It is indeed one of the paradoxes of life that publicity often seeks out those who least seek it. It can also happen posthumously. Of the artists, Vincent Van Gogh was one such. His radiant painting of irises had over two decades ago created a world record when a Japanese collector snapped it up for what was then an astronomical figure. On December 19 last year, the reclusive artist, Vasudev Santu Gaitonde (1924-2001), who ended his life in a Delhi barsati, made waves for the second time (yes, he had smashed records earlier too) in the recession-hit Indian art market, when his glowing canvas sold at the recent Christie’s auction in Mumbai for an astounding Rs 23.7 crore.
Gaitonde’s paintings are the rarest of rareties, for the artist from Goa, who was trained at Sir J.J. School of Art, destroyed canvases that did not pass his rigid quality control. CIMA Gallery’s exhibition, Transition (up to January 25), organized to celebrate its 20th anniversary, boasts a Gaitonde canvas (picture). Unlike the other members of the Progressive Artists’ Group, of which M.F. Husain was one, Gaitonde eschewed forms and opted for ideas. And few paintings could be more deeply introspective than this russet canvas on which float floes of ochre in semi-geometric shapes that could be hieroglyphs of a yet-undeciphered tongue, adding to the enigma and mystique of this work. Yet it is inconspicuous, and never raises its voice above whispers that only the chosen few can comprehend.
Gaitonde’s two contemporaries here are Sayed Haider Raza (born 1922) and K.G. Subramanyan (born 1924). While he has a trait in common with Raza — both artists are known for their non-figurative work — as an artist, Subramanyan is poles apart. The latter has a sprightly mind, and the diversity of ideas, elements and cultures — and surprisingly, even sexualities — in his work is often mind-boggling. He opens up manifold worlds with their own colours, myths, geographies and memories. Another coeval is Ram Kumar (born 1924), known for his sombre and contemplative landscapes where the physical world melts away, revealing the inner world of his thoughts. His Durga is individualistic. She has little to do with the Kumartuli goddess. She is, no doubt, many-armed. And she does stand triumphantly before the enemy (presumably) she has overpowered. But she could also be a young girl with large vulnerable eyes and a battle-worn face.
It is immaterial whether or not the organizers tried to create such links with the works of a heterogeneous nature displayed here. But connecting disparities could be an engaging mind game for viewers.
Ram Kumar’s Durga ushers in other mythical creatures present in this exhibition. Shilpaguru Ananta Maharana (born 1936), who as a folk artist from Odisha, has won many accolades, has created this massive Hanuman who is a microcosm of the Ramayan itself, his entire body and limbs serving as the unifying thread of the grand narrative. This exhibition has effortlessly placed folk in conjunction with the classic, and Ganesh standing upright by Sukumar Dutta (born 1935) comes closest to the soft toys village women once used to make for children. Dutta, however, is no folk artist. He was initially trained at the Government College of Art & Craft, and later Ramkinkar Baij was his guru in Santiniketan. Dutta’s Ganesh is made of fabric, but with its layered, embroidered skin of muted shades, limp proboscis, a single beady red eye, and threadbare ears, it is a piece that is more personal fantasy than folk art, although the ingredients could be the same.
Ramesh Tekam (born 1969) has his roots in the world of Gond paintings of Madhya Pradesh. Keeping the tradition in mind, Tekam has created an image that combines the simplicity and wit of a cartoon in a bold, contrasting colour scheme. In this context, it would not be far-fetched to state that artists like Meera Mukherjee (1923-1998) and Jogen Chowdhury (born 1939) have done the same in their time — using folk elements and techniques to create a personal language and idiom that is immediately identifiable. Their works displayed here reveal that.
A much younger artist, Rudranil Das (born 1975), attempts to do the same in his “woven” paintings, just as Shreyasi Chatterjee (born 1960) has with embroidery, using needle and thread as a medium of self-expression. Chintan Upadhyay (born 1972) and Farhad Hussain (born 1975) could not have been more differently motivated as artists. But apocalypse meets the ATM in their bold and brassy works. This mind game can be fun.