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Altaf Mohamedi’s art of dissent

As a retrospective on the late artist Altaf Mohamedi opens, his wife, artist Navjot Altaf, talks about censorship and art

Mohamedi with his wife, the artist Navjot Altaf. Photo: Courtesy DAG Modern Art Gallery.
Mohamedi with his wife, the artist Navjot Altaf. Photo: Courtesy DAG Modern Art Gallery.

Altaf Mohamedi was quintessentially an artist of the 1960s. His college years in London influenced the politics of his early career as an artist. And after returning to his home in Mumbai in 1967, he joined Proyom (Progressive Youth Movement), which was Marxist-Leninist and sympathetic to the Naxalbari cause.

In those years, Mohamedi took his posters to the streets, and his paintings to the schools and Dalit colonies of Mumbai. He and his artist wife Navjot, who was also interested in looking outward, but in more experimental ways, believed that the social, interactive nature of art could help transform the status quo.

A retrospective of the works of Mohamedi (who died in 2005) opens at the DAG Modern Art Gallery in Mumbai today. The paintings, from the 1960s to the late 1990s, in oil or watercolour, cover contemporary Indian history, including the Emergency, the Bhopal gas tragedy and the Gujarat riots of 1992. Mohamedi’s signature palette is dark colours in contrasting shades.

A deeply introspective strand runs through Mohamedi’s art, driven by personal experiences of loss, self-discovery and suffering. Throughout his life, Mohamedi tried to distance himself from the privileges that came from being born into an affluent family (his sister is the renowned artist Nasreen Mohamedi). His portrait series in the show etches the introvert and the extrovert, sexuality, alienation and death.

Navjot, now in her late 60s, was born in Meerut and studied at the Sir JJ School of Art before becoming part of Mumbai’s artistic-intellectual circle of the 1970s.

Mohamedi never moved away from the canvas. But Navjot, and contemporaries such as Vivan Sundaram and Nalini Malani, extended their practice to installations and video-art. Navjot has worked extensively with rural artists in Bastar, lending a voice to the “organic intellectuals" of the region.

In an interview, Navjot Altaf speaks about Mohamedi’s art, and art in the age of censorship. Edited excerpts:

What are your earliest memories of meeting and interacting with Mohamedi?

I first met Altaf in 1970 during his exhibition on the pavement outside the Jehangir Art Gallery. The Pavement Gallery was started by an artist called Nelson. Later, he came to the JJ School of Art, where I was a student, to give a talk on private and public art galleries, the difference between the two, and how the gallery system works. And the discussion moved to existing art institutions, the art education curriculum originally designed by the British, and the need for alternative institutions. Students, including me, asked some basic questions, but it stimulated the political imagination of some of us who believed in change, though at that time one did not know what the turning point could be.

Altaf was a politically and socially conscious artist and was already engaged with activities which exposed him to the world outside his personal studio space.

Besides the Marxist ideology, did the work of any artist, author or thinker directly influence his art?

The artist he liked the most was Francis Bacon. Altaf was an ardent reader. The thinker who influenced him and his art to a great extent from a very young age is Albert Camus. The idea of the absurd interested him.

What, apart from his political and social concerns, shaped his art?

Altaf’s art stemmed from personal anxieties concerning individual sensibility over collective precept, though the concept of joint efforts and solidarity was of great importance to him. His philosophical questions about death and the human condition led to the Hospital series in the mid-1980s, then a lot of his paintings were responses to political upheavals in Mumbai in 1992-93 and the 2002 Gujarat massacres.

Artists now aren’t directly engaged with the politics of the time. Would he be a misfit today?

Every generation deals with the politics of their time in their own way. Today also, there are artists who are deeply engaged with communities and current issues at various levels. Their number may be small. The modes of art-making have expanded. Artists are making art inclusive of people’s participation. Historically, what is important is how and in what context the questions in Altaf’s art enter contemporary art discourse.

What were Altaf’s views on how to combat offence and intolerance, big threats to artistic freedom?

Altaf would have said that the persecution of artists and artistic freedom have to be recognized as political. And that people come together to resist fundamentalism and threats to freedom of expression. I personally believe it is only the persecution of famous artists which gets attention. For a big change, people from minority cultures need to be supported.

He was actively involved with the Matunga Labour Camp, a communist organization in Mumbai. Was he part of the community at that time? What are your memories of those days?

Altaf was involved with the Matunga Labour Camp through Proyom in the early 1970s—a community of artists with leftist thoughts. Proyom comprised students from various colleges and Bombay university, lecturers, journalists and a few artists. There was a sense of community engaged in social change. Around the same time, film-maker Kumar Shahani and some other intellectuals used to organize rallies, artists like Sudhir Patwardhan were active in the Thane area, film-maker Anand Patwardhan was involved with other organizations in Bombay, and Vivan Sundaram was part of similar groups in Delhi. There was a link between the broader social context of what was happening in India and other parts of the world at that time.

Altaf—A Retrospective is on till 4 November, 11am-7pm (Sundays closed), at DAG Modern Art Gallery, VB Gandhi Marg, Kala Ghoda, Mumbai.

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