Pictures from the Past

Artists remember their perception of art and how their world views shaped it when they were 18.

Written by Vandana Kalra | Updated: December 31, 2017 12:00:41 am
artists talking about art, transformation of art over the years, art and culture, changing art, Indian express, Indian express news Clockwise: Vivan SundaramArpana CaurArpita SinghJitish Kallat. (Source: Express Archive)

Arpita Singh, 80

Nowadays, people might have strongly formed opinions at 18, but I did not. I did not even know what I wanted to do. After school I had enrolled for Philosophy honours at IP College, but, at the behest of my school principal at Lady Irwin, my mother sent me to study art at Polytechnic (1954). Even though I did not have art as a subject in school, my principal thought I was good at it, perhaps by looking at the charts and my school work.

Coming from a regular middle-class family, I did not really grow up looking at art and could not distinguish the work of one artist from another. I was fond of painting, and would just sketch whatever I saw. I was attracted to works of Jamini Roy, Nandalal Bose, miniatures and western masters such as Raphael. I would complete my college assignments but there was no time to do more. Later, I was interested in the German school of painting. After we graduated, we formed a group called Unknown, that had artists such as Paramjit Singh and Rajendra Dhawan. We would exhibit together. Roshen Alkazi saw some of my work and gave me my first solo show in 1972. Art just naturally became a profession.

Arpana Caur, 63

At 18, all I thought of was the physical challenge of painting life-size figures on large canvases. I did not want the work to be a mere picture on the wall but a world in itself. Finances were a great constraint and also space — where would I keep the canvases? Initially, I would paint on newspapers, then sheets. I felt guilty about spending money on something I could have done without, but I just had to paint. At times, I even painted over existing works or made my own canvases by boiling gum. Once my mother’s friend complained of a leaking roof and I offered my canvases to her to cover that!

I used to go to the India International Center and Lalit Kala Akademi libraries to pore over art books — that’s where I saw works of the masters. These were expensive books, well beyond our means. Later, I would exchange my works for books with Kumar Gallery!

I looked up to MF Husain, and, of course, Amrita Sher-Gil. There was a work where Husain had Bhishma Pitamah lying on a bed of arrows, and I have appropriated that in my work. I never learnt art but had an artist, Surinder Chadha, as our neighbour, and used to observe him at work. Later, I learned metal casting at Delhi’s Modern School. My mother used to take me to the National Museum and National Gallery of Modern Art. She introduced me to different forms of art, including the sitar, Kathak, and asked me to choose what I wanted to pursue. Painting attracted me the most. I was a student of literature and I wanted to become a teacher like my mother and earn money; I never thought I could sell my work. Painting was cathartic, a process of self discovery. I never considered myself as a painter with any future.

Around 18, I was depicting socio-economic disparities in society, loneliness in big cities — things that I observed around me. The Maidservant series was painted around this time. Works from the series were used by Faiz Ahmed Faiz for a magazine, Lotus, that he published from Beirut, when he was in exile. Some works were also sent as entries for a group show that Husain was curating at Shridharani Gallery in 1974. He selected four of my works, and that was my first exhibition.

Manisha Gera Baswani, 50

I remember being greatly influenced by western art when I was entering college (Jamia Millia Islamia University) in 1986. There is nothing wrong with that if it is a weighted decision. But, as a young art student, we did not know better. There was no internet. We had books but the information on our own country and its arts was scarce. We did not know about the Lalit Kala Akademi or the National Gallery of Modern Art.

College education and the influence of teachers such as A Ramachandran and Roobina Karode helped me find my calling. I started looking back at our rich heritage, mural and miniature paintings. Interestingly, I realised that subconsciously I was influenced by many artists such as Matisse and Frida Kahlo, whose works I had seen at the American Center and British Council libraries. It’s only later that I realised that Matisse himself was inspired by Indian miniatures and carpets. The circle is now complete for me.

It’s only in third year that we really started composing our own work. I was always a colourist and painted images of my home. I am still working in the same direction but the gaze is more inward.

Vivan Sundaram, 74

At 18, I had just joined the MS University and the experience of being at Baroda at the time was remarkable. The art school had been established only a decade ago and it was clear that it would bring a different approach to contemporary art, a marked shift from the art movement of the ’50s and the Progressive movement.

There was tremendous freedom that Baroda offered. I used to mostly be in the midst of Masters students. The key figures whom I got to know really well were Bhupen Khakhar, who joined art criticism a year after me, and, on the other side of the art divide were Jeram Patel and Himmat Shah. They played an important role in framing some aspects of my vision regarding figurative, personal as well as abstract art.

I went in with the legacy of being Amrita Sher-Gil’s nephew, but it was only after school that I decided to pursue art. I was a science student who had no background of studying art before Baroda. Naturally, initially one follows the impressionist school — Van Gogh, for instance — but once I joined art school, I started painting more freely; mostly post-Impressionists works and landscapes. I had a distinctive affinity towards material, the kind of work that Jeram was doing with tar, and that translated into my own work over the years.

Baroda was also an education in many other ways. I had studied in the elite Doon School, but at the art school hostel, I shared my room with a peasant from Saurashtra. It was an important lesson in “de-class-ing”. Of course, the highlights of those young-adult years were meetings with important artists and luminaries. I remember an instance when Gulammohammed Sheikh and I went to meet Mexican poet and diplomat, Octavio Paz, in Delhi. We later introduced him to J Swaminathan. Paz would go on to write the catalogue text for the seminal Group 1890 exhibition (1963). These were exceptional experiences for someone still in his teens.

Jitish Kallat, 43

I turned 18 in 1992. I was a young art student then and my attention was drawn in two or three different directions. At one level, I was gripped by perplexing existential questions about the self, one’s ancestry, about ideas of time and death. Some of these formative probes have remained central to my work to this day. I was equally interested in popular culture — in graffitis on city walls and the diversity of programmes appearing on our television screens.

This was the year when the effects of the Indian liberation was becoming tangible. As a teenager and a consumer of general mass culture, its impact even within one’s own living room was significant. Global media, news and music were being streamed into the home. I was equally enchanted by the changing format of the billboard and of the changing nature of advertising, but it would become more evident in the works I would go on to make a year or two later.

When I look at my work from 1992, in the early part of the year, I was making some serious abstraction imbued with the existential questions I was asking myself. But, towards the end of the year, the paintings became more playful and mischievous, questioning the high seriousness of the earlier works.

These early self-inquiring churnings were on display this year at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi. They were a part of my mid-career survey exhibition titled ‘Here After Here’, which covered 25 years of work starting from the time that I was 18.

(As told to Vandana Kalra)

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