Monday, September 5, 2016

Laxman Shrestha - An (Un)Pause

Laxman Shrestha is a name even the most casual observers of the Indian art world encounter repeatedly, and know well. My first brush with the artist was at the once venerable Jehangir Art Gallery. I was not yet ten years old, and I was surveying his abstracts distractedly, unable to make much sense of them. He came up to me, asked me what I thought of them, and I said I liked the colours - an answer that sounded silly even to my pre-teen self. 

It's been some time since then, and I've had the pleasure of renewing my acquaitance with the artist's work at the Jehangir Nicholson Gallery's two part retrospective of his career. Curated by Ranjit Hoskote, the first part of the exhibition traces Shrestha's work from the 1960s to the late 1980s, and explores his evolution and concerns while also providing the context of his peers' expressions of abstraction. It's a compact, concise show that has depth, with paintings interpreted through excellent curatorial notes and a particularly informative interview with the artist. 

I'd like to think, though, that even in their absence, I'd find it within myself to appreciate Shrestha's work beyond the colours. The exhibition starts out with tight wedges of colour on small canvases - paintings that are crammed but composed, dense with textural detail. By the 1970s, something shifts and begins to uncoil - planes become larger, details become more dextrous, and forms become more fluid and organic. At one point, the works are described as 'explosive.'  

Explosive isn't the wrong word to use in the context of Shrestha's canvases. But isn't quite the word that occured to me, either. What came to mind was a word I hadn't used in a while - 'roil.' Think of a thick, mysterious liquid stirred quickly in a glass and then photographed, mid-swirl and mid-settle. The works put me in mind of the moment right after an explosion, with elements caught mid-motion, mid-momentum. This has to do with the fact that they aren't exuberantly energetic or violent - there's a contained vitality to them, the reds, blues, greens and beiges expanding but also poised. 

Does this sense of something that is, but also isn't balance come from the artist's interest in music, particularly jazz? Is it part of his quest for the Source? And if it is, why isn't it as silent and still as the solitude and silence that he describes as the Truth? And is that oddly energetic sense of pause ruptured by a clutch of works from the 80s, whose bisecting, geometric lines seem to jar? 

It's so very interesting. I can't wait to see what comes next, because I feel I am seeing it all for the first time. 

Sunday, June 15, 2014

A Walk Among Lines

I've always loved looking at line drawings. Maybe it was all the art lessons I spent putting pencil, crayon, and much later, charcoal to paper, the scraping and the smudging, the sooty fingertips and wrists, the fact of creating something with a well-timed or ill-advised stroke, I'm not sure. There were moments when I enjoyed this, and equally there were moments when I resented the betrayal of my lines. Sometimes there was (what seemed to me) an insurmountable gap between what I wanted to draw and what actually took shape, at other times the shape and form were right, but the lines themselves looked hesitant and tentative instead of being liquid and fluid. I'd flip through all the instructional art books my father had collected, and each of them held drawings that seemed impossibly perfect - a few lines, drawn energetically and elegantly, putting together a picture that was no less than a painting. I wanted for my drawings to have that spirit and verve, but there was no getting around it - lines and line drawings were a rite of passage, and the only way to push past the limitations of my lines was through regular practice. Woe betide the inconsistent art student! A few days away from pencil and paper, and my lines would flag. 

Couple - II Lovers by Jogen Chowdhury
I've lost track of when exactly I stopped taking weekly art lessons but whenever I've gone back, I start by drawing lines. And at the risk of repeating myself, you only have to tell me about a line drawing exhibit and I will find a way to be there. There's something magical about line drawings - they represent an idea in evolution, they have the quality of an artistic fingerprint, they can span the continuum from simple and spare to vivid and sensuous. As with the best verse, there's little room for obfuscation - the line is art at its most transparent, a reliable 'tell' of artistic talent and sometimes, artistic intent. Lines are, simply put, hard taskmasters.   

Lantern by Bikash Bhattacharjee
Don't believe me? Do? Either way, visit the Jehangir Nicholson Gallery for a look at 40 odd line drawings curated by none other than Sunil Patwardhan. Called "Taking the Line for a Walk," (a name borrowed from Paul Klee's famous quote), the show is altogether excellent. The great Indian modernists, and their successors, are  each shown engaged in their own particular trysts with the line. Whether it is Tyeb Mehta, who would much rather work without lines but has a distinctive style irrespective; or Ara, whose 'Nude,' composed entirely of charcoal and smudges, has a sensuous, smooth quality; Paritosh Sen, whose 'Gorilla,' composed of deft charcoal strokes, is all muscle and bristle and snarl; Jogen Chowdhury, whose creamishly thick squiggles collapse perspective while retaining coherent form, but who is equally adept with the delicate, multi-layered cross-hatchings that lend texture and weight but also lightness to large figurative bodies (look at Couple - II Lovers); Arpita Singh, whose scenes of discreet domestic disquiet have an almost stippled quality; Bikash Bhattarchjee, whose 'Lantern' is a masterpiece in subtle charcoal technique; Sadanand Bakre's limpid and monumental forms; Nikhil Biswas's angry, whirling pen and ink swirls. There are so many gems of works and almost-works in this exhibition. But my favourite is the last work I saw - a young girl in pigtails by Lalu Prasad Shaw. Square, solid and sad and rendered with an expert, economical expressiveness. And I haven't even mentioned V.S. Gaitonde, Ganesh Pyne, Raza, Souza yet.  

If you're at all interested in what poetry, calligraphy, scribbles, shadow, solidity and delicacy look like when set in motion by a few flicks of an accomplished artist's wrists, look at line drawings. Anywhere works, but this show could be a nice place to start.    

Monday, June 9, 2014

Amrita Sher Gil - Personality and Painter

The NGMA's retrospective on Amrita Sher Gil has its flaws, but the artist shines through, regardless. Sher Gil burnt bright in her 28 years, painting prolifically, living fashionably and scandalously, winning admirers, awards and critics, denouncing the 'cheap sentimentality' that she felt was the stock-in-trade of too many of her Indian peers, dying quickly and restlessly. She was equal parts society swan and serious artist, sparkling and melancholic, bold and self-conscious. She inhabited a uniquely personal intersection between the European and the Indian, and she interpreted both Indian and European Modernism in that light. 

Organized chronologically, the exhibition allows a viewer to map the evolution of the artist's style. The first section on the ground floor consists of portraits, nude studies and some still lifes painted during the early 1930s. These are paintings bristling with energy, with thick brush strokes adding up to portray subjects as robust, sitting solid and square with expressions that are challenging, if not defiant. The feminine body is everywhere strong, unyielding, almost muscular. Although these are all different people, there is a bit of a sameness to them, as if the artist's personality had held greater sway during the sitting than the subject's. 

It is in the second section that her style begins to visibly mature. Sher Gil describes herself as an explorer of the sensuality of the line, and it is here that the sensuality comes into play most prominently. The portraits are more nuanced, the brush strokes less urgent, the people behind the painting make themselves a little more felt - whether coquettish, weary, clever or curious. There are many, many women here and they are vital - long limbed, large eyed, lush lipped. When nude, their bodies are painted with a matter of factness that renders their nudity almost besides the point and lets their personalities manifest. 

And of course there are many self-portraits of Sher Gil herself, painted at different times and in different moods - Amrita undressed (or undressing), Amrita in furs, laughing, languorous. Two of these, done in an almost Impressionist style, are the ones that I liked best - breezy and both of them showing her in her element, at work. There's also a small clutch of paintings made in Hungary - flat and almost cubist in their dimensions and interesting as a marked departure from her recognizably animated style.  

The third and last section is the one in which Sher Gil's craft becomes most refined, with the influence of Indian miniature painting and the frescoes and sculptures of Ajanta and Ellora becoming clearer. This is where the paintings become stylized, the lines fine, the use of space much, much cleverer, so much so that some of the oil paintings here have the quality of water-colours. Although a few of these paintings have a somber Gauginesque quality, most of them are sensitive and delicate portrayals of village life and (mostly) village women that play with perspective, pulling planes out and folding them back in. Although the iconic "Three Girls," "Brahmacharis" and "The Bride's Toilet" loom large, the images I still have with me are those of "Village Girls," "The Swing," "Ancient Storytellers" and "Elephants." All four are simultaneously angular but soft, flat but textured, full of that indefinable quality of mood. Sher Gil had said that she wanted to transcend the 'merely sentimental' with these paintings, and while there is romance here there is also dignity.  

Who knows what else this tempestuous, opinionated and polarizing artist would have done in the course of a longer career? She was flamboyant, she was politically incorrect, she was singular in times when it would have been much more convenient not to have been. Amrita Sher Gil was so entirely alive that she was never exactly a mystery. It's odd, but also true, that this is precisely what makes her all the more compelling. 

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Petition for a New NGMA

I went to the Amrita Sher Gil retrospective at the NGMA, Mumbai, this morning. And had an experience that was disconcerting, to say the least. How is possible for one exhibition to leave me curious and interested, and incredibly annoyed, all at the same time? Here's how.  

The mounting of this show reveals a complete absence of imagination on the part of the curatorial team. Somewhere along the line, someone said (or thought) the following, and set events in motion accordingly. "Let's find a sparkling, provocative personality and a significant artistic influence and pay tribute to her. Let's structure her prodigious body of work chronologically because what other approach is there? Let's only have the most turgid, textbook curator-speak typed out on posters at the beginning of each section, and let's not include any other notes that may help give a viewer a perspective on the work or the artist as they walk through those sections. Let's use the same high-intensity lighting for all the works, so that some of them cannot be seen clearly, no matter what the angle. And right at the end of the show, to make up for the absence of detail along the way, let's gum up massive print outs of photos from the artist's life and quotes from her letters. Let's not worry about the fact that these print outs are unevenly pasted and ripping from the excess glue and would be approximately 10 times more interesting in context to, maybe, a painting." 

Just last weekend, I was so excited when I heard about this retrospective. Firstly, because I wanted to see more of Sher Gil's work, and secondly, because I was hoping it meant that the moribund NGMA, Mumbai was scraping its way back to relevance. As it so happens, this show is entirely in keeping with almost everything else the NGMA has served up under Rajeev Lochan's Delhi-based stewardship. Gone are the ambitiously mounted shows, the collaborations with international museums and galleries, the weekend and holiday art workshops for kids, the guided tours and the crowds. What we have instead are shows that pass through the city on their way across the country, interspersed only by repeated rearrangements of the institute's existing collections and virtually zero public engagement.  

Photo Credit:
If this sounds like a rant, that's because it is. I remember how the NGMA used to be when it was run by Dr. Sarayu Doshi - collections by the great Indian modernists, the city's first brush with Picasso, with Egyptian exhibits from the British Musuem, with Italian post-modernism, with Fluxus, the sense that something new was happening here every month. Post the Cowasjee Jehangir Hall's restoration and inauguration, the NGMA was where many people in the city had their first brush with international art, with public exhibitions and with careful, thoughtful curation. Prior to this, the only themed multi-artist exhibitions I had seen were the RPG sponsored annual shows at the Jehangir Art Gallery. 

The NGMA Mumbai's decline since Dr. Doshi's departure has been steep and has remained unchecked in spite of some publicly aired misgivings. In the last five years, I can count the number of interesting shows I have seen here on the fingers of one hand - the TIFR's collection of modern Indian art (2011), a Bollywood and film themed exhibition celebrating a 100 years of Indian cinema (2012), and the Rabindranath Tagore and Homai Vyarawalla retrospectives (2013 and 2011 respectively). Most of these exhibitions were launched in Delhi and passed through Mumbai as a matter of form. Even the TIFR show can be attributed to the energies of the that institute's director, and not to any lapse into initiative at the NGMA. Girish Shahane made many of these points in a trenchant post written about 3.5 years ago. Since then, little has changed.

This is just not good enough for what is supposed to be a premier art space in the country's financial capital. Across the way, the stately Prince of Wales museum has reinvented itself. The Bhau Daji Lad has also been consistently and imaginatively engaging with the city's community since its overhaul. 

It seems the NGMA has witnessed the appointment of a new Director for Mumbai, a Mr. Shivaprasad Khened. But Mr. Lochan's shadow must loom large, because any signs of a new dispensation and new energies are conspicuous by their absence. Mumbai needs more cultural spaces and museums, but the present NGMA is doing us a disservice, occupying prime real estate and consuming public resources and giving back very little in return, other than subsidized rentals for theater groups during the Kala Ghoda Festival. I don't know who's paying attention, and I'll wager nobody is, but since the new government claims to be coming in with cleaning supplies and a big broom, maybe I'll drop them a tweet. Or two.  

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Paintings, Prints and Ports

It isn't just me. Over the past year or so, the CSMVS (formerly the Prince of Wales Museum) has significantly upped its game, hosting events, exhibitions, lectures and meet-and-greets with a frequency that is quite surprising to anyone familiar with its history as a worthy, but deeply sleepy institution. 

This morning, the first Sunday of the New Year, saw me at the Premchand Roychand Gallery, which is hosting "Flemish Masterpieces From Antwerp" till the 6th of February. Interestingly, it's a show presented by the Port of Antwerp in collaboration with the city's museums. Not the other way around. 

The curatorial intent is intriguing - an exploration of the intersection between ports and art, the unwitting role of wealthy merchants and traders in creating currency and cachet for an artist or a style, the popularization of art through innovations in print-making, the Biblical and religious underpinnings of 17th century landscape and still-life works. This is a lot of ground to cover, and the show works best if approached as a sort of 'tasting menu' of Flemish art. It provides just enough exposure to portraiture, genre paintings, still life(s) and the celebrated artists Rubens, Van Dyk and Brueghel to whet the appetite. 

The paintings attest to the ability of Flemish artists to work with light and with lush, sensuous brush-strokes. But linger over the prints, most of which are simply outstanding. Print-making and etching are incredibly demanding and unforgiving endeavors. Artists and craftsmen have to labor hard and long, and there is little room for error. I've always thought of a great print - one filled with texture, depth and movement - as something of a marvel. I'd wager that many of the prints in this exhibition (done after Rubens) match or possibly even outdo the original paintings and drawings. There are hunting scenes swirling with lions, crocodiles and a hippopotamus, families in repose, scenes of drunken debauchery and a luminous (yes, in print form) portrait of a grandmother and grandson holding a candle. 

Keep an eye out for an easy-to-miss nobleman's portrait, one whose flamboyant lines and bold lack of detail from the neck down are nothing short of provocative, given the time in which it was produced. Last, but not the least, spend some time with Gonzales Coques and Daniel Segher's 'Portrait of a man in a garland.' Hundreds of years later, the flowers in that garland look beautiful and vibrant enough to break off and take home. 

So don't let the unimaginative title of the show dissuade you. You'll come away impressed by the art, and dare I say it, by the Port of Antwerp.  

Sunday, June 2, 2013

The Polymath As Painter

It is difficult, if not impossible, to visit the 'Last Harvest,' an exhibition of over 200 of Rabindranath Tagore's artworks, with a truly open mind. After all, one is talking about India's greatest polymath, a man equal parts poet, playwright, philosopher, cultural ambassador, educator, writer and humanist. His genius is authentic and undisputed. One hundred and fifty years after his birth, his ideas continue to resonate, his large body of work continues to move and to inspire. Surely, his paintings and sketches can be no different, even if the man himself was modest and diffident about them, describing his skill as limited and his interest as more of an indulgence, an infatuation? And so, one approaches the exhibition in a spirit of respectful curiosity. Critique is superfluous.

But I do have my opinions, and my overriding impression is that Rabindranath Tagore was not a great artist, but an interesting and significant one, although I would contend that at least some of the significance derives from the fact that Tagore was, well, Tagore. 

He started out making idiosyncratic doodles - forms in the margins of books, attempts to convert unseemly jottings and scratchings in his writing into larger patterns. His friend Victoria Ocampo encouraged him to pursue this fledgling interest and he eventually exhibited publicly in Paris in May 1930. His work was acclaimed,and travelled to other countries before being shown in Calcutta in 1931. 

This idiosyncrasy is evident in the first part of the exhibition - an aggregation of softly sinuous or severely angular forms rendered in pen, ink, pastels and watercolours. These are mostly fantastical creatures, monsters, flights of fancy that seem vaguely Asian or Polynesian, the substance of ancient art and old stories, simultaneously strange and familiar. The second part of the exhibition, devoted to inky landscapes, left me cold. The third and fourth parts - drawings of people, group scenes and faces - were the most rewarding. Tagore had a profound and sensitive understanding of character, drama and gesture and it's no surprise that all of the figures and faces in the exhibition express and emote. The women with their baleful eyes and elongated heads leave an indistinct, hazy impression, although there a couple of pen and ink drawings that are  so cleanly delineated and whimsical that they could almost have been drawn by another hand. 

Overall, the dark colour schemes, the smudgings, cross-hatchings and soft lines all combine to make you feel like you have wandered into a part of Tagore's mind where things are ideas are still suggestions and forms unresolved. Tagore spoke of his painting and sketching as having a rhythm and meaning that didn't require explanation. I'm not sure about the meaning, but there is a rhythm here - sibilant, soft, slow, serious and very occasionally, lilting. 

In his art, as in other spheres, he was modern before his time and by some accounts he catalyzed modern Indian art. When I look at his work I am reminded forcefully of KG Subramanyan's, and Subramanyan was himself a pioneer. Tagore was a titan before he picked up the paintbrush in his late sixties. And while his art does not build his genius, it does burnish it. 

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Two Saturday Mornings, Mostly Well Spent

It's been a promising few weeks for art in Bombay. The art world's equivalent of a rockstar making his debut in the city, a festival of photography, more shows previewing than I could keep count of and several populating the weekly must-do/must-see lists of lifestyle magazines. As always, there was more that I wish I had seen than I could actually make the time for.

A Photograph is Not an Opinion - Contemporary Photography by Women
Curated by Sunil Gupta and Veeranganakumari Solanki, featuring multiple artists
March 14th - 27th, Terrace Gallery (at Jehangir Art Gallery)

Many photographers, many concerns - disease and death, the environment, the body, the passage of time and meaning, a woman's right to physical autonomy in public spaces, the burdensof conflict and loss that women bear, longings and explorations, the constitution of family, socialization, repression and coming of age, desolation and its conceits. Some works were overtly feminist, some less so, some perhaps not at all. There was a lot to see and to process. Multiple themes jostled together and what one eventually got was a glimpse of an artist's work rather than an articulation of a narrative, process or aesthetic. Full marks for breadth and for bringing a few lesser-known names (to me, at least) into the spotlight. But none too many for depth.

A Village in Bengal
Chirodeep Chaudhari
March 14th - 26th, Project 88

I'd seen one of Chaudhari's photographs from this exhibition in my morning newspaper. It struck me enough to have me venture out in the afternoon sun to see the complete show. Anyone who's been in Bombay over the last few days will acknowledge that that's no mean feat for a badly reproduced photograph to accomplish.

Chaudhari's show consists exclusively of images of the Durga Pujo his extended family celebrates in their ancestral home in rural Bengal. Taken over a span of 12 years, the pictures are an attempt to capture his family's history as it evolves, takes on new forms and transforms completely. It is also a story of the photographer's own acquaintanceship with a place that is significant, but not, a place that is not quite home, but not quite away. If you visit, flip through the accompanying coffee table book - A Village in Bengal - and read the artist's essay, which describes his process much more eloquently and clearly than I have.

Looking at the show does feel a little bit like looking at a family album, but in the best possible way. Intimate without being intrusive, these images are vividly personal and particular but also instantly recognizable, each evoking a mood or a moment the viewer could have experienced in a completely different context. And they're beautiful - fine-grained and detailed in a way a lot of photography no longer seems to be. Ripples, creases, gestures and pauses are all captured with skill, deliberation and without mawkishness. Craft that doesn't crumble under the weight of concern might be old-fashioned, but it will always get my vote, and this show has plenty of it.

Anatomy of Silence
Rakhi Peswani
11th February - 9th March, Guild

I never know quite what to make of the Guild. I can't predict what I'm going to see - works that are angry and shrill, confusing, thought-through or simply well-intentioned. Rakhi Peswani's show checks the last three boxes, some more vigorously than others. It's an interesting idea - the exploration of the hand-made and its associations with art, myth or more appropriately in this country, labour. As a supposedly evolving consumption society, we exoticize and fetishize the hand-made but do not often enough investigate its origins in the repetitive and exploitative. What price do we - or does someone - pay for our crafts? The best works are those that bring light to bear on the unnoticed and unacknowledged 'handmade-ness' of the mundane - handkerchiefs, washcloths, mattresses. The least effective are the quotes embroidered on limply hanging sheets of gauze/ chiffon/ something ethereal.

Poems I Used To Know
William Kentridge
6th February - 20th March, Volte

What can I say about this show that hasn't already been said? Kentridge is much celebrated and lauded, and anyone who pretends to have even the most cursory interest in contemporary art has been hot-footing it to Volte over the past few weeks. The show has been heralded as a coup for the gallery and the city and for once, the heralds seem to have gotten it right.

I haven't seen enough of Kentridge's work or its staging to be able to compare this show with his other triumphs, but the art is indisputably interesting and good. I am not me, the horse is not mine is the centerpiece. Part collage, part film, part performance, part text, it's ultimately a work about the absurdity of disavowal and the conditions that make it necessary. What gestures and words does one employ to distance oneself from one's own gestures and words? It's ultimately a futile exercise but one that produces interesting and amusing theater when performed on a large enough scale.

There's enough and more to see and lots of technique on display - hand woven wool, ink and charcoal drawings on pages torn from the Oxford Universal Dictionary, sculpture, lithographs, smaller sets of films. I didn't expect to have fun, but I did, especially when watching 'No, IT IS' (2012), a triptych of flipbook films. I suppose it's because I really enjoy looking at sketches and pen and ink drawings, and Kentridge has a lightness and deftness of touch that I wasn't expecting.

So go, make sure you look at everything, and come away feeling that you've spent your time well.