In 1960, when noted British art critic GS Whittet was writing for Studio, a London-based magazine of applied and fine art, he had hailed Avinash Chandra as “one of the most important Indian painters” who “has gradually built up a power of expression charged with dynamism that owes nothing to Western sources but complete with motives of personal and Indian origin”.
Back in the country of his origin, Chandra might not be counted within the famed circle of artists such as FN Souza, Akbar Padamsee and SH Raza but, in the Europe of the ’60s, he was their counterpart, imbibing the spirit of London into his landscapes and cityscapes that took birth in Shimla, where he was born in 1931. The wooden hills and picturesque lakes gradually became more distorted and lines began to form busy patterns, eventually leading to the surfacing of human forms. “I was stale; landscapes, copying scenery, painting from life — all failed to satisfy my need for expression and became, instead, mechanical. I began then, carefully, to let lines and shapes suggest themselves. Those effects might be described as an attempt at the crystallisation of forms that are significant and symbolic, beginning at pre-history and continuing on right through our times,” Chandra reportedly stated about his work in 1958.
The publication Avinash Chandra: A Retrospective, accompanied by an exhibition at the Delhi Art Gallery (DAG), brings together his art, right from the early ’50s. His first one-man show came in 1951, even before he had graduated from Delhi Polytechnic. On a vacation in Srinagar, he had decided to exhibit the landscapes of the Valley he had painted. Right after, came acclaim. He became the first artist to sell to the newly-established National Gallery of Modern Art in 1954, when his work Trees was acquired by the institution. The same work also won him the 1954 Lalit Kala Akademi prize that he shared with eight others.
Before he left for London in 1956, where his wife Prem Lata was invited on a scholarship to study at the Central School of Art, Chandra had already built a reputation of being a confident artist, who was “frank and outspoken”, according to artist Arpita Singh. “His freedom of handling oils or tempera is surprisingly delightful,” noted Delhi Silpi Chakra’s honorary secretary DR Kowshik.
“That Avinash always stood up for his Indianness and that art critics continuously found his paintings to be Indian should be sufficient grounds for India to embrace an artist of great merit,” says Ashish Anand, Director, DAG. He runs through the changing oeuvre of the artist through his works in the exhibition — from the heavily impastoed landscapes of the mid-’50s to works from the ’60s, such as Moon in the Pink and Moons and Goddess, where the human figures became more prominent. In 1964, he became the first Indian artist to participate at the famed Documenta; this is also when he received acclaim for his iconic glass mural at Pilkington Bothers new building.
But new opportunities were calling. The next year, he was in New York, on a John D Rockefeller scholarship. While in this decade in America, sexual imagery became more explicit — with several important figurative work — the Big Apple was not as welcoming as London, where the artist returned to take care of his ailing wife, who died in 1975.
Soon, he met Valerie Murray Chandra, an actor whom he married. With her, he travelled the world, including Jamaica, that was to hugely influence his works where the nudes morphed into a plethora of orchids, flowering trees and shrubs. “One gets the feeling that he was grappling with a huge idea at this point, something beyond what he had done up till now,” says Kishore Singh, Head of Exhibitions and Publications, DAG . That is when his health failed, and the defiant artist breathed his last in 1991, a few years before the Indian art boom, when India began to recognise the talent of its Masters.