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Down Diagonal Alley


For artists in newly independent India, the very act of picking up a brush to make a single stroke on canvas was, as the great modernist Tyeb Mehta put it, an act of courage. Exploring the abstract at a time when the market did not support such experimentation was a brave step. There were no million dollar bids for their work, and the artist's struggle was far from romantic.

Approaching Abstraction, an exhibition in New York that features the paintings and rare experimental films of more than a dozen artists, including Tyeb Mehta, VS Gaitonde, Akbar Padamsee, M F Husain, S H Raza, Nasreen Mohammedi, Zarina Hashmi and Krishna Reddy, reveals how India produced a significant number of abstract painters in the 1960s and 70s.

"Many scholars have written that there was no one doing abstract art in India - except for Nasreen Mohammedi and V S Gaitonde, " says Beth Citron, curator of the exhibition. "But in India, it was different, in the sense that there wasn't a singular direction towards abstraction where one artist influenced the other - like Manet begat Monet begat Degas begat Picasso and so on. Abstraction was one of several different sources that many Indian artists tapped into. "

The exhibition is the second installment of the Rubin Museum's series showcasing the history of modern art in post-colonial India. The highlight of the exhibition are three short black-and-white films by Padamsee, Husain and Tyeb, rarely seen in India, and shown for the first time in a museum in the context of their paintings. Padamsee's film Syzygy (1969-70 ), made possible by a Nehru Fellowship, used animation to give life to his mathematical grid. Husain and Mehta made their award-winning films on a commission from the Films Division of India as an extension of their experiments into abstraction. Both artists had a life-long fascination with cinema. Husain started his career painting film billboards, while Tyeb worked as a film editor before taking up art.

Husain's Through The Eyes of A Painter, which won the Golden Bear at the 1967 Berlin Film Festival, presents a series of visuals shot in Rajasthan, with stand-out solitary images of an umbrella, a sandal and a lantern. Husain himself appears in the film and explains to the viewer that this is not a conventional film. "Husain and Mehta's films provide a counterpoint to each other, " says Citron. "Tyeb's film is an intimate view of Mumbai, while Husain's is a touristic view of Rajasthan, both very different abstractions of India. " Tyeb's Koodal (Tamil for 'meeting point' ), which won a Filmfare award in 1970, features images of a bull being led to slaughter at a Bandra abattoir - the trussed bull is a motif that he carried into his art - a hijra in Mumbai and converging into the footage of Mahatma Gandhi's funeral procession. Citron makes an interesting observation. "When it cuts to the historical footage, you actually see the form of the diagonal, the one that Tyeb Mehta developed in his paintings during this period. It contextualizes both his film and paintings in an interesting way. "

The exhibition shows how Indian artists used the principles of abstraction in their work while maintaining a very distinct arc from that of the movement in Europe and America. Many resisted easy categorization by art critics. The reclusive Gaitonde, it is reported, dismissed the abstract artist label, saying that there was no such thing as abstract art, though he gradually moved away from figuration in his work, as is seen in Painting 4 which has only a few markings that could represent objects or figures. Akbar Padamsee rejected the idea that a painting should be purely figurative or representative. His Bird in Landscape series shows merely the hint of a bird and a landscape - both dissolve into what he calls a 'metascape'. Raza's Aaj is an abstract rendering of the word in Devanagari script above the horizon of a landscape. Citron explains that the diagonal which recurs in Tyeb's paintings was influenced by American abstract painter Barnett Newman, "but was used as a way of reconciling both the figurative and the abstract". (The other explanation for the diagonal is that it occurred by accident. In 1969, when the artist thought he had hit a dead end, he flung a black streak across his canvas in a fit of frustration. Then, as the drama of the diagonal hit him, he knew he had made a breakthrough. )

Ironically, abstract art also could be castigated for playing to the gallery, quite literally. The paintings of Biren De and G R Santosh, which draw inspiration from Tantra, were derided for catering to the 'hippie' type of viewer. "But, " says Citron, "as we learned at the museum, American visitors are really drawn to the work. So there is something about them that people are drawn to, but to a certain degree, they never really had a place in the mainstream Indian art world. "

(Approaching Abstraction is on at the Rubin Museum of Art, New York till October 16, 2012)

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