Being Modern

Rosalyn D’Mello is an art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover
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A new show is a corrective gesture that brings together works by many founding members of Group 1890

IMAGINE CATE BLANCHETT in a long, flowing beard, garbed in the robes of an ascetic. In this assumed state of being, her persona is ambiguous, embodying at once the spiritual appetite of a mendicant as well as the aesthetic genius of a self-assured artist. There is no hesitation, only a naïve certainty of vision. She stands in front of a canvas, or perhaps a block of wood, armed with a blowtorch, or maybe even a singular sheet of paper whose surface she scars with the flame of her lit cigarette. As her masterpiece emerges, a work that settles indeterminately between the figurative and the abstract, echoing the purity of form dictating content, she articulates her consciousness: ‘art for us is not born out of a preoccupation with the human condition. we do not sing of man, nor are we his messiahs, the function of art is not to interpret and annotate, comprehend and guide. such attitudenising may seem heroic in an age where man, caught up in the mesh of his own civilisation, hungers for vindication. essentially, this self glorification to us is but the perpetuation of the death wish, of the state of unfreedom of man.’ The camera pans the room she’s in to reveal the forms of other artists who nod in agreement. She continues: ‘art is neither conformity to reality nor a flight from it. it is reality itself, a whole new world of experience, the threshold for the passage into the state of freedom.’

This scenography isn’t too far fetched. Had the Berlin-based artist Julian Rosefeldt opted to adapt more non-Western and indigenous proclamations of artistic intents, this excerpt, from the Group 1890 declaration, written in 1962 after an intense two-day conference of 12 male artists at the home of Jyoti and Jayant Pandya on 25-26 August in Bhavnagar, would definitely have made the cut. Currently being screened at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, ‘Manifesto’ features Cate Blanchett essaying 13 different roles in 13 diverse videos; all reimaginings of the most influential manifestos in 20th and 21st century art history, from Marxism to Dadaism to Futurism and the Fluxus movement. Extracts from the Dadaist manifesto, for instance, are read out by a funeral-robed Blanchett who takes centre stage at the ceremonious interment of a closed coffin to deliver a eulogy to the death of the bourgeois and the bold adoption of an anti-establishment aesthetic that privileged the conceptual. Blanchett’s character, the one conveniently concocted for the purpose of this piece, would have referenced the mystical/mythical personality of J Swaminathan, one of the key founding members of Group 1890, while the other 11 artists assembled would have represented the historic Bhavnagar meeting, where the group decided to formally launch a movement where ‘there is no anticipation in the creative act. it is an act through which the personality of the artist evolves itself in its incessant becoming, moving towards its own arrival’.

Despite the naked brazenness of their collective aspiration and their monumental 11-point manifesto, Group 1890 did not become the ‘movement’ it so urgently set out to be. In October 1974, the eleventh anniversary of the collective’s debut show which turned out to be its sole exhibition, art critic Richard Bartholomew proposed Group 1890’s existence as ‘mythical and theoretical because only a few in this group have come together again’. Although the talents were varied and the personalities strong, ‘the group as a whole lacked organizational stamina and the true belief in survival and a working system to effect its image, project itself, that is, hold another exhibition of the magnitude of what was presented at the Rabindra Bhavan 11 years ago’.

Within this context, the DAG Modern’s new show in its Delhi space could be viewed as a corrective gesture. By bringing together works by many of the group’s founding members under the canopy of ‘Group 1890’, and through the simultaneous publication of an eponymously titled tome, DAG Modern beseeches us to revisit a moment in time that was fuelled by a passionate attempt at what it refers to as an indigenous modernism, a wild departure from the more Western-influenced style of modernism heralded and practised by the Progressive Artist Group in a newly Independent India. ‘If the Progressive’s manifesto was, in a sense, a more casual enterprise, that of Group 1890 came from a long-term reflection on current art and a measured enquiry into the artist’s own practice, and was a result of collective thinking, Swaminathan’s task being to give form and lucidity to the ideas the artists had expressed,’ writes Shruti Parthasarathy in her investigative essay, ‘Group 1890: The Journey of a Moment’, which forms the crux of the accompanying publication. ‘So while the Progressive manifesto is the first articulation of an avowed Indian modernism, there is nothing in it that served as an artist statement or guiding principles to the group or practitioners in general, which, to some extent the 1890 one did.’

The twelve painters and lone sculptor who constituted Group 1890— J Swaminathan, Gulammohammed Sheikh, Jeram Patel, Ambadas, Himmat Shah, Jyoti Bhatt, Eric Bowen, Rajesh Mehra, SG Nikam, Balkrishna Patel, Reddappa Naidu, and Raghav Kaneria— came from Delhi, Baroda and Bombay. At the time, in the late 50s and early 60s, most of them were relatively unknown, though they’d all been featured in national level art exhibitions and even had a slew of awards and fellowships under their belts. ‘When Octavio Paz met them in the weeks prior to the exhibition, it was the energy they crackled with, their desire to usher something new and ‘authentic’ in art through their practice that drew him,’ Parthasarathy purports. Paz was then the Mexican Ambassador to India. It was he who wrote the foreword for the Group 1890 catalogue, titled ‘Surrounded by Infinity…’ and dated New Delhi, 12 October 1963. ‘These young men surprise me with their lucidity. They know that art is a passional activity and that it is born out of a vital urge; to create is, above all, erotic play and combat, in the widest and the most powerful sense of the word eroticism,’ he wrote. ‘But they also know that art demands a sort of asceticism, a rigour without complacency. The creative act is based upon a radical criticism. Criticism of the world and criticism of the artist and his means of expression…’ Paz ended his introduction with a powerful, poetic urging: ‘Something precious is being born with these artists.’

Despite the naked brazenness of their aspiration and their monumental manifesto, Group 1890 did not become the 'Movement' it set out to be

Not all of the founding members were present at the inauguration by then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru on 20 October 1963. A month earlier, Gulammohammed Sheikh had left for England on a Commonwealth Scholarship to London’s Royal College of Art; Eric Bowen had been in Rome since late 62 to study at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Firenze. An anonymous Times of India review of the 10-day-long show, headlined ‘Group 1890 Symbolises Method in Madness’, credited to Sham Lal, describes the opening at 11 am at Rabindra Bhavan, kicked off with a minute’s silence in memory of the late French cubist, George Braque: ‘Group 1890 was making itself felt in the public eye for the first time. Its members were going to be judged by the works and not words. The impatient audience, which had waited for half an hour after the inauguration for admittance, entered. As the morse of the eye deciphered the images of the painter’s collective unconscious there was a hum. No one was concerned with beauty as commonly understood. It was all a question of being before a work made by man and of becoming engaged in the encounter.’

It was only Charles Fabri’s review of the show for The Statesmen that Group 1890 officially preserved on file. Titled ‘An Impressive Show by Group 1890’, Fabri declared the show to be on par with present-day exhibitions in Paris or Berlin, in Rome or Amsterdam. ‘Abstracts dominate, the artist claims total freedom to follow his fancy, and there is here—as in Europe—a strong tendency to surprise the spectator with novelty and originality,’ wrote Fabri, who then goes on in the succeeding paragraph to critique this very impulse for sharing the same ills that he believed dominated Western art of the period. ‘For the artist, having denounced in violent terms the idea of the ‘ivory tower art’ of a previous generation, the cycle has come full circle and what we have today in all our exhibitions is precisely a total retirement into the private language of an individual, into the private world, so individualistic that it is often difficult to penetrate it.’

Unsurprisingly, not a single work sold from the exhibition, Parthasarathy writes. A major Indian modern artist apparently bought a sculpture by Raghav Kaneria at the opening, leading to the enthusiastic affixing of a red sticker, but the payment never came through and so the sculpture remained with Kaneria. ‘… After the exhibition the works were in storage with one member or another, lost or sold over the years with few remembering what became of them,’ Parthasarathy notes. Perhaps the formidable cost of printing prevented the group from reproducing the images from the show, but the catalogue did list the works displayed with their titles and mediums, revealing an average of six works per artist; or, as Gulammohammed Sheikh describes, it was like a group of 12 one-man shows, an unprecedented manoeuvre for the time.

Fifty-three years since the first and only showing of Group 1890, it seems unthinkable for a prime minister to concern himself with inaugurating an art exhibition of such intellectual import. At the recent opening at DAG Modern, two of the original members of Group 1890 were present—Gulammohammed Sheikh and Jyoti Bhatt, who, along with poet, writer, novelist, and Hindi art critic Prayag Shukla, a close ally of the group, reminisced with Vivan Sundaram about the material subversion and aesthetic rebellion that formed the basis of the group’s existence, however short-lived. The show, consisting of approximately 201 works, predominantly features Jyoti Bhatt, and Ambadas, with only two works each by Sheikh and Kaneria, and Rajesh Mehra noticeably absent in the display and the proceedings. It’s the blow torch works by Jeram Patel alongside a selection of his drawings, as well as the terra cotta sculptural heads by Himmat Shah that really stand out as revelations. The 201 works were created across the 60s to as recently as 2013, and this length of time somewhat distils the poignant historical premise of the show, even perhaps compromising the weight of its legacy.

THE CONTEMPORARY revisitation has been better achieved through the corpus of the accompanying publication, which speaks of Group 1890’s plans to open its own art centre to provide artist members with studio and other material facilities and economic sustenance ‘so that they are able to work and experiment in various media without being subjected to the vagaries of the art-market and are free from the compulsion of seeking work outside their profession for sustenance’. None of this fructified, nor did their 1967 attempts at a revival by hosting a second exhibition with an expanded membership, the reasons for which are manifold. However, according to Parthasarathy, Group 1890’s legacy was embedded in its avowal of ‘an indigenist art form’ of which its members were not the only proponents, but their manifesto revealed a generational shift towards revisiting Indian visual traditions such as miniature art, tantra, and folk. Contra, a magazine published by Swaminathan, could be read retrospectively as a continuation of the zeitgeist professed by the group. ‘But by far, its biggest contribution and the change it led to in Indian art was the insistence on the authenticity of artistic expression and the autonomy of art, away from personality cults,’ she writes. Sheikh puts it down to the charged atmosphere of a pervasive ferment that his generation had inherited. ‘We had a different perspective on modern art. But our work, in some way, indicated a charged sense of restlessness born of a desire in search of a new idiom, which marked the difference between the previous generation’s and ours.’

Shukla believes it was the unique pictorial language offered by the artist members that made their work so radically different. “They broke the notions of painting, that it somehow just came about,” he says in an interview published in the DAG Modern-produced book. “In the work of these artists, a Western perspective or way of looking at their work simply did not hold true, and that alone is quite a singular achievement. The language of their manifesto, which begins with appearing to denounce abstraction but later considering it as merely an attribute of it, proves they weren’t opposed to abstraction or any one kind of art—there is a great inclusiveness in their outlook; they are not ‘rejecting’ any one thing, it is about their search.”

(‘Group 1890: India’s Indigenous Modernism’ will be on at DAG Modern, Delhi, till mid-December)