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Swami and His Friends

An upcoming exhibition of J Swaminathan’s sketches,letters and postcards will chronicle his transformation from a political activist to an artist

Written by Vandana Kalra |
August 28, 2012 3:54:48 am

An upcoming exhibition of J Swaminathan’s sketches,letters and postcards will chronicle his transformation from a political activist to an artist

THE displays ends at a junction where most artists would have liked to make a beginning — in 1969,a year after artist-writer Jagdish Swaminathan was awarded the Nehru Fellowship to research on folk and tribal art in India. It was this journey to the interiors of Kinnaur,Kutch and Bastar that introduced him to his own language of art,one that includes birds,trees and mountains in the well-ordered geometrical spaces. This experience was to last his entire lifetime.

However,when his son,S Kalidas,started working on an exhibition in the memory of his father,he decided to focus not on the artist’s prime but on his making — from 1950 to 1969 — chronicling his transformation from a political activist to an artist. “It is a wedge from my father’s archive,focussing on the two decades of his life when he makes a transition from being a left-wing political activist to a journalist-critic-artist,and then to a full-time artist,” says Kalidas.

Sitting at his office in Greater Kailash in south Delhi where he archives the works of Swaminathan,Kalidas is selecting vignettes from his father’s autobiographical notes that will comprise the upcoming exhibition in Delhi,titled “Transits of a Wholetimer”.

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The collection will comprise not only some of Swaminathan’s earliest sketches when he was still an active member of the Communist Party of India,but also the letters he wrote to his wife and friends. In one of the letters,he urges his friend,English art critic George Butcher,to take him to England,while one of the postcards has Octavio Paz and Marie José mention that a poem dedicated to him will be read out at the Guggenheim Museum in the US.

Paz,the Mexican writer-poet,also helped Swaminathan publish the art journal Contra 66,with each of the four issues coming with an original linocut print. “Three issues had prints by Himmat Shah,Rajesh Mehra and Gulam Mohammed Sheikh. One issue has none,although it mentions Swaminathan as the printmaker,” says Kalidas. These will be part of the exhibition that will also comprise letters that indicate the response it invited. While contemporary artist Vivan Sundaram writes from London to urge Swaminathan to continue publication,FN Souza terms it as “rather pathetic”. Swaminathan,like always,was to follow his own heart.

“My grandmother used to tell us that he was a very difficult child,” recalls Kalidas. A year after the Quit India Movement in 1943,Swaminathan dropped out of his pre-medical course,sold his bicycle and ran to Calcutta (now Kolkata) to join the Congress Socialist Party. Marriage,too,was not without rebellion. In 1955,he eloped with Bhawani Pande,sister of a comrade. The newly-weds spent over six months on “honeymoon” in Betul in a sanatorium in a thick forest. This was perhaps the artist’s first encounter with tribal life that he was to paint years later. In 1982,he went on to establish Bharat Bhawan,where folk and tribal art were juxtaposed with the best of modern Indian art.


In Swaminathan’s life,the personal,political and artistic came together. Kalidas remembers friends visiting them at their 6/17,Karol Bagh residence and the photographs in the exhibition confirm his recollections. The last six months have been a revelation for Kalidas too. “I think my father had a brief affair with someone called Anna. There are some letters from her,” he discloses.

The two decades might not have been the most celebrated years of Swaminathan’s life but they were replete with turning points. In a letter,young Gulam Mohammed Sheikh introduces himself to Swaminathan,appreciating his writings as an art critic. A few years later,the two were to spearhead Group 1890,which aimed to promote art free of western influences in independent India. There is documentation of only one exhibition by the group in 1964,but Kalidas points out that numerous attempts were made to organise more.

“For some reason,it never happened,” he says,pointing out that several episodes of Swaminathan’s life remain unknown. This exhibition is a prequel to another grand retrospective. “It traces the arch of J Swaminathan’s oeuvre,” adds Renu Modi,director of Gallery Espace in Delhi.


“Transits of a Wholetimer” will be held at Gallery Espace,New Friends Colony,Delhi,from September 8-October 6. Contact: 26326267

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First published on: 28-08-2012 at 03:54:48 am

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