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A painter's painter
On a freezing November morning in Paris, a group of artists and intellectuals set out for the funeral of Rajendra Dhawan, the foremost abstractionist of Indian origin, working in France. When they reached the cemetery, they found that the the funeral was elsewhere. On a whim, they decided to sneak into his apartment, leaving behind the wreaths for his widow, an artist herself. Later in the evening, instead of mourning his absence a toast was raised in his memory in a restaurant at 11th Arrondissement - just opposite the street where he lived.
In his death (October 31), as in his lifetime, the 76-year-old artist was true to his reputation, remaining just as elusive and out-of-reach. Having dedicated much of his life to his art practice, it is tragic that Dhawan should have died unsung and unnoticed. But that's how he would have actually preferred it.
"He was not the kind of artist to have cared for an obituary or recognition, " says Parveen Dhawan, his Delhi-based younger brother. Recognition is precisely what he did not receive even though he never regretted the lack of it. In this age of aggressive marketing, Dhawan was an aberration. He rarely gave interviews and very few details are available of his life. While artists much younger than him travel around the world with their works, he barely showed even in his own country. Recently, talk of a Mumbai show were afoot but he was not sure if he would attend it.
Many readers may not be familiar with Dhawan's name but he was held in high regard in the artist fraternity. Akkitham Narayanan, a fellow Paris-based Indian artist, hails him as a "painter's painter".
"His works impressed me immensely, sometimes made me jealous of his skills, " he says. "He spoke little, that too very softly, almost silently like his paintings. Silent, yet roaring. At first, his works look like a child's scribbling but soon they open up. You will be taken up by its mastery, spontaneity and delicate rendering, as if you are journeying through an unknown yet a pleasant universe. " Among his other admirers is the master S H Raza, who not only owned a Dhawan canvas but also made a point to visit his exhibition in 2011 twice.
Dhawan's story is no different from several other such sagas about tortured artists who painted for the sake of art and nothing more. Born in Delhi in 1936, he studied at the cole des Beaux-Arts in Paris overriding his conservative-minded father's objection to art. "Honestly, my father was unhappy about his artistic pursuits. But Rajendra was a radical, the most different among us kids, " recalls Parveen. Dhawan became interested in photography early in his childhood but by the time he reached Class VIII, he was gravitating towards art as a hobby. While his father wanted him to secure a government job, Dhawan took to teaching at a college in Phagwara, Punjab. Later, his move to Paris in 1970 caused the family further agony.
As an artist, he believed in probing his own conscience and painting from his inner eye. "They were not landscapes, they were mindscapes, " says teacher-artist Prabhakar Kolte. Never did he waver in his commitment to that vision, adds Kolte.
According to him, a "friend" of his works, there was nothing intellectual in what he did. He brought to his paintings a touch of his life experiences. In 2011, Dhawan remarked in his exhibition catalogue (he rarely spoke), "My works have evolved as I have with time. I paint today as I did years ago, but when I sometimes look back, I see that change. It was a subtle, slow change. "
Working mainly in oil, nearly all his canvasses are subtle and poetical. "And profound, so profound that they set you thinking, " says Kolte. Although they never met, Kolte feels a sense of intimacy with his canvasses. When news of Dhawan's death reached him, he penned an elegy:
O, the painter of twilight,
Have you painted it with your breath or
A shadow of the moon,
Lingering around your mood every
Asserting his significant contribution to Indian abstract art and its ideas, Kolte places him next to such greats as Vasudeo S Gaitonde and J Swaminathan. "Many artists paint what they see, he painted what he sensed. Space, air and other occult things were his enduring themes, " says Kolte.
After his death, there are indications that his stocks may rise. But Tunty Chauhan of Gallery Threshold who represented him in India says he never cared for the market. Further, he didn't himself attempt to judge his position in modern Indian art. "He was truly a monk and that quality is reflected in his art too. Like Mark Rothko or even Gaitonde, his works were an exploration of the higher realm. The use of colour was minimal and yet effusive, often beyond retinal perception, " she says.
It is true that Dhawan expected few people to understand his enigmatic personality and work. "Once in a while, after finishing a canvas he would ask us: 'Is it fine?' That's all, " recounts Parveen.
In 2011, Kolte wrote a short essay for his exhibition catalogue. He was surprised to receive a call from Dhawan who told him: "I never knew that someone is there in the world who would understand my paintings. "
Paris-based art historian Rassa Brêgeat was one of the few who knew him well. She describes him as humble and simple in his lifestyle. Like Narayanan, she exhorts his painterly virtues. "His work gave viewers the freedom to interpret it the way they wanted. "
His aloofness was accepted and respected by his friends. However, Kolte rebuffs the notion that he was a lonely man. "He was alone, not lonely. Committed artists are always reserved because they like to conserve their energy. Dhawan felt he was scattered and wanted to gather himself, " he says, conceding that it was a difficult task to get Dhawan out of his shell. Once, in 1989, a young Kolte landed in Paris and called on him, expressing a desire a meet him. "I was his admirer but he said politely, 'Sorry but I don't meet people I do not know'. " With him gone, Kolte feels closer to him than ever before. A stanza in his poem goes: Now I am in your painting, seeing straight into eyes and alive in my ears what you spoke last loaded with passion and love that you wanted to bestow a shy tint of cobalt blue on me, I will wait. Dhawan died with a regret though, of yearning to return to his homeland - Delhi's Lajpat Nagar and Kailash Colony where he spent many years - at least once. "Every time we spoke on the phone, I had to step out to the balcony because of network issues. He used to hear the sounds and buzz of Delhi and say, 'Bahut dil karta hai Dilli aane ka (My heart pines for Delhi)', " adds Chauhan.
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