EAST WING ,SECOND FLOOR,CSMVS/MUMBAI MUSEUM, MAHATMA GANDHI ROAD , 400023 Mumbai, India
Nothing is Absolute: A Journey through Abstraction at the Jehangir Nicholson Gallery of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sanghralaya, a show of abstraction in Indian art curated by artist Mehlli Gobhai and cultural theorist Ranjit Hoskote, is rich with indigenous ideas that existed around modernity and abstraction in a post colonial India.
Twenty-eight paintings from the Jehangir Nicholson Collection are arranged such that, in a quick glance, one can take in a substantial story. A layered, partitioned display cutting into the rectangular open gallery space horizontally perhaps would have allowed for more space around each work – much needed in abstract art. Here, however, the distraction of paintings hung close doesn’t allow the eye to follow an illusion or suspend oneself in suggestion – both rife in these paintings.
Modernism, for writers, filmmakers, artists and architects, in an optimistic post-independent India, was fraught with uncertainties. Did they look to and follow the movements in the West or go back to precolonial art forms? In a Nehruvian modernity, the search for a unique idiom abounded. But for artists working in abstraction at the time there were no Indian forebears to go by. In the West it was well entrenched, and early abstractionists like Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian, while forging new styles, were profoundly influenced by Eastern thought. This show however, focuses more on the inward look that Indian artists took; even as the form followed Western abstraction, the root inspirations, the cultural theorist and artist in dialogue here point out well, were very much indigenous.
Akbar Padamsee, Mirror Image,1994, Oil on canvas, 109.5 x 220 cms; Courtesy of the artist and Jahangir Nicholson Museum of Modern Art.
Identifying these root sources of visual abstraction – the yantras (formal abstract diagrams used for meditation), wayside shrines (natural or found formations given significance by human daubing of paint or drape) and yoga texts and Islamic tiles (from the museum’s collection) exploring sacred geometry – Gobhai includes items from his personal collection of objects with singularly Indian forms. Showcased are oil lamps and incense burners, boxes, inkpots, hookah bases, ladles and spatulas, all with a spartan, sculptural form, almost a three-dimensional silhouette of function, much like abstract art tries to achieve.
In losing representation, abstraction tries to find a language through symbols and relationships of colour and light, and the emerging form bears its own kind of reality. Gobhai’s work on paper is texturally worked and the figure in elision is represented linearly; in a dark work, a defined yellow line marks the centre, a presence marked. Akbar Padamsee, who was one of the first Indian artists to explore geometrical and abstract forms economically yet hypnotically in animation, in his video SYZYGY, is represented here with a ‘metascape’ diptych. In bold colours and brush-work, it dominates midway through the hall.
V S Gaitonde, Untitled,1972, Oil on canvas, 178 x 101.5 cms; Courtesy of the artist and Jahangir Nicholson Museum of Modern Art.
V.S. Gaitonde on the other hand is all subtlety; forms emerging and receding – like wayward calligraphy formally laid down in planar waves on a sea of blue-green – influenced by Zen Buddhism, it has a mystical presence. Nicholson’s favourite Laxman Shrestha is represented by two paintings as is S.H. Raza – one, a ‘Bindu’, a large black seed circle, is a strict, simple composition. Like a planned mandala, the painting here is a sparse one compared to other multilayered ones in his ‘Bindu’ series.
What emerges in this show of abstract Indian art are the diverse styles, as diverse as the inspirations Indian painters sought. From Gobhai’s strict planar form to Swaminathan’s vivid orange and yellow reductive forms (reminiscent of Pahadi school miniatures); from Madhao Imartey’s whimsical watercolour to Kolte’s dripping colour fields; it covers a gamut of exploration in no chronological order. It is a substantial overview of early abstract art in India.
Where are the sculptures though? And more women artists, also working in abstraction? Works by Pilloo Pochkanawala or Meera Mukherjee would have added to the oeuvre of exploration happening alongside painting. The minimalism of a Nasreen Mohammedi work would have marked the distillation of pure form, an abstraction in Indian art that had come of age, and it would have completed this journey through abstraction.
(Image on top: Mehlli Gobhai, Untitled , 2000 , Acrylic & mixed media on paper , 125 x110 cms; Courtesy of the artist and Jahangir Nicholson Museum of Modern Art.)