Blog | June 2014

Indian Abstract Art: A river which flows within
Posted June 26, 2014     By Jitendra Suman

The story of abstraction in Indian painting during the modern period is not easy to define. During post-independence abstraction began more as an Individual artistic activity rather than a movement which was very common in those days. Because of this it is very difficult to categorize abstractionist tendencies of Indian art, into distinct categories. This lack of popular support for abstraction was the result of two things; first during post-independence Indian artists were trying hard to resist any western influence as they were recently freed from western colonialism. Second, those young Indian artists who were opposing the influence of the nationalist Bengal school of painting of colonial days were not ready to accept abstraction which contains a strong strand of spiritualist undertone very akin to the vocabulary of Indian indigenous spiritual tradition. But even in this state of dilemma a few Indian artists adopted abstraction as a medium to express their inner turmoil. Artists such as V.S. Gaitonde, J. Swaminathan, K.C.S Panicker, Ganesh Holoi and Ambadas all started using abstraction in their work more for self-realization than for display. For example in the work of V.S. Gaitonde one can see the uninterrupted yearning to connect infinite layers of consciousness in order to feel unity of being. Gaitonde brought scintillating depth into his work by creating transparent layers of Indianized colors. This depth created hues of sublime spirituality. Recently Gaitonde’s work broke sales records at Christie’s London auction house which is quite ironical as Gaitonde during his productive years was very much detached from the art world and lived a near reclusive life. In contrast, Jagdish Swaminathan began differently; his abstractionist inclinations were more revolutionary and he became the driving force behind the formation of group 1890, founded in August 1962. This group asserted the search for true essence in their work. Swaminathan embodying that spirit declared that there is a mysterious relationship between color and space. He expressed this by transforming his abstract landscape into a limitless aura which spreads the observer’s perception, not merely as a glance, but as a total submergence of consciousness into the enigma of colorful quietude.

Before going further we should accept this contention that although in the beginning Indian artists were reluctant to accept abstraction in their artistic expression due to its foreign origins, if you look closely you will find that abstraction as a meditative spiritual path has a long history going back to Upanishadic tradition. Thus as soon as it found its adherent in Indian art it became more and more connected with Indian spiritual tradition. This became apparent with the work of K.C.S. Panicker and Syed Haider Raza. Panicker combined Tantric symbols with certain Indian horoscopic signs in his abstract works. He contended that he adopted these traditional Indian symbols out of their visual values rather than their customary narrative. Panicker’s work represents diversity of artistic inspiration in a ritually neutral environment of post-Independent India. His work also signifies that if the concrete structure of traditional Indian symbols is re-represented with a modern perspective, they will start exuding contemporary notions. Syed Haider Raza, another contemporary senior abstract artist, adopted abstraction while moving away from watercolor landscapes. In his work he experimented with the Tantric Mandala painting. He said that the cosmological meaning of these structures helped him to understand how the mystery of inner self is rooted in the harmony of color, lines and space. Raza who spent the larger part of his life in France, tried to compose ritualistic diagrams of the cosmos as a map of ultimate Indian reality which nearly attempts to represent the universal human mind. His chessboard-like structures contain various blocks with a dark Bindu at the center embodying an archaic point of origin and energy; a geometrical representation of Purusha (ultimate consciousness) and Prakriti (nature). This application of Tantric symbols in Indian abstraction became more prominent in the work of Neo-Tantric abstract artist Biren De. De transformed the sexual union of male and female in the geometric symbols of old Indian Tantra. In his abstract work, De utilizes the notion of that dark force which works between opposite sexes with the help of these traditional Hindu tantric symbols. The perplexing ambiguity of this force appears in the unfathomable circular depth of his colors with incipient hues of sublime white. Without narration it gives us the feeling of the birth of life. This is the ultimate truth which De was searching for in his work.

There are many examples of Indian abstract artists and their brilliant work. Despite having highly individualized tendencies in the work of Indian abstract artists we can determine certain distinct trends. Although Indian abstraction began under western influence it moves beyond this influence because of a strong inherent Religio-spiritual abstractionist tradition in the Indian civilization. When you speak with artists who are involved in abstractionist creation you will find that their ritually neutral outlook about truth and reality in the end goes for indigenous humanism which could be categorized under current Neo-Humanism. Thus the formless god of medieval Bhakti saints and their spiritualist poetry greatly influence the mind of these artists. Similarly, elements of Indian life, its exuberance and decadence, appear prominently in their work. It is in the abstract art that Indian artists successfully bring the bewildering sense of archaic identity in the face of a constantly changing modern world.