The elusive Mohan Samant
A key artist in the evolution of contemporary Indian art, the late Mohan Samant revolutionized painting but has been largely overlooked
To truly absorb the paintings of Mohan Samant, you have to “see" them. This obviously holds true for any art, but with Samant’s, in particular, you have to witness just how he turns an apparent flatness into a three-dimensional artefact. Any number of photographs won’t do justice; those will never fully capture how Samant quarries into canvases to create dens and cubbyholes; how he employs spackle alongside lush oils; and how he introduces paper cut-outs into his paintings.
His unorthodoxy was also the reason why his contemporaries “dismissed him as an aberration", as cultural theorist Ranjit Hoskote notes in his essay Mohan Samant: A One Man Avante Garde And A History That Would Not Claim Him. Samant died in 2004 at age 80 and was largely overlooked by the history of Indian art, although he was a member of the Progressive Artists’ Group, the short-lived collective that managed to eclipse other strands of Indian modernism. In the 1950s, Samant was exhibiting alongside the group’s better-known luminaries like M.F. Husain. He was shown in a seminal exhibition curated by Thomas Keehn, Eight Painters: Bendre, Gaitonde, Gujral, Husain, Khanna, Kulkarni, Kumar, Samant, in New Delhi in 1956. That year, he also won awards from the Lalit Kala Academy and Bombay Art Society. Samant moved to New York in 1968 and continued to practise from there, which only amplified his absence in the recorded trajectory of Indian modernism. It was a fate that wasn’t meted out to S.H. Raza or F.N. Souza, who also relocated abroad.
Viewing Samant, therefore, is not an opportunity that comes by often, and especially not in Mumbai, the city he called his birthplace. In the last 20 years, there have only been a handful of his shows in the city; the recent one opened on 11 October at Jhaveri Contemporary, titled Masked Dance For The Ancestors.
Looking at one of Samant’s large canvases, titled Celebration Of The Dead (1987), you get a sense of the outlandishness that marks his oeuvre. A valley of white cuts between two patches of brilliant blue-green. Skeletons embedded within niches are starkly exposed like in archaeological excavations or sepulchres. Delicate wire drawings are laced all over the painting. Samant is not easy to feel an affinity with but he will have you transfixed.
His widow Jillian Samant, who is the custodian of his works, recalls, “Mohan would manipulate wire to make these drawings. He never used a preparatory sketch or a template to make them. He was very skilled at making these drawings, but they are very difficult to do."
The couple met at an exhibition at the Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai in 1965. Recalling their life together, the Australian-born Jillian says that Samant spent his afternoons painting but his mornings were reserved for his sarangi. It struck a chord with Jillian, a practitioner of early Renaissance music with her viola da gamba. She says Mohan hated the term “professional" and loathed Sundays even more. “We would just take off to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he loved spending hours with ancient art and artefacts from about 5,000 years ago as well as an entire section dedicated to Paul Klee.
Samant comes across as a cosmic creator—everything had a place in his universe, even dinosaurs. Medusa On The Moon (1988) incorporates a doll’s head and dinosaur figurines. “He loved going to the shops after Halloween and finding things to use in his paintings," laughs Jillian.
“Mohan’s works are multidimensional not only because he references several artists, or because of the materials he uses, but also because of the way he would arrange specific elements in an intricate or interlocking way. It relates to the perspective as evident in Indian miniatures, where different points in time are shown in one frame," Jillian says.
Critics note that by experimenting with materials and stretching the limits of painting, he heralded the second wave of post-colonial artists, who emerged in the 1990s. Hoskote calls him “the missing link" in the evolution of contemporary Indian art. It is certainly not easy to fix Samant, but perhaps the artist never wanted to be.
Masked Dance For The Ancestors is on till 19 November at Jhaveri Contemporary, Colaba, Mumbai.