It is not possible to simply glance at one of Natvar Bhavsar’s large canvases and then move on. The deep, pure colours seem to beat with life and compel one to linger a little longer. The DAG Modern in Mumbai is currently hosting “Homecoming”, a major retrospective of the artist’s works. These are not dead canvases, splashed and streaked with paint and then left to hang inertly on walls. In each work, the viewer senses a rhythm, a movement that is as discernible as in a piece of music. Not that Bhavsar wants to be prescriptive about how to look at or even think about his work. “I’m not making them to serve society,” he says, “I paint to serve my soul, and so I don’t worry about how it is viewed. In painting these, all I have done is draw people to examine them and open up their souls. So everyone finds their own meaning in my work.”
This is the first major exhibition of the artist’s works in India. Bhavsar says that he had “yearned” for this occasion for a long time. “I’ve known almost everyone in India’s intellectual and artistic circles for many years and many, like Tyeb Mehta, have also visited me in New York. But somehow, a show on a large scale has never worked out until now,” he says, when we meet him at the gallery.
Still, Bhavsar believes there is a time and place for everything. “And I have always been in the right place at the right time,” he says, chuckling, “In a sense, everything was brought to me to march onwards.” The artist perhaps errs on the side of modesty, but there’s no doubt about the remarkable journey he had made from the village of Gothava in Gujarat, where he was born in 1934 into a family of educators and textile hand-printers, all the way to the glamorous and revolutionary cultural and artistic landscape of New York City in the 1960s.
As a young man, he had left his home for Ahmedabad where he worked for a couple of years as a teacher, besides freelancing as a display designer, book illustrator and professional painter. He joined the artist collective, Progressive Painters of Ahmedabad, along with artists such as Jeram Patel, Shanti Shah, Piraji Sagara and Sharad Patel. This was a seminal moment in Ahmedabad’s history, as the city became the centre of radical new architecture driven by the likes of Louis Kahn, Le Corbusier, BV Doshi, and Charles Correa, and the atmosphere was charged with a sense of the modern. Bhavsar recalls how at the Progressive Painters’ first show, senior artist Ravibhai Raval cried, when he saw the huge leap in artistic expression that had been made within a single generation.
Perhaps Bhavsar would have made great strides even if he had stayed on in India, but in 1961, aided by a fellow student’s family, the artist moved to the US to pursue an industrial design course at the Philadelphia Museum College of Art. Once there, Bhavsar was inspired by the seismic shifts in American art – driven by artists such as Mark Rothko, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg – and began studying painting. He recalls seeing works by Rothko, who would eventually become a friend, and being moved to find his own way of expressing himself. “I felt that I too had something to show,” he says. Like the works of Rothko, and other colour field artists that he admires, Bhavsar too draws on the emotive power of colour in his works, and when we talk, cites the example of an 80-foot rangoli he had made back in Ahmedabad, as one of the memories that drove his search for a new form of expression. His quest for the purest expression of colour led him to develop a technique using dry pigments, and creating works that are at once vibrant and complex.
It is now no longer fashionable to say that painting is dead, but even if one were tempted to do so, a glance at one of Bhavsar’s works would show that such is far from the case. In the US, where he lives, the artist has had his work exhibited in institutions such as the Jewish Museum, the Whitney Museum and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and his work has been collected for decades by institutions and by individuals. And yet, back in India, Bhavsar’s work has hardly been exhibited, except for a solo exhibition at Gallery Chemould in 1970 and another at Pundole Art Gallery in 1988, both in Mumbai. The current show at the DAG Modern is therefore an important occasion for the 83 year old. He says, “When I landed in America, as a young Indian 50 years ago, I got the opportunity to show my work on the biggest platforms. It was my aim to show not just want I had learned, but to express all that was inside me, and so why shouldn’t the land of birth also know that?”