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Painting to the sound of music

For artists like Nasreen Mohamedi, Sudarshan Shetty and Manjot Bawa, music has been integral to the process of creation

Untitled (1960) by artist Nasreen Mohamedi. Photo courtesy: Kiran Nadar Museum of Art
Untitled (1960) by artist Nasreen Mohamedi. Photo courtesy: Kiran Nadar Museum of Art

Seated in her studio in Vadodara, Nasreen Mohamedi would often draw late into the night, with strains of Hindustani classical music—raga Miyan Ki Todi and compositions rendered by Pandit Bhimsen Joshi—playing in the background. “Music-abstract quality and yet real to such a degree that it is almost life," she wrote in her diary on 17 February 1960. “It would seem that this attitude guided her pristine compositions of asymmetrical grids and floating diagonals. These drawings evoke the improvisational tenets of the music she so enjoyed, rather than notating melodies and vibrations," writes Shanay Jhaveri, assistant curator, South Asia, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, in his curatorial essay about the show Everything We Do Is Music. It was on view recently at the Drawing Room, London, and the Kunsthaus Centre D’Art Pasquart in Biel/Bienne, Switzerland. The exhibition explored how Indian classical music has been a source of inspiration for modern and contemporary artists such as Mohamedi, Mohan Samant, Lala Rukh, Shahzia Sikander and Hetain Patel.

Not all artists interpret musical notes through their work, but the music becomes a part of their subconscious as they create art. “Maybe this is because music adds a certain rhythm to their lives and practice. A scientist had given a lecture in Delhi, some time back, about ‘synaesthesia’, or the rare capacity to hear colours, taste shapes or experience other sensorial inputs," says art historian Ella Datta. “An artist, with a heightened sense of sensitivity, too can visually perceive a powerful piece of music."

Take, for instance, Manjit Bawa, whose practice was influenced by Sufi and classical music—songs by Bulleh Shah and Baba Farid, and compositions sung by Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, M.S. Subbulakshmi and M. Balamuralikrishna. Writer-curator Ina Puri, who watched him paint, says he not only believed in the music but also in the life of a Sufi. “He sincerely believed in coexistence and peace. Which is why you will see the lamb and lion being placed side by side in his work," says Puri. “He also loved playing the tabla and the flute. When I look at the flautist in his paintings, I often feel that this is how he saw himself—in the vast wilderness, playing the bansuri to a herd of bulls and cows."

Music has elicited a similar response from Sudarshan Shetty, whose work is informed by various traditions and is about finding a common ground among them. Nirgun poetry is often the best way to explain a certain world view, which encapsulates a secular way of looking at seemingly opposite or diverse ideas within a singular space of experience. “To employ the ideas within music in my work is a conscious decision. Through this, there is a way to find resonance with the way we negotiate the world outside on a daily basis," he says. There is a lot to take away from the rendering of Nirgun poetry by Kumar Gandharva—in his opinion, one of the most important contemporary masters. It opens up a way to point at the idea of emptiness, through a world abundant with images. This has influenced a lot of Shetty’s work, especially Shoonya Ghar, which comprised a multi-channel video installation and large-scale architectural elements. “He talks about the idea of playing with time as well. You can extend it, expand it, and a parallel notion of time is established," says Shetty.

A transcendence, of sorts, can be seen in the case of V. Ramesh, who got to listen to stalwarts such as Ustad Bismillah Khan and Pandit Bhimsen Joshi when he was studying in Vadodara in the 1970s. When he started his practice in Visakhapatnam, he also started listening to Carnatic music, including artists such as Sanjay Subrahmanyan and T.M. Krishna.

Especially impactful has been the music of two singers, T. Brinda and T. Muktha, cousins of the famed dancer T. Balasaraswati. “Only one official record of their music exists, and that belongs to the AIR archives. It was said that they were extremely arrogant about their music. When I heard them, I realized why that was so. I have heard the same composition rendered by other singers. But they managed to find niches in it, while staying within the tenets of the composition," says Ramesh. Carnatic music doesn’t just soothe his senses, but also helps answer questions critical to his practice: What is more important—content or form; how can one set boundaries for oneself and then find spaces within those to take the practice further? “He has often said that in a raga, the same note is sung in so many different ways. He tries to do the same with his painting. The way he wields the brush—in such disparate ways, from a delicate watercolour to a magnificent painting, but all by the same person," says Tunty Chauhan, director, Gallery Threshold, Delhi.

It is this interpretation of a composition by different artists that moves Tanya Goel as well, whose work draws inspiration from the city grid, combining music, poetry and cartography. “I think about the frequency and sound wave of each colour," says Goel, who listens to instrumental classical music in her studio. She says it influences the direction in which the brush moves, the pace, and more. “I listen to Chopin and Bach a lot. I especially like Ignacy Jan Paderewski’s interpretation of Chopin, and also Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 2," she adds. One will also find her listening to Philip Glass’ album Glassworks and Laurie Anderson’s O Superman.

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