From ‘India and the World’, a gallery tour of masterpieces on 200-year-old freedom struggles

 

Ankush Arora

An oil painting by Amrita Sher-Gil, recently mounted at New Delhi’s National Museum, showed a confident-looking European girl with a comparatively demure Indian. The European, painted in bright yellow, had her arm around the shoulders of the visibly dark Indian girl. While the painting has been interpreted as an exploration of the artist’s mixed identity (she was born to a Sikh father and a Jewish-Hungarian mother) and her corresponding artistic influences, it also deals with a transforming social and political landscape.

‘Two Girls’ was painted by Sher-Gil during her brief visit to Budapest in 1939, around the time Europe witnessed the rise in fascism, and India a nationalist, anti-colonialism struggle against the British rule. The artwork, by one of the greatest avant-garde artists of the 20thcentury, was part of a large-scale, transcontinental collaboration that offers a unique perspective on India’s history by placing it in a parallel global context.

 

Two Girls.jpg

Two-Girls, Amrita Sher-Gil, Oil on Canvas, 1939, Budapest, Hungary, Private Collection. Image: National Museum

 

Titled ‘India and the World: A History in Nine Stories’, the exhibition brought together nearly 200 iconic objects from New Delhi’s National Museum, Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), London’s British Museum, other Indian museums as well as private collectors. Inaugurated at the Mumbai museum late last year, the exhibition was open for public viewing at the National Museum until June 30.

Spread across nine galleries, each section juxtaposed masterpieces from India and rest of the world through different themes focusing on—the beginning of time; the emergence of first cities; empires; the relationship between state and religion; divinity; trade; court cultures; struggle for freedom; and the representation of time in art.

Sher-Gil’s figurative painting belonged to the ‘Quest for Freedom’ gallery, which told the story of different kinds of freedoms—from slavery, imperial rule and patriarchy—covering a period of more than 200 years. The timeliness of this particular gallery, with its wide array of paintings, photographs, posters, everyday objects and contemporary artworks, is significant as the entire exhibition was launched ahead of the seventy-year celebrations of Indian independence.

Page from a Slave Register.jpg

Page from a slave register, Paper, 1871, Manatí, Puerto Rico, The British Museum. Image: National Museum

 

It is a well-known fact that India was the one of the first countries to gain independence from European imperialism. The freedom gallery charted a timeline of India’s story through a series of landmark events, such as the colonial masters’ discovery of the country’s history and art; the 1857 revolt; swadeshi movement; the adoption of Indian constitution; launch of the first currency notes; universal adult suffrage; and the contemporary project of digitally mapping populations.

One of the biggest draws of this exhibition was an original copy of the Indian constitution, designed by a team of Bengal’s Santiniketan artists led by Nandalal Bose, and calligrapher Prem Behari Narain Raizada. According to exhibition co-curator Naman P Ahuja, “The constitution is not just an important piece of legal document, it is also extremely beautiful and aesthetic. It brings together a variety of Indian art styles and episodes from Indian history, mythology into a united modern Indian art style.”

In India, Mahatma Gandhi’s charkha, or the spinning wheel, became the rallying point for freedom from British exploitation of Indian raw material, and eventually from their rule. The advent of indigenous textile mills in India, presented in the exhibition through a 20th century advertisement, found resonances in the African artworks made of cotton which celebrated freedom from colonialism and male domination.

The ‘Quest for Freedom’ gallery dramatically recorded the scale of violence involved in the freedom struggle, particularly in the Indian context. For instance, a photograph taken by famous war photographer Felice Beato, known for re-staging conflicts in order to document them, re-constructed the devastation of a building and loss of life during the 1857 revolt. Another image showed two Indians, identified as mutineers, hanging from the gallows.

Execution of Mutineers from the Album of Canon Richard Warner of Lincoln

Execution of mutineers from the album of Canon Richard Warner of Lincoln, Photograph by Felice Beato, 1858, The Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, New Delhi. Image: National Museum

 

Parallel histories, war and reconciliation

Viewed together, the gallery’s various artefacts attempt to stitch together a web of trans-border histories, through paintings, sculptures, archival documents and textile material. A grand self-portrait by German artist Johann Zoffany, who lived in British India during the latter half of 18th century, is placed close to a Nigerian wooden sculpture of Queen Victoria, the symbol of British imperial domination.

Johann Zoffany with Colonel Polier, Claude Martin and John Wombwell.jpg

Johann Zofanny with Colonel Polier, Claude Martin and John Wombwell, Johann Zofanny, Oil on Canvas, About 1786-87, Victoria Memory Hall, Kolkata. Image: National Museum

 

The theme of slavery, which was abolished in the 19thcentury, was explored through a Puerto Rican slave register, containing details about a twenty-five-year-old slave. In another artwork, a striking Tanzania-made kanga (East African garment) celebrates the victory of Barack Obama as the first African American to hold U.S. presidency.

Barack Obama Kanga.jpg

Barack Obama, Kanga, Printed Cotton, 2008, Made in Tanzania, found in Nairobi, Kenya, The British Museum. Image: National Museum

 

In the end, the exhibition curators could not have thought of a more befitting way of rounding off the Freedom gallery tour, showcasing objects representing peace and reconciliation.

A Mozambican throne, made by welding together pieces of decommissioned civil war weapons, became the symbol of hope and transformation in post-war Mozambique, which is still suffering from the effects of a 16-year war that ended in 1992. The context behind this installation is the country’s post-civil war project that encouraged people to exchange weapons for agricultural, domestic and construction tools.

2002 Af 01 1

Throne of Weapons, Cristóvão Canhavato (Kester), Metal, wood and plastic, 2001, Maputo, Mozambique, The British Museum. Image: National Museum

 

Complimentary to this installation was a bronze sculpture by Colombian artist Alex Sastoque, who has modified the barrel of an AK-47s rifle into a cultivation tool, while retaining the rest of the weapon. The object is titled ‘Metamorphosis – A Symbol of Peace.’

 


276520d7-6209-4f19-a17e-7e4d98264b55Ankush began his career as a journalist in 2008, and has since covered multiple stints in print, television and digital media in India. In 2016, he took up a communications and outreach assignment for an American social innovation organisation, which works with the Tata Trusts in India. He is currently working, in Delhi, as a media publicist for art practitioners. He tweets @artandculturediary, and shares his photography on Instagram.

Advertisements

Colours, only

 

A new exhibition in Delhi introduces the rare genre of ‘colour field’ painting to art lovers

Ankush Arora

How does an artist’s canvas reflect natural landscapes, without using any kind of recognisable shapes, images, forms or human figures? A good example of this style of art-making is the work of Pandit Bhila Khairnar, who is known as a ‘colour field’ artist. Delhi-based Gallery Threshold recently inaugurated a solo show of the artist, who hails from Nashik city in Maharashtra.

Nashik_Flickr_Deeku's.jpg

Nashik. Courtesy: Flickr

 

As a young man, Khairnar found himself drawn towards abstract painting, and began his training in art at Yashwant Kala Mahavidyalaya, Aurangabad, and L. S. Raheja School of Art, Mumbai. His early interest in abstract painting deeply influenced his artistic vocabulary that we see today, so much so that he is now considered one of the lesser known, but foremost, colour field painters of India.

 

Pandit Bhila Khairnar Profile Photo.png

Pandit Bhila Khairnar. Courtesy: Gallery Threshold

 

How Colour Field Painting Started

Before we discuss his paintings and other sources of creative inspiration that shaped his art, let us look at the genre of colour field painting, which is a very uncommon form of art seen in Indian galleries or museums. Colour field painting is understood to be an offshoot of Abstract Art, which was one of the most defining characteristics of the Modern Art movement that emerged during the 20th century in the West.

The term ‘colour field’ began to be associated with artists during the 1950s and 1960s in the US. These artists were in pursuit of an abstraction far beyond familiar realities. Their canvases largely depicted (deceptively) simple compositions using one or more flat colours, without adding a specific shape, form or any obvious focus of attention. Often, their art acquired mysterious, spiritual, and sometimes other-worldly proportions. One of the earliest pioneers of colour field art is 20th century American painter Mark Rothko, who is known for “significant open space and expressive use of colour” in his paintings. The result is a ‘meditative’ effect on the viewer, who is exposed to a large expanse of colour on the canvas.

The Non-Physical Art of Pandit Khairnar

When I walked into Delhi’s Gallery Threshold, Pandit Khairnar’s oil paintings had the same contemplative effect on me. His paintings are colourful explorations of his inner thoughts, without figurations, decorations or complicated patterns that we often see in art. Mounted on bare walls, these large canvases not only imbued a sense of stillness in the gallery, but the whole experience of looking at his works was no less than taking a solitary walk in the countryside. And this is exactly what the artist is seeking to convey through his paintings.

 

Gallery View of Pandit Khairnar Exhibition_2.png

Gallery view of the exhibition. Courtesy: Ankush Arora

 

Khairnar’s upbringing in the historically rich and verdant terrain around Nashik, which is known for antiquated monuments and (now) sprawling vineyards, shaped his artistic sensibilities. As a school boy, he showed a lot of interest in drawing and painting, which caught everyone’s attention. Soon, he befriended the potter community in his village, and began painting their statues for local festivals.

As a young man, he moved to Mumbai, where he stayed for 25 years. He then returned to the serene beauty of Nashik, which inspired him to paint. His Nashik memories are full of regular jaunts to agriculture fields, often helping his father cultivate fruits and vegetables on the farm. Being in regular touch with the soil made him dabble in statuette-making too. He was also taken in by the mysterious colours of twilight and dusk, which he explored in his art.

From Colour Drawings to Abstractions

Through shades of greens, oranges, blacks, reds and yellows, the artist splashes his memories on the canvas, creating an ‘infinite’ or ‘limitless’ field. In other words, he is trying to portray his experience of observing a vast natural landscape, instead of actually painting a tree, sky or river. His canvas could be showing the pigment of a leaf or the mixing of colours in the sky when night begins to fall. To such representations, he gives an ‘intangible’ or a non-physical form.

Pandit Bhila Khairnar Untitled Oil on Canvas 36x72 inches2.jpg

Courtesy: Gallery Threshold

 

Explaining his trajectory as an artist, Khairnar said he initially started with colour drawings on paper. Several of them were abstract in nature that made way for what he is doing now. “In these drawings, I was in a sense opening and discovering the substance out of the frame, to find what I am left with, which is pure and sublime,” the artist said. Interestingly, he rejects the label of being referred to as a colour field artist, calling it a “comfortable categorization” that may lead to “superficial” understanding of his art.

“How would you explain your work to the young learners of art?” I asked him in an email interview.

“Colour is something that gives character. We can’t imagine a monochromatic world. What we see on the canvas essentially arrives from the subtle observations of inner and outer world,” he wrote back, somewhat summing up his style of painting.

Pandit Bila Khairnar Oil on Canvas 84x72 (3).jpg

Courtesy: Gallery Threshold

 

It is because of the nature of colour field paintings, which are devoid of a form, the genre is not only not popular in India; there is also little awareness about it. They could be difficult to interpret too. And that is true of many other forms of abstract art. Little wonder, in India, Khairnar belongs to a small group of colour field painters, which include V. S. Gaitonde,Natvar Bhavsar, Sohan Qadri and Rajendra Dhawan. Gaitonde, Rothko and Dhawan—who are known for their powerful abstractions—inspired Khairnar to explore and question different interpretations of the ‘real’ and the ‘illusory’.

As I spent some time in the gallery, quietly sipping some tulsi chai, I noticed a few subtle forms in Khairnar’s paintings. The sudden discovery seemed very odd as I didn’t remember noticing anything like that when I walked in. Some looked like dots, seen together they could be somebody’s eyes. In other paintings, for example, the forms were far less obvious, resembling vague silhouettes of a human face. Perhaps these lingering forms pointed towards the galaxy, a theme aptly conveyed in the show’s title – ‘Cosmic Balance’.

The exhibition will be on view at Delhi’s Gallery Threshold until September 15, 2018. You can share your thoughts on Pandit Khairnar’s works below.


 

276520d7-6209-4f19-a17e-7e4d98264b55Ankush began his career as a journalist in 2008, and has since covered multiple stints in print, television and digital media in India. In 2016, he took up a communications and outreach assignment for an American social innovation organisation, which works with the Tata Trusts in India. He is currently working, in Delhi, as a media publicist for art practitioners. He tweets @artandculturediary, and shares his photography on Instagram.