary to some of his fellow artists in ‘Group 1890’, Sheikh, who was also a fine arts graduate from Baroda, rejected the abstract for a more socially relevant art form that was closely linked to the concerns of people. He was more interested in exploring the visual language instead of working under a particular style or ‘ism’. His “socialist” sensibilities can be seen in “Speechless City” that eponymously highlights the surreal disquiet of an ordinary existence.

A prominent feature of his works is also the depiction of horse-driven chariots from his town of Sundernagar in Gujarat, probably fueling the inspiration to paint more horses in his landscape art.

Eric Bowen (1929 – 2002)

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‘Sacred Relics’, 1994

The geometric paintings of Allahabad-born Bowen, inspired by the theory of “constructivism”, stand out in the Group’s search for pushing the boundaries of modern art-making. With the minimalist layout of lines in a grid, he creates intense patterns of blacks, blues, whites and browns that often invoke spiritual and tantric overtones.

Jeram Patel (1930)

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Untitled, 2004

A graduate of Sir J. J. School of Art in Mumbai, Patel changed the Indian art landscape of the 1960s by formulating a new visual identity and method abstraction through deliberate distortion of form and imagery. He enriched the then contemporary art with unusual and fascinating works done through blowtorch (a portable device that produces hot flame) on wood; and ink drawings (some of them in black and white) that stood out for their startling content charged with imageries of eroticism, sickness, decay and death. In his amoeba-like works, he also attempted “surrealist doodling” that Gulammohammed Sheikh likened to “foetal darkness”.

In his search for a novel expression, he attacked the surface an artist would normally work on, by burning it with acetylene (a combustible gas) torch, hammering down nails on it, or puncturing wood surfaces with a network of small holes.

Himmat Shah (1933)

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Untitled

For Shah, who also studied at Sir J. J. School of Art (Mumbai) and M.S. University (Baroda), the journey towards an indigenous route of modern art began where he was born. The terracotta available in Gujarat’s Lothal village, which was one of the Harappan civilisation sites, has engaged him extensively throughout his career as a sculptor of “sublime perfection”. So much so that it is a preferred medium for him, seen in the vast sculpture series “Heads”, for example. He also created conventional round pots, urns, bottles and abstract sculptures.

While he saw himself primarily as a sculptor, he was a versatile artist, having interacted with European modernism during his stay in Paris for two years under a French government scholarship. He experimented across forms and medium, besides the sculpture, creating collages through burnt paper or cut-outs of printed text; monumental murals; and ink drawings of brilliant workmanship as well.

He developed the technique of the “singed paper” as he sat idle in an office waiting for a friend to arrive. All he needed was a cigarette and a paper; the pale brown marks of the burnt paper pleased him. Perhaps it offers an insight into his disinterest in the conventional styles of modern art-making.

Redappa Naidu (1932 – 1999)

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Untitled, 1987

For the Hyderabad-born artist, the definition of the modern in the Indian context was derived from reworking the Hindu Gods and Goddesses through different styles and perspectives, mostly rendered in free lines and dry brush strokes. That explains his series on epic mythologies Mahabharata and Ramayana in the mid-1970s. In his characteristic style of dry brushstrokes and free lines, he also painted a tableau of musicians on stage, which was part of a series. The annual December season of Carnatic music festival probably inspired the ‘Musicians’ series.

The other two artists that the exhibition showcases are Raghav Kaneria (1936) and Rajesh Mehra (1932). Gujarati sculptor Kaneria experimented with a lot of junk material and welding technique. An untitled bronze sculptor (image below) at DAG Modern shows a thin column rising from what appears to be a lingam as if to suggest energy flowing outwards from a small ellipsoid-looking form sacred to Hindus.

In the 1960s, Delhi-based artist Mehra embarked on a phase of calligraphic abstraction using letters of Urdu alphabet and geometric shapes on quasi-spiritual themes. It was an experimentation adopted by his colleagues (like Jyoti Bhatt) in ‘Group 1890’.  S.G. Nikam and Balkrishna Patel, who are not part of the show, were also members of the collective.

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(Raghav Kaneria, untitled bronze sculpture)