Ganesh Darwaza 

The following Art Review of the Bharat Ratna Show at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, was written by Cate McQuaid, Globe Correspondent, and published by the Boston Globe on January 10, 2010

Jewels of rarely examined works

Exhibit of modern Indian artists is small in scale, not vision

The Museum of Fine Arts has a vast and impressive collection of Indian antiquities, but “Bharat Ratna! Jewels of Modern Indian Art’’ is the museum’s first exhibit of modern and contemporary Indian art.

It’s a small show, featuring 16 paintings, displayed in a corridor abutting Indian antiquities, a setup that invites the viewer to make delicious correspondences over the centuries. The paintings are on loan from the collection of Payal and Rajiv Jahangir Chaudhri. The artists in “Bharat Ratna’’ are some of India’s best. Still, it’s an all-too- swift dash through a half-century of art.

To be fair, the MFA’s lack of interest in such work until now is symptomatic of the Western art world’s tendency, in the latter half of the 20th century, to dismiss Indian artists as derivative and late to the game. (A major exception is the Peabody Essex Museum, which has a deep and varied collection of contemporary Indian art, one of the best outside India.)

Artists in India came to modernism decades later than their colleagues in Europe and the United States. Look at Jehangir Sabavala’s “Benkei II’’ (1955). It’s a cubist whirlwind of fractured forms, with the suggestion of a figure – Benkei, a warrior priest chronicled in Japanese Kabuki dance-drama – at the center. It’s delectably impossible to tell where Benkei ends and his surroundings begin. The painting brilliantly pivots from one perspective to another. Still, in the 1950, ’60s, and ’70s, the prevailing proponents of Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, and Pop Art would have pooh-poohed it as backward.

These days, there’s an avid market for contemporary Indian art, and a broader understanding of the context from which it springs – a spicy stew of influences that go far beyond Western art-world trends and include India’s multicultural history, politics, spirituality, and rich tradition in visual art.

“Bharat Ratna’’ focuses on artists born before 1947, when India became independent. They experienced nationalist joy. They also witnessed the horrors of the partition that created the sovereign states of India and Pakistan, which resulted in millions of refugees and hundreds of thousands of people killed.

The earliest work in the exhibit, Krishnaji Howlaji Ara’s “Bharata Natya,’’ painted about 1945, conveys where Indian art was coming from. Alive with the sunny palette that has for centuries characterized Indian painting, and painted in a rough but academic style, it shows classical dancer Ram Gopal performing before an audience against a glowing, golden backdrop. It’s a narrative painting depicting an honored tradition, rendered with straightforward representation. Gopal takes the sinuous stance of many of the dancing figures captured in the MFA’s nearby ancient sculptures.

After that, everything changed. Artists adopted modernist approaches to painting, and the stories they told grew chaotic. One of the most heartrending paintings here, Tyeb Mehta’s “Falling Figure With Bird’’ (1988), is part of a series he initiated after a 1965 visit to the front lines of the war between India and Pakistan. The sparely drawn figure (it could be either a man or a woman) drops head first, entangled with a bird. The ground is minimalist and flat, perhaps influenced by Barnett Newman, whose work Mehta saw in New York in 1968. A wedge of blue in an upper corner suggests sky, with the anguished figure and the bird plummeting into a brown void.

Maqbool Fida Husain, born in 1915, is these days both beloved and reviled in India. A Muslim, he has been assailed for his depictions of Hindu goddesses. He has always been attuned to the fissures and deeply held beliefs of his native land. In 1947, he helped form the Progressive Artists Group (other artists here were also members), intent on creating a visual language equal to political events, and developing a new Indian art.

His 1964 painting “Ganesh Darwaza’’ describes a fractured cityscape beyond a gateway, loosely brushed, with buildings tumbling into one another, animals roaming about, and the beneficent elephant-headed Hindu deity Ganesh overseeing it all, as if blessing the pandemonium for its promise of new beginnings.

After Indian artists embraced modernism to express the ferment they were witnessing, they talked about a return to more purely Indian themes, but they had already learned the lessons of modernism, and could never abandon it.

Both Jagdish Swaminathan, in his 1981 “The Tree, the Bird, the Shadow,’’ and Gulam Rasool Santosh, in his untitled 1970 canvas, use abstract principles, pattern, and the manipulation of space to contemplate Indian ideals. Swaminathan’s painting, all in sun-kissed colors, reads like a pared down verse: A slip of a black bird perches on a floating rock against flat, orange air; a tree explodes with autumn leaves against a fiery swipe of paint, symbolic of a mountain. Santosh’s work is a symmetrical, geometric cloudscape paying tribute to the Tantric tradition, praising sex as an avenue to transcendence.

The paintings that date to the 1990s indicate a turning inward. Ganesh Pyne’s gorgeous, lyrical “Reflections’’ (1995), painted in an ancient Indian tradition with tempera on canvas, shows a cross-legged figure meditating before a reflective pool; at his back, gold speckles the night sky.

Arpita Singh, the only woman in the show, captures a dazzling, mystifying, and sad narrative in her 1994 domestic scene “Munna Appa’s Kitchen.’’ She plays with space, flattening the table, a man behind it, and many plates and pots so there’s almost no depth, as in old Indian miniature paintings. A sad-eyed woman sits in the center, peeling fruit. A man lies nearby – Is he asleep? Is he dead? – and in the foreground, four dour women have brought bouquets.

Curiously, of all the other works in the show, Singh’s has most in common with the earliest, Ara’s painting of a classical dance; both feature loose, easy brushwork and a narrative with figures in the foreground. Yet by today’s standards, it’s the most contemporary painting here.

The story of contemporary Indian art, like the story of contemporary India, is one of synthesis, the integration of outside influences with vibrant tradition. It’s also a story of upheaval, adaptation, and coming round again. “Bharat Ratna’’ may be a small show, but it tells the tale succinctly, and with many stirring visions.

*Maqbool Fida Husain’s 1964 painting “Ganesh Darwaza’’ is part of the MFA’s exhibit on modern Indian art.

(Mr. And Mrs. Rajiv Jahangir Chaudhri Collection, Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts)

© Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company


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