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A new exhibition pushes the boundaries of Indian modern art

DAG’s new exhibition challenges dominant art historical narratives and brings to our attention oft-overlooked practices

‘The Moonlight Meeting’ by Allah Bux. Courtesy: DAG
‘The Moonlight Meeting’ by Allah Bux. Courtesy: DAG

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It might come as a surprise for visitors to see Thomas Daniell’s Hunting the Serow in India as part of DAG’s seminal exhibition, Iconic Masterpieces of Indian Modern Art – Edition 2. In this dramatic painting, a deer is being attacked midstream by a pack of hunting dogs, while poised on the banks of the river, a hunter takes aim to fell it. The oil on canvas’s inclusion is unusual on several counts. Firstly, this is the only known hunting scene painted by Daniell during his years in India. As Giles Tillotson mentions in his short essay on the work in an accompanying publication, “The painting is clearly a work of the imagination which does not pretend to scientific accuracy in the depiction of either the animal or its habitat. Daniell had seen—and his nephew had shot at—many forest animals in India, but they were not his main area of interest, and he probably relied on a description.”

Secondly, the presence of a work painted in 1802 pushes at the boundaries of what one might consider Indian modern art. Expanding on the conceptual premise of the show Kishore Singh, senior vice president, DAG, remarks, “Over the years, we have included pre-modern art to ensure its foundations in India are adequately documented to reveal how changes and assimilations occurred—these changed the nature of art practice in the country.” He maintains that this exhibition too is in sync with DAG’s vision to bring to the audience either magnum-sized overviews of India’s art history, or works that are chosen for their rarity, historicity and quality. This perhaps explains why the show spans over two centuries of Indian art and does not limit itself to Indian modern masters.

The exhibition also serves to inaugurate DAG’s new flagship gallery, spread over two spacious floors, in Janpath. According to Ashish Anand, CEO and managing director, DAG, exceptional spaces make for exceptional viewing. “I always knew that art and culture districts need to be in the heart of the city. That is how we picked our spaces in Mumbai and New York—and now in New Delhi we have moved into the most ideal of locations. We are on Janpath, at Windsor Place, with the city’s historic shopping and dining districts at hand in the midst of Lutyens’s Delhi,” he says.

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Like the previous edition of Iconic Masterpieces of Indian Modern Art, which took place last year in Mumbai, this too brings together 50 artworks by 50 artists. Apart from the Daniell, there are paintings on display by other foreign travellers to India. For instance, there is the scenic depiction of Udaipur in Lake at Oodeypoore by the American Orientalist Edwin Lord Weeks, who was invited as a guest by the royal family.

‘Untitled’ by Shanti Dave. Courtesy: DAG
‘Untitled’ by Shanti Dave. Courtesy: DAG

Then there is a large-scale, rare work by a young Japanese nihonga artist, Shokin Katsuta, who arrived in India when he was all of 26. Hosted by the Tagore family, he was appointed as a teacher at the Government School of Art in Calcutta (now Kolkata), when Abanindranath Tagore was its vice principal. This gave a further fillip to the cross-pollination of styles and sensibilities between Bengali and Japanese artists. In this refined gouache, watercolour and gold pigment work on silk, which most likely depicts the banishment of Ram, Sita and Lakshman from a scene in the Ramayana, Katsuta brings together his intrinsic minimalistic sensibility with influences from Indian miniature painting traditions and the frescoes at Ajanta that he happened to visit.

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Similarly, Abanindranath Tagore’s paintings were also marked by the exposure to Japanese aesthetic principles and techniques as can be observed in The Dreamer. The watercolour wash on paper depicts a man dressed in loose robes, gazing pensively in front of him. The palette is sombre, with his grey hair and face forming a striking contrast to his red garments.

On the other hand, western artistic influences can be spotted in another Bengali artist Jamini Roy’s gouache on cardboard, Untitled (Madonna and Child), which features the Virgin Mary and infant Jesus. The arresting artwork is a far cry from Roy’s pared down patachitra-influenced forms and is testament to the artist’s interest in Byzantine sacred art, to which he lends a rustic touch.

This edition boasts of another rare artwork—the first commission received by Raja Ravi Varma, the painter who would go on to capture the popular imagination with his depictions of Hindu gods and goddesses. But here the painting centres around five members of the Kizhakke Palat Krishna Menon family. Varma met K.P. Krishna Menon, who was a sub-judge at the court of Mangalore, in Calicut when the aristocrat-artist was returning from a pilgrimage to Mookambika. Menon’s offer and Varma’s acceptance would prove life-changing for the latter as this gave him the nudge he needed to embark on his career as a professional artist.

Then there is a work by Amrita Sher-Gil— the only known sculpture by her, which she created a year before her death. It was used to illustrate a piece she wrote in The Usha Journal that was published posthumously. Fashioned in plaster of Paris, the prominent jet-black piece, Untitled (Tigers), depicts two snarling animals of prey.

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There are plenty of Indian modernists to view in the exhibition too. The Progressive Artists’ Group is represented by M.F. Husain’s Untitled (Two Figures with Cactus), Sadanand K. Bakre’s Untitled oil on masonite board, Francis Newton Souza’s St. Peter and Sayed Haidar Raza’s Zamine. Both Souza and Raza’s paintings date to 1960 and proffer an interesting contrast in styles. An arresting 1957 vertical format oil on canvas, Woman with basket of fruit, by Krishen Khanna depicts a bare-breasted woman with an infant on her hip, bearing a basket on her head. Its juxtaposition against a lighter background, makes the dark body of the fruit seller appear all the more imposing. In K.K. Hebbar’s striking painting, Victims, a forlorn air hovers over three seated figures. Their dejection is palpable in their body language and is further heightened by the sombre colours that the artist employs.

While figurative works dominate the show, there are a number of abstract works on display as well. Foremost among them are Ram Kumar’s Landscape, P. Khemraj’s Charpai, Shanti Dave’s oil and encaustic on canvas, G.R. Santosh’s tantric painting and Rajendra Dhawan’s untitled oil on linen. One of the most captivating works among them has to be Natvar Bhavsar’s large horizontal-format ABDHYAA, which stands out by dint of its subdued tones.

The exhibition as a whole serves to challenge dominant art historical narratives and brings to our attention oft-overlooked artworks and talent. As Anand states, “I am glad that we, at DAG, are extending the boundaries of pre-modern and modern art to include a greater range of artists and artworks that, I have no doubt, will soon be part of a larger understanding and study of art produced during this period.”

The exhibition can be viewed at DAG’s Janpath space till 26 March, after which it moves to the gallery’s Mumbai space at The Taj Mahal Palace in April

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