5 Indian Artists Every Art Lover Should Know About
There are many 'national treasures' or 'unsung heroes' in the Indian art world. Here are some of the art veterans that you should know about.
Ashish Anand, Managing Director & CEO of DAG (Formerly known as Delhi Art Gallery) shares his pick of artists whose creative legacy continues to influence many minds even today.
It has been my privilege to share the works of hundreds of artists with connoisseurs of Indian art, but nothing has been as gratifying as documenting for posterity the incalculably rare and historic importance of Chittaprosad. He was an artist who did not paint for the upliftment of the soul. On the contrary, he seemed inclined to its damnation.
His was the voice no one wanted to hear, but it was the voice, nonetheless, of resistance and rebellion. Whether it was pointing to political chicanery or an indictment of the government that caused one of the greatest genocides the world has seen, incorrectly labelled the Bengal famine, his brush recorded the atrocities of a corrupt system that failed to uphold values of humanitarianism and justice.
His art spoke for itself but found itself suppressed by a newly jubilant nation that failed to take cognizance of the interred bones on which it was founded. In later years, Chittaprosad found succour in a world of children’s illustrations and puppet tales. But an increasing awareness of his work’s great contribution in drawing awareness to injustice has been one of my own personal triumphs.
F N Souza
India’s first truly global artist, F N Souza was anything if not a rebel. He changed forever the practice of art-making in India, rejecting anything that was sentimental in favour of the provocative. He eschewed the familiar, encouraging his peers to diverge from the vacuous and the bland in support of the iconoclastic alternative. He painted as he felt, and if that truth was ugly, he did not dilute its potency. His language was bold, as brutally frank and frontally shocking as his nudes.
Love him or hate him, you could not ignore him—this was Souza’s greatest gift. His London years were his most productive, especially those from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, and I have a great weakness for his paintings produced during this time. Harold Kovner, his mentor during this period, was fortunate to see and benefit from the flowering of one of the greatest geniuses of modern art. An excoriating wit and savage critiquing of society mark his practice; these would be replaced with misogyny and a scathing bitterness hereafter.
If ever there was an artist worthy of the National Treasure tag, that artist is Nandalal Bose. Early in his career, he bettered his teacher and mentor, Abanindranath Tagore, to create paintings in the wash style of the Bengal School that were poetic and lyrical. Under Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s guidance, he gave up a successful career and abandoned the city lights to set up an art department in bucolic Santiniketan’s Visva-Bharati University. Here, he introduced a modern expressionistic language to his students and Indian art—tutoring some of India’s finest modernists such as Benode Behari Mukherjee and Ramkinkar Baij.
Even Mahatma Gandhi was in awe of his ability to draw on the folk and tribal in his practice and asked him to paint posters for the annual session of the Congress convocation in Haripura. These eighty panels, most of them now in the collection of the National Gallery of Modern Art and recently exhibited at the Venice Biennale, are among my favourites. And yet, how many even know that Nandalal Bose put together a team of artists to collectively illustrate the first copy of the Constitution of India?
Raja Ravi Varma is our finest example of an artist who, though self-taught, took the best of the colonial experience and turned it into the greatest art produced in India during the 19th century. His influence has penetrated so deep into our minds and hearts that well into the 21st century we continue to be inspired by him and his prints continue to enjoy salience across the country.
Though he found patronage amidst the elite, he was conscious of the power of art in communicating new, fresh ideas, and his colour printing press was the first in India to circulate copies of his finest paintings among the less privileged. For me, personally, I find his depiction of our mythic heroines extremely powerful, whether Shakuntala or Damayanti—but my all-time favourite would have to be his portrayals of Yashoda and Krishna, laying the ground for the Mother and Child theme for the country’s modernists who followed in Ravi Varma’s footsteps.
Indian art has many unsung heroes, none more so than Prabhakar Barwe, whose retrospective recently concluded at the National Gallery of Modern Art—first in Mumbai, and later in New Delhi. What appeals to me about Barwe is as much his aesthetic that was founded on Indian principles, as his intellect which shaped his practice. Though schooled in the usual Western norms of art-making, Barwe rejected it all in favour of the native voice, finding solutions within the abstract language of Indian art itself. He pared away all that was extraneous, yielding to the tyranny of the minimal.
His clean lines reflected the power of symbols representing ideas that resonated with Indian philosophy, but he was not immune from global influences of which surrealism, in particular, appealed to his methodology. His canvases became a catchment for memories, indicating the need for every day within a larger worldview. Scissors, clocks and watches, the humble apple—they all found space on his canvas. But ultimately it was his ode to the abstract inherent in the tautology of tantra that marked his genius, proving that one did not have to turn Westward to find artistic devices that had informed us for centuries and over generations.