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The long-standing concerns of critic Prayag Shukla

“Kala Ki Duniya Mein” reflects the long-standing concerns of critic Prayag Shukla who has not only observed the way Indian art evolved over the past five decades but has also deeply thought about the issues that it has thrown up

It was an unusual book launch. Last Friday, away from the public gaze, in a small room tucked in the interior of the Press Club of India, senior Hindi poet Vishnu Nagar released “Kala Ki Duniya Mein” (In the world of art), a 630-page compilation of Prayag Shukla’s writings on art, in the presence of nearly 15 Hindi writers, artists, personal friends and the book’s editor Abhishek Kashyap.

Critical language

Besides being a well-known Hindi poet, short story writer and translator, Prayag Shukla is the pre-eminent art critic in Hindi who pioneered art criticism and enriched Hindi by giving shape to a new critical language as well as a profound way of looking at art and the society that gives birth to it. At 79, he is still actively contributing to all the areas of his creative interest and ‘shared space’ is a basic value that he lives by.

Writing on visual arts and music is a most daunting task. Somehow, critical theories of aesthetics have almost solely focused on literature and literary criticism has been dominating the scene over the past several centuries while non-verbal arts have been largely ignored. Or, it was facilely assumed that literary theories could be applied with equal ease to non-literary expressions as well. However, nothing could be farther from truth than this. It is by no means easy to give verbal expression to a non-verbal artistic experience. If in music the determining factor is the various ways in which musical notes are combined with one another and the myriad ways in which they are dealt with, in painting and sculpture it is the individualistic use of colours and the material which the artist chooses that decides the artistic outcome. It’s a silent medium and words have no place in this creative endeavour as they are not of much use for describing the experience of either creating the art work or appreciating it. However, words are the stock in trade for an art critic and he or she has nothing else to lean on for support.

For an art critic in Hindi, the challenge was even greater. When Prayag Shukla began to write on art in the early 1960s, Hindi did not have any established or adequately evolved tradition of art criticism per se. It was sheer luck that at the age of 23, he joined the editorial collective of the top literary journal “Kalpana”in Hyderabad. Badri Vishal Pitti, a billionaire who was a close friend and follower of socialist leader and thinker Ram Manohar Lohia, was bringing out this magazine. M. F. Husain too was part of Pitti’s inner circle of friends and used to stay at his palatial mansion where he could get solitude and space to paint. Almost every issue of “Kalpana” had a sketch or painting of Husain or Ram Kumar or Laxma Gouda on its cover. This was the time when young Prayag Shukla came in close contact with contemporary artists as well as their art.

When after some time he moved to Delhi to try his hand on freelance journalism, Ram Kumar allowed him to stay in his studio in New Delhi’s Gole Market. There he observed him at work, discussed with him and other artists and got seriously involved with art and its appreciation. In the process, he had to coin critical terms and evolve a language of art criticism in Hindi. After this, there was no looking back and his writings on art in Dinman, Navbharat Times and so many other publications came to form his formidable oeuvre. Now, a collection of many of these articles, scattered in various magazines and newspapers, have been put together in an impressive volume to provide art lovers and art students a peep into the history of modern Indian art.

The book reflects the long-standing concerns of Prayag Shukla who has not only observed the way Indian art evolved over the past five decades but has also deeply thought about the issues that it has thrown up.

The 630-page volume has been divided into eight sections and opens with Shukla’s writings on Rabindranath Tagore, Raja Ravi Varma, Jamini Roy, Vinod Bihari Mukherjee, B. C. Sanyal, Krishna Kulkarni and Upendra Maharathi.

Artists evolution

The book offers a veritable historical account as the articles familiarise us with the evolution of various artists as well as the Indian art scene. One finds reviews of the exhibitions of all the important Indian artists and also interviews with some of them like J. Swaminathan, Ram Kumar and Syed S. H. Raza. The section on western art and artists is one of the most informative and educative part of the book. The other is the section ‘Vimarsh’ that introduces us to the way Shukla looks at art, artists and the issues concerning them.

He deals with the continuing discussion over figurative art versus abstract art in a comprehensive manner and also expresses his opinion about the current obsession with installation art. It’s very clear that he is not much impressed with installations as a new art form since they often fail to make an ‘artistic statement’. Another fascinating section offers his reminiscences of N. S. Bendre, Bimal Dasgupta, Bhupen Khakkhar, M. F. Husain, V. S. Gaitonde, Ambadas, S. H. Raza, K. K. Hebbar, Krishna Shamrao Kulkarni, Jangadh Singh Shyam, Sarbari Roy Choudhury, K. G. Subramanyan and Manjit Bawa.

The writer is a senior literary critic

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Printable version | Feb 28, 2020 3:29:32 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-authors/a-new-book-explores-the-long-standing-concerns-of-critic-prayag-shukla/article29100153.ece

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