Abstraction is not an alien concept to Indian settings, a civilization known for its intense abstract philosophy has always encompassed abstraction as some form of elemental reality away from human grasp. Abstraction in Indian art also has a long history, appearing mostly as an indicative symbol for presence in an image of blank space, of absence or unity of ultimate reality in the multitudinous real. How much continuity we can trace between traditional abstraction and modern abstraction in the contemporary Indian art scene is a matter of enquiry and debate. In the modern Indian art scene abstraction entered through a multitude of sources and the notion of a central influence seems susceptible to criticism although one element of native influence, both in terms of accepting and denying the importance of meaning, stands as strong contender. While trying to understand the modern Indian art scene in general, analyzing abstract art in particular, we initiated a question and answer discussion with one of India’s most significant contemporary artists, Prabhakar Kolte. In a series of back and forth interactions Kolte responded to a number of questions in a profoundly calm and contemplative manner. In his own words he tries to express how from his humble origins he gradually moved towards the mainstream art world. His narration of his student days at JJ School of Art, Mumbai in India depicts the process of how his youthful mind derived inspiration from his art teachers as well his own delving process of artistic creation that led him towards weaving his artistic vision and style.
If you ponder over true human nature the most appropriate meaning emerges faintly. Hard to accept it consists of constant yearning, striving to find the true meaning of what constitutes being human and you could say that the discovery and the discoverer are the same. In its anxious dialectical illusion it creates polarity of appearance, something like keeping in your heart an intense desire for constant mobility and an imaginary final destination to replace a more obvious stage, organismic death, a struggle which happens mostly at the mental level so you could say that human reality is inherently a reality of mind. What we see we believe is true, but sadly most of the time our vision is gripped by the inner mental images flowing into the constantly shifting fluid of light enveloped in darkness. Seeing, synonymous with vison, has led to the creation of images as a way to access truth and reality. But the creation of images is also fraught with one eternal dilemma; how to encompass the totality of vision, to encompass infinite elements of happening, in one frame. Artists and thinkers have grappled with this problem from time immemorial and during the decade of 20th century Munich, Wassily Kandinsky tried to resolve this dilemma with his notion of musicality of color representing a strong statement from the initial days of modern abstraction in the art of painting. The blurred boundary between emotive perception based on feeling and optical cognition became distinct and disappeared both at the same time.
In the present interview Mr. Kolte’s responses represent his comprehensive understanding of contemporary Indian art with the occasional questioning of the notion of contemporariness itself. The interview is divided into two parts. Part One is the initial interview and Part Two is a series of in-depth follow-up questions which emerged from the initial engaging discussion.
Q1. I would like to begin by asking about initial influences, especially during your childhood. How have your physical and cultural surroundings influenced your childhood perception of the world? Did you see any seeds of future growth as an artist? I am interested to know, what were the initial elements in your childhood – such as the color and shape of the land, water, sky, rivers and ponds? What were the kinds of stories and myths you heard for the first time by your elders, your initial feelings of participating in fairs and festivals, in worship or in play with your friends? I am curious to know how these elements of your initial world molded not only your perception but also your expression.
At the outset I must confess that I know very little and it has been quite a lot for me to ponder upon. I never search for the meaning but the purpose of art, of painting and living. I was born to middle-class parents, they happened to remain economically below the poverty line while they were alive, but they were honest and hard working. They did not have big dreams to realize or ambitious goals to achieve, but were satisfied with whatsoever they had as they were firm believers of destiny, where God planted them in. I think their simple living and honest thinking have influenced me the most, during my childhood. I may say that living as an average child with such parents must have given me the direction of life. I think, they gave me the humanly existence and later on my teacher (GURU); Prof. Shankar Palshikar put the spirit in it. I was truly fortunate to have them in my life.
Years before meeting Prof. Palshikar at the Sir J.J.School of Art, Mumbai, during my childhood I used to observe my maternal uncle who used to be a part of our family, he was very much interested in painting and by copying the pictures from the calendar he would pursue his hobby with passion. I too started imitating him and very soon I found myself mad about this hobby. My uncle encouraged me, but at that age I did not know that this hobby could become my life-line and support my passion.
I never liked going to school every day, so I used to avoid it most of the time by giving some excuse and used to remain at home and pursue my beloved hobby. My mother would then try to give me some medicine which I could smartly avoid. Sometimes I used to tell her that what I am doing on paper is my only medicine, please don’t ask me to attend the school, I don’t like it and my good mother would tell me that in school there is a drawing subject and teachers to teach it. Very soon I found that what she was telling me was true. The first drawing teacher I came across was Mr. Jayant Datar Sir, who was very kind and loving. He used to teach us Drawing and Music. This combination of two different subjects, I found very interesting and later on in my youth I found them like echoes of each other described in an Indian philosophy – Upanishada- as ‘ Kene shitam patit preshitam manaha /ken pranaha prathamaha praiti yuktaha // kene shitam vachmimam vadanti / chakshu shrotram kau devo unakti //केनेषितं पतित प्रेषितंमन: / केन प्राण: प्रथम: प्रैति युक्त: // केनेषितां वाचमिमां वदन्ति / चक्षु: श्रोत्रं क उ देवो युनक्ति // pointing at the unique relation between eyes and ears (meaning: at whose instruction the conscience (मन) gets attracted towards the subject matter? At whose will the soul unified with the body earlier departs? at whose inspiration the sense of speaking works? and which God unites the function of eyes and ears?).
But during my childhood though I was very much interested in drawing and painting, I did not know that this would become my lifetime passion because for me it was not a study like other subjects but an everlasting joy to cherish during any time of the day. Mr. Datar Sir was a special person, in today’s language, a superman because he would draw on the black-board a bird or object or tree or anything like a magician. He was my hero and I was his fan and follower.
When I was admitted to the middle school, another hero – Mr. M.S.Joshi – was included in my list. He was a renowned landscape painter. He was a soft spoken and silent man like a painting. Though I used to ask him to give correction to my work he wouldn’t listen but instead he would give me a color-tube or pencil or a brush and on top of that an angelic smile and look. After meeting him and seeing his magnetic work I started to think of the seriousness about art, and the art of painting started growing in me. But still I wasn’t aware what it was to be an artist and how to prepare myself to face the future as an artist and become part of the art world. By that time I passed secondary school, influence of the teaching of Joshi Sir made me sure that I had to continue learning painting and that too in Sir J.J.School of Art of which I was not aware of.
My first step to enroll myself in the J.J. campus (1963) conveyed to me strongly that I had come to a right place to take further steps of learning art, but yet did not know what becoming an artist meant.
Q2. How and when did you start realizing that you were going to be an artist? What were the initial signs of that realization and how did they take their final shape? I am asking this question with the belief that the journey to become an artist is unique with every artist. Is there any specific individual event or inspiration which you believe proved instrumental in transforming your creative expression from an “individual” to an “artist”?
The environment at J.J. was inspiring. The experience of working in the huge classrooms with high ceilings and gigantic windows was mind blowing. Those windows on the north side would pave the way for bright light to enter inside the classroom and it would last throughout the day. The window was not only bringing light in the class but connecting us; as if to cosmic energy. Like me many others too would linger in the campus after the school hours till it became pitch dark and the watchman drove us out. During the daytime we were learning academically and the evening would turn us spiritual and palpable. It would force us to ponder upon the art of seeing. In the beginning I started liking to learn the way the teachers were teaching. I don’t know about others but I was a bit slow in grasping the instruction from the teachers, all because I was weak in the English language. At this point I told myself firmly that I had gone there to learn art and not English. And that self-conversation gave me the required confidence and I started getting more and more involved in learning on my own. This self-conversation, later on worked like an instrumental key to open up the serious dialogue with myself about painting and everything around. During those five years of learning painting I came across many events that put me on the right path of thinking about art of painting, and out of those events followed major ones and absolutely eye-opening for me.
First: it was in second year when we were attending the class of object drawing. Our professor Mr. Sholapurkar came in the class with a beautiful blue color ceramic pot. He held it high so that everyone could see it and the next moment took away his hand from the pot and it fell down on the floor, breaking into several small pieces. We all were shocked and looking at the pot and his face. Then he said just two words “paint it” and went out of the class. We were baffled. I thought he wanted us to paint those broken pieces scattered on the floor. But thank god there were some brilliant students in the class. They selected one of the pieces to compose on the paper. So I also followed them. On the last day of the week Prof. Solapurkar came in the class with canvas, colors and brushes and without much talking gave a demonstration, selecting one of the pieces lying on the floor. It was fantastic. I felt he did not break the pot but our traditional concept of still-life painting, meant to get us involved in the modern time, I presumed.
Second: It was in the third year and my teacher was Prof. Kadam Sir. He was a versatile man, interested in almost all forms of art, but in portrait painting he was a master. Almost every day he would give us a demonstration in portrait painting. One day he entered in the class and he saw a badly painted head on one of the easels. Then he called for the concerned student and scolded her but in a very gentle manner and then scratched out her painting; leaving just few outlines around the head and like a warrior painted the head once again as if he was bringing back the dead into life. I felt with his touch the whole canvas was breathing with poetic pace. Thus he opened up a new and warm space in our mind.
Third: This was a very personal one. I was the culprit and the teacher was Prof. Palshikar, the master of all masters in every form of art of painting. I think he had observed that I was interested in sports, dance, theatre, music and many more activities. One day he scolded me in the class in front of my class-mates. The reason was my interest in all activities. He wanted me to focus only on painting. He finally said “I see a painter in you. You should discover yourself and that is possible only if you concentrate on painting.” His burning words went deep into my heart. I thought he insulted me in front of the class. I was hurt. But his one word – discover – made my life. After that I gave up everything except painting, became silent and self-indulgent. My new role took me closer to him and our ‘guru-shishya’ relationship grew in a very healthy manner. He guided me on how to develop my English, he asked me to read, write and spend time in solitude. In his guidance I realized that I must work hard to find myself first and then discover the artist in me. In fact I slowly realized that finding one’s work is nourishment for the artist in oneself. And I found myself tremendously hopeful about the future.
At the end of the final year my painting entitled Earth-quake displayed in the annual exhibition was appreciated and bought by Mr. Kekoo Gandhi, the owner of the Chemould Art Gallery and he offered me a show in his gallery. I was surprised and delighted. Somehow I thought I should ask Palshikar Sir for his advice regarding the offer. He asked me whether I found myself or not, then said bluntly that in some of my paintings he found other¬ influence, in some Mohan Samant, in some Gaitonde and some prominent contemporary artists. First I could not understand what he meant about other artists in my painting because all were practically done by me and I was strongly attracted by the painters in question. I remembered before joining the School of Art I was almost copying from other pictures and now I was just taking some elements from the paintings of the known artist, thinking this is the way art is made, so how come these paintings are not mine? I was shattered but had a firm faith in Palshikar Sir. I thought he could never be wrong. The next seven days I did not attend the school. Sitting at home in front of my work to find out the influence of other artists on me and searching myself and my own path that would speak for me alone. I did not find it immediately but I realized slowly that what Sir said was true. I started contemplating on my activities, my behavior, my relationship with others, my objectives in life, my passion for painting and music, my identity. I decided to start once again from the very beginning and this decision of mine I found worth implementing. And the first step of mine was to drain out my mind completely. Throwing out good, bad, ugly everything. I started thinking that I did not know anything but as a student I had a desire and right to know everything. I tried to go back into the past till the point beyond which I could not remember anything, and found nothing was clear but vague. During this period I read lot, mostly Marathi literature of all kind. Specifically religious and philosophical books like Dnyaneshvari and Upanishad and teachings of contemporary sages like J. Krishnamurthy, Raman Maharshi, Osho and others. My head was swollen with mixed matters. At some stages I thought I was converting myself into a Sanyasi. But by chance I came across an event that was to shake me and turn me upside down in order to find myself and an artist in me.
It was a painting-assignment based on the syllabus and given by one of the teachers. We were asked to make a composition in which we were compelled to paint five human figures. Somehow I was never comfortable following that direction, so I decided to find some way out to break the compulsion. I drew just one horizontal shape of a human figure in the given space, standing on knees and hands like an animal; and in the space of the torso shown from the side, drew ten eyes, ten ears, five noses, five mouths and painted them in a bold manner. It was looking like a transformation of the given subject. Every bit of space was painted in a spontaneous and bold manner as if I wanted to break through the compulsion. And when I showed it to the teacher, the first question he asked me was, where are the five figures? I said “they are one behind the other and their sense-organs are shown together on the available space of the torso.” The teacher was not satisfied, he said “don’t be so smart, show five separate figures. This kind of smartness you can practice when you become an artist.” In his negative comments, I saw my future. Suddenly I thought to myself, it means I am an artist at this stage. This feeling gave me confidence and a strong sense of originality in expression.
During the same period, with friends I had gone to ‘Karle-Bhaje Caves’ near Lonavala for landscape painting during the monsoon. The atmosphere was inspiring with a waterfall pouring down from the mountain. I felt it was an invitation from nature to stand underneath the waterfall and get wet to understand its boundless beauty in the force. I did that while others were sincerely busy depicting it on the paper. They all criticized me which did not affect me. I returned home thinking either my friends were artists and I am not or I am an artist and they are not. During the night I did two landscapes by memory and the next day showed our teacher and he admired my landscapes and my friends were surprised to see them, they thought I had stolen them from someone. I was not at all bothered by what they thought about me because I realized that ‘I don’t have to see and paint but I can paint first and see later’. This realization became the foundation of my artistic journey there onwards. At the same time I found in me just a reflection of an artist beyond doubts and was eager to find more of myself through my journey of painting. The next few days I did not do anything because I was extremely happy and confident to go a long way with the motivating realization.
Q3. You enrolled in JJ School of Art for your art education in 1963. It was a time when like the whole Indian society, Indian art was also undergoing a transformative change. With the absence of foreign domination the goal of independence was transformed by the goal to reinvent Indianness in the modern world, to find out India’s modern expression. How did you perceive this transformation at that time? Was it merely an attempt to find modernist character in Indian creative tradition or was it rooted in a more intense unknown matrix of fractured modernity? Please share with us your own appraisal of the role of the Progressive group of art in the Indian art scene.
To be honest I was not aware of this change because I was over burdened with my own problems. Particularly I was deeply rooted in the core questions about the relationship between me and art. ‘Why, what and how do I want to paint?’ And the answer was not that easy. When I was studying at J.J., the art field in Mumbai was mesmerized by the leading painters like Gaitonde, Raza, Husain, Souza, Samant, Ambadas and in J.J. Prof. Palshikar, a painter-teacher. I never missed the shows of these painters. I thought they were exploring – post J.J. – painting and I could see in their works the notion of my future as a painter. But when I came to know from my seniors about the ‘Progressives’, I thought my generation too has to form a group and express our motivation. But later on I realized that artists with similar urges may motivate themselves and they can come together and form a group but not the other way round, the group first and then the motivation. After few years I joined one group called ‘Astitva’ which did not last for long and I was released from the unwanted burden without much effort. I strongly felt joining a group is not my cup of tea.
‘The Progressives’ was a movement supported by Westerners – Prof. Langhammer -Art Director of Times of India-, Schlesinger- Art Collector- and Leyden – Art Critic- trio well versed in art and Indian culture. They were living in India and taking part in the social – cultural atmosphere of Mumbai, and got interested in Indian art. They wanted the above mentioned painters to observe the spirit of western art and separate themselves from the tradition and leap into the future with change. They did not mean the painters should follow western art but bring some change relevant to Indian contemporary culture. But the influence of western art was so strong, the painters could not avoid it completely. The very fundamental reason was the academic curriculums at the art-schools, were designed by Britishers to produce craftsmen on British orientation. Unfortunately the importance of craftsmanship and technique is still existing and given undue importance by the art institutions in India. Loyalty to the past and traditional trends in painting overpowered artists in the context of Indianness. But the sensible progressive artists – Souza (Founder), Raza, Ara, Gade, Bakare and Husain- could understand the importance of the contemporary spirit of art being rendered in Europe and learned from them to change and introduced modern elements and ways of executing in their art the sense of the present idiom then.
Souza, Raza, Bakare and Husain left India after the first and only show of Progressives in Mumbai and three of them stayed abroad forever, except Husain who returned to India and frequented foreign countries throughout his life. Raza returned just few years ago and now resides in New Delhi. Had these painters stayed in India – like the Impressionists who rooted in France after their first show of Impressionism – the art-culture today in India could have been different. Most Indian artists are still impressed by contemporary Europe, of course; European art is impressive but under the pressure of such a burden of influence from outside and the inner compulsion of creating a place for oneself in the world art does not work the way the Indian artists have been working out. Their imitation of popular art-form in the west would not give them identity. Even today, just going abroad is a matter treated with great reverence by Indian artists. Naturally they are influenced by contemporary art there and therefore they think if they do something similar then may survive and get recognition early in India because we have been in love with foreign culture right from the British Raj. I do not mean we should dislike or reject it but we should be part of the world culture without losing our identity (Thought). As a matter of fact we are habituated to peep into neighbors’ houses and compete with them or get defeated instead of discovering satisfaction in our own home. In Europe individual existence and autonomy is honored with respect and dignity whereas in India it is denied silently.
Q4. You openly accepted Paul Klee’s influence in the beginning of your career. If we try to deconstruct that influence, is there anything in the work of this Swiss master artist that you have never liked? How in your opinion has this whole theory of the “western artist influencing the eastern artist” relevant to understanding post-Independence Indian painting or the work of Prabhakar Kolte? Is this theory of the “western artist influencing the eastern artist” more an escapism from the bigger question of how a massively complex civilization, Indian Civilization interacted with western civilization in terms of transforming native aesthetic tradition, having umbilical linkages with other parts of Indian civilization? I would like to know how during the days of your training, which Indian artist or Indian situation you think greatly influenced your creative expression.
Most people are habituated to observe the external influences of Paul Klee on my works, yes; but it was not the external but internal one; as Klee said “For artist communication with nature remains the most essential condition. The artist is human; himself nature; part of nature within natural space.” In this profound and inspiring context I realized that I had to follow his pedagogy to understand nature and through nature myself. During the following I felt, I belong to the same earth as Paul Klee; the spiritual artist who spoke like a poet, wrote like a scientist and painted like a philosopher. Actually first I was introduced to Paul Klee’s art by one of my seniors who told me that my work looked like PK’s work, up till then I was not aware of him. Hearing this I was curious about Klee and I saw his book- (Pedagogical Sketchbook – the bible of learning art, supported and elaborated Moholi Nagi with his brilliant introduction to the book) – and his works with minute interest. I was surprised to see some resemblance between my work and his, but it was coincidence, because somehow I was not much interested in the History of Art and Aesthetics or reading literature but the experience of art till then, so seeing his or anybody’s work from the west was out of the question. But after seeing Paul Klee’s work I got more curious and interested in studying him and other artists and literature on art. After that, I was happy to find Paul Klee in me. His theory of nature ignited my spirit, and I felt his influence internally. I also realized that he had influenced most of the Indian painters like Vasudeo Gaitonde, Prabhakar Barve, Ganesh Haloi, Niren Nath and others. For them the influence was like a guideline to travel towards their own goal; so to me too.
During my studious contemplation on Klee I felt, he himself must have been influenced by Indian philosophy mainly because of which we find most Indian painters admire and follow him, as the very fundamental nature of Indian philosophy teaches us that everything that we see or even don’t see is born out of the same seed. We all look similarly to some extent and our inner and outer self, functions in the same manner, and we do influence each other knowingly or unknowingly. Man finds himself in the world and can meet the whole world in him and therefore following, borrowing are the natural instincts. I am not different than the rest. But I believe the very personal and honest motivation mixed with solitude separates you from the rest and finally reveals your identity to yourself and others. According to my understanding, it is the nature of nature we follow and not the follower of nature. One can inspires others but others have to walk their own way in their own style. Most of us walk with the feet but very few walk with their own mind.
Ishavasya Upanishada says: In Sanskrit यस्तु स्वानि भूतानि आत्मन्येवनुपश्यति / सर्वभूतेषु चात्मानं ततो न विजुगुप्सते Meaning: The one who sees everyone in himself and himself in everyone cannot hate anything. (My application is art based on the above mentioned stanza: with such a kind of understanding when one shapes his thoughts, other thoughts also get shaped). And when Klee says “think of forming and not form”, it gives you a similar exotic, creative experience. You don’t think before or after the work but while working you wonder who is forming whom? It is the art of painting, a language that is being delivered by all sense-organs. Spirit of the artist and material world unite in the copulation. In such state of ecstasy they are one and remain one when released (deducted) each other from it.
Q5. Do you think that there is any tradition of abstraction in Indian civilization? And how much has Islamic abstraction influenced Indian order from the medieval age?
Actually the Indian lifestyle is oriented in abstraction. We believe in nothingness (शून्यत्व), as we are too sure without any evidence that the visual world is born out of invisible elements because the sense of surety itself is an evidence for us. We believe that the thing which begins has an end. We have faith in God and destiny, in life after death and rebirth, we rely on spiritual existence, we are more hopeful about the unknown future than the known present. We don’t try to find out the reason for living outside but inside us, there is no single particle of God but we believe firmly that God exists in every particle; every human being is the reflection of God who is omnipresent. Such a kind of spiritual orientation has been guiding our each and every act we execute. We travel from core to the surface of the sphere of knowledge and not from surface to the core. कोऽहं ? : who am I? is the omnipresent question. Whether one answers it or not, it exists for ever because knowledge sprouts from there. This is the base of our abstraction and we do not illustrate it but explore it with curiosity and humbleness. Everything, including the art of painting is encompassed by it. As the following is the spinal cord of Indian culture, life and art in general: // ॐ पूर्णमद: पूर्णमिदं पूर्णात्पुर्णमुदच्यते // पूर्णस्य पूर्णमादाय पूर्णमेवावशिष्यते // ॐ शान्ति: शान्ति: शान्ति: // om purn madaha, purnmidam, purnat purn muddchate, purnasya purnamaday, purn mevavshishyate. Means: that is complete, this is complete. If deducted complete from complete; what remains is complete. And on the field of Devotional tradition strengthen by Tukaram the highly revered saint in Maharashtra: // आधी बीज एकले // बीज अंकुरले, रोप वाढले // एका बीजापोटी, तरू कोटी, कोटी // जन्म घेती, सुमने -फळे // Meaning: First there is seed all alone, It gets sowed and grows out as a plant. Out of one seed, millions of trees, flowers and fruits are born. Kabir, the renowned philosopher saint said: कहेत कबीर सुनो भाई साधो / होनी होक रही / करमगति ताकि नहीं तली / Meaning: कबीर says whatsoever is going to happen will happen, destiny cannot be avoided.
Such a kind of journey; from nothing to something; we firmly believe in, and it has built forever the Infrastructure of our culture. Our ideas always travel from within to without, whereas in Western culture, I am sure travels from surface to the core, from outside to in. Another example is the ‘Warali Art’ where you find the tribal way and style of abstraction of immediate world.
And how much has Islamic abstraction influenced Indian order from the medieval age? I have not heard of ‘Islamic Abstraction’ influencing Indian art. But I know that Tantra Art has strongly influenced Islamic Calligraphy and Vedic geometrical symbols, such as square, triangle and star are reflected pictorially the decorative art of Islam.
Q6. Is there any uniform idea behind your whole artistic vision? If yes, please kindly elucidate with whatever example or examples you would like to give. Do you think that any single form or group of forms factors prominently in your work?
The content of an idea always remains fragmented and it gets united in an execution. I strongly believe that subjects come from the external world and thought emerges from internal turmoil. I think and paint at the same time. For me painting itself is thinking. It’s like instant expression or exclamation and not descriptive explanation of an idea. It’s like leaving an idea on the spur of a moment and extending it into time to your best. Therefore thinking of single or plural forms does not fit into my artistic vision.
Hence I would once again remind you of Paul Klee’s eye-opening teaching “think of forming and not forms “, therefore I do not preplan or pre-design my painting but try to live my thought in form and color in space.
Q7. Please kindly define the color scheme you use in your work. What kind personal or traditional meaning do you think appears in your color scheme? Being an abstract artist how much has your color helped you to create a space devoid of meaning?
As I said earlier I do not make paintings, I do not choose form or color or color scheme. It means I don’t think beforehand about any aspect of my painting. I am just a painter and people calling me an abstract painter is a matter of convenience that helps them to recognize me by my work. My painting should be seen not for the meaning but for what it is. It is what it is and that is the only meaning of it which can never be translated into words. One can get connected with my painting through the language of seeing alone as the sense of appreciating beauty lies in the eyes. One should not search for the meaning in my painting but feel visual impact that lies beyond meaning. If my painting does not transcend the material world then it’s not a painting. In the material world we use our eye as an instrument and not as a sense organ. And that is the intriguing problem of our society that always asks childish questions to artists but neither to painting nor to themselves.
Q8. Have you identified distinct stages in your artistic journey? Please explain all stages separately in terms of idea, form and color scheme in your work.
Elements mentioned above do not have separate existence in my painting. I dealt with them separately when I was studying their function in pictorial space at the school of art. I made myself free of these clutches after completion of academic learning. Let me tell you again and again that I do not make a painting with any preconceived idea regarding color, form or any other element, but I just paint a painting. There is vast difference in ‘making’ and ‘creating’. In making there is no risk and therefore it is like mathematical structure which may look successful but in creating; one may take a risk for the sake of freedom and may produce a bad painting but it would be a painting.
Q9. Which abstract artists do you enjoy seeing now these days both western and Indian?
Western Artists: Paul Klee, Mark Rothko, Pablo Picasso, Morandi, Jackson Pollock, Modigliani Kokoschka, Matisse, Paul Cezanne.
Indian Artists: Gaitonde, Palshikar, Ganesh Haloi, Prabhakar Barve, Homi Patel, Zarina Hashmi, Rajendra Dhavan, Raza, Swaminathan and of course, the present generation of artists both from East and West.
Untitled • Mixed Media on Canvas • 2016
Q1. Every society or civilization has its inherent values and aspirations expressed in different manifestations, and artistic creative expression is also one such manifestation. Keeping this observation in mind, could we identify collective contemporary Indian painting tradition in terms of common social roots, rather civilized cultural roots of Indian artists? If you think that there is no such collective Indian contemporary painting tradition than could you identify reasons for its absence?
India is a country of various religions, castes, creeds and at the same time it has always believed in the presence of GOD which no one has seen in flesh but many have experienced or spiritually felt within as it is not a matter of flesh but faith. I personally am a devotee of God which I do not seek in temples but within myself and other human beings, as Indian philosophy says ” the God is in every human being, rather every human being is a manifestation of atom . God is in every atom “(कण कणमे भगवान). Our philosophical theory for life has begun with utmost faith in god, his unseen presence. What his worshipers have sung and wrote has over the ages, become the guideline to understand God, his nature and teaching. For us God is a collective seed of knowledge, a spiritual matter to understand and put into practice every day in life. All human beings have similar bones and flesh made out of the same elements, only their environment is different and their so called culture is born out of their intellect and ideas of life expressed in relation to nature. You can find the evidences of cultural roots in primitive and folk art as well as numerous ancient temples and sacred places of worshiping.
We believe that God exists in five fundamental elements of nature: आप, (Water) तेज, (Light) वायू, (Air) आकाश, (Sky) मृत्तिका, (earth). These five elements together have formed LIFE on earth. It proves that we have collective thinking and search for life and its meaning which has been governed by ‘searching God within’ which later became rooted into each and every aspect of life and expression, either through language or visual form. It has been reflected in uncommon individuals in common society. We live together but think individually. It has been reflected in every form of art. You all know that India, the peaceful country was attacked by several outside warriors. They left their marks and stamp of their tradition on the Indian mind very deep, yet Indian people have preserved their tradition and at the same time taken with grace and sense of appreciation the influence of the attackers, which later submerged so deeply in their art and life that it could be identified as Indian. We have a great tradition of Miniature Painting (Pahadi, Jain, Rajasthani, Mughal and kalighat etc.) of which stylized rendering belongs to different parts of India and yet they all reflect a common spirit of expression. Besides these miniatures we have a very ancient tradition of primitive painting as well as folk paintings. These traditional arts have also adopted contemporary forms in their own way. Besides these traditional works of art, I do not think there is any common or collective painting tradition in India. But yes, earlier the painting and sculpting were enormously influenced, rather governed by literature and the artists were studiously following the norms dictated by the stalwarts from literature. In olden days रूप-भेद प्रमाणांनी भावलावन्य योजनम सादृश्यं वर्निकाभंग इति चित्रम शडांगकम (programming light and shadow / proportion / beauty of feeling and color scheme these are the basic elements of painting) was the key rule of making a picture and artists had to follow it strictly. Till the 20th century it was followed like a mantra by the painters. Besides this Indian miniature painting was very much in vogue. One can easily find more than ten styles of miniature painting of that era and also find that the artists were exchanging indirectly the influence of each other in their works. Things started changing when Mughals rooted their pragmatic rule in India. At the same time they as per their tradition, appointed court-artists and introduced the lyrical style of miniature painting. And thus one could view the colorful and lyrical Mughal miniature on one side and the Jain spiritual and expressive miniature on the other.
Then came the British Raj which systematically but firmly introduced the British way of crafting and painting. To engrave their influence still deeper they started four school of art in India- Mumbai, Lahore, Kolkata and Chennai. Curriculum at the schools was closer to draftsmanship which could match Indian miniature. They then introduced the British style of Portraiture which was a very fascinating subject for the Indians. Though the British style of painting was quite popular some Indian artists were excelling their creativity in watercolor. The freedom of India gave artists freedom to think and they introduced the extension of miniature tradition into a more vocal and spiritual manner. Then onward this spiritual character of painting went through various experiment and expressive risk to become the Indian face of art. Therefore the constant unstable situation in the country which contains several ways of living life could not come under one style of painting. We have traditions in ways of living and thinking that reflects in our day to day life. Due to cultural dependency imposed indirectly by the British Ruler artist, for a long time artists could not come out of the traditional way of conceiving their own ideas. But after independence you find they were rejoicing in their freedom of mind and started experimenting in new direction. We believe we live together but think apart as individuals and therefore there is no contemporary Indian painting tradition. We broke the tradition while remaining firmly in it. And therefore I firmly believe that contemporariness is an attitude and contemporary is just a label. First one exists forever but second one is just a title and it gets replaced by another title.
Q2. Indian tradition has a strong element of abstract philosophical ideas, especially Upanishadic idealism or the Sunyavada principles of Madhyamika school of Mahayana Buddhism which stresses towards formless reality as an ultimate truth negating the apparent world of forms. Do you think that verbal or literal abstraction could be cited as the inspiration for visual abstraction? If the Indian abstract artist recognized the viability of these philosophical ideas in expressing his own outlook towards formless expression and derived consistency of his composition from the metaphysical solution for human existence inside the larger natural divine reality, how much do you think it expresses the present Indian situation? Is it not some kind of traditionalism against Indian modernity or is modernity in India at its core highly traditional? Is this is an attempt to compensate the expulsion of religion from the art?
Real is what is actual and reality is the content of the real. Both are integrated aspects of Indian philosophy which begins with the question – who am I? It is the beginning of the spiritual journey within the questioner. He therefore diverts his sight inward by just bringing down the eyelids and shuts his mind toward the outer world and meditates. He does not search the answer but analyses the question itself and reaches the conclusion.
This process itself is abstract as each searcher has its own way of searching, rather his own way of following himself. He may or may not reach the answer but the process of searching enlightens him. And therefore there might be several answers to the one question but finally they all lead to one and only one destination, nothingness, (शून्य). It has nothing to do with religion, cast or creed but the state of mind that uplifts the spirituality of the questioner. Sage Kanaad (कणाद), was given said name after the discovery through his meditation that life in a broader sense begins in a particle (कण). Most of the contemporary results of scientific researches reflect the findings through conceptual efforts of our sages because modernity lies in our metabolic idealism. It begins in nothing but concludes in something worth experiencing and living.
Verbal or literal abstraction might build or destroy your idea of abstraction. But as far as artists like me are concerned, we do not depend upon words. Our source is absolutely visual. Elements of tradition and philosophy may inspire us and to some extent support our thinking the way we want to think in terms of painting but surely we do not look to them as the source of our creativity. Therefore I would say that modernity in India is not the extension of tradition but an offshoot of an independent source of abstraction that reflects Indian beliefs and spiritual sojourn that can be termed as artistic visual religion.
Q3. You mentioned that lot of Indian artists try to get recognition in the western art world, do they try to get a similar kind of recognition in their own Indian society? Is there any traditional medium of interaction between artist and Indian society? Through which medium does contemporary Indian art enter the realm of the general Indian social world? And what is the nature of this interaction (between the present-day Indian artist and his Society)?
The nature of expected interaction is poor and ambiguous based on rigidity of the social mind. According to Indian society modern art to a certain extent can be appreciated but since art does not assure the good income for living, it is useless. No parents would want their child to be an artist. Such a degraded aesthetic sense in life does not provoke any dialogue between artist and the society. Artists’ trying to get recognition is a global phenomenon, only the ways are different. The only traditional medium of interaction is exhibitions of art, and newspaper, sometimes a lecture series on art etc. where debate rarely takes place. All such things have started around 1950 to a better degree, due to an overdose of western art and appreciation.
Q4. You said in Europe, individual existence and autonomy is honored with respect and dignity, whereas in India, it is silently denied. Do you take this statement as a critique of the Indian situation? If modern art demands deriving certain degree of uniqueness in individual identity, how can an Indian artist practicing contemporary art, resolve this dilemma?
In the past, India as a country was mostly governed by outsiders, which has broken the backbone of our individual nature and behavior. We have always been fighting for freedom and individuality, even today in free India we are more influenced by the west than our own culture. Most of the artists respond to social, cultural or political issues and fill up the space on their canvas with relevant forms and colors, many are still following the traditional art. Nowadays, many are just copping the contemporary ideas and trends from Europe to be a contemporary with a belief that they would get recognition. We have contemporary art-form without a contemporary thought process, and of course there are exceptions which are globally recognized, such as Gaitonde, Souza, Samant, etc.
I have been a teacher and am going to remain till the end of my life. And I believe that a teacher has to be a critic.
Right from the beginning of modern art in India artists are crazy to go to foreign countries, stay there or come back and get recognition as a foreign returned artist and expect others to look up to them with respect, whereas artists from western countries do not have to travel to other nations to uplift their status; as there is lot to experience in their own country. I am showing this comparison just to make you aware of the difference between the fragile culture of art in India against the strong and influencing art atmosphere in Europe.
I believe that uniqueness comes out with sincere efforts to judge yourself from time to time and to take a risk to change yourself through your free expression in painting. Most artists practice contemporary art forms professionally without any passion and try to solve the dilemma by travelling abroad frequently.
Q5. You said that “subjects come from the external world and thought emerges from the internal turmoil”. What kind of external world precisely exists for you, is it a constantly changing flux where reality is momentary or is there any constant element in your external world? How do you resolve the tension and harmony between the local and global world? And could you explain about the nature of your internal turmoil?
Yes I said it, because we as students of art were exposed to the external world to understand the fundamental structure of forms and their relationship to each other and expected to go on rendering the same way to improve technique. No efforts were taken by the syllabus to improve the ways of seeing and understanding. Thinking in terms of form and color is totally neglected during the studies which finally results into carving out a craftsman out of the students. The lack of thinking later grows into technique oriented practices. Therefore I say that the technique holds you back to practice professionalism through reacting to the external world where as the one who thinks in terms of medium as a language exceeds further passionately to render his ideas growing out of his internal world of constant thinking.
‘पिंडी ते ब्रम्हांडी’ is a philosophical phrase. It means local is part of global and vice versa. One who understands this, does not have to deliberately try to become global, he has to think globally and treat himself as a global entity and cross all the boundaries drawn by the ambitious man on the earth. Earthly awareness has helped me to harmonize between local and global as well as wipe out not just the tension but the gap between the two. The turmoil has constructively helped me to recognize what is global in me and thus to arrive at my own uniqueness. The nature of turmoil has been emotional and intellectual both at the same time.
Q6. Human expression although it seems momentary and disintegrated has always preceded and succeeded by its sequentiality, and the impossibility to capture the exact span of this sequentiality creates crisis of meaning and an inclination towards meaninglessness. Do you agree with this statement? If not, how you are going to resolve the problem of lack of momentary non-neutrality to ensure freedom of individual expression from personal and social history as well as from learned existential anxiety about impending known and unknown probability?
Life without sequence may be jumbling and misleading. Success or failure both are built on sequence. One cannot be a failure or successful all the time. Sequence helps you to have harmony and understanding in life; rather it helps you to give meaning to your life, a deeper experience of sequential happenings enriches the quality of your life. It teaches you that life is not just spending time in between birth and death but understanding and becoming the time itself, continuing on towards self-realization which is the other side of nothingness. It urges you not to expect anything from life but whatever life gives you; convert it into everlasting knowledge: Time = knowledge, knowledge = timelessness. Time is the existential richness. If you understand the meaning, function and essentiality of time in life, you do not need a watch on your wrist.