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Art Special 2024: What the letters of artists reveal about their inner lives

Letters dispel the notion of the artist being a solitary genius, and show that there are many ways to approach and understand art

S.H. Raza with Khorshed Gandhy (Image courtesy: Chemould Prescott Road)

By Shalini Umachandran

LAST PUBLISHED 28.01.2024  |  03:07 PM IST

When Chemould Prescott Road turned 50 in 2013, Shireen Gandhy, who heads the Mumbai-based gallery, organised a series of five exhibitions, Aesthetic Bind, to mark the anniversary. They were curated by celebrated art historian and critic Geeta Kapur but neither the artists nor the curator met to bring it all together. “It was all done on email," says Gandhy, who took over the gallery from her parents, Kekoo and Khorshed Gandhy, in 1988. “We discussed everything threadbare on email."

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There was so much detail in the correspondence with the 21 artists, who included Mithu Sen, Vivan Sundaram, Gigi Scaria and Anju Dodiya, that Gandhy decided to reproduce all the emails alongside the images of the artwork in the exhibition. “It became an important form of how exhibitions are made. It gives you a sense of how artists think, how curators and gallerists work with them," she says. “Communication in writing tells you so much more about relationships, triggers, the value one gives to the other."

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Letters written by artists—to friends, family, lovers, collectors, patrons, gallerists and fans—and frequently illustrated with quick sketches or whimsical caricatures, provide an extraordinary wealth of information on their lives, passions, struggles and relationships. They have been an essential resource for scholars—biographers of Michelangelo, for instance, have drawn on a trove of 1,390 letters, about 500 of which were written by him and the rest to him. In an article in the journal Renaissance Quarterly in 2005, Deborah Parker writes that they provide information on “the sculptor’s many-sided existence, from his complicated business affairs, his family trials, his anxieties over the obstacles which hindered his many projects to the fabrics he preferred for his clothes" .

Handwritten letters and carefully crafted emails are a rarity now as we text, leave voice notes and send memes to communicate, fragments of ideas that we scatter in different places. What letters do is draw together these many ideas with the quirks and inclinations of the artist-writer shining through. Nandalal Bose, for instance, the collection in the DAG gallery archives show, sketched or painted to illustrate the postcards he sent, covering them with the things he saw (like a lion from Junagadh forest or a “ku-jhik-jhik gadi" or train for a grandchild). Bhupen Khakhar was wont to scribble in all the margins, squeezing postscripts into the space between the flaps on aerogrammes as one can see in the collection of retired Washington DC-based professor and collector Brian Weinstein. Also in Weinstein’s collection is a crisp note sent in 1996, condemning the attacks on M.F. Husain.

These letters dispel the notion of the artist being a solitary genius, and are testament to the broader creative community that supports art. They are also proof that there are many ways to approach and understand art.

A postcard from Nandalal Bose to a grandchild. (Image courtesy DAG Archives)

“All the senior artists wrote to one another in those days (1940s-1980s). Most of them were in Europe and either wrote to people at home or to one another," says Arun Vadehra, founder, Vadehra Art Gallery in Delhi. The gallery has published three books on S.H. Raza’s correspondence—Maitri: Letters Between Sayed Haider Raza & Ashok Vajpeyi (2016), Geysers: Letters Between Sayed Haider Raza & His Artist- Friends (2013) and My Dear: Letters Between Sayed Haider Raza & Krishen Khanna (2013). These books are a result of the thousands of letters Raza carried with him when he moved back to India from France in 2010, “representing a deep understanding of the careers and beliefs of so many artists".

The letters are a window to a more innocent version of these master painters, when they were not household names commanding exorbitant prices, and when no one really understood what they were trying to do. “There are postcards, letters, cards—all document the struggle they went through to make it, and are a record of post-Independence Indian art. It shows their deep commitment and passion for art, pursuing that career irrespective of monetary gain," says Vadehra, giving the example of Ram Kumar, who had a degree in economics from St. Stephens and gave up a bank job in 1948 to pursue art. When Ram Kumar told his father about his intention to abandon a life of settled comfort to paint, he was given a one-way ticket to Paris and told not to return.

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“The letters from those seven years Ram Kumar spent in Paris are so poignant, so determined, so personal," says Vadehra. “When I started the gallery in 1987, these artists would all sit together and work, talk, criticise, sometimes they’d be polite, sometimes not, but it was all about the art—everything came from their passion for art. Later, sadly this passion became converted, there was competition…," he drifts off, before continuing, “The main thing is these letters bind the artists in a friendly manner, and that is important."

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Not all letters that artists write make for thrilling reading. One of Khakhar’s letters, for instance, is filled with minutiae about customs duty and invoicing for paper, no doubt crucial to his work but not particularly fascinating to the modern reader. “It’s not necessarily significant to collect all letters of all artists but Bhupen’s revealed his ideas about relationships; the letters in Gujarati contain stories to children of other artists," says Weinstein, who first met Khakhar in the 1990s. The letters Khakhar, who was gay, wrote to his partner who was married, are particularly poetic. “I was shown the letters but the price was ridiculous so I refused to buy them, but they are beautiful. He wrote in English to express his deep love so that the man’s Gujarati family would not be able to understand." They say as much about the relationship as they do about society at a time when condemnation and criminalisation of homosexuality was widespread.

For Kiran Nadar, chairperson of Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, the correspondence between Nandalal Bose and his two most important mentors, Abanindranath and Rabindranath Tagore, which they have in their collection, is particularly special. “It provides an invaluable insight in the workings of Santiniketan and Viswa Bharati University in its most important nascent period. They reflect the complex roles Bose played as an artist, an artistic adviser to the political leaders of an emergent nation, and as an educator to a new generation of artists," she says. “Handwritten letters... are like time capsules that freeze a moment in one’s life.... an archive that art historians, writers and scholars keep going back to when one is studying an artist and their practice in depth."

All artists let their work speak for them, expressing themselves through canvas, which is, of course, enough—but letters are more personal and provide glimpses of habits and interests outside of art. Among the many letters Raza wrote to Gandhy’s mother Khorshed are details about planning a trip to Mumbai, which reveal his favourite haunts. “My mother was highly articulate and communicative. Raza would respond philosophically, light-heartedly, seriously…theirs was a deep friendship, based on respect and a sense of mentorship," says Gandhy.

At a time when phone calls were prohibitively expensive, people wrote copiously, and when read together, these artists’ letters paint a rich portrait of life. “Now we don’t have letters, we have articles, we have interviews, we have social media to tell us what to think of the artists but it’s not as interesting as their own words," says Vadhera.

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