Inventing/Inverting Traditions: Grosvenor Vadehra

14 December 2006 - 14 January 2007

Revert/ Invert: Via Traditions or, the Edges of Modernism


Modernism was to be universal; its promises were spelt out in varied forms. They were to be carried out via the double edged means of modernization, and then modernity would come, we were told, in quaint and acceptable utopic terms.


These are thoughts of the past eras. Modern, as it appears to us now is a set of differences played out in a variegated, undefined and as yet unformulated field of thoughts and actions.


With the wane of the universal and centrist idea of 'modern', localized and received efforts came to the fore, which in yester-year terms might seem only tales of reception and/or effects. They, today, work within the same field, which unites them, but, the irony is present as ever.


In India, a long-standing engagement has existed with the belief in the universal aspects of the 'modern', especially in art, since art has addressed the universal through a language that gained world-wide currency, historically, by the end of the second decade of the twentieth century and lingered on for about four more decades. Abstract though it may sound, this is, in a nutshell, the story of the received modernism in India


The Forties progressive avant-garde harnessed the anxiety of universal modern from an essentially urban location.

There were plays of zeal, and youthful eagerness to prove the mettle of being an Indian and being part of the world at the same time.


The scenario started changing during the 60s, when young experimentalists engaged in and found differences with this general acceptance of universal modernism. This engagement and difference with the immediate past ushered in an era that forms a significant signpost for the Indian modernism, via narratives and otherwise.


As a result of the protracted engagement with various visual traditions, a richer and differentiated field of language consciousness emerged, a consciousness that treats art as a special communicative field and believes any tradition to be a matter of shared signs, codes and values. Thereafter, a quest for an indigenous identity would only seem natural, forming a sub stream in the field of art.


Indian modernity, in its postcolonial ethos, is a search for identity; and, unlike the period preceding it is not-unilocal and confidently contextual. Hence, there are many contexts and fragments via which the desire for the earlier quest for the universal gets routed.

A number of artists, at locations as varied as Delhi, Baroda, Santiniketan and Calcutta worked under a direct or indirect influence of this indigenist impulse.


At a remove, if we cast a fresh glance at this newly emergent situation, we see a widespread disappointment with the euphoric and heroic urban modern, leading to a reengagement with the untapped resources. Artists who started their career then, in a true sense, encountered the euphoria of nation building in its ebb, they found out that every heroic form has its end. The concern over the language overtook many other issues in a big way. Along with this a fresh attention was paid to the human figure, a move that helped artists explore the possibilities beyond the institutional limbo.


Gulam Sheikh, Nilima Sheikh and Bhupen Khakhar, later known as a part of the larger group called the Baroda School, would gradually show up this tendentious pull to narrative, for what was harnessed in the theory and practices were the yet untapped 'storytelling' that forms the mainstay of communication in India. The narrative current was pervasive by the seventies; several artists started exploring the narrative method as a great deal richer and better communicative device.

Across the schools and institutions these spread to different locations, we have Sudhir Patwardhan, Jogen Chowdhury and Arpita Singh who have continued with that aspect for a while now.


Things were to work out within this fresh discovery of narrative; currents that sought to explore the variegated aspects of narration as the mainstay of Indian cultural practices.



At a different level, the variegated aspects of culture were discovered to be a signpost for the representation of the Indian, as against the canonical. The popular and the folk were some among them.


Bhupen Khakhar was at the spearhead to explore the popular in a different vein, initially with his colleagues in Baroda; he later found a sub route via his subjective currents. At one level it was pure subjectivity; at another it was associated with the social. For instance his parables of a Good Samaritan played out via an Indian parable of a father and a son carrying a sack of salt, almost made the original stand on its head. Similarly his takes on detective fiction would make the masters of that genre turn in their graves.  Bhupen's experiential takes were on various personal encounters that he had in the hinterland of hard reality and fantasy. These encounters were with his friends and colleagues who he met several times during his sojourns through the alleys by his leisure hours and also during his intimate discussions on art with them. He has recounted these in his tales and pictures time and again. His paintings thus form accents to those personal and transpersonal suggestive veins that stand out in the postcolonial search and rediscovery of identity and subjectivity in India.


There were many other aspects about the sub terrains of culture that were to be explored and eventually were explored via the route of the popular and/ or in folk imagery- as in Subramanyan or, in Sheikh; this continues to be support for many of the artists from within the representational practices today. In the works of these artists, they do reveal the historically self-conscious in them.


Mrinalini's, on the other hand, is a mythic take, only via essences of traditions, of lures and lore that seem available to her mentality. Mrinalini discovered her route to the Indian tradition via her engagements with the Baroda art fair, where she was introduced to weaving, which forms her chief source of expression till date. The formality of the institution thus took different turns for different people, often by many unpredictable routes.


Nilima, similarly, has explored various historical routes; she has explored the Chinese landscapes, The Santiniketan Masters, like Binodebehari, Nandalal and also the Japanese traditions- unlike many Indian artists. Her works are almost always informed by multiple codes that exist just below the surface, as desires would behind a pallid face.


Nilima plays out her subjectivity through various sub routes like the Sufi or, the Bhakti engagements via the Southern traditions of Akka Mahadevi, or of North via Mirabai and Agha Sayeed Ali, or via her own experiences of desires and restrictions, through the poetic traditions. The pictorial space is thus a vast catenae of desires, much like a flowing river or a vast sky would be for a Baramasa poet.


Arpita Singh's personalized view of the interiority and the vulnerabilities of women, similarly takes us into the world of the intimate, the world that is informed by memory of the daily and the ordinary. Madhvi Parekh, on the other hand, uses a folkish style to narrate an admixture of fantasy and reality, entangled in an inseparable manner.


Indian modernism thus has encompassed a great deal of subjective currents to have arrived at a poignant dialogic point. The plethora of challenges that it throws up to the viewer is not only via attenuated and precise viewing points, but also via those vents where definitions are scarce.


Ramachandran forms one such avenue: he who was so enamored of the works of the Mexican muralists of early twentieth century in his early phase, changed his direction and reverted to his earlier engagements with the Kerala Mural, is an interesting sign to consider.


Similar, yet a different and social story telling would inform many others in the Indian modernist lore, Sudhir Patwardhan, one among them, has his starting point as well as a continuum of engagement with the everyday urban reality. His referencing of the pictorial tradition is a pretext to show the collage of mismatched reality and desires of an Industrial urban Indian location like Bombay. He has been also engaged with the experiential - with the transforming landscapes taken over by the state and the contractors for a laissez faire openness. He is thus now poised to take on a past via a past master he admires- Binodebehari, for its presence in figuration.


A more personalized take informed some of the other painters like Anjolie Ela Menon, who would recount her personal encounters, above all, to talk of her routes and traces.


There were moments in the Indian contemporary art practices when abstraction started gaining currency, Kolte, apart from being a pedagogue, belongs to the second generation of those abstractionists, whose works and sensibility are close to a mute but intimate poesies, where surfaces and substance get into a dialogue.


Paramjit always explored a dreamlike state via his engagement with nature, bereft of human presence, even the cast shadows in his paintings do not seem to belong to the material realm.


Ganesh Pyne was somebody who was counted as a reclusive character, whose introvert nature would help him organize the world around him via a personal conduit. His orientation was formed by his engagements with the Bengal Masters like Abanindranath and Gaganendranath; most of his early works grew out of fragmentary understandings of both of these artists and the Europeans, like Rembrandt and Halls, who he admired.  His personal encounters/ interactions with violence at a tender age formed the dark background he still uses, while the language was formed while doing animations.


Jogen Chowdhury could not be complete without his classic works like tiger in a moonlit night or, on an aside with his later metaphorical retakes on the ordinary and everyday. His takes on the apparently unchanging metaphor of an ever constant present would stay alive through the works that he produces now- his small and vulnerable figures with backs sutured or, figures with enormous suppleness are containers of the world around.


The social did come up in a big way during the sixties as well: within that you can place the encounters with the obdurate: Manu Parekh and Broota form a duo within this show wherein you could possibly visualize a current of thought getting realized- set of anxieties not fulfilled a set of issues not being addressed by the nation or the state.


Parekh referred to the Bhagalpur Riots and the blinding of the innocents and then to the Babri issues via his fragmentary devices while Broota has his language of mockery developed from his early days: wherein he devised figures of chimps as metaphors to suggest follies in a post independence democracy.


It would be also interesting to see how the social features in the metaphoric of paintings- Sheikh had explored the literal via very direct representation of a slave in the city during the late fifties, by the later years he portrayed his homecoming from within the referential hold, between the experiential and the textual.

 He has gone through many phases of narratives to have arrived at a point of sublimation today, through which he explores both the social and the spiritual essences of multiplicity of belonging. His was an allegorical journey, exploring spaces in their timed aspects, turning the entire canvas into a play of viewpoints, into an experience of many cultures and locations.



Overall, the fragments of the narratives of Modern in India has got an advantage, it doesn't offer a single resting place but are constantly moving entities between points and pathways; a tale at large, of how at the end of an abstract universal concept, an increasingly self-conscious local took root.



Anshuman Dasgupta


Anshuman did his B.F.A (1990) and MA (1992) in Art History from Santiniketan and M. S. U., Baroda, respectively. He joined Santiniketan in 1997 as a lecturer of Art History. He has contributed extensively to publications like Marg and LKC and in currently engaged in curating art shows.