NEW YORK – Aicon Art Gallery in New York is presenting a group exhibition of Indian and Pakistani artists, ‘Outside the Lines: Secular Vision in South Asian Modernism’, that brings together artists who have drawn inspiration from a collective cultural consciousness and produced enduring bodies of work that speak to secular, human truths.
Against a backdrop of religiously-motivated political struggle – similar to the present moment – these artists attempted to negotiate a syncretic pluralism while trying to develop a personal idiom, said Aicon, in press notes.
The featured artists in the exhibition that opens on January 18th, and runs through February 22, 2020, are: Gulam Rasool Santosh (India, 1929-1997), Maqbool Fida Husain (India, 1913-2011), Sadequain (Pakistan, 1930-1987), and Syed Haider Raza (India, 1922-2016).
Critic Atteqa Ali has summarized the creative impetus of the time of these artists: ‘In the mid-twentieth century, India was a new democratic country carved out of the subcontinent and led by the Indian National Congress. During this nascent period of independence, its citizens sought to define its parameters and understand its reason for being. The cultural sphere was highly politicized. Authors wrote stories and poems that critiqued the way nationalist leaders handled the events leading up to independence and the partition of India and Pakistan. Within the burgeoning art scene, artists introduced themselves as modern and secular practitioners.’
In the mid-60s, G.R. Santosh developed his own individual style, in sharp contrast to the art of the Bengal School – seeking to focus on compositional elements rather than combing modern aesthetics with folk influences. Born Gulam Rasool Dar to a Shia Muslim family in Srinagar, Kashmir, the self-taught artist took on his wife’s Hindu name ‘Santosh’ as his own, in a move opposing patriarchy and religion.
In Kashmir, he found inspiration in the Hindu and Buddhist tantric cults that co- existed along with Sufi mysticism which had a deep impact on his works. His visit to Amarnath caves in 1964 made him stop painting to study Tantra – a philosophy centered around the concept of cosmic creation. He created pure forms that combined male and female forms, seeking to fuse the sexual and the transcendental. The artists’ contribution paved the way for what has come to be known as the neo-tantric school.
Syed Sadequain Ahmed Naqvi or Sadequain as he was known, was one of the first Pakistani artists to gain international recognition, embarking on his notable career with an award from the Biennale de Paris in 1961. The artist was born in Amroha, India, descending from a family of Qur’an scribes and is recognized as the foremost calligrapher and painter of Pakistan, responsible for the renaissance of Islamic calligraphy in the country since the late 1960s and bringing the art form into the mainstream.
In the late 1940s, Sadequain joined the Progressive Writers and Artists Movement and through his career, produced works of thematic content reflected by his commitment to social justice, and the progressive ideals of his peers of writers and poets. Sadequain’s unique visual vocabulary stemmed from the complex merging of Eastern (calligraphy) and Western (figurative) traditions in art, alongside Hindu and Muslim ideology. Sweeps of a calligraphic brush are echoed in the artist’s flamboyant approach to painting figures but his forms and themes are mostly biographical.
The endless exploration of his cultural roots and his willingness to absorb diverse influences, from both the Eastern and Western art historical canons, made M. F. Husain arguably the most celebrated and internationally recognized Indian artists of the 20th century.
Much like the early career of Pop Artist James Rosenquist, who made a living as a billboard painter in New York City’s Time Square, Husain painted billboards for feature films in Mumbai, an early experience that fueled his life-long passion for Bollywood.
In 1947, he joined the Bombay Progressive Artist’s Group (PAG) – the most influential group of Modern artists in India, seeking new forms of expression to capture and convey India’s complex past, along with its emerging post-colonial future. In his early work, Husain harked back to his roots, incorporating themes that blended folk, tribal and mythological art.
He also received recognition as a printmaker, a photographer, and a filmmaker. Entering into the 1980s and 1990s, Husain painted his country with the eye of a man who knew his subject uncomfortably well; he knew India’s insecurities, blemishes and inner turmoil. Beyond the controversy that eventually led him into exile, he was above all an artist radically and permanently redefining Indian art, while remaining unafraid to confront the growing social and political issues of his country’s transformations.
Since he began painting in the early 1940s in India, Raza’s subject, style and technique have evolved in distinct stages through his migration to France, his interaction with Abstract Expressionism through the 1950s and 1960s and his return to a core Indian aesthetic philosophy in the 1970’s. These periods of Raza’s work, though distinct, form a continuum – one that is a testament to the artist’s constant negotiation to develop his painterly vision.
Underscoring the important contribution of these artists, writer Tausif Noor notes, ‘As fundamentalism threatens forms of secular dissent, it seems vital to re-examine the Progressives’ idealistic vision of India as a nation of commingling and complementary differences.’
Met Acquires Works by Pakistani Artist Lala Rukh
The Metropolitan Museum of Art announced last week the acquisition of two important works by the Pakistani artist and activist Lala Rukh (Lahore, 1948–2017): the collage Mirror Image, 1, 2, 3 (1997) and the digital animation Rupak (2016).
The works were purchased by the Museum with funds from the Tia Collection, part of the private foundation’s commitment to enabling the acquisition of works by South Asian female artists for The Met’s Department of Modern and Contemporary Art. The Tia Collection’s support of the Museum began in 2018 with the gift of Ranjani Shettar’s installation Seven ponds and a few raindrops (2017).
The Met also announced that the Estate of Lala Rukh has gifted the Museum a group of six posters to compliment the acquisition of Mirror Image, 1, 2, 3 and Rupak. Rukh created the posters, which call for the equal rights and freedom of women, during her years with the Women’s Action Forum (WAF), the Pakistani women’s rights organization that she co-founded.
“These powerful works by Lala Rukh add great strength to our holdings of contemporary art from South Asia, and we are extremely grateful to the Tia Collection for their generous support and commitment to the Museum,” said Max Hollein, Director of The Met, in a statement.
The Met is the first museum in the United States to acquire Rukh’s work. Considered one of Rukh’s most important pieces, Mirror Image 1, 2, 3 (1997) was made in response to the aftermath and ensuing communal violence following the destruction of the Babri Masjid Mosque in Ayodhya, India, in 1992, including the riots that took place for years in cities such as Mumbai, Dhaka, and Lahore.
To create Mirror Image, Rukh cut out newspaper images of the riots and acts of damage and then blackened them, using charcoal and other media, thus abstracting the images, and finally attached them in pairs to sheets of grid paper. The gesture of obfuscating the imagery was her riposte to the negative and propagandist impact that such widely circulated images could have, according to press notes.
The single-channel video Rupak (2016), the artist’s final work, is the culmination of her abiding preoccupation with Hindustani classical music, a source of inspiration throughout her career.
Commissioned for Documenta 14, Rupak is a stop-motion animation built around the percussive scheme of a Hindustani classical taal called rupak, which has a seven-beat structure. Rukh collaborated with composer musician Sunny Justin to compose the 12-second rupak taal table solo that forms the basis of the animation. Once the score was completed, Rukh devised her own method of transcribing the beats to paper.
Over a two-month period, she would draw and re-draw the sounds of the rupak taal on a grid in a dot-based system. She made these dots using the angled tip of aqalam (a dried reed pen used in calligraphy). Rukh completed a set of 88 drawings that were then scanned and animated, with her marks coalescing as a single white dot that moves rhythmically along the screen.
(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)