On a rainy afternoon, the visitors at the gallery of Chennai’s Lalit Kala Akademi espy a post-colonial India in all its glory: condensed in canvases, frozen in bronze and captured on a digital screen. They see art that embodies a young, curious India thrilled by its newly tasted cultural emancipation.
Look to the right to find NN Rimzon’s The Tools, a 1993 sculpture that was born out of the Indian Radical Painters’ and Sculptors’ Association that was heavily inspired by Marxist ideologies. Look to the left to find a wall that effortlessly carries the weight of SH Raza’s canvases: a colourful Bahori Kadal (Kashmir) and the crowded Kashmir Valley of 1949 are among them. Or perhaps MF Husain’s painted wood works — Kisan, for instance — that almost seem in motion from the 1950s. Further, KCS Paniker’s famed Mother and Child in hues of earthy pink, greens and blues takes us closer to home. And an entire wall dedicated to Cholamandal Artists Village’s dearest K Ramanujam is a poignant reminder of the rich legacy of Madras Art Movement.
The narratives are multiple, parallel and layered, which means setting a chronology is near to impossible. Kiran Nadar Museum of Art’s first show in Chennai — an easy show-stopper of the ongoing Madras Art Weekend — traces the crisscrossing of artistic schools and perspectives that originated in thepost-colonial, modernist India. With a display comprising 180 artworks by 38 artists, The Moving Arc boasts of canvases by both, masters and young radicals of the ever-growing Modernist movement.
“I have always felt that Chennai has a great attitude of positivity towards art. Here, there is much more spontaneity when compared to a city like Delhi,” says Kiran Nadar, philanthropist and founder of Kiran Nadar Museum of Art. Her personal collection of art that spans over 150 years built over a period forms the cornerstone of the museum that opened in 2010. She started by collecting the Progressives: Souza, Raza, Husain…while building a new home.
“Four or five years later, it got to a point that I didn’t even get to see the works because they were in storage. The idea of setting up a museum came from there,” says Nadar.
Steering the conversation towards the works on display, Nadar says, “For this particular curation, we were not able to bring a lot of large sculptural works. For me, what is very amazing about it is that I had forgotten that some of these canvases exist with us.”
The post-colonial response, as mapped out in the display, though gradual, has happened across regions and time. “In this exhibit, we wanted to stress on these crisscrosses because all of these artists have migrated at different points in their practice. These crisscrosses have led to a substantive cross-fertilisation of ideas and visual languages,” says Rubeena Kharoga, curator of The Moving Arc.
This also means that you see artists learning, re-learning, converging, disagreeing and in this way make a case for art being pushed towards greater heights, says Rubeena. From the Santiniketan school (1921) and the Calcutta Group (1943 to 50s) to the Progressive Artists’ Group of Bombay (1947), The Madras Art Movement (1944), the Cholamandal Artists’ village (1966) and Delhi Silpi Chakra (1949), the schools and their influences flow into each other.
The collection drives home the idea that the country was a fertile terrain which came with its own challenges but led to some of the best creations. “I personally was very interested in smaller works, because I really feel that when you cluster them together, they become very impactful.”
There are some underpinnings that run across the narrative. The post-independence sensibility was dedicated to the common man. “Who is building the city? was a narrative that ran across,” Krishen Khanna’s canvases that pays homage to this train of thought.
Rubeena continues, “I also wanted to emphasise the women artists and their voices because the first few decades were predominantly male-dominated. The works of Meera Mukherjee, Arpita Singh, Rekha Rodwittiya, Pushpamala N are also testament to the same. A lot of subjectivity came with women artists.”
Canvases aside, sculptures, across media, dot the layout offering sweet relief to the eye. The sheer volume of display consumes one, but at the same lends a comprehensive view of the many schools of art that the subcontinent is a proud home to: surely, a win to the city and its patrons.
The Moving Arc will be on display till December 22 at the Lalit Kala Akademi gallery, Egmore. The Hindu is the media partner of the Madras Art Weekend.
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