This exhibition maps trajectories of Indian contemporary art where the ‘conventional’ intersects the ‘radical’ through Narrations, Quotations and Commentaries ‘within’ art works and ‘through’ them. It includes the works of artists Bhupen Khakhar, Arpita Singh, Nilima Sheikh, Sudhir Patwardhan, Atul Dodiya and Jayashree Chakravarty.
Most of the artists participating in this exhibition work in a narrative style, whether partially or fully. The history of narrative painting goes back several decades in 20th century India. It includes artists such as Benode Behari Mukherjee, Abanindranath Tagore, even Amrita Sher-Gil. More recently, this style has been associated with the Baroda School, which was co-founded by Bhupen Khakhar and Gulam Mohammed Sheikh. Artist Sudhir Patwardhan was also directly associated with this School. The Baroda School artists worked in direct contrast to the Progressive Artists’ Group, a generation of artists who came before them who used both symbolic and iconic imagery to depict archetypal subjects or veered towards abstraction. They strived to depict personal and contemporary history within a narrative format.
Bhupen Khakkar’s works violate the thin socially recognized line between the ‘obscene/unacceptable’ and the ‘decorous’. His resolute obsession to explore the ‘degenerate’ in art led him to encounter and form a language comprising of an interim between traditional forms and western illusionism. His works have archived the lapses, repressions, deprivations and desires within the society and a ‘societal being’. Observation of the everyday plays an important role in Khakhar’s works as he focuses on the ‘typical’ characters that the viewer can often locate in the Indian landscape. He sought to represent the marginal, trying to show that which was always there yet never got looked at.
Sudhir Patwardhan's figures are heavily engaged in mundane actions, reverberating the pulse of urban existence and with a sense of innate composure in them. They go about performing their errands in the congested but busy city streets, suburban construction sites or Irani cafés. He has gifted the art scene with a realism which embraces the imaginary but narrates grossly real stories of survival. His narrative has certain sameness, of the anonymous individual, possibly a migrant directly confronted by the challenges of the city. The figures may be mundane but they are dignified by the effort that they invest in the everyday acts of survival.
Appropriating idioms of pop-culture, kitsch art and digitally manipulated gloss, Atul Dodiya’s language appears different from Patwardhan’s style which is more corporeal in terms of space satiation. Both however tend towards the revelation of repressed histories. Moving beyond the narrative style of painting, Dodiya’s works explore the social milieu that we belong to with humour and irony. He often quotes the works of other artists such as Bhupen Khakhar and David Hockney among others while reflecting on the act of painting. Dodiya compulsively creates a complex structure of statements within his works which are well-grounded with cultural and textual references but never meretricious. His usage of medium is often a statement by itself like the storefront or roller shutter or industrial paint for instance. His works are a largely reflective medium which portray middle class lives in and around urban spaces. If Patwardhan’s art works have a continuous narrative structure that read almost like a novel, Dodiya’s works speaks through aphoristic heavyset statements. It’s not merely a celebration of popular culture but recognizing the importance of engaging with the field of cultural production, ripe with possibilities.
Different from her male colleagues Arpita Singh has worked from her observations of society and also in a universal sense from the feminine perspective without making a virtue of feminism. The concurrently candid and suggestive, colorful yet melancholic quintessence of Arpita Singh’s artworks compels the viewer to stand before them and wander through a complex maze of ideas, imaginations and conclusions. Each one narrates a journey from the soul of the artist to the world outside, from the small memories of childhood to transitions of youth to deeper understandings derived from age and experience. To simply say that the artist’s work is narrative would be too simplistic. Afflicted by the problems that are faced each and every day by women in her country and the world in general, Singh paints the range of emotions that she exchanges with these subjects – from sorrow to joy and from suffering to hope – providing a view of the ongoing communication she maintains with them.
Nilima Sheikh can be positioned as a third generation of artists engaged with Indian traditions and it is possible to draw a lineage between her and Santiniketan artists Abanindranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose and Benode Behari Mukherjee via her teacher K G Subramanyan. Sheikh turned towards the repertoire of techniques and more to the kernels of miniatures while mid-way in her artistic career. Her references from pre-modern paintings and far eastern art thus, are geared toward their visual forms; which she skillfully manipulates to address her empathy towards issues of gender, caste, religion and political discriminations and suppressions. Like Singh and Chakravarty, Sheikh carries out the task of commenting on and archiving the micro-narratives consisting of the subcontinent-being.
Jayashree Chakravarty works with an autobiographical approach in her language. Her works are intricate and implausibly detailed, full of narratives, memories, images from childhood, from her many travels, and her schooling in India and France. Her works are almost like journal entries recording her thoughts, escapades and melancholic moments. Chakravarty has developed her style, drawing inspiration from the French impressionists and Byzantine mosaic design. The question of context is resolved at the point where narration intersects reportage through painted surface.
For all artists the story-teller’s identity is strongly felt through the works. The selection of the narrative by the story-teller indicates his or her position fairly well, often conscious, sometimes a subconscious stance by the artists, to continue their commentaries.