Among the several new year cards that the heads of various states and their embassies in India received in the winter of 1972 was a gory depiction of naked men and women engaging in hooliganism, with Satan crouched behind. The undersigned, Brij Mohan Anand, had a message too, “Stop Burning Asia — Death Is Shadowing You.” He expected a response to the provocative note, but none came.
“It is conceivable that, at a time when India was seeking to enhance and develop its relationship with the Soviet Union as well as with other Western powers, for those countries to acknowledge internal dissent and criticism with a formal response would have been viewed as counterproductive. In this context, it could be argued that not responding was a way of closing down or minimalising what could have been a legitimate public intervention,” say writer-biographer Aditi Anand and British art historian Grant Pooke in the publication Narratives for Indian Modernity: The Aesthetic of Brij Mohan Anand (HarperCollins, Rs 2,499).
A result of an accidental discovery of a massive tranche of lost works from the attic of Anand’s New Rajinder Nagar, Delhi, home in 2011, the book and an accompanying exhibition at the India International Centre in Delhi are a rare showcase of the works of the anti-establishment painter, who was extremely vocal with his opinion. With the new year card, for instance, the message was clear — by waging war on Asia, the US was paving the path to its own destruction.
This was not the first time he was defying authority. As a young artist, he had been invited by Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah, then Chief Minister of Kashmir, to contribute towards a National Cultural Front in 1947-48. The subsequent exhibition, featuring nudes by Anand, invited the wrath of the conservative Kashmiris, and a physical altercation between him and the Chief Minister led to a warrant being issued against him.
Born into a wealthy Amritsar-based family in 1928, his father Mani Ram turned from being an ardent Congress party supporter to the radical revolutionaries after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre where he too had lost his son. Later, accused of misusing the liquor licence awarded to him by the British, he was stripped of all his property. He found refuge in Kullu, where Anand’s mother honed the infant’s interest in art, carefully framing and storing his paintings that were influenced by the foothills of the Himalayas. The earliest in the exhibition are his sketches from the 40s. The subjects range from his politically-motivated works to paintings in bright hues depicting village life in Punjab and several book covers designed by him.
Shuttling between Lahore, Amritsar, Kullu and Kashmir, Delhi was to become Anand’s home. His residence in the Capital was on the top floor of the Moti Mahal restaurant in Daryaganj.
Working as an illustrator and commercial artist, he was associated with several publishing houses and regularly took art students to supplement his income. The disciplinarian father of four, was known for his dexterity and precision. In the book, Ajit Singh, one of his earliest students, notes that he rarely saw anything produced by Anand being rejected by a client.
Introduced to the scratchboard — where one draws by scratching lines with a sharp tool on a blank board — by one of his friends at a publishing house, Janglimal Jain, Anand experimented extensively with the medium, using it to depict his anti-nuclear stance, among others. In Buddha Bleeds (1962), Gautam Buddha is attacked by an eagle, symbol of the United Nations. Mother Humanity Wards Off Advance of Nuclear War (1963) has a protective mother fighting the atom cloud, with doves symbolising the possibility of peace.
There are other works lost in time — including a portrait of Indira Gandhi, painted after the 1974 Pokhran test. Not traceable, the book has his wife Sunil describing it, “as representing a large mushroom cloud from an atomic explosion juxtaposed with an image of Indira Gandhi releasing a cloud of white doves, the universal signifiers of peace”.