Has everyone in India forgotten Ambadas?” The painter’s wife, Hege Backe, posed this question to noted Hindi poet and art writer Prayag Shukla on Ambadas’s birth centenary last year. Her remark led to a bout of introspection and a series of conversations between the writer and Dr Shruti Lakhanpal Tandon, founder of Ushaarth Art Foundation. The question deeply bothered Tandon, a dermatologist by profession, who felt that “it was tragic and shameful for us, as an educated, art=loving society, that this question should even be asked.” Ambadas slipped out of public memory largely because the occasions to engage with his art in India were infrequent; he was based in Norway for nearly 50 years. His abstract works were also eclipsed by the more narrative-figurative tendencies gaining ground in Indian art.
In tandem with Shukla, Tandon decided to pay tribute and revive interest in the modernist artist through her foundation. They got Uday Jain of the Delhi-based Dhoomimal gallery on board, since Ambadas had shown with them on several occasions when he was alive. The collaboration culminated in a day-long event, a book and a compact solo show, “Celebrating Ambadas”. Apart from an address by the Norwegian ambassador, Hans Jacob Frydenlund, at the event held at the India International Centre in Delhi, there were presentations and poetry reading sessions with artists, writers and poets, as well as the screening of two films that shed light on the artist and his life.
The discourse around him continues this year as well with a new show, ‘Celebrating Ambadas—A tribute on his birth centenary’, which is on view at Dhoomimal till 24 April. The current exhibition presents both oil paintings and ink-on-paper colour drawings.
In a striking untitled oil on canvas created in 1975, shades of orange, ochre and red are orchestrated, suffusing the painting with a warm glow. A circular mass of strokes hovers in the top half of the canvas, reminiscent of the setting sun or perhaps even a seething cauldron of molten lava. In a later phase, there was a perceptible shift in the artist’s palette, as can be seen in another untitled painting from 2001. Here the warm and vibrant tones reflective of hot Indian climes give way to a more cool, Nordic palette of blues, greys and even mauves.
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Ambadas’ canvases throb with exuberant energy, his fast and furious brushstrokes cover every inch of the canvas. They appear to be spontaneous acts, a seismograph of the artist’s emotional fluctuations. The outer world that he perceives is transformed within him, only to be regurgitated in visual transcriptions that thwart language and meaning. There is no attempt at producing representational forms or creating a narrative. In a catalogue accompanying one of his earlier solo exhibitions at Dhoomimal, the artist had said, “Art to me is a happening and a performance, an instant plunging, flirting and merging with life, with its being and becoming it. All that is there on the canvas is but a charge in celebration.”
The artist’s journey has been fascinating. Ambadas Khobragade was born in Telegaon in Maharasthra on 1 July 1922. When he was about 10, the family moved to Akola. At school his favourite subjects were drawing and maths, and he was keen to take up art. But given his family’s strained circumstances, this seemed like a dream. Luckily for him, some family friends came to the rescue and helped him study at a private art school run by Ravishankar Raval in Ahmedabad. Later he enrolled as a third-year student at the renowned Sir Jamsetjee Jeejebhoy School of Art in Bombay. His fellow students included Tyeb Mehta, Mohan Samant and Akbar Padamsee. Like many of the students there, Ambadas too came under the sway of European modernist artists such as Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee. Even then, he displayed a keen interest in abstraction with no desire to tread a figurative-narrative path.
After graduating in 1952, Ambadas worked in a toy factory with other artists , till he was fired for organising a strike. Much later he got a job as a textile designer for the All India Handloom Board, at the Weavers’ Service Centre, developing a friendship with fellow artist Prabhakar Barwe. Pupul Jayakar, who headed the Handicrafts and Handloom Corporation of India, asked him to join the Weavers’ Service Centre in Madras, from where he was transferred to the centre in Delhi. It was in the capital that he met artists Jagdish Swaminathan and Rajesh Mehra and in 1962 banded together with Jeram Patel, Himmat Shah and Gulam Mohammed Sheikh to form the artist collective “Group 1890.’ While the group had only one show together, Ambadas’s pursuit of abstraction did not go unnoticed. The American critic Clement Greenberg, who had visited India in 1967, arranged a three-month tour of the US to deepen his understanding of American Abstract Expressionism. In 1972, after his marriage to Backe, Ambadas moved to Norway, continuing to exhibit his paintings internationally as well as in India. He finally passed away in Norway in 2012, just short of his 90th birthday.
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Ambadas developed a special technique to create his distinctive ribbon-like forms and rhythmic, wavelike patterns. He would mix kerosene with paint to break it up. This process of breaking and binding the paint produced long, thin lines running the length of the brush strokes while imparting a smooth and satiny finish to the surface. In a manner that seemed almost performative, the artist would place the canvas on the ground and move around it while painting. This enabled him to approach the canvas from any point that he desired. As Swaminathan wrote in the catalogue for Ambadas’s solo show at Dhoomimal Gallery, Delhi and Gallery Chemould, Bombay, in 1987, “There is no beginning and no end to an Ambadas painting, no particular point of departure and particular point of arrival, the canvas invoking the eternal flux of the universe outside it and palpitating with a cosmic movement and passage within the frame.”