Born in the 1920s, Partition and India's Modernists are a heady study in the evolution of Indian contemporary art practices that went beyond Western dictates and dynamics. In an interview to me in 2016, Sayed Haider Raza reminisced about the desire to begin anew, to produce a complex, deeply satisfying texture of harmony from apparently diverse talents and richness of memories. In 2005, Tyeb Mehta told me, "Partition brought with it a double-edged sword of experiences and hopes for us, my desire was to find a special timbre and resolution to create an indigenous language. I think we were connected by the collective effort, we had a certain solidarity. Partition helped us to become individuals in our own right without the burden of the academic realism of the West!"
Then there was the writer, essayist and maverick Francis Newton Souza, who believed that Partition was about exploring the new, the novel, defined by emotional nuances as well as visual kinetics. If Souza wanted to create the grotesque, the gentle Ram Kumar went to Paris and created his angst filled Modigiliani like faces full of melancholia. And, the grand old mentor of Indian firmament K G Subramanyan, who wove in metaphors and literary allusions to create stories within stories. Each of these artists explored a specific range of evocative and emotional nuances, they anchored their own visual interests to conceptual and geographical issues; to create art that was born of grand patterns as well as incidental details.
Souza's Heads & landscapes
The art of the grotesque was masterfully articulated by Francis Newton Souza (born 1924), whose work reached its apogee while he lived in London in the '50s. He was best known for his inhuman heads with eyes placed over the forehead and gnashing teeth made with slashing, stabbing strokes. Souza's Christ figures emerged from his childhood experience of a rigid, hypocritical Roman Catholic Church and society in his birthplace, Goa. Influenced by Bacon in his eroticised violence, the Heads he created were at once monarchial, as well as magnificent even though symbols of dread and savage emotions. In his landscapes too, while the solid lines divided the skyline, the cross was an imperative part of the landscape that throbbed with colour and verve.
Tyeb Mehta's Falling Figures
Tyeb Mehta (born 1925) was deeply influenced by the flat lines and divisional planes of the work of Francis Bacon. He conveyed the angst of existence while his fragmented forms, which remain intact while suspended in tension, symbolised survival against great odds. Yashodara Dalmia has stated that Tyeb's imagery was born out of his experience of Partition. In his Mahishasura images of Goddess Kali locked in battle with the buffalo demon, Tyeb was interlocking the masculine and feminine, the divine and the mortal, the bestial and the human in perpetual coexistence.
S H Raza (born 1922), took two elements from nature – amidst many others – the blue moon and the night sky in the forests of Madhya Pradesh, as his focus. In both cases, it was as though he were celebrating a rare sighting: the true and unforced image of the incandescent insignia of nature. Between solar and lunar realms, post-Independence, he renounced his lavish Kashmir landscapes, in favour of the resonant symbolism to translate organic processes of germination, growth, decay and resurgence into the geometry of the Sublime. While he translated the landscape into deep colour saturations of abstract pictorial space, Raza invoked the theme of fertility through elements like bija or seed, the bindu or focal source which defined his private mythology of muses.
Subramanyan's dramas of the self
The mentor and the metaphorist, K G Subramanyan's (born 1924) paintings painted a prism of dramas of the private self, of a secret life of fantasy. A consummate storyteller, Subramanyan peopled his universe with hybrid characters from mythology, real life and literature. He orchestrated characters. One of his finest series was of his gods and goddesses. Durga could be a woman in domestic interiors, household animals acted as spirit familiars, everyday objects developed into animated actors. Gentle wit and mordant satire combined in his portraiture of women, his Ravana wore a triangular headdress while his Shiva was a modern character, every bit attractive and agile.
Ram Kumar's international insignia
Ram Kumar (born 1924) shared with his confreres, in Delhi's Silpi Chakra and Bombay's Progressive Artists Group during the 1950s, the internationalist dream of working in an art language that would be as comprehensible in London or Paris as in New Delhi or Mexico City. Between 1949 and 1952, Ram Kumar studied with Andre Lhote and Fernand Leger in Paris, and joined the French Communist Party; on his return, the feeling grew on him that he was destined to be a resident alien everywhere. Since the 1960s, Ram Kumar's paintings opened out in sweeps of ochre, viridian and aquamarine, as he mounted his contemplations of the cosmic cycle of creation, dissolution and regeneration. But in his paintings of the last two decades, a residual geography and a notational architecture crept into the grandeur of the silent yet deeply introspective universe: human habitation was defined by the absence and presence of certain motifs that spoke of life as well as decadence and death. He hated being called an abstractionist because he considered himself a modernist in the study of landscapes that traversed the universe.
You could gaze at Raza's symbolic articulation and Subramanyan's narrative and figurative concerns, you could brood along with Ram Kumar's flaming melancholia or sink into Tyeb Mehta's metaphoric meanderings – each one was defined by their own trajectory. Significantly, all five artists were born in the 1920s: witnesses to when Gandhi directed the energies of colonial India's subject population into the project of liberation from imperial rule. This was also the era in which the emerging international modernisms of Europe began to become available, and Indian artists could move away from the pieties of academic realism, the mandates of topography and the calendar art seductions of the picturesque. Partition paved the way to parallel processes of political and artistic emancipation.