City as a Muse

Seeking inspiration from cities, towns and villages of the country, several notable Indian modern artists have incorporated these places in their art, thus, making them an important part of their artistic journey. Let us discover how a city influenced art and artists…

In his studio in New Delhi, artist Manu Parekh talks to a group of art enthusiasts regarding painting being a journey in self-discovery. He shares an anecdote to illustrate his point, reminiscing the time when years ago, MF Husain, the most celebrated Indian artist in the world, stood sketching passengers in the overcrowded railway station in Baroda. If Husain satiated his quest for creativity in crowded areas (Husain loved sipping tea and eating in crowded dhabas, even preferring family meals there on occasions), for Parekh it was the city of Banaras (now Varanasi) that allowed him to focus on how he wanted to evolve through his artistic journey. Banaras, the city, in his view, is full of ‘mysticism’.

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Characterising a City

If Parekh preferred to focus on specific elements that he saw in Banaras – the glow of the temple light, the flowers strewn on the ghats, for example – Ram Kumar’s landscapes of Banaras in 1960s looked at the crammed, claustrophobic spaces where the city is represented through box-shaped forms even as they wrestle for space on the crowded river bank. For an artist who often described art as ’very sublime and spiritual’, Banaras fascinated Ram Kumar who rendered landscapes in his unique abstract style. The city couldn’t impress MF Husain to the same extent, who explained in a newspaper interview: “I couldn’t stay there for 15 days but Ram Kumar went on talking to Banaras for a long time.”

For Husain, it was the arid landscape of Rajasthan’s Thar desert that inspired him to do a series of paintings and a short film, Through the Eyes of The Painter. Additionally, his Three Cities series looked at Delhi as India’s nationhood, Banaras as the spiritual centre and Kolkata as the seat of India’s culture and activism. Cities and spaces, which artists inhabit, offer rich experiences even as they are carefully captured on canvases and in sculptures.

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Ramkinkar Baij’s monumental public sculptures stand proud and tall in Santiniketan, the locus for artistic experimentation and resurgence, even after several decades. In the early 1930s, Baij, a student of Nandalal Bose, began to fill the campus with sculptures, one after the other, which were innovative in subject matter and personal in style. His first magnum opus in this genre was the Santhal Family done in 1938. In this larger-than-life sculpture, he represented the tribal peasants of the region, giving the figures iconic presence and dignified grace that was so far limited to the images of gods and rulers.

It is worth noting that Nandalal Bose, student of Abanindranath Tagore who would later join Santiniketan as the principal of Kala Bhavana, often took postcards and pencils with him and sketched places that left an impression on him. These postcards he would send to his students and relatives, urging them to take a look at them as visual anecdotes – animals, flowers, landscapes, huts, villages and so much more.

From the Bagh caves in Madhya Pradesh to Darjeeling’s verdant tea plantations and Banaras, Bose’s art captured surroundings and moments.

Nostalgic Reflections 

If some of the celebrated artists in Santiniketan made the place their muse (capturing the lives of the Santhal tribe and the landscape, complete with the paddy fields and the Khoi river), elsewhere too, artists were on a quest to understand how – and why – cities would become so relevant to their oeuvre. Some would go back to their childhood memories, recreating on the canvas a strong pictorial vocabulary that would urge viewers to take note and, quite possibly, make connections of the artist with his place. Laxma Goud’s masterful work, for instance, is an interpretation of his childhood memories of rural and tribal vivacity. Born in Nizampur, Medak district, Hyderabad (now Telangana), several of his surreal paintings and drawings are an interesting combination of village nostalgia, the surreal, and the erotic. Then there’s Himmat Shah, member of Group 1890, the short-lived artists’ collective, whose rich and prolific oeuvre has its genesis in Lothal, the place where he was born in 1933. Growing up, surrounded by the remnants of Indus Valley Civilisation, Shah’s sculpture is an ode to understanding materiality through observations he had as a child.

Capturing Emotions

“The partition of Punjab,” Satish Gujral, once said in an interview, “shook me to the core of my being. It provided me a reason to discover my inner temperament.” Mourning, Days of Glory, Christ in Wilderness, among others are fine examples of how the artist vividly captured the angst of the Partition with his paintbrush. In the same way, some of the earliest works of Krishen Khanna, member of the Progressive Artists Group, depicted the horror of the event when the artist was forced to move with his family from Lahore to Simla. Decades later, Khanna would paint his famous Bandwallah series, observing various marriage bands on the streets of Delhi.

Several artists in Calcutta (now Kolkata), including Chittaprosad, Rabin Mondal and Somnath Hore, among others, shaken by the horrific scenes of the 1943 Bengal Famine and the Partition of Bengal, found it cathartic to render their impressions of these events on their canvases. Calcutta Group, an artist collective, was formed in 1943, keeping in mind the artistic interpretation of the “dark days of Bengal… the barbarity and heartlessness all around moved us… deeply.” Work of other artists like Sunil Das, Shyamal Dutta Ray and Bikash Bhattacharjee, among others, can be seen as an ode to the city of Kolkata.

If Ray’s work, capturing slanted skylines of the city, its streets, bazaars and people, describe the decay and grandeur of Kolkata in equal measure, Bikash Bhattacharjee’s portrayal of the mahanagar, according to critics was both spiritual and poetic. Jogen Chowdhury, in an earlier interview, gave his perspective on Bhattacharjee’s work: “Bikash has painted the inner life of Calcutta as few have and in turn he has influenced a whole generation of artists of that city.”

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Cities Dominating the Theme

It is worth mentioning some of the artistic collectives that emerged from various artists being present in different cities of India – Progressive Artists’ Group started by FN Souza in Bombay (now Mumbai), Baroda’s Group 1890, Cholamandal (started by KCS Paniker in Tamil Nadu’s richly landscaped coastal area near Mamallapuram) and Delhi’s Silpi Chakra were visual markers towards the road where Indian modern art was headed even though many of these movements were short-lived.
Souza, towards the end of his lifetime, in fact, went back briefly to his native village in Goa and created not just paintings but also prose and poetry as a mark of respect to his place of birth.

In Amrita Sher-Gil’s work, you’ll find just how the artist found herself responding to the sights and sounds of places. From the markets of Hungary to the ghats of Varanasi, the hills of Simla, the caves of Ajanta and Ellora and the arid landscape of Saraya, a village near Gorakhpur (where she lived with her husband), Sher-Gil’s artistic response to cities and places is well-known. In Saraya, the family estate, Sher-Gil observed a flat, monotonous landscape, feeble-looking villagers, a sense of despair, all of which stirred the artist in her.

The next time you sit by the ghats of Varanasi or move up the winding path to reach Shimla or visit any of the cities like Delhi, Mumbai or Kolkata, pause to think of how several of these places motivated some of the leading modernists of India.

Written by – Abhilasha Ojha

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