It was an usually unvarying routine, that went on for several years, right until he died in 2004: Mohan Samant would wake up early in the morning in the New York loft that he shared with his wife Jillian, make tea and spend three hours playing music on his beloved sarangi. Only after lunch, says Jillian, did the artist sit before his easel. After having arrived at some sort of vision for what the work should look like, he would then finally put brush to canvas and begin painting. “He always used to say how his music practice was connected to his painting. He would tell me that when playing Indian classical music, you have to think ahead about what you’re doing. While playing a raga, you are following a structure, but you also need to be constantly improvising. So you need to think quickly. Those are the qualities that he brought to his painting as well,” recalls Jillian, a trained classical musician who plays the recorder and the viola da gamba.
Samant’s works in the ongoing show “Masked Dance for the Ancestors” at Mumbai’s Jhaveri Contemporary is a study in world culture — imbued with references ranging from the leopard dancers of the Ejagham Ekpe culture of Nigeria in the title work to Greek mythology in Medusa on the Moon to his personal favourite, Paul Klee’s work Tomcat’s Turf in Celebration of the Dead. It should be said, though, that even if every single one of Samant’s references were to escape the average viewer, the sheer exuberance and disregard for two-dimensional conventionality seen in these works, featuring paper cut outs, wire drawings and plastic toys, would be enough to hold her attention.
To understand how Samant approached music is to understand how he approached painting. He never, for instance, practised phrases in the way most musicians are trained to do, going over them again and again till they are note-perfect. “He would play a raga from beginning to end,” says Jillian, “and this is how he also painted. He never made sketches or preparatory exercises. He would go straight to the canvas.” Consider this revelation in the light of a creation like Request to Remain Virgin, an intricate pen-and-ink-and-watercolour work from 1975 that speaks of a control which is rare. “If he had slipped up on even a single line, you would see it. There is such absolute control. The image is already in his mind as he is making it, even before he goes into it. Even Mohan’s simplest drawings had this complexity,” says Abraham Joel, who represents Samant’s estate.
Viewing Samant’s work is anything but simple. “Many people say that the works really hit them, like a punch in the gut, but many have also admitted to being confused by what they see,” says Jillian. It’s easy to see why, since most of us, when looking at a work of art, seek to find context within our limited knowledge or experience, or what we know about the artist. However, with Samant’s oeuvre — prolific, multi-formed and multilayered, characterised by a restless energy and deep curiosity — this context is deliberately muddled by the artist himself who once said, “In my painting, I have swallowed the entire history of thousands of years and synchronised it into a modern idiom. Nobody can tell me I am a copyist because I am just as modern as anyone else except that my influences do not come from the contemporary art world; they come from the entire panorama of art history.”
One can trace Samant’s eclectic artistic approach to his childhood. Born in 1924, in Mumbai’s Goregaon, the artist was the fourth of eight siblings, all of whom were encouraged by their parents to pursue their interests in the arts. The Samant home was abuzz with music, discussions about art and writing most of the time, with frequent excursions to see performances by tamasha troupes as well as to the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Byculla, then known as the Victoria and Albert Museum. This is, perhaps, also the time when Samant began to look at museums, with collections drawn from across disciplines and geographies, as a source of inspiration. Jillian recalls that during his decades in New York, Samant’s most frequent visits were to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).
Even as he took a keen interest in music and theatre, young Samant’s definitive turn towards the visual arts began with a prize that he won for drawing in school. He graduated from Sir JJ School of Arts in 1952. The same year he joined the Progressive Artists Group and exhibited his works in the 1953 show ‘Progressive Artists Group: Gaitonde, Raiba, Ara, Hazarnis, Khanna, Husain, Samant, Gade’ at the Jehangir Art Gallery. He later joined the Bombay Group, a successor to the Bombay Progressives.
The following year, a Papal scholarship took Samant to Rome for a year, during which he travelled around Italy and Egypt. Everything he saw during this time would mark his art in later years. In 1959, the Rockefeller Fellowship gave him a ticket to New York, where he would remain till 1964. He shot into global recognition with his inclusion in the 1963 Dunn International exhibition at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in New Brunswick, Canada, and the Tate Gallery in London, where he shared wall space with artists such as Edward Hopper, Robert Rauschenberg and Willem de Kooning. After four years in India, he returned to New York in 1968, making it his final home.
While Samant found appreciation abroad, back home there was, curiously, an erasure of his connection with the evolution of modern Indian art. In a seminal essay, “The One-Man Avant-Garde”, written for a 2008 show of Samant’s cutouts and works on paper at Pundole Art Gallery, Mumbai, art critic and cultural theorist Ranjit Hoskote described the artist as “the missing link in the evolutionary narrative of contemporary art in India”. He wrote, “The actors and stage managers of postcolonial Indian art ought to have embraced him as a major contributor to their project…. They could not make room for a figure like Samant in their atlas, because they could not revision the postcolonial as the intensely contested, collaborative, pluralising, hybrid, self-renovating and transcultural enterprise that it is.”
Samant was, as Hoskote writes, “a very early transcultural figure, emancipated from the debilitating logic of conscriptive nationalism and stylistic dogma”. In his practice and wildly inventive works, Samant frequently deployed wire and plastic toys with as much ease as inks and pigments. At a time when borders of all kinds seem to be simultaneously collapsing and strengthening, it is, perhaps, pertinent to re-examine Samant’s work — which harmoniously blend disciplines, media and forms — and reinstate his undeniable legacy.