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Abstract art in India: fragmented hues and jagged lines

Ambadas’s Untitled (1976) evokes different reactions in different people. To me, the swirls of ochre and red seem like writing on a brick wall. To my companion, they seem like whirlpools disturbing the surface of a mustard-yellow sea. That’s the beauty of abstract art — it sings a different melody to each viewer.

The walls of Delhi Art Gallery, located in the culture hub of Hauz Khas Village, are adorned with 350 artworks by over 60 masters of abstract — including V S Gaitonde, S K Bakre, Shobha Broota, Biren De, Satish Gujral, M F Husain, Ram Kumar, P Khemraj, Devyani Krishna, Akbar Padamsee, Nasreen Mohamedi and J Swaminathan. The ongoing exhibition, “Indian Abstracts: An Absence of Form”, traces the evolution of abstraction in India from the early 1950s to the neo-tantric and finally to its present form.

The subtitle, “An Absence of Form”, has stirred up quite a debate within the art community. Artist Vivan Sundaram, who has also been featured in the exhibition, feels that the title is a bit ironic without intending to be so. “The very basis of abstract art is form,” he says. Roobina Karode, director and chief curator, Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, agrees with him.

“What can be abstract in art? Art is about articulating an image. You can absent a figure, a structure or a narrative from it, but it will always have form,” she says. Writers often use the term “formlessness” to describe a particular abstract. “But even that formlessness is a form in itself that an artist has arrived at.”

Artist Vivan Sundaram

The curator of the exhibition, Kishore Singh, who is also the gallery’s publication and exhibition head, is quite enjoying the debate. When he was putting the show together, Singh felt that artists begin with a certain idea, but reinterpret, re-imagine and re-articulate it along the way.

“And that is why abstracts mean different things to different people, which may vary from what the artist may have imagined. But there is nothing to validate the original idea. And that’s what we mean by the subtitle,” he says.

The debate aside, the exhibition offers the viewers a trajectory of abstract art after Independence. “What interested me were the artworks from the 1950s and ’60s as they highlighted the shift from figurative to abstract,” says Sundaram. The works of Mohamedi with their mathematical precision, the jagged lines and fragmented hues of Ram Kumar’s artworks and the zen-like feel of Gaitonde’s paintings are some of the pieces that mark this shift, caused perhaps by the sense of freedom that the abstract offered to the artists.

“The exhibition has brought together some of the most significant artists working with the language of abstraction to make possible a study of the movement. This has not been done previously,” says Karode. It also shows the language of abstraction emerging from various parts of India — from a solid base of artists like Gaitonde in Mumbai to KCS Paniker in the south and Shanti Dave from Baroda.

Ram Kumar’s Ruins, oil on canvas, 1972

The exhibition also busts the myth that the abstract was something that came to India from the West. “It has always existed in the world since prehistoric times — be it the cave paintings at the Eddakal Caves in Kerala or Ayers Rock in Australia. The movements in the West only added a fresh context to abstract art,” says art writer and curator Meera Menezes.

She cites the example of the Shiva linga, in which the yoni on the mandala is an abstract way of describing the energy of the universe. Karode too feels that in India, abstraction is strongly embedded in the vernacular and traditional rituals of colour and design.

“Through the exhibition, one can see that as the influence of the West started seeping in in the early 1950s, the Indian artists had an older form of abstraction to imbibe from as well. The art that emerged was a fusion of the two,” says Menezes. The artists and critics are hopeful that the exhibition will open up the field for further study. “It will allow the scholars and curators to see and think about abstract art more profoundly and seriously,” says Karode.

The exhibition is on view at the Delhi Art Gallery, Hauz Khas, New Delhi, till September 30


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