By Madhusree Chatterjee
Art has mirrored the socio-political movements around the world down the last 150 years. In the 1960s, several practitioners of contemporary art allowed were influenced by alienation to distance their art from the concerns of reality.
The concept founded by political theorist Karl Marx is premised on the nihilism associated with the system of production in a capitalist economy that those who produce feel at the end product does not belong to them. They become tools of a system over which they have no control — they are neither the masters of their destiny or situations. It bred a sense of alienation from the administrative and governing apparatus — giving birth to a new school of philosophy, “situationism”.
This alienation is at the heart of a movement in art — spanning nearly three generations of artists — in three decades between 1960s-1990s during which several artists spoke of the drift away from contemporary realities with abstraction expressions of individual aspirations.
“In the last 30 years, the sense of alienation has grown. You talk about the generation gap. The generations which have battled alienation feel that they do not belong to the models of existing civilistaions. This lack of a sense of belonging prompts situationism as a notion to strike roots in the reality of a situation that may not be a part of the immediate environment. In India, the idea of alienation and situationism are pronounced in the creative arts than in the rest of the related genres of expressions,” says curator, art critic and writer Arun Ghose.
Ghose has used the “inherent situationism and alienation” in the classical contemporary art as his curatorial theme for an exposition, “Situationism: Rain & Shine” — a collection of art by five contemporary masters of Indian art at a new art space (Sanchit Art Gallery) in the upscale DLF arcade (in south Delhi), which emerging as the capital’s newest high end art destination with galleries and niche boutique counters.
The give masters on show — Satish Gujral, Ganesh Pyne, Ram Kumar, Laxma Gaud and Jogen Chowdhury — are the situationists of the 1950s who have been trying to balance the tightrope between emotional needs, artistic idioms, broad trends and the changing expectations of a rapidly developing India.
Jogen Chowdhury’s figures —stylized to distort human forms —are organic in their alienation from the realities of human anatomy. “They often convey the lyricism of sex and sensuous longing and at the end of the day, his characters are alienated from the surroundings because they are not fulfilled. The alienation of the character creeps into the artist,” Ghose says.
Bulk of Chowdhury’s figures occurs in voids — and morphs in the harmony of the dense textures he creates on his canvas. Specific backgrounds do not intrude into the sharp contours of the figures that have a life of their own. Ram Kumar in contrast does not anything specific as his subjects anywhere on his canvas. The colours — in thick pigmented swathes— offer impressions of landscapes that are remote and faraway. Ram Kumar’s canvases combine the core techniques of 20th century expressionism, European impressionistic practises and the abstraction of the Indian contemporary art that has evolved as an indigenous language in the 1950s after the progressive movement freed Indian art from European influences.
“Sometime, the Ganapati makes an appearance on his canvas. This elephant headed god does not belong to any society,” Ghose says. The alienation lies in his inaccessibility of landscapes that expresses the artist’s urge to escape his immediate surroundings to a place where nothing is definite.
Ganesh Pyne’s doodles and a couple of standalone portraits on display at “Situations” are an extension of “Nawab series”— a recollection of Kolkata’s Metiaburz Nawabs and the Islamic genteel life that flourished on the city margins till as a late as 20th century. The gallery which claims to have one of the largest body of Pyne’s works – acquired from his family archives in Kolkata — has brought to public space two rare portraits by Pyne in tempera. The portraits — one of Sufi dervish sipping tea and other of classical musician —draw attention of the viewers to the emotional play and absorption on the faces of the subjects, details and a meticulous decadence that set the characters away from the times during which they were drawn — the artist’s middle years.
“Pyne was influenced by Sufism in his middle years (as he was by C.G. Jung),” Ghose says. The doodles are also from another era — the Muslim gentry, figures in ceremonial dresses, camels and sketchy shots of Islamic architecture (aspects like stained glass windows) of north India. “Most of his doodles show the gap between choices and decisions. They have a sense of alienation. Pyne was attracted to mysticism and where he found it, he veered to it in his art like the idea of events flying to a point,” Ghose says.
Satish Gujral in comparison comes across as a relentless worker — who escapes his physical confinements through his works. His paintings reflect the elaborate lyrical structures of life as perceived by the eye in the flowing flowering eyes. The paintings are multi-dimensional and the labored human figures echo the artist’s slow war against his surroundings. The stylized human forms speak of Gujral’s alienation from the linear forms of reality — of men rising like phoenix to break down barriers, moving from negative space to light and astride wings of freedom. Laxma Goud on his part gives suppressed men “dignity” and hopes for freedom in his larger than life works and luminous faces — glowing with an inner light.
“Masters are always in demand because of their classicism of styles,” says Sunil Joshan of Sanchit Art, an Agra-based art house, that is trying to position itself as a promoter contemporary master’s art in the national capital and across the country. Joshan’s relies on his family collection — his parents have collecting for several decades now. The gallery claims to have one of the largest collections of Satish Gujral’s works. “We want to move away from investment reliance in art to help the market cushion against fluctuations in money economy and cut-throat gallery business,” Joshan said.
“There has been a resurgence of actual buyers and new collectors after the 2008 crash. And the ones who are afraid of the new market are the artists who were inflated in the bubble. They are finding it difficult to come back,” Joshan said.
The art market in India has shown two broad trends post 2008. A big body of growing institutional buyers — corporate entities and private archives — are looking to acquire meaningful young contemporary art at affordable prices as collectibles. A new segment of collectors in their 40s are “realizing their dream of acquiring master’s works with their early millions”. Collectors in their 40s who have grown up knowing “contemporary masters” are beginning to buy.
“The market for a large chunk of older generation of buyers in India is lost. The crash destroyed several fortunes,” Joshan says.