In the 1960s KCs Panicker, the founder of the Cholamandal Artists' Village used to ask his students at Madras College of Fine Arts and Crafts to look closely at the atavistic masks of the scarecrows in the paddy fields for inspiration. the makers of these scarecrows with totemic and mythic attributes were farmers who were following the tribal tradition: they thought of the scarecrows as guardian angels for their crops. the late painter, responsible in part for the move towards modernity in the south, believed that their 'primitive' configurations would give his students new ways of seeing - and hopefully a new pictorial order and vocabulary.
Several luminaries of twentieth century European art were marked by their encounter with the primitive and folk art of West and North Africa, the south seas, India and the Far East. It was a eureka moment in the summer of 1907, when Pablo Picasso first saw West African tribal masks in the trocadero Museum of Ethnology (now the Musee de l'Homme) in Paris. Later, the painter remarked that this sighting was pivotal to his art. It was a major catalyst in his journey to cubism.
Stressing the importance of this encounter with African masks, the Paris-and-Cholamandal-based painter Viswanadhan (incidentally one of Panicker's students directed to the scarecrows in the fields near Chennai) says: "Picasso analyzed, synthesized, appropriated them and then moved forward." He had found his path.
Picasso's seminal Les Demoiselles D'Avignon (1907) was his way forward. the painting marks the beginning of modern art, and a definitive break with the past: the faces of two of the five female figures in the work are like frightening masks. It shook the art world, sending out shock waves amongst the arterati of the times. Andre Breton, the guru of the surrealists, considered the painting to be about "the revolutionary menace of the unconscious."
During the last century the shock of the old made an indigent route to modernity in India possible. Modernity, whether it pertains to clothing, lifestyle, writing, art - indeed to any of the other creative arts - has been a tricky issue. For long, being modern meant being westernized. Certainly, this has been the case in Indian art in the post-colonial era. Indian artists largely took Western Modernism and its isms (fauvism, cubism, impressionism, post-impressionism and abstract expressionism among others) as the yardstick to measure the artistic worth of their work, both in their eyes and in those of others.
The advent of the Progressive Artist's Group (PAG) in Mumbai in 1947, intellectually spear-headed by F. N. souza with M. F. Husain, s. H. Raza, K. H. Ara, s. K. Gade and H. A. Bakre in the core group, helped privilege western modernism in a newly independent India. It was the only way 'to go forward' according to souza. For the PAG and its adherents European artists of the time, particularly in Paris, were at the vanguard of twentieth century modernism.
Meanwhile, there were earlier, older voices in India that urged artists to evolve an indigenous modernity by turning away from European models and seek inspiration in home-grown art and classical traditions. Back to the future, if you will. Jamini Roy, whose landscapes and portraits in the 1920s were clearly influenced by Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, did a volte-face when he came across Kalighat patachitras. He turned away from modern Western styles and was arguably the first to seize upon the idea of folk art and crafts as an alternative to them. His stylized, heavily-outlined figures with their huge eyes were a deliberate nod to Kalighat pats in Kolkata.
the winds of change had also been blowing from santiniketan: its towering stalwarts like Ram Kinkar Baij, who incorporated elements of santhal tribal art into his sculptures and influenced generations of artists at Kala Bhavan, including A.Ramachandran. K.G. subramanyan's days as a student in santiniketan indelibly marked him: his exposure to folk and tribal art played a crucial role in his evolution as an artist and teacher.
The late sculptor Meera Mukherjee was deeply influenced by and worked closely, from early 1960s, with the traditional sculptors of the Bastar tribe: she learned the dhokra casting of bell metal (the lost wax method) from them.
Jagdish swaminathan's contact with tribal artists of Madhya Pradesh in the sixties brought about a fundamental shift in his painting. He was seduced by indigenous abstraction and geometrical forms - as were V. Viswanadhan and Biren De. s. H. Raza was to come to indigenous abstractions years later, after his abstract expression phase in the late 1970s, with his signature Bindu.
In their writings both subramanyan and swaminathan advocated the search for an indigenous grammar for Indian artists. In the manifesto of the Group 1890, founded by swaminathan in 1962, he urged artists to reject the 'hybrid mannerisms' of European modernism. Later in his magazine Contra, published in 1966 with the involvement of legendary Mexican poet octavio Paz, swaminathan questioned the existing approach to modernity.
Symbols based on geometry are not only capable of a multi-layered significance; they can also, according to restorer and author Rupika Chawla, 'penetrate time and cultural barriers from the traditional to the folk and from the tribal to the contemporary'. such symbols can 'mutate without losing their essence'.
This exhibition, curated by shobha Bhatia of Gallerie Ganesha and titled Roots-Routes, focuses on ten artists who straddle different generations and genres of painting and sculpture. Following in the footsteps of Jamini Roy and others, these painters and sculptors have explored and experimented with Indian traditional art - classical, miniature, indigenous abstraction, tantra, folk and tribal. Doing so allowed them to find a new visual vocabulary to express themselves. they continue to give these traditions contemporary validity while simultaneously engaging with international modernism.
Sohan Qadri, the late, Punjab-born artist, began to paint after years of tantric yoga and meditation in the
Himalayas and tibet. His mesmerizing canvases and works on paper, predominantly monochromes, bring
to mind Mark Rothko's meditative colours. Yet, their innate vibrancy and spiritual potency, not to speak of
his signature dot, owe more to Indian tantra art. Like Biren De, Ghulam Rasool santosh and Jagdish
swaminathan, he turned to a form of abstraction inspired by Indian tantra art, the symbolic interplay of circles,
triangles and squares. souza saw Qadri's Neo-tantric paintings as symbolic representations of the 'serpent
power' - of the Kundalini.
Dipak Banerjee's journey to his aesthetic roots in India began in Paris, where he had gone in 1965 to study at the Ecole Des Beaux Arts, Hayter Atelier. the Paris sojourn of the Neo-tantric painter triggered an interest in Indian philosophy and spiritually. It eventually led him to use motifs and geometrical symbols from traditional Jain, Buddhist and tantric art. His borrowings from traditional iconography, however, were re-interpreted and contextualized, and given a personal and modernist twist. this is evident in his work shiv-Parbati: an intriguingly coiled serpent (quasi-calligraphic) and a many-armed goddess cozily co-exist with Banerjee's abstract spaces.
Banerjee: 'I am no tantric but gradually moved to the tantric mode of self-realization. I picked up tantric symbolic motifs like Purusa, Prakriti,Vishnu and Kundalini which presented the spiritual content in art. so the journey which began in Paris got its final direction in the lanes of Benaras.'
Shobha Broota, like many other artists, followed the artist-pilgrim's journey from academic drawings to nonrepresentational
art - her geometric abstractions approximate the cosmic imagery of tantra art. the painter uses meditation to tap into the rich repository of images in the 'collective unconscious' for inspiration. Her canvases with dots and geometrical forms appear to vibrate, movement captured but not stilled in paint. the bindu, according to her is not 'a dead dot': 'It vibrates. It is like a seed, the beginning of creation.'
Some years ago a group of Buddhist monks walked into Broota's showâ€¦and kept returning. one of them finally told her that what she had painted on her canvases was exactly what they saw when they meditated.
Broota: 'My work is meditation - a journey in colour and movements. During meditation I see circles and colours within circles or spirals. If you watch nature you feel these forces, the geometry, vibrations are all there.'
Haku Shah has endearingly smudged the boundaries between art and craft, between tribal artists and 'modern' artists, and between the past and the present. Impressed by the timeless, magical quality of the images in the works of the Rani Paraj tribe that he came across while teaching at the Gandhi Ashram in Gujarat, he began to study tribal rituals and culture. their influence can be seen in the oeuvre of the Gandhian painter-scholar.
Shah's stylized paintings of pastoral scenes with their bold, defining contours on flat pictorial spaces are deceptively simple. His blue shepherds, cows, birds and men with flutes have a sense of universality and timelessness about them. they can readily travel to other cultures.
A. Ramachandran's paintings of the sixties and the early seventies are full of the anger of youth - a cri de coeur against social injustice and oppression. the early work - headless, contorted torsos and sober palette - shows the veteran artist's adherence to academic realism and the Modernist movement in Europe. However, it wasn't long before he began to search for an indigenous route to modernity, bypassing the isms of western art. The painter-sculptor's study of Kerala temple murals and kalamezhuttu (paintings on the floor in Kerala) provided new insights about paint application: he began to paint layers of unmixed colours, each layer altered by the previous one. Ramachandran created his own mythic, often sensuously potent universe, peopled by the Bhils who live in villages near udaipur.
Folk and tribal art have played a significant role in Arpana Caur's journey as a painter and sculptor. Whenever she wants to infuse some universal truths or a sense of wonder into her work she takes elements from Warli, Gond or Mithila tribal art, including godna tatoos from Madhya Pradesh. Caur does not merely usurp, she collaborates with the artists, often making them co-signatories on the canvases. In this dialogue between tradition and modernity, Caur impresses upon the tribal artists to get over their inhibitions about negative, empty, spaces. Asked what drew her to folk and tribal art, she says: 'It was the Warli circle dance. Nature creates and destroys. It creates a thread of the dance of life. It works like time, like a pebble thrown in water and the ripples go outward, like a take-off point.'
In her paintings Jayasri Burman, initially a print-maker, creates a personal, pictorially busy mythical universe, largely inhabited by goddess-like women, and fecund with fauna and flora. some are hybrid beings: a mermaid with a woman's head, body of fish and a swan's head instead of tail. Burman doesn't set out to paint mythological figures. she paints the women she sees around her. But they metamorphose into goddess on her canvases and in her sculptures. 'When I do a painting, like a lady lazily sitting with a paan, the personality comes out like a goddess. she has the same grace, aura.'
Burman was influenced by the stories she heard as a child about goddesses like Durga, Kali, Saraswati, as well as from the Mahabharata. the influence went beyond content to technique. As a child she observed the artisans who made the pooja pandals and Kali figures.
'I observed that they only do the eyes on the last day -
to give the figure pran - at night, when it is quiet. I too
have to put in the eyes at night.' Unlike his
contemporaries who were influenced by modern European art, Satish Gujral
preferred to paint in
a neo-realist style. Perhaps, the fact that he studied at the Mayo school of Art in Lahore, where he learned carpentry, woodcarving, clay moulding and drawing, propelled him down a path different from the Progressives. His meeting with Mexican muralist Diego Rivera reinforced his conviction that the boundaries between fine art and craft had to be brought down.
'In different phases of evolution of my work as a painter and sculptor I have been influenced by varied techniques and concepts which led me to experiment in diverse materials. the influences came from conscious observation or by the encounter with the objects - leading to the adoption of the techniques, mediums and forms from diverse sources, which in my case include folk, tribal and simply the modern and contemporary.'
During his days at the Baroda school of Fine Arts, Laxma Goud was undoubtedly influenced by his teacher .
K.G. subramanyan - not just by the prevalent emphasis on narrative figuration but the latter's interest in folk and tribal culture. A versatile artist adept at a range of mediums (printmaking, watercolours, gouache, glass painting and sculpture) Hyderabad-based Goud, focused on rural life in Andhra Pradesh, particularly the village women. Explicitly erotic, his early work expressed the raw sexuality of men, women and animals. Goud's erotic rural fantasy is reminiscent of Picasso's hybrid figures of mythology. In his recent paintings his figures - more sculptural and iconic - have been placed in the foreground.
Born and brought up in sanjaya village in Northern Gujarat, Madhvi Parekh, a self-taught artist, was initially inspired by the folk traditions of picture -making of Gujarat. Folklore and epics were also her take-off point. Later, her exposure to modern European art led her to shed some of the norms of folk art. However, she never abandoned the traditional flat surface of folk art. Nor did she do away with its decorative elements which she used in different contexts, and in a contemporary manner. Her husband, painter Manu Parekh, describes her as a 'contemporary artist with a rural sensibility.'
Paradoxically, it seems, the way forward is through the past. Primitive art is widely thought to mirror a universal phase of primeval consciousness still embedded in the unconscious mind. tapping into folk and tribal art and its atavistic memories and pictorial symbolism is like tapping into psychoanalyst Carl Jung's notion of a collective unconscious. It brings you face to face with primal encounters with nature.
- Madhu Jain
Journalist and Art Writer
DIPAK BANERJEE (b. 1936)
He got his diploma in Fine Arts in 1957 from Government College of Arts & Crafts, Kolkata. He got a scholarship from the French Government in 1965 and worked at the Ecole Beaux Arts and Atelier 17 in Paris till 1967 and Atelier Nord, Oslo in 1976-77. He has participated in the Tokyo Biennale, Sao Paulo, Norwegion, Krakow, Lublijana Biennale and 1st, 4th, and 7th Trienniale, New Delhi. He is very proficient in Printmaking. Tantric symbols are the predominent theme in his work.
Shobha Broota (b. 1943)
Shobha completed her Diploma in Fine Arts (Painting) from College of Art, New Delhi in 1964. She has held over 15 solo shows of her works in India and abroad during 1982 to 2006. She has participated in group shows at Singapore, Chicago, Sydney, London, Hungary, Poland, Italy, as well as 6th Triennale India; Asian European Art Biennale Turkey. She has received awards from AIFACS, New Delhi in 1982 and Sahitya Kala Parishad, New Delhi in 1986; Scholarship by Ministry of Culture in 1982-85.
Jayasri Burman (b.1960)
Jayasri studied at the Kala Bhavan, Santiniketan and at the Government College of Arts and Crafts, Kolkata. She has also worked under the graphic artists Krishna Reddy and Paul Lingren. Burman has exhibited her works at Gallerie Ganesha, New Delhi, the Birla Academy of Art and Culture, Kolkata and Chitrakoot Art Gallery, Kolkata. She has also participated in the Bharat Bhavan Biennale, Bhopal, in 1986 and the International Triennale, "Intergraphic", in Germany, in 1987.
Arpana Caur (b. 1954)
She has held solo and group shows since 1974. Awarded by AIFACS in 1985. Gold Medal in Vlth Triennale. Research grant for painting in Garhi Studio from Lalit Kala Akademi 1985. Museum collections include National Gallery of Modern Art Delhi, Chandigarh Museum, Ethnographic Museum Stockholm, Kunst Museum Dusseldorf, Bradford Museum, Victoria Albert Museum, U.K., Glenbarra Museum Japan, Hiroshima Museum of Modern Art Japan, Singapore Museum of Modern Art, Deutsche Banks, Rockefeller Collection, New York. Arpana has executed 10 non-commercial murals from 1981 to 2005 in public spaces in Delhi, Hamburg and Bangalore on the theme of environment.
Laxma Goud (b. 1940)
Laxma Goud studied at the College of Fine Arts and Architecture in Hyderabad and at the M.S. University, Baroda. Since his first solo show in 1965 in Hyderabad, Goud has exhibited widely, both within and outside India, including at the Ansdell Gal London, in 1973, in Hamburg, Germany (1975 and 1976), at the Sao Paolo Biennale, Brazil, in 1977, the Royal Academy, London, in 1982, the Grey Art Gallery, New York, in 1985 and at the 'Festival of India' in Geneva, 1987, Goud's works are in many collections including the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, the Salarjung Museum, Hyderabad and the Glenbarra Museum, Japan.
Satish Gujral (b. 1925)
Satish Gujral was born in Punjab and trained at the Mayo School of Art in Lahore, the Sir J.J. School Mumbai and the Palacio National de Belle Arts in Mexico. In 1952, he served as an apprentice to Diego Riviera. Gujral is well known as a painter, a sculptor, a muralist, an architect and a writer. The Government honoured him with the Padma Vibhushan in 1999, He was awarded Order of the Crown by the Belgian Government for designing the Belgian Embassy in New Delhi, Mexico's Da Vinci Foundations International Award in the year 1991 and Deshkottama award, highest honour conferred in the year 1998 by Shantiniketan.
Madhvi Parekh (b. 1942)
Self-taught Madhvi Parekh draws on a diverse range of sources for her works - childhood memory, women's craft, folk art and the paintings of Paul Klee. She uses intense colour and flat two-dimensional figures in landscapes that are stylized and decorative. Parekh's work resembles folk art, yet it does not draw from any one specific folk tradition. Often, fact mixes with fantasy in Parekh's works creating a sense of whimsy.
Sohan Qadri (1932-2011)
He was a yogi, poet and a painter from India who has lived in Copenhagen for the past 30 years. His paintings result from states of deep meditation, and are informed by the colors of India: luminous, dye-infused works on meticulously serrated paper. Over his long career, Qadri has interacted with a wide array of cultural figures including Surrealist painter Rene Magritte, Nobel laureate Heinrich Boll, and architect Le Corbusier. He has had more than 70 exhibitions in the United States, Europe, Asia, and Africa.
A. RAMACHANDRAN (b. 1935)
Born in Kerala, A. Ramachandran studied at Santiniketan after taking his Master's degree in Malayalam Literature. He has participated In numerous exhibitions including one at the Lallt Kala Akademi, New Delhi, in 1977, the Royal Academy of Arts, London, in 1982, and the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, in 1982. His works have been represented at the Biennales of Tokyo Menton, Sao Paolo and Havana. He received The Noma Concours Award in 1978 and 1980, for the children's book he wrote and illustrated.