How some visual artists left an indelible mark with their individualism and a progressive legacy was the topic of discussion at a session in the Avaaz Do – SAHMAT seminar, reports Shailaja Tripathi
‘Progressive culture - practice and practitioners', one of the sessions held on the last day of the three-day Avaaz Do – SAHMAT seminar on Progressive Legacy discussing the art practices of Ramkinkar Baij, Chittaprosad and Somnath Hore can best be described as a rounded and vibrant affair. Presentations made by Santhosh S., Sanjoy Mallik and Akansha Rastogi were followed by discussions throwing light on how they transgressed from the routine and marked the beginning of a new chapter in the history of modern art in India. Scholars, art historians, filmmakers and art critics like Sadanand Menon, Vivan Sundaram and M.S. Sathyu attended the session, which was moderated by Geeta Kapur.
Taking an interesting approach, by way of a comparative analysis of the work and life of Ramkinkar Baij and Deviprasad Roy Chowdhury — both of whom laid the foundation of modern Indian sculpture and enriched by their Santiniketan experience — Santhosh S. sought to establish the former's contribution in giving a new direction to modernism in Indian art. Calling him modernist primitivist, Santhosh analysed his work ‘Mill Call', in the context of primitive discourse, vis-à-vis D.P. Roy Chowdhury's ‘Triumph of Labour'. He commented that while Chowdhury attempts to present an idea of universal labourhood, devoid of any form of localism and not bound to any location, ethnicity and class, Baij represented everyday realities of the working class with questions of class, and ethnicity formed a critical part of his discourse.
While Santhosh's bid to look at Baij as modernist primitivist in the pantheon of mainstream modernists led people to ask him if then an artist like Jangarh Singh Shyam should be looked as entirely primitivist, his reading of ‘Mill Call', a sculpture of a Santhal family on its way to work carrying their meagre belongings, was extremely interesting, particularly his position of looking at two women looking back and looking ahead as one, hinting at dual consciousness. The famous art work is installed at Kala Bhavan within the Vishva Bharati campus in Santiniketan.
Paper in absence
Art historian and a senior lecturer at Santiniketan, Sanjoy Mallik, couldn't be present but his paper ‘Articulating suffering: Voicing protest – Visual art in solidarity with the people' was read by Akansha Rastogi. Rastogi is a researcher on Indian modern and contemporary art. Both Somnath Hore and Chittaprosad were active members of the Communist party and enthusiastically shared political ideas and ideologies with the movement, which formed the basic framework of their search for a valid form of expression. Mallik's paper took people through his reportage on the man-made famine of 1943 for the party, which culminated in a publication titled ‘Hungry Bengal.' The copies of the book were confiscated and destroyed by the British as it was critical of the policies that led to the famine. Showing pages out of the book on the projection, it talked about the propagandist nature of his satirical posters and a critical overview of the imagery in there, the paper also dealt with Somnath's engagement with similar issues through his early sketches, drawings, portraits of peasants, pulp prints, lithographs and his book “Tebhaga: An Artist's Diary” and sketchbook.
Rastogi sought a different approach to discuss Chittaprosad. She presented six different drawings done by the artist on one day (January 7, 1945) in Titvala, Maharashtra. It was the CPI's first session of the Kisan Mahasabha. From a large panoramic view of the session in progress, the artist moves on to sketch a group of women attending the conference and then portraits of Patil, headman of the peasants, and Budhaje Korde, the peasants' local leader.
If the stark images and highly poignant works of Chittaprosad and Hore inspired an activist to recall an incident where she witnessed a family drinking boiling water to ward off hunger in Orissa, those interested in the visual grammar took note of the techniques like deep focus, depth of the field and angular perspective. It also led to a discussion on the visualisation of poverty with Sadanand Menon raising a pertinent question: “Why is one indulging in the graphics of poverty? All those who are working with progressive framework need to examine.” Artist Anjolie Ela Menon, on the other hand, said that this kind of response to a tragedy seems to have ceased with that generation.
Keywords: Indian art