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)

Conclusion

One of the inescapable takeaways from this exhibition is the influence of Western modernism on Indian artists who sought to break away from an artistic idiom imposed by foreigners, including the colonisers. There is little insight in the show about whether these artists looked at this conflict with irony or dilemma, and what effect did it have on the larger politics of the Indian modern art movement. This is because the artists travelled a lot, in Europe and United States, which had already begun to witness significant artistic churning in the form of movements that questioned tradition.