With the peak of the summer underway in Europe, join us on a unique trip through the continent, guided by eminent Indian artists including Souza, Raza, and more. We’ll take you to England, explore France, and spend a night in Italy before moving east to Greece and Hungary.
F N Souza, the “enfant terrible” of modern Indian art, hardly needs an introduction. His less known half-brother, Lancelot Ribeiro, might. As two paintings from important phases in their artistic careers go on auction in June, we look at intersections in their life and art.
Guest contributor Ananya Mukhopadhyay reviews Indian modernist Lancelot Ribeiro’s London exhibition
An exhibition at the Burgh House & Hampstead Museum in London marks the beginning of a year-long programme of events to explore and celebrate the work of the late Indian painter Lancelot Ribeiro. As part of the 2017 UK-India Year of Culture, Retracing Ribeiro is a Heritage Lottery-funded project which will examine the artist’s vibrant and often understudied oeuvre through a series of exhibitions and talks.
Having first travelled to the UK in 1950 to study accounting, Ribeiro quickly became disenchanted with both the London weather and his chosen vocation. While living in London Ribeiro acted as studio assistant to his half-brother, Francis Newton Souza, and also started to create his own works. He eventually abandoned his accountancy course and enrolled in St. Martin’s School of Art. Shortly after his graduation however, the artist was required to leave London for his National Service in the Royal Air Force, somewhat interrupting his artistic development. Following his discharge, Ribeiro returned to India and held several successful solo exhibitions before returning to England in mid-1962.
Untitled (Blue and Green Landscape), 1961
Image courtesy Grosvenor Gallery
Renowned gallerist Nicholas Treadwell was to be a great champion of the Indian artists who had settled in post-war London, selling their work door-to-door from his furniture van-cum-gallery space. As part of Asian Art in London 2016, Treadwell gave a talk at the British Museum recalling his dealings with Ribeiro and contemporaries Bakre and Souza as he trundled up and down the country in his mobile gallery. All three artists featured in Grosvenor Gallery’s show Indian Modernist Landscapes 1950-1970: Bakre, Ribeiro, Souza, on view 3 – 12 November at 32 St. James’s Street, London.
Untitled (Red Landscape with Dome), 1966
Image courtesy Grosvenor Gallery
Retracing Ribeiro is a chance to experience the extraordinary range of painterly styles practiced by the late modernist, from rare, naturalistic watercolours of Hampstead Heath, to expressionistic Goan landscapes punctuated with the spires and domes of his childhood. The artist’s pioneering use of PVA mixed with fabric dyes in the early 1960s presaged the widespread uptake of acrylic paints in the years that followed, a feat with which Ribeiro is rarely credited. His careful oil compositions have equally received little attention, in spite of their enduring vibrancy and strength of expression.
The Retracing Ribeiro exhibition will be on view at Burgh House & Hampstead Museum until 19 March 2017, while a heritage display from the Ribeiro archive will be on show at the Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre from 6 February 2017 – 31 March 2017. Forthcoming events include talks by David Buckman, author of Lancelot Ribeiro: An Artist in India and Europe, and an evening of lectures and music at the Victoria & Albert Museum early next year. For more information and a full calendar of events, visit www.lanceribeiro.co.uk/news.htm.
Vidhita Raina reports on Krishen Khanna’s lecture on “The Progressives” at London’s Courtauld Institute
Krishen Khanna (centre), Prof. Deborah Swallow (right) and Zehra Jumabhoy (left). Credits: Grosvenor Gallery, London.
“Is the artist only interested in being a unique individual? If I had considered my work to be unique, then I would have continued trying to be unique… and that is not what art is about,” said Krishen Khanna at a talk held at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London on June 8, 2015. This sagacious insight into his artistic motivations was one of the many gemstones that Khanna—a leading Indian Modernist painter—showered upon a rapt audience, eager in attendance to witness one of the stalwarts of Indian art reminiscing about its heydays.
With Deborah Swallow and Zehra Jumabhoy from the Courtauld Institute, and Conor Macklin from Grosvenor Gallery also on the panel, this debate was conducted as part of the “Contemporaneity in South Asian Art” seminar series.
The symposium was full of anecdotes as Khanna brought out his personal archive of letters exchanged between him and his many associates. Khanna’s nostalgic stories about his Bombay Progressive peers were unequivocally the highlights; particularly those involving his erstwhile roommate and one of the most celebrated Indian artists, the late Maqbool Fida Husain. It is common knowledge that Husain introduced Khanna into the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group (or “PAG”, as they were generally called). But the evening revealed one more nugget of information—Husain, during one of his visits to Khanna’s then home in Churchgate, Mumbai, borrowed his copy of the English art critic Clive Bell’s 1914 seminal text Art, only to eventually lose it. This incident, according to Khanna, was a result of “certain forces which operate at the right time”.
Khanna’s association with the PAG, which was formed right on the heels of India’s independence in 1947, led to several accomplishments in his trajectory as an artist. He held major exhibitions in Mumbai and New Delhi in the late ’50s. The Tata Institute of Fundamental Research showed great interest in his work, and its founding director—the esteemed nuclear physicist Dr. Homi Bhabha—bought his very first painting. In 1960, Khanna had his first solo show with Leicester Galleries of London. Here Khanna drew upon a letter written by renowned British art historian, Sir Kenneth Clark, gloriously calling one of his major abstract artworks a “masterpiece”.
Khanna spoke at length about Francis Newton Souza’s role as the driving force behind the PAG, including calling the group as “Progressives”. However, the term was subsequently dropped as many of its members—which also included artists like S.H. Raza, Akbar Padamsee, Tyeb Mehta, V.S. Gaitonde, Ram Kumar, K.H. Ara, among others—felt that it had political connotations. It was a suggestion that rankled with Khanna, as the PAG never saw itself as a political group.
But even as the PAG was beginning to emerge as a new wave of artists in post-independent India unfettered by their political climate—and dissociating themselves from the nationalist spirit of the preceding Bengal School artists in the process—their art, Khanna’s in particular, couldn’t avoid resonating with social, economic and political undertones of a changing nation state.
Born in the city of Lyallpur (now Faisalabad of modern day Pakistan) in 1925, Khanna was, and is, no stranger to political turmoil. Following the Partition of India in 1947, his family moved to Shimla in northern India. Khanna himself accepted a job at Grindlays Bank in Bombay, a position he would hold for 14 years, before finally resigning to focus on his art completely.
Krishen Khanna on the ‘Progressives’ at the Kenneth Clark Lecture Theatre, The Courtauld Institute of Art. Credits: Grosvenor Gallery, London.
A self-taught artist, Khanna created works that showed a strong preoccupation with the historical background of his time. For him, the humanistic element in a painting was a paramount. Khanna was deeply concerned with the condition of the individual. It’s an artistic anxiety highly evident in his paintings of tired workers piled in trucks, dhaba owners in twilight moments, and the uniformed “bandwallas”—the last vestiges of long-dead British imperial legacy. In her biography Krishen Khanna: The Embrace of Love, critic Gayatri Sinha has said: “the paintings constitute a powerful psychological engagement, one that also serves as a document of the passage of time in modern India.”
Another aspect of the debate, raised by Conor Macklin and Zehra Jumabhoy, was India’s relationship with Britain, and the impact of the European Avant-garde Movement on the PAG. Just as the modern art of Europe rose from the trenches of the World War I, the trauma resulting from the Partition of India also stimulated a new language of art production in its wake. In an effort to locate a new identity and language for Indian art, many of the modern artists such as Souza, Raza, and Padamsee—having studied or spent time in Paris—inevitably found themselves looking towards Western styles of art.
Khanna himself was a well-travelled and worldly artist: he was the first Indian painter to be awarded the Rockefeller Fellowship by New York’s prestigious Rockefeller Foundation in1962. As part of this fellowship, Khanna spent time in Japan where he found inspiration in the Sumi-e (Suibokuga) calligraphic style of paintings, practiced by Zen Buddhists during the 14th century. This led to a number of experiments in abstraction during the ’60s and ’70s, which Khanna reflected upon as “a series of events which formulate or assist in formulating the kind of action you have to take”. In the following year, he was invited as the artist-in-residence at the American University, Washington D.C., and exhibited at various museums and galleries throughout the United States.
Besides being a riveting trip down memory lane, the symposium was mainly a precursor to Krishen Khanna’s ongoing retrospective at the Grosvenor Gallery titled “when the band began to play he packed up his troubles and marched away”. A certain homage was paid to the presence of the seminar being held at the Kenneth Clark lecture theatre, named after the eponymous art historian and an old associate of the artist.
Khanna’s talk was one for the history books—significant moments during the early Indian Modernist phase were brought up, including when artist Bal Chhabda opened Gallery 59. It was Mumbai’s first, short-lived art gallery to showcase artworks by the PAG members in 1959. The group may be long gone, but they left an undeniable legacy for India and the world to treasure.
Audrey Bounaix takes you through India’s 3000-year history in eight triptychs by Husain
Back in the 1980s, the Victoria and Albert Museum had acquired two sets of lithographs by Maqbool Fida Husain. This time, they’ve set up a room to house his painted triptychs. Eight large panels on view from 28 May – 24 July 2014, offer viewers—especially those new to Indian art—a chance to interpret India in its myriad traditions. As someone with a deeply rooted interest in Bollywood cinema hoardings, I jumped at the occasion thinking that Husain’s monumental triptychs would be in the same vein as his early billboard paintings. My visit to the V&A convinced me otherwise. It had nothing to do with the glamorous cinema world, but instead illustrated the richness of India’s history. We sense reminiscences of his early work freely inspired by photography; Husain is no longer roaming the streets of Madras to capture street imagery, but roaming through Indian history in order to translate as closely as possible its richness. This manifests metaphorically in the art on display. It was meant to be on a grander scale; the artist was still working on the project at the time of his death and originally envisaged a series of 96 panels for Mrs Usha Mittal who commissioned it in 2008.
I was first plunged into darkness as I stepped into the V&A room, but a brightly-painted Ganesha then welcomed me. As if I was performing the traditional pradakshina—or, to use an approximate translation, circumambulate a Hindu temple—the display transported me to a similar spiritual mindset. The dynamic representation of Ganesha is accompanied by a curvaceous female form similar to the terra cotta modelling produced during the Indus Valley Civilization (3300–1300 BCE).
This painting is significant in setting a new benchmark through its representation of Indian cultural heritage through eight triptychs. The scale allows for the narrative to move and inspire viewers. The first triptych is titled Three Dynasties, and explores Indian history through three different rulers. Among them, two are foreigners and assume the left and right panels, whereas the Maurya reign is in the centre with its famous Ashoka pillar erected under Emperor Ashoka’s rule. The four-headed lion facing the four main directions is replaced by a real one here. Husain also added what seems to be a seal representing Buddha’s Enlightenment, to recall Ashoka’s renouncement of the world and adoption of Buddhism. Mixing the time and forms, the artist is playing with timeless symbols. In the right panel, he has pared down the time of British Raj to medal-laden British dignitaries with imperceptible features. Queen Victoria is enthroned in a neo-classical pavilion, and Mahatma Gandhi and a Rolls Royce also figure in this panel. Husain’s aim is not to depict historic events as they happened but more to give us an idea through symbols that encapsulate the stakes of Indian history.
Another triptych full of details and references, so much so that it will make you smile once you decipher them, is titled Tale of Three Cities. Here again, the middle panel seems to hold a special significance and Varanasi, city of spirituality, holds this privileged place. Delhi is on the left, while Rabindranath Tagore, Subashchandra Bose, Satyajit Ray and Mother Theresa all figure in Kolkata’s panel in a patchwork’s assemblage, where only the Indian nationalist is given recognisable features . Even though the faces are left without features, symbols are recognised at first sight since they are reduced to their essential attributes. Colours are used for some clarity purposes to delineate the different parts and persons. Strokes of warm paint alternate with shadows to create volume. Husain’s genius lies in his mix of forms and ideas which trigger an immediate sense of identity.
Husain has always believed that Indian culture is not fundamentally Islamic or Hindu, but secular. In Traditional Indian Festivals and Indian Householders, he takes the viewer through a composite culture that has evolved over centuries. The glimpse into the homes of Hindu, Sikh and Muslim families is specified by an aim “to tell a true story of our common people”. In light of his commentaries, the Singer sewing machine, a Hindu journal, an umbrella, a bicycle, the Coran, a Siva Nataraja statue, a hukka, a calendar poster of Govind Singh are stressed as common objects characterising people more than their religion does. Husain attempts to attach himself to reality by portraying his family from memory, the Nanboodri family of Madurai, and Sardarji Bunta Singh of Ludhiana, but the faces and expressions remain obscure. Though on the surface it tells us to assimilate ourselves with families going about their daily life, the underlying theme is of unity which resonates with Husain’s own beliefs.
Husain’s sensitivity to history is evident in his picturisation of Rabindranath Tagore’s quote: “How the language of stone surpasses the language of man”. In Language of Stone, he chooses to pay a tribute to the rich South Asian lithic heritage. As before in Tale of Three Cities, the statuesque figure of the poet is represented in dark shades while Husain uses warm colours for art objects. He makes reference to the Indus Valley Civilization with the insertion just under the epitaph of The Priest with Trefoil Drape, a masterpiece ranged between 2500-1500 B.C. and preserved today at the National Museum of Karachi. With the Qutub Minar painted in a low-angle shot, a 10th century high-relief from Khajuraho and a wheel from the 13th century Surya Temple, Husain opts for pre-historical or medieval Indian sculptures. Even if there is no Buddha with gentle modelling forms typical from the Gupta Age, I have to say that Husain knows how to pump energy in objects that are inherently statics.
The same frenetic energy is seen in Modes of Transport, where Husain presents the multiple journeys of India’s citizens as a metaphor for the journey of life. His impressions of India’s history, religion and everyday living are translated through strokes of vibrant colours and superimpositions of ideas and symbols.
Husain’s journey through Indian history is completed through another medium: film. His early cinematic experiment—a 1967 film documentary—translates his impressions of Rajasthan in a very aesthetic way. This freely inspired work filming a shoe, an umbrella and a lantern in a close-up, does not remain extraneous to the triptych series. It intersperses countryside, faces and objects in the same way symbols are isolated in his paintings.
This exhibition is a prompt to travel. More importantly, entry is free to the public. Husain’s images are powerful and vivacious, and that’s enough incentive to drop by to view these works.