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Celebrating Indian art in September

With Christies celebrating Asian Art Week, September 7 onwards, Uma Nair writes on the artworks of several Indian artists which are on display for exhibition and sale.

Christies South Asian Modern and Contemporary Sale in New York on September 13, has a coveted Gaitonde that looks more like a painted prayer. "Everything starts from silence," the Indian artist Vasudeo Santu Gaitonde (1924-2001) once said. "The silence of the brush, the silence of the canvas, the silence of the painting knife. The painter starts by absorbing all these silences... No one part of you is working there. Your entire being is."

"By the time of 1996's Untitled, we see a painter of great experience," says Nishad Avari Christies Head Specialist in Indian Art New York. 'There are elements here influenced by Indian miniature painting, for instance, such as the borders he paints down the left-and right-hand sides; the bright primary colours, too. The red is almost incandescent and is combined with what looks like an enigmatic, new language of yellow-gold hieroglyphs. "This is a canvas that provokes new discoveries with every viewing, showing the balance of light, texture, colour, and space that Gaitonde perfected over his career. It's attention-grabbing and yet also incredibly subtle.'
The date of the painting is also important. In 1984, Gaitonde had had a car crash that left him physically impaired for the rest of his life and inclined towards making small ink drawings on paper. Untitled of 1996 marked a short period of return to the large canvases of old.
Three riveting canvasses – 1958, 1959, and 1960 – catch your gaze at this evocative and expressionist sale of South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art at New York. Lots 411, 412 and 413 belong to the modernist Sayed Haider Raza. Raza's landscapes of the late 1950s and early 1960s were largely inspired by the rolling vistas and villages of rural France, which he encountered for the first time on his travels around the country.
Ciel Blue was painted a decade after Raza's arrival in France during a critical period where Raza's treatment of landscape was evolving. It is during this period that Raza borrows and adapts Expressionist and Post-Impressionist schools of art that he had experienced for the first time in Europe. Raza particularly credits the influence of Nicolas de Staël whose exhibition he had viewed while in Paris in the late 1950s. Observing that de Staël had become "very abstract, very sensual, very non-realistic. […] There was a whole lot of expression to be surveyed but what was important was that ultimately you came back to yourself." That is what Raza did, found himself in his colour pools.
Ram Kumar's Varanasi is a milestone in provenance and rarity. In 1960, Ram Kumar traveled to the pilgrimage center of Varanasi, now considered a pivotal moment in the artist's life and career. Previously dedicated to figuration - most often stark angular depictions of India's disenfranchised and marginal classes – after this trip Kumar turned to focus his creative energy on increasingly abstracted landscapes.
Souza's Still Life in Green – the Eucharist elements-his painting from 1963, illustrates a series of liturgical vessels and sacred objects, drawing from his experiences of the Roman Catholic Church as a child in Goa. Speaking about his fascination with the church and its ceremonies, the artist states, "The Roman Catholic Church had a tremendous influence over me, not its dogmas but its grand architecture and the splendour of its services [...] The wooden saints painted with gold and bright colours staring vacantly out of their niches. The smell of incense. And the enormous crucifix with the impaled image of a man supposed to be the Son of God, scourged and dripping, with matted hair tangled in plaited thorns." (E Mullins, Souza, London, 1962, p 42) There are also a few heady nudes.
Regarded as one of India's most talented surrealists, Bikash Bhattacharjee uses a photo-realistic technique to create macabre and often chimerical depictions of life in India, particularly through figures of the subaltern and women. His paintings typically feature implausible characters and sinister settings, constructed through the artist's meticulous balancing of colour, light, and shadow.
"Most of his pictures give a glimpse of a world that lies beyond the canvas which, on its part, ceases to be a quadrangular piece of linen and becomes a door leading to a world unknown – a world of immeasurable depth, haunted by mute, mysterious myrmidons of secretive, sulking souls." (A Banerjee, 'Exhibitions', Lalit Kala Contemporary, New Delhi, 1974, p 35).
B Prabha's 'Mother and Child 1976' is a delightful study of a universal symbolism, her fluid contours and melancholic magic flowing through the bronzed body.
Manjit Bawa's command of colour and space creates truly mesmerizing compositions in Cow and Krishna and Cow. His "[...] free flowing, arabesque figures, both human and animal, are almost like personifications of fragments of thoughts, ideas, of words and poetry that are introduced into a rational real world by him." (A Vadehra, Let's Paint the Sky Red: Manjit Bawa, New Delhi, 2011, p 7)
Bawa renews and reinvigorates the traditional language of miniature paintings using stylized forms on a uniformly colored background. Bawa's luminescent monochromatic realities do not represent a void, nor are they merely a formal mechanism or tableau, but a tangible entity which is as central to the work as the figures suspended within it.
Through her sculptural practice, Meera Mukherjee perfected a version of the Dhokra 'lost wax' method of casting bronze she learnt from the tribal communities of Bastar in Madhya Pradesh, a technique that became entirely her own.
Her inventive process and approach consisted of sculpting the works first in wax and then building up the surface with wax strips and rolls, to give an intricately detailed and tactile finish to the bronze in which they were eventually cast. Despite the rigidity and harshness of the metal, her sculptures maintain a delicate malleability that imbues them with a dynamic sense of rhythm.
Meera's world in bronze is full of movement. The viewers' eyes do not only follow the flowing contours of the figures but also the patterns, lineatures, and ornamentations animating the surfaces of her bronze sculptures.
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