In the well-worn tussle between tradition and modernity in Indian art, painter Badri Narayan occupies a unique niche. A self-taught stylist, he created a visual language that was at once idiosyncratic and, yet, also strikingly apart from that of his more celebrated contemporaries—M.F. Husain, K.H. Ara, S.H. Raza, F.N. Souza, and others, who came together to form the iconic Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group in 1947.
Born in 1929 and coming into his own as the Progressives were shaking up the old order, Badri Narayan preferred to remain on the fringes of this colourful gathering of iconoclasts. Not for him were the unabashedly bold themes and modernist style that the Progressives basked in, or the ripples of controversy they sent out into the genteel corridors of Indian art. Till the end of his days, Badri Narayan was devoted to narrative as the driving force behind his art. He retained an intuitive, almost primal, innocence, which distinguished him from deliberately outré modernists—and also somewhat obscured his talent from the mainstream.
In Badri Narayan: Portrait of the Artist as Storyteller, published by Marg and Pundole Art Gallery, journalist Prema Viswanathan beautifully captures the essence of Badri Narayan’s life and legacy, which, while indubitably vibrant, never quite got the recognition it deserved. Part of the reason for this critical neglect lies in Badri Narayan’s personality. Never interested in spreading his wings to the far shores—as Souza and Raza did by settling abroad—he was content to immerse himself in the familiar. Nor was Badri Narayan keen to embrace the trends that were in vogue in the West, at least not as overtly as some of his compatriots did. And, above all, he was never one to create work customized to serve the demands of the market.
On the contrary, Badri Narayan remained steadfastly devoted to his vision, at the risk of appearing insular, and often gave away his work freely to his friends and admirers. Among the many anecdotes in the book, there is one about him gifting a painting of Lord Ganesha to his favourite paanwalla near his home in the Mumbai suburb of Chembur. When Badri Narayan realized that the man may not have the means to have it framed, he took it away, got it mounted himself, and returned with it.
If such vignettes come together to form a portrait of the artist as convivial soul, Viswanathan doesn’t paper over the difficulties that some of Badri Narayan’s behaviour led to. Apart from a periodically rocky married life, his lifelong habit of “self-abnegation” and gentle yet firm non-conformism might have limited his potentials—and even been inimical to the flowering of his talent. Badri Narayan chose to remain solitary in his pursuit of creativity, much like the figure of the unicorn, which, in Viswanathan’s words, is like “an ethereal presence” in his paintings—“a lonely sentinel standing on the threshold between the myths that form the resources for the artist’s creations and the imaginative universe created by the artist”.
Badri Narayan’s art comes alive on this interface between myth and reality, like a cross between the traditional and modern. European fauvism and the dreamy wispiness of surrealism coil around the scenes from the puranas, folktales, and the epics he loved to depict. Be it Savitri’s quest to save her husband Satyavan from Yama, the god of death, or the poet Chandidas’s doomed love for Rami, Badri Narayan turned well-known tales into playing fields for his imagination. These age-old yarns, told and retold over generations and almost embedded in the DNA of the average Indian, became vehicles of expression for his humanist politics or, in Viswanathan’s words, “his desire to break hierarchies”. As the cultural theorist and curator Ranjit Hoskote writes in the introduction to the book, in Badri Narayan’s art, “We see time as a fabric with strange rips and twists.” Past and present, memory and imagination, diffuse into the delicate hues of his painterly universe.
Viswanathan’s detailed and thoughtful analysis braids biographical context with the shifts Badri Narayan made in his working methods. His decision to move away from the more pliable medium of oil painting to the less forgiving watercolour, for instance, was triggered by his daughter’s allergy to turpentine. Quite as seamless was the evolution of his childlike sense of wonder and clarity of his style—both enriched by the years he spent teaching art to school children. Always a favourite with the young—he appeared on TV shows for children and introduced what is now known as "art therapy" at remand homes for juvenile delinquents—Badri Narayan had a profound belief in art's healing energies. To this day, his compositions tend to evoke a soothing, almost palliative, effect on the onlooker.
In the hyper-commercial world of contemporary art, record-breaking auctions and astronomically-valued NFTs, Badri Narayan's reputation as a purveyor of Indian modernism may seem obscure, but his contribution, as Viswanathan’s careful evaluation shows, was abundant. Although his aesthetics often veered towards the decorative, Badri Narayan bravely reckoned with what it means to be modern and Indian. He set out on a quest to find a voice that rang out with the ideas that have defined India as a country and civilization, without being blindly imitative of the West. His mode of self-assertion remains inextricable from the knotty question of “Indian culture”—the answer to which, nearly a decade after Badri Narayan’s death in 2013, is yet to be laid to rest.