Reverse Swing: From Made up Art History to Art History in the Making
We are now just over a hundred years old with the history of our art history. A certain narrative and linear sequence has been established. Landmark moments have been etched. And, yet, the gaps in the canon seem stunning.
Art history in India, even after a hundred years, does not seem to be on a sure footing. An ongoing exhibition of paintings and drawings in Delhi has caused a pleasant stir in the art world and compelled art historians to re-assess the middle decades of the last century.
It becomes even more dramatic when the artist in question is among the most towering personalities of the Indian art establishment – a person known for his pioneering work in modern theatre and theatre education, for establishing gallery complexes and for building the most extraordinary archive of Indian art and photography.
Yes, one is talking of the legendary Ebrahim Alkazi, the first director of the National School of Drama and founder of Art Heritage Gallery and the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, besides other institutions and galleries in India and abroad. Amidst the dazzle of all that he had achieved, the art world here seemed to have forgotten that he was an accomplished artist too.
Completely by chance, rummaging through an old trunk, as they were clearing space in his farmhouse outside Delhi last year, Alkazi’s daughter Amal Allana and son-in-law Nissar Allana – themselves highly reputed theatre practitioners – come upon a large folder inscribed S.S. Strathaden, which contains in near pristine condition, the drawings and paintings Alkazi had exhibited in Leicester Square, London, in 1950. Strathaden was the liner on which he had travelled up and down from Bombay. The same exhibition had been shown, subsequently, at the Jehangir Art Gallery, Bombay, in 1952 and, then, seems to have been tucked away and forgotten.
Sensitively curated by Ranjit Hoskote and rather theatrically mounted and displayed by Amal, the exhibition titled ‘Opening Lines’, suggests an as yet unexplored space in modern Indian art history pertaining to the 1940s and ‘50s, which needs deeper excavation.
We are now just over a hundred years old with the history of our art history. A certain narrative and linear sequence has been established. Landmark moments have been etched. The schools that imparted arts pedagogy in pre-Independence India and were largely responsible for triggering a modern art movement here have been documented. The movers and shakers, the icons and stormy petrels, the avant garde and the conventional have been identified. The manifestos and other seminal pieces of art writing have been archived. There is a settled and glib comfort in telling the story of modern Indian art now, like counting the beads in a rosary, one following the other.
And, yet, the gaps in the canon seem stunning.
If we identify formal practice of visual art history in the sub-continent, we might begin with early 20th century treatises like ‘Essays on Indian Art, Industry and Education’ (1907) by art pedagogues like E.B. Havell or his 1912 tract, ‘The Basis for Artistic and Industrial Revival of India’. The pioneer of the ‘Bengal School’, Abanindranath Tagore contributed to many similar reflections during the same period. Ananda Coomaraswamy was to burst on the scene in 1913 with ‘Art and Craft of India and Ceylon’ and, in 1918, with ‘The Dance of Siva’. These were followed by significant scholars like Ordhendra Coomar Gangoly, Stella Kramrisch, Heinrich Zimmer, C. Sivaramamurthy, Moti Chandra, Rai Krishnadas and K.V. Soundara Rajan until, by the 1950s, a more narrative form of art history writing of modern Indian art took root and became accepted, with periodicals like ‘Marg’ (edited by Mulkraj Anand) and ‘The Illustrated Weekly of India’ devoting generous space in it for essays and critical reviews by Rudy von Leyden, Walter Langhammer and others.
By the 1970s, the art history departments at the School of Arts in the M.S. University, Baroda and Viswabharati, Shantiniketan, were already producing new and vital scholarship. Important names like Gulam Sheikh, Ratan Parimoo, B.N. Goswamy, K.G. Subramanyan, Partha Mitter, Geeta Kapur and R. Siva Kumar emerged whose initial work laid the foundations for serious art criticism and art historical practice in India.
At present the landscape of art pedagogy boasts of at least a dozen art history departments across Indian universities, many of which even offer doctoral programs. However, if one steps back a little to get a wider perspective, it also becomes clear that there does not seem to be any cogent method being applied to choice of subjects and issues or any comprehensive framework to the research projects, leading to a palpably haphazard manner of exploring contemporary art history. It also throws up several large black holes in our knowledge of the immediate past, leading to many shaky and jumpy narratives or facile reductions.
For example, the Government College of Art and Craft, Madras, was the first such arts college in the country, founded in 1850. We still do not have, 169 years down the line, a definitive history of this school. Lacking a art history department since inception has also led to a rather haphazard, erratic and anecdotal narration of the artists and their works from this school. There is hardly one authoritative, well researched and documented paper (let alone a book) on artist and sculptor Devi Prasad Roy Choudhury, the first Indian principal of the school, who took over in 1929 and put the school on the map for the quarter of a century that he headed it.
We have, of course, the unsettled debate around the question of ‘when was Indian modernism?’ Some will date it to 1947 and the setting up of the Progressive Artists Group in Bombay. Others might mention 1944 and the founding of the Progressive Artists Association in Madras. Some link it to the bursting on to the art scene of Amrita Sher-Gil in the1930s. Others will link it to the Bengal School of the early decades of the 20th century and still others will trace it to late 19th century Ravi Varma. And now, it could even be pushed back to 18th century miniatures. The story, thus, is quite fluid.
The sense of a canon keeps getting periodically disturbed by new evidences that emerge. In 2008, we were in for a complete re-jig of our ideas of the Bengal School when R. Siva Kumar was given access to hitherto unseen works of Abanindranath Tagore. Contemporary art history did a double take, again in 2008, when significant number of photographs by Kulwant Roy, considered lost, suddenly popped up compelling art historians to reorient their understanding of Indian photography between 1940 and 1960.
In 2010, a few months after artist/designer Dashrath Patel passed away in Ahmedabad, his sister chanced upon (somewhat in the manner of Alkazi now) a trunk of over 200 oils and water colours he had done in the ten years between 1948 and 1958. Many of them were in damaged condition. After an expensive restoration when they were publicly exhibited in 2014 and 2016, the art world was compelled to sit up and take note. The art canon, which till then was inclined to side-line him as a ‘designer’, received a healthy and long-needed jolt.
The interesting fact is that both Alkazi and Dashrath Patel were colleagues at the studios of the Bhulabhai Desai Memorial Institute (BDMI), Bombay, in the mid-1950s, along with other artists all of whom went on to achieve eminence, including M.F. Husain, S.H. Raza, V.S. Gaitonde, Nasreen Mohamedi, Tyeb Mehta, Piloo Pochkhanawala, Akbar Padamsee and so on. Between mid-1950 and mid-1960, this Institute and its studios were the very centre of a dynamic new, inter-disciplinary art vocabulary emerging in India. However, art historians have shown almost no interest in researching that precious moment.
Even more significantly, while the BDMI was owned by Bhulabhai Desai’s daughter-in-law, the noted educationist Madhuribehn Desai, its daily affairs were conducted by the suave and brilliant lawyer, Soli Batlivala, who had earlier been a personal assistant to Bhulabhai’s son Dhirajlal Desai, while he was India’s first ambassador to Switzerland.
After the untimely passing away of Dhirajbhai in 1951, Soli Batlivala (or Solibhai as he was called) devoted his attention to developing the art movement in Bombay, through helming the activities at BDMI. Not only were the studios rented to the artists at Re.1/-, but every Saturday Solibhai would host a dinner on the lawns inviting a few prominent industrialists and art collectors to share a meal with the artists. After the meal, it was mandatory for the guests to visit the artist’s studios one-by-one, until at least one work of art was bought. Next day, this money would be used to pay off the collective debts of the artists with the Irani café round the corner and their dhobi bills. If there was a surplus, they would all together take taxis to go see a matinee show, in air conditioned comfort, at Regal Cinema.
Soli Batlivala was, thus, connoisseur, collector, organiser and perhaps, the first instigator of a contemporary art market in Bombay. It is extraordinary that Indian art history has simply ignored this pioneer and he finds scant mention in narratives of Indian art.
It might be time now to move a little away from made-up art history and pay some attention to an art history in the making.