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Art: The Best Of Both Worlds
From Souza to Raza, many famous Indian artists lived and worked abroad, but continued to sell their wares in India
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We have often debated whether working (and living) abroad gives Indian artists a superior aura, and an unfair advantage over their brethren who live and operate out of India.
Francis Newton Souza lived in London from 1949 to 1967, and then, in New York from 1967 to 2002. Syed Haider Raza made Paris his home starting 1950, till he finally returned to New Delhi in 2010. Sohan Qadri left his home in Punjab to migrate to Copenhagen in 1968. He died there in 2012. Eric Bowen lived in Oslo from 1971 to 1988, and then split his time between the US and his Oslo home between 1989 and 2002. One can look at many more examples: Krishna Reddy, Sadanand K. Bakre, Sakti Burman, Avinash Chandra, Mohan Samant, Natvar Bhavsar, Velu Vishwanadhan, Rajendra Dhawan, Ambadas, Zarina Hashmi and Sujata Bajaj. Each of them
lived abroad, or continue to live abroad, paint and prosper.
The important, and interesting, aspect of this discussion is that while all these artists resided and created art in lands far from India, their home country remained the primary market for their artistic output. And, when they were not selling in India, their artworks were being lapped up by enthusiastic NRIs around the globe. So, one way or the other, these artists-in-foreign-residence drew their fame and fortune through an umbilical cord with mother country, India, which they never snapped; on the contrary, continued to cultivate and nurture.
On the creative side, the debate has always centred around how many of these artists actually evolved aesthetically and stylistically by their exposure to environs and influences overseas. Fact remains that almost all of these artists continued to paint subjects and themes that were deeply embedded in their own minds, their memories and their active consciousness from their childhoods, their youth and their days of struggle in India. The visualisation, the pictures, the imagery also continued to remain anchored in the ‘India’ they had all grown up in. The village they came from, the turbaned men, the saree clad women, the village landscape, the crumbling church, the domed mosque, the festooned temple, the rich kaleidoscope of colours, all continued to find expression on the canvas of the ‘NRI’ artist. S.H. Raza is famously said to have said, “When I came to France I was 25. I needed 30 years to come to my style, to understand what is colour, what is organisation. It was 1975 when I first tasted success in France and in India. But I told myself, there is something missing in my work. I asked myself, ‘Where is India in your work?’ And since then, I started working in Indian aesthetics and miniatures”.
Which really begets two questions: first, whether going abroad gave these artists a superior creative environment that helped create better art that fetched better prices and made them more famous; second, whether those that were not adventurous enough to go overseas to practice and ply their trade were eventually disadvantaged in India.
In his book Memory and Identity (2016), Kishore Singh puts forth an interesting point of view. He says, “If an artist from India migrates, for instance, as F.N. Souza first did, to London, Britain, is he an ‘Indian’ artist by birth or in his work? How must his work be viewed or judged? What if in his new environment, he proceeds to create a new body of works that are different from those preceding it? Is he still an ‘Indian’ artist? Is that work no longer ‘Indian’? But can it be ‘English’? Does he now become a ‘British’ artist? Or will his identity change as perceived by his viewers / buyers?”
We spoke to Sujata Bajaj on this subject. India-born Bajaj has lived in Paris for nearly 30 years. She had the privilege of having S.H. Raza as her mentor and friend for 25 years, and he was the one who motivated her to move from Pune to Paris on a French government scholarship. As Bajaj puts it, “I have almost a 100 letters from Raza saab to me on line, colour and form,” which helped her fine hone her artistic vocabulary. “I am today recognised as an international contemporary abstract artist. My Ganapati series was only a one-off series I did. I always wear Indian clothes, not just to keep my Indian-ness, but because you should believe strongly in your roots.” She adds, “I learn from wherever I go and whatever I see. The clouds, nature itself and even the Northern Lights impacted me in Norway. In France, I like that everyone is so analytical, passionate and sincere.” Obviously all this influences her work.
One noticeable exception to the norm of the NRI artist remaining focused on India is Anish Kapoor, actually ‘Sir’ Anish Kapoor, who has been celebrated and feted in his adopted country UK with a knighthood, has been bestowed the prestigious Genesis Prize by Israel (which also carries a prize money of $1 million) and has even received the Padma Bhushan in India. Kapoor, who professes to be Jewish despite being born half-Punjabi, is globally focused with world famous works like the Cloud Gate (commonly known as ‘the Bean’) in Chicago, the Sky Mirror, Temenos, Leviathan and the Orbit. Kapoor left India at an early age, never to look back. His fame and fortune is truly global. No other artist of Indian origin comes even remotely close to Anish Kapoor’s global repertoire.
Bharti Kher is the only visible example of a reverse brain drain. Born and educated in the UK, Bharti, now married to equally famous Subodh Gupta, has built her creative reputation in India. Her ‘bindi’, her signature is today the central motif of her aesthetic language, which articulates and animates her themes. Kher is increasingly exhibiting abroad, but remains anchored in India.
Sakti Burman has stayed more connected with India, spending most winters in Delhi. Burman has been on record saying, “If I had not come from India and stayed in Paris, I don’t think I could have done what I am doing now. I would have been a completely different kind of artist. You don’t realise how important this is while you are travelling on your journey, but in retrospect, you realise it is actually fundamental”.
Avinash Chandra was perhaps the one artist who broke away from the traditional Indian mould and started to execute impasto brushstrokes in a blend of extraordinary colours such that his landscapes gradually transformed into ‘patterns’, which, in turn, coalesced into a seething sexual energy.
Back to our original argument about the halo of working abroad, and therefore the ability to attract and extract better prices for their works in India. On this, artist Baiju Parthan, who painted alongside F.N. Souza just before his demise, makes his points with a punch, “Relocating to another country (in the West) has the added advantage of getting (you) included into the art scene there and getting to know international curators and gallery directors, which would obviously lead to inclusions in important shows, and getting added to the roster of artists supported by significant galleries, etc. The fact is, the art world is very hierarchical in its makeup. The West does hold the reigns and controls the global art scene. To be endorsed by the West, is the shortcut to success. So, it has become an accepted strategy to focus on international exposure to get a better foothold back home in India.”
Artists who moved to foreign lands have obviously had the best of both worlds. Working abroad gave them not just a better environment, and perhaps creative stimulus, but their being based overseas made them more welcome in India. India itself remained a fertile market for their perhaps more stylised and somewhat Westernised output. Fact remains that few Indian artists actually dented the global art scene in any meaningful way. It was just that India remained open and welcoming to the return of the prodigals.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.