When Google recently celebrated 130 years of the artist Jamini Roy, it put the spotlight on India's first modernist. To look at works by Jamini Roy is to be drawn into the frame of simplicity and the lingua franca of folk idioms, set amidst rural idylls of Bengal. His dimly lit figures rise above pigments of pure colour, nestled between lithe lines. Peaceful emotive expressions seem to kindle human emotions as if flickering from the inside. This is the kinetic energy of modern master Jamini Roy, who could make a woman look surprisingly simple yet sensual, hidden within the folds of her sari. Women, boys and men, and tales from the Ramayana as well as of Mary and Christ, are the cornerstones of his creations, offering a rich and rustic palette that conjures a luxurious yet pristine scene: one where the art of drawing is akin to a ritual.
Of course, 130 years on, Indian contemporary art has found its market, and global recognition worldwide, with artists from the progressive school to young contemporaries like Jitish Kallat and Subodh Gupta and a host of others finding their own collectors and dealers alike, all over the globe. Artists like Sudip Roy, who won the Florence Biennale, echo the marvels of Da Vinci in his wash creation of Christ with thorns. Interest in contemporary Indian art practices goes back to more than five decades with buyers finding interest in the works of Bikash Bhattacharjee, Jogen Chowdhury and many more.
In 1993 when the Husain-Doshi ni Gufa opened at Ahmedabad, the American collectors Chester and David Herwitz came to watch the fanfare, as MF Husain opened the Gufa as a museum. While Husain sped between India's states and cities like London and Dubai, there was Bengal's great teacher, Bikash Bhattacharjee, creating canvasses and sketches in his own little studio. "He would make more than a 100 sketches or portraits every day," says student Sanjay Bhattacharya. "I wish I had learnt that discipline."
In the 1980s, Bikash Bhattacharjee rejected traditional themes in pursuit of emotionally charged and visually direct depictions of contemporary life, such as street scenes of Calcutta. After graduating from art school, Bhattacharjee encountered American artist Andrew Wyeth's paintings for the first time, recalling the way "…the differences of country, period and characters melted away." Bhattacharjee became an avid collector of books on Wyeth, and he continued to explore Wyeth's brush techniques and thematic preferences. Bhattacharjee shared Wyeth's dramatic handling of light and shadow, creating scenes sympathetic in their compositional techniques and tonal gradations. The Peabody Essex Museum owned Bikash's poignant work 'Durga' (1985) – a masterpiece in the art of portraiture.
In the same show in the Chesta and David collection was a work of equal vintage value – Jogen Chowdhury's 'Gaanpati the Warrior' (1977), and another work called 'Couple'. His 'Gaanpati the Warrior' executed in 1977 is a jewel beyond compare for its fluid lines and its attractive fervour of blending the spiritual and the sensual. The charismatic contour of Jogen Chowdhury always has this ability to draw you into its maw. "There is a tremendous power in the stillness of the subject, a force which is no less than apparently a matter in great speed. Stillness is a form of speed while not in force. A certain tension is essential in artwork which is the result of the total effect of composition, colour, rhythm or sensitive lines," said Jogen Chowdhury to this critic years ago. Also in this blue chip collection was 'In Sequence' (1981) - by the mandarin of the metaphor Tyeb Mehta. Tyeb's flat colours and his shifting planes created a corollary that reflected the resonance of an all-time genius who created art for his own journey of inner and outer references. Inspiration from real life in volatile regions can bring new meaning to what it feels to be a troubled artist. And Tyeb Mehta spent many years in the contemplation of suffering. He condensed long histories of violence and melancholia into the most austere forms; he delivered the freight of trauma through isolated figures delineated in planes of flat colours that vibrate against one another without discreet intervals of tonal shading.
Fast forward to the present day scenario – the famed Manida – KG Subramanyan – who was a mentor to six generations of students in Shantiniketan and Baroda – passed away leaving a yawning gap in the lifestyles of pedagogues in art colleges all over the country.
Manida's exhibition held at Aakriti Art Gallery in Delhi was a testimony to his genius, his avid cerebral wit and his unending passion for the drawn line. A radical who often debated Western notions of art criticism he didn't believe in Seneca's words that 'Art is long, life is short.' Among all his works shown and reflected upon, it is his gods and goddesses at 'Project 88' that remain in the memory for the brilliance of composition and modern reckonings in myth and traditions.
While art moves in leaps and bounds, it is the czar of Indian interior design, Rajeev Sethi, who spoke multiple languages in his conception of 'Jaya he' at T2 Mumbai Airport, as an art corridor that transcended indigenous as well as contemporary art practices, when he juxtaposed different languages and crafts to create a seamless flow of journeys in myriad sensibilities. Rooted in pride for the subcontinent's varied heritage and its legacy of creative enterprises, 'Jaya he!' has become a symbol of public private partnership (PPP) for a nation determined to enhance its rich history.
In Delhi, NGMA's recent celebration of 63 years nailed the idea of sculptors being practitioners of teaching as well as their own credo of creating within their own orbits. Devi Prasad Roy Chowdhury and Ram Kinkar Baij stand tall as India's indigenous modernists who created for nourishing their own nectar of thoughts. In an age where artists in colleges do not want to draw and are using technology to translate images onto canvases, without creating human figures with their bare hands, this show, ITIHAAS, gives lessons on the power of originality and the credulous continuity of human hands in fashioning sculpture. With sculptors using resin and plastic and synthetic materials to fabricate sculptures, bronze as a medium is being pushed to the periphery and the language of multiplication and appropriation is taking over the ideation of originality. The Internet has spawned a cut-copy-paste generation and the art world now thrives on the word 'inspiration' being used to simply state an aping.