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A unique poet-painter

TRANSCENDING BOUNDARIES: J. Swaminathan  

“With a rag and a knife

Against the idée fixe

The bull of fear

Against the canvas and the void

The uprushing spring

Blue flame of cobalt

Burnt amber

Greens fresh from the sea

Minds' indigo

With a rag and a knife

No brushes”

Thus begins a poem “Al Pintor Swaminathan” (To Painter Swaminathan) that Mexican diplomat-poet Octavio Paz, who later received Nobel Prize for Literature, wrote on his close friend Jagdish Swaminathan. This extract is from the English translation jointly done by Paz and Swaminathan. One recalled this poem, as one was present at a unique remembrance meeting that was held on June 21 to celebrate Swaminathan’s 90th birth anniversary at Dhoomimal Gallery. Had Swaminathan – Swami to his friends and admirers – not succumbed to a sudden heart attack on April 25, 1994, he would have been 90 on this day.

Acting with alacrity on an idea mooted by noted art critic, Hindi writer and Swami’s old friend Prayag Shukla, the Gallery invited eminent artist Krishen Khanna and well-known Hindi poets such as Girdhar Rathi, Vinod Bharadwaj, Vishnu Nagar, Gagan Gill and Savita Singh to reminisce about him and recite their poetry. Shukla, who is about to complete a biography of Swaminathan, recited his poems, read out excerpts from its manuscript, and also spoke extempore deviating from the written text.

A unique poet-painter

Besides being a top-ranking artist, Swaminathan was also a reasonably good Hindi poet though he was brought up in a strict Tamil Brahmin household. In the mid-1980s, an old art gallery Shilpichakra located in Shankar Market was renovated and revived. To celebrate its re-opening, Swaminathan, along with a few Hindi poets including this writer, had also recited his Hindi poems in his deep, resonating voice. Unconcerned with his fame and stature, he had also made a few covers for young and upcoming Hindi poets’ poetry collections as a gift to encourage them.

Swaminathan was perhaps the only top artist who had not received any diploma or degree from an art institution and learnt everything in the university of life. A natural rebel, he ran away from his home in 1943 when he was a mere 15-year-old lad, joined the Congress Socialist Party and worked at its office at Bara Hindu Rao during 1944-1948. After India became independent, he felt that CSP was no longer interested in the economic transformation of the Indian society, and became a whole- timer of the Communist Party of India that had adopted the Left-Extremist political line of its General Secretary B. T. Ranadive. This is how Mohit Sen, a well known communist ideologue and politician, remembered meeting him in the CPI office in 1953: “In those days, I got to know J. Swaminathan who had come to the Communist Party from the Left Socialist Group led by Edatata Narayan and Aruna Asaf Ali. He was a party whole-timer...In those days, he wrote striking poems that he recited and translated for me. They were a blend of mysticism and hymns to revolutionary struggle.”

Concept of ‘totality’

Swaminathan’s son S. Kalidas, who began as a student of sarod with maestro Amajd Ali Khan, learnt the intricacies of Khayal music from none other than Mallikarjun Mansur and emerged as a noted journalist, writer and musicologist, underlines the fact that his father remained fascinated with the concept of the “whole” or “totality” and often mocked the concept of a linear progress, unconsciously endorsing the age-old Indian concept of a cyclical or circular movement.

Kalidas quotes from his father’s unfinished autobiographical notes wherein Swaminathan says, “Progress assumes a beginning and thus a creator. How can there be progress in infinity?” He also discerns an intentional return on Swaminathan’s part to the pictorial imagery of his 1960s works towards the end of his life, as if to complete the full circle. No wonder that he was fond of quoting Mahatma Gandhi who had said, “My life is an indivisible whole.” That’s why, a fiery political activist and a searching artist comfortably resided in the personality of Swaminathan who, in the catalogue of his 1969 exhibition, gleefully wrote: “But if I had an artist’s scruples in politics, I perhaps brought something of the revolutionary’s ruthlessness into art.”

This “ruthlessness” made him to critique the contemporary art scene. A few years before this, another development that played a crucial role in his personal and professional life, also took place. In 1962, Octavio Paz came to New Delhi as Mexican ambassador. An informal person, he would regularly visit Tea House and Indian Coffee House in the Connaught Place area and struck friendship with many Hindi writers such as Shrikant Verma, painters like Swaminathan, Himmat Shah and Jeram Patel, and journalists like Sham Lal.

In 1962, at the house of art lovers Jyoti and Jayant Pandya at Bhavnagar, Gujarat, twelve young painters – Swaminathan, Jeram Patel, Ambadas, Rajesh Mehra, Ghulammohammad Sheikh, Jyoti Bhatt, Raghav Kaneria, Himmat Shah, Eric Bowen, Balkrishna Patel, Redappa Naidu and S.G. Nigam – met and decided to form a group. As the Pandyas’ house number was 1890, the group adopted this as its name. The first and only joint exhibition of Group 1890 was held in 1963 and Paz wrote an introduction to the catalogue and it was largely because of his association with it that the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru made it a point to inaugurate it. In 1966, when Swaminathan held his first solo exhibition, the catalogue carried the poem “Al Pintor Swaminathan”.

Swaminathan married Bhawani Pande, the flame of his adolescent years hailing from the hills of Kumaon, and this fact could perhaps be behind his use of mountain, rock and bird as symbols to express himself through his painting, much in the same manner as Bindu (dot or circle) was used by S. H. Raza. In the 1980s, he created the Tribal Arts Museum at Bharat Bhawan, Bhopal that, in addition to his formidable artistic creations, can also be described as his permanent contribution to Indian art.

Nothing could describe Swaminathan’s relationship with his canvas better than what Paz wrote in his poem on him: “The canvas a body, dressed in its own naked enigma.”

The writer is a seasoned literary critic

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