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Master of Many Strokes

A new art show celebrates the work of late artist Mohan Samant,a man who was not afraid to experiment.

Mohan Samant,one of the prominent faces of the Bombay Progressive Artists Group,never knew what he was painting until the work was 70 per cent complete. He was known to reach out for his sarangi in the morning before his easel board. He once said,“I do not practise the sarangi. I play it every day as if I am in a concert,sometimes very well,sometimes very badly. Similarly,I don’t practise painting with drawing and sketching. I just paint and if I don’t like it,I paint the same canvas twice,thrice,many times,till I get it right.” Samant’s impulsive and spontaneous behaviour often resulted in exceptional art.

Unfortunately,people have not had too many opportunities to see Samant’s work. After receiving the Rockefeller scholarship in 1959,the artist moved to New York and later,settled there. After his death in 2004,for the first time in India,the Jehangir Nicholson Art Gallery in Colaba is showcasing some of his best works of experimentation starting October 10.

While Samant’s compatriots at the Progressive Artists Society in Bombay drew influences from post-colonial ideologies,he was drawn towards Egyptian paintings,Indian miniatures,Greek and Roman mythology and African sculptures. When most artists struggled to perfect a particular school of art,Samant defied practising a signature style. Curator of the show,Kamini Sawhney says,“He would spend hours at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York,studying cultural relics from across the world. The subjects in his paintings were an interesting combination of over 5,000 years of art from varied civilizations.” For instance,the water colour Impending Storm shows a musician with a Mayan face playing an Indian musical instrument-the tanpura. Samant also narrated the stories of the Greek legend Medusa in Medusa on the Moon,or The Warriors to which he has given Indo-Roman-Greek references to the Amazon warriors.

The urge to experiment is also seen through the techniques Samant used. In 1960s,he started using sand and glue to create a rough texture for his paintings. Ink drawings on a smaller scale came after he suffered a heart attack in the 1970s and could not work on massive canvases. Around that time,he also started experimenting with paper cut-outs,a kind of collage-meets-painting work. Tourists at the Sea Festival shows vacationers caught in a frenzy — legs,hands and faces tangled in a mesh. “It is a tongue-in-cheek depiction of tourist hysteria and madness,” Sawhney says. Another collage-work,Night Show shows brilliant pink,purple and black silhouettes on the streets of a city,perhaps New York.

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With each decade he reinvented himself. The 1980s saw him dabbling in mixed-media. In his painting Surya Vaunshi,where he talks about the solar dynasty and the kshatriyas,he used stretched wires that he fixed over the canvas. Sawhney says. “It made the subjects of his paintings stand out,giving them a three-dimensional quality. Also,he created recesses in the canvas in which he played with ceramic,clay or plastic figurines to depict the scene,” she says,pointing to the figures of the kshatriyas that are seen worshiping the sun god,something that can be attributed to his interest in Egyptian culture.

The gallery owns one painting that Jehangir Nicholson himself bought before Samant moved to the United States. The others they have managed to acquire from his Estate. Since he was almost absent from the Indian art scene,this is a much-anticipated showing of his work,Sawhney believes. “Though he really grew as a painter abroad,had he stayed in India,we could have seen a faster evolution in Indian modern art,” she says.

First published on: 10-10-2013 at 05:12:03 am
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