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Friday, May 14, 2021

Things they left behind

Can a letter or a page of a scrapbook be considered art? Yes, depending on who it belonged to. As art enthusiasts grow interested in the life of the artist beyond the easel, a new appreciation for archival material is on the rise.

Written by Vandana Kalra |
Updated: June 19, 2016 12:01:36 am
A 1928 letter by Hemen Majumdar. A 1928 letter by Hemen Majumdar.

In 1985, long before Indian art saw the greenback, Nalini Malani came up with a rather ambitious proposal. In order to get more women artists to show in galleries, she suggested uniting them through exhibitions — use gender to form a collective. She counted 50 of them across India, and, on a postcard, zealously penned her plan to fellow artist Arpita Singh. The latter thought the idea was so absurd that it deserved an equally absurd response — she wrote “a story about a wild owl” on her postcard. The exchange, however, was not futile. It took a while, but women artists would headline numerous exhibitions in the next decades across India.

Seated at her Nizamuddin home in Delhi, Singh, 80, fondly recalls that dialogue. “We were involved at every stage, from getting the catalogue designed and printed, to calling the carpenter home for framing. I wish I had those correspondences,” says Singh.

Though the original postcards are lost, miles away, art enthusiasts in China have been lauding the efforts of Malani, Singh, Nilima Sheikh and Madhvi Parekh who formed a group in the late Eighties. A 1989 catalogue that recorded their exchange was part of “That Photo We Never Got”, a two-month archival exhibition that concluded in May at the Asia Art Archive (AAA) premises in Hong Kong; through photographs and letters, it offered a glimpse into what is, arguably, one of the first attempts by Indian women artists to break out of their domestic mould.

A page from FN Souza’s scrapbook with a photograph of the artist and his third wife, Barbara Zinkant, taken in 1968. A page from FN Souza’s scrapbook with a photograph of the artist and his third wife, Barbara Zinkant, taken in 1968.

Over the last five years, Sabih Ahmed, senior researcher at AAA, and artist Shilpa Gupta have pored over copious personal archives of Indian artists to gauge the undercurrents of love, friendship, marriages and discord that shaped the lives of those who were gaining prominence in the 1980-90s. The exhibition was a testament to the rising interest art connoisseurs are showing in the artist behind the artwork. Locked inside dusty steel cupboards and torn file covers, sepia-tinted fragments of artists’ lives recorded in letters, notes and photographs are now drawing as much attention as the art themselves — the archive is now being framed for exhibitions and coming under the hammer at auctions.

So, there were no eyebrows raised when in December 2015, the Saffronart sale titled ‘FN Souza: A Life in Line’ included portraits of the prolific Modernist taken by the legendary Armenian photographer Ida Kar in the 1950s-60s. Souza’s repertoire, comprising townscapes and heavy impastos, was absent, but a set of three pages from his personal scrapbook fetched Rs 10.8 lakh, against an estimate of Rs 3-5 lakh. The recto and verso of the yellowed pages were pasted with Polaroids and handwritten notes by Souza. These include a photograph with Queen Elizabeth II that appeared in the London Times in 1962. A page of passport-size photos of the artist taken in the 1960s ends with a couple of them titled ‘Copenhagen, June 1964’ — a gleeful Souza beams at the camera after Barbara Zinkant accepted his marriage proposal. A year later, she became his third wife.

Hugo Weihe, CEO, Saffronart, says, “People are now interested in the context and creation of the artwork. In our catalogues too, we try to put as many archival photographs from the period — invites, catalogues, newspaper clippings — that adds a lot of context to the creation of a particular work of art in a particular moment in time and how it was received and recognised.”

A letter written by Rabindranath Tagore in 1941. A letter written by Rabindranath Tagore in 1941.

By piecing together multiple narratives, archivists are attempting to map personal histories alongside the trajectory of the Indian art scene. “Various artistic positions drifted and altered over the course of time. Their friendships and relationships have an effect on their artwork as well,” says Gupta, 39. The Mumbai-based artist picks out a photograph of a group of artists protesting in front of the Lalit Kala Akademi in 1970-71 in Delhi. In another photo, they are chatting with writer Mulk Raj Anand, then director of the Akademi. Taken by artist Jyoti Bhatt, one of them features a young Geeta Kapur, who considered Anand her mentor, but found herself siding with the protesting artists; the 4×5 image depicts the art historian and critic caught in the crosshairs.

Kapur, 73, and her husband Vivan Sundaram, 73, possess a formidable archive of Indian art. Their collection boasts over 1,000 documents on exhibitions and events from 1946 onwards, and extensive material on renowned artists such as Amrita Sher-Gil, MF Husain, Bhupen Khakhar, KG Subramanyan and Rummana Hussain, including a manuscript of a never-published book on Tyeb Mehta that Kapur wrote a decade ago. The digitised documents are now available online on the AAA website.

“There existed a notion that art should stand alone and make an impact. The little notes and references in the background were considered disturbing. Now, people expect more information on the artists as well, which is why more material is coming out,” says Sundaram, who is often approached by curators to share material for exhibitions and publications.

A postcard to J Swaminathan. A postcard to J Swaminathan.

Sundaram has long engaged with the concept of the archive. His mother was Indira Sher-Gil, Amrita’s younger sister; and in his 1995 exhibition, ‘The Sher-Gil Archive’, he drew from pictures, documents and objects of the Sher-Gil family, presenting them in the form of a museum. “It first showed in Budapest, so I was less self-conscious. Perhaps, in India, back then, people would have felt I have opened my family album,” he says.

Ashish Anand has recently purchased four photographs of Sher-Gil from a collector in Paris. “These are from the time when she was in Paris. They’re never-seen-before images. I paid Rs 2 lakh for the set,” he says. The director of DAG Modern, Delhi, has one of the biggest collections of artists’ archival material in India. “The day I started collecting art, I collected archival material, too. We buy something every other week and the price depends on the artist, rarity, content and quality. For instance, a letter written by Rabindranath Tagore to Mahatma Gandhi will cost more than his letter to a relative. The difference could be 10-20 times over,” he says.

He’s not the only one. In Kolkata, Vikram Bachchawat, owner of Aakriti Art Gallery, has collected early catalogues and books from the 1940s, such as diaries of the surrealist painter Kartick Chandra Pyne, and art journals published by Indian Society of Oriental Art, established by Abanindranath Tagore. “Once the market matures, people will want these ‘art collectibles’” he says.

‘The Photo We Never Got’ exhibition at the AAA. ‘The Photo We Never Got’ exhibition at the AAA.

Like Sundaram, some artists are studying the past to understand their present. If in Kochi, Riyas Komu is carving Nandalal Bose’s drawings that he made for the Indian Constitution, then at the ongoing Dakar Art Biennale in Senegal, Delhi-based Samit Das has “portraits and legends of known and unknown Bengal”. Over the last decade, he has built an online archive of Rabindranath Tagore’s portraits, photographs of Tagore House Museum in Kolkata, rare sketches of Bose, and unpublished photos of Mahatma Gandhi and Tagore.

S Kalidas, son of the late J Swaminathan, notes how in the last couple of years the audience for his father’s personal archival collection has significantly increased. In 2012, when he was planning Swaminathan’s retrospective, ‘Transits of a Wholetimer’, at Gallery Espace in Delhi, he focussed on an “art historical display” that projected his father’s transition from a left-wing political activist to a journalist-critic-artist, and then to a radical artist-critic through vignettes from his autobiographical notes, exercise books, photographs, catalogues of exhibitions, and letters written to him by friends and family. “The response was overwhelming. Unfortunately, in India, we do not have museums and institutions where artists can donate their belongings for posterity,” says Renu Modi, director, Gallery Espace.

While a handful private initiatives are interested in archival material — for instance, the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, and the Swaraj Art Archives headed by Vijay Kumar Aggarwal — they don’t compare with the institutions in the West that have the resources and more importantly, the regard for such data. While Van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo, owned by the Van Gogh Museum, are well documented, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) Archives, established in 1989, catalogues and extensive personal records of artists such as Marcel Duchamp, Mark Chagall and Joan Miro. In order to make the private public, last year, for the first time, Tate Archive uploaded about 6,000 photographs, letters, sketchbooks and technical records, offering insights into some of Britain’s greatest 20th-century artists such as Paul Nash, William Nicholson and Walter Sickert. In the coming months, Tate expects to make a total of 52,000 items accessible online. “In India, public institutions lack that vision. The Lalit Kala Akademi ought to build an archive of modern Indian art. But anything they have is accidental, not deliberate,” says Ashok Vajpeyi, former director, Lalit Kala Akademi.

Passport size photographs of Souza pasted in his scrapbook in the 1960s. Passport size photographs of Souza pasted in his scrapbook in the 1960s.

A trustee at the Raza Foundation, Vajpeyi has been documenting the numerous correspondences between SH Raza and fellow artists such as Krishen Khanna, VS Gaitonde, Bal Chhabra and Ram Kumar. Digitised and published in books, the foundation is also contemplating an exhibition. Five years ago, when he suggested publishing Raza’s letters, the senior artist was amazed. “He asked ‘but who would be interested?’ And now, not only do people want to read them, but also purchase them,” says Vajpeyi.

The correspondence between Raza and Khanna is thoroughgoing. Much like their oeuvre, their concerns too altered — the conversation moves from two veterans discussing the need to organise exhibitions in the 1950s to being perplexed about the Indo-China conflict in the early Sixties — Khanna even suggesting that if required, he would join the Indian army. “Imagine, there was a time when we had to hardsell our work. Now, people are interested in our lives, what we were writing to each other,” says Khanna, 91, among the last surviving members of the Progressive Artists’ Group.

While the spotlight is moving towards the Progressives, the Baroda school has been more organised with the documentation of its artists’ work, as well as Indian art history from the pre-Independence era till the present day. Jyoti Bhatt has rare photographs of artists that are now being exhibited the world over, including the prestigious Grand Palais, Paris, in January this year. His contemporary, Gulam Mohammed Sheikh, meanwhile, remembers writing a letter to artists and institutions across India in the 1960s, requesting them to share archival material with the MS University, Baroda, where he was teaching art history. “At that time, such little information was available, it seemed compelling to start putting it all together right away,” he says. That letter is now part of Sheikh’s archive digitised by the AAA, along with his scrapbooks full of paper cuttings, and other published and unpublished documents. The website also features the collection of Ratan Parimoo, as well as KG Subramanyan, including his letters to Benod Behari Mukherjee.

As the demand to share nostalgia-rich memorabilia escalates, putting a price on sentiment is tricky. “One looks at the historical significance of such a document and the people who are part of the conversation. In the West, letters by Einstein and Mahatma Gandhi have sold for thousands of dollars, so we are looking at that, too,” says Weihe, who is also the former international director of Asian art at Christie’s auction house.

“Attaining original archival material is also a means of getting close to the artist, even if one can’t afford to purchase their work,” says Siddhartha Tagore, director, Art Bull auction house and Art Konsult gallery in Delhi. Later this year, he will be exhibiting letters from his collection of over 1,500, written by artists such as MF Husain, Sohan Qadri and Jamini Roy. “With most of these artists dead and gone, these materials are also their voices,” he says.

In Their Words
Writing to Liselotte, his second wife, on her birthday in 1980, Souza says, “It would be stupid to say I thank Hitler, but that is the case, because of him I found you! The proof that you hit it off with me more than any other man lies in my children you bore, and the same goes for me. I wish to thank you for raising my daughters… for a decade or so you gave me great joy Liselotte, What did I give you? I gave you children and a load of misery with my alcoholism. I simply can’t fathom why.”

J Swaminathan writing about the formation of Group 1890: “We already had Raza and Padamsee talking of the ‘centrality of the Paris school’ and Gujral fulminating against easel painting itself and upholding mural art as the only thing after his sojourn in Mexico. And now New York was being added to the list. Some of us thought that it was time to call a halt to such nonsense and rethink the situation. I met Jeram Patel and Ambadas about this time and we talked and talked, mulling things over glasses of coffee, rum and beer and decided to form a group.”

Benod Behari Mukherjee to KG Subramanyan in November 1974: “In old age, loneliness is born. And whatever I am writing and doing drawing etc, is an outcome of my lonely experience… I told you once that I am finding it extreme(ly) difficult to free myself from the style which I have… Without breaking it I cannot express my new emotion.”

CF Andrews in a letter to Prof Patrick Geddes, December 1922: “I doubt if the poet has done his own ideal justice by translating the word Visva Bharati to ‘University’. Certainly, it is a bad translation. Yet I do not quite know what word to use. I feel that it is likely to be more and more a ‘Settlement’ where people come to live a life and form a kind of laboratory for great thinking — living out as far as they can what they are thinking.”

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