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Born On The Streets

An American show celebrates the untutored, modern genius of Kalighat's bazaar art. ,Elite' Indian art too finds a gallery.

Born On The Streets

WHEN major museums in Europe and America exhibit Indian art, one expects yet another display of survivors from the distant past: ancient or medieval religious sculpture, Mughal or Rajasthani miniatures or decorative arts. Rarely do you see anything from later than the 18th century. Did the subcontinent's visual arts mysteriously vanish thereafter? Of course not, and this summer two complementary American exhibitions celebrate very different aspects of India's modern arts: the Kalighat 'popular' arts of Calcutta (shown at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art), and a broad selection of works by more 'elite' and contemporary artists from throughout India (now on display at the Peabody Essex Museum of Salem, Massachusetts). Both exhibits were drawn from the world's largest private collection of these arts, which was assembled by the late Chester Herwitz and his wife, Davida.

There's a certain poignancy to the Kalighat exhibition at one of LA's most prestigious museums. These small masterpieces were created by generations of poorly rewarded, anonymous artists whose spontaneous, innovative, beautiful and bold response to modernity was never fully appreciated by their contemporaries. Starting in the 1830s, these 'popular' Indian artists were among the first to adopt cheap machine-manufactured paper and the new foreign medium of watercolours, from which they created beautiful souvenir icons sold to the growing numbers of pilgrims, devotees and curious foreigners visiting Kalighat and other local temples and bazaars. Over the course of time, these street artists broadened their subject matter to include witty satires of Calcutta's culturally and socially pretentious (and morally suspect) new middle class: parvenu babu dandies, hypocrite Brahmin priests, elegant courtesans, local scandals, etc. When cheap mechanical means of reproduction (lithography, oleographs and other graphic techniques introduced from abroad) threatened to drum these 'bazaar artists' out of business, they responded by inventing faster and faster modes of painting to keep up with the competition.

This accelerated production might easily have debased these arts. Instead, an exciting new style of figural painting evolved, characterised by sweeping brushstrokes of calligraphic-like dynamism and control. Unfortunately, ever-cheaper and improved mechanical means of reproduction,plus the changing taste for mass-produced Ravi Varma/calendar-style imagery,ultimately drove the Kalighat painters out of business for lack of patronage.

Just as Kalighat painting had finally disappeared in the 1930s, art enthusiasts began to notice a strange stylistic kinship between these modest paintings and artworks by such French modernists as Leger and Matisse. The greater irony is that now, some 70 years later, connoisseurs marvel over the satiric wit and daring brushwork of these paintings,and pay thousands of dollars for works originally sold in the bazaar for a few annas or rupees.

The LA exhibition, expertly curated by Stephen Markel, emphasises Kalighat painting's unique place in the overall history of Indian art. Thus the exhibit's 129 artworks also include a selection of objects from various eras and media, ranging from a 12th century (Mahishasuramardini) statuette and 'elite' British-style 19th/20th century prints, paintings and photographs, to examples of contemporary folk and popular arts (for example, old Bengali ,patuas', a Puri pilgrimage painting, Kali idols, and Battala woodblock prints). The exhibit's final gallery shows Kalighat's influence on such modern artists as Jamini Roy, Bhupen Khakhar, Vinod Dave and Lalu Prasad Shaw.

Jyotindra Jain's scholarly publication, entitled Kalighat Paintings, Images from a Changing World, and published by Mapin this year, results from his near decade-long comprehensive scholarly study of the subject. The book includes beautifully-reproduced illustrations of the artworks and related ceramics and wood carvings, old prints and photographs, masked theatre arts, etc (173 in colour, and 27 in black and white). Its text explores the diverse stylistic and iconographic sources of the paintings, their influences and chronology. The background is of course colonial Calcutta,modernity's first port-of-entry into India,which was an extraordinary mixing ground for peoples of many backgrounds and origins, and the setting of unprecedented social and cultural transformations, acculturations and syntheses,rural-and-urban, 'East-and-West' (see ,Of Light and its Speed). Using visual and historical evidence, Jain shows how Kalighat painting vividly reflects the changing nature of that early modern world,which in many ways seems more open and integrative than our present era. For instance, without the slightest fear of blasphemy, Kalighat artists depicted Kartika, Kali and other Hindu divinities in the same lively style used to portray secular dandies and courtesans. Also noteworthy is a legend that accounts for the traditional role of Muslim ,patua' painters specialising in Hindu religious imagery: originally the offspring of Vishvakarma and a celestial nymph, the ,patuas' were 'cursed' to become Muslims after one of them defiled a paintbrush by placing it in his mouth; Mahadev eventually modified his curse, allowing them to continue supporting themselves by painting Hindu idols. Thus we are reminded of India's enmeshed traditions of the sacred and the secular, and the casual intra-cultural/intra-communal exchange of everyday life.

The 'Timeless Visions, Contemporary Art of India' exhibit was curated by Susan Bean and focuses on the eternal and transcendent aspects of selected works from Herwitz's great collection. Of the collection's over 3,000 artworks by about 60 artists, only 56 artworks by 13 artists are shown in the exhibit. The size of many of these artworks is considerable (the largest measures 470 cm in width), and together they demand,and almost overwhelm,the visitor's attention. Some representative examples of the exhibition's diversity and range include: M.F. Husain's moving evocation of Gandhiji; a fine Madonna and child by Jamini Roy; numerous minimalist drawings by Nasreen Mohamedi; four large and delightfully playful oil paintings on religious themes by Manjit Bawa; four paintings by Bikash Bhattacharjee which probe the mysterious relationship between divine shakti and human femininity; and three witty mixed media works,integrating modern and sacred subject matter,by New York-based artist Vinod Dave. A fine illustrated full-colour catalogue by curator Bean gives a brief account of each artist, along with an introduction on the evolution of Herwitz's collection, and a brief discussion of some of the particular challenges encountered in appreciating contemporary Indian art. The exhibit was to have been one of three focusing on different aspects of the collection, but the following two have now been cancelled due to complications arising from Herwitz's untimely death. Still, the Herwitz collection is destined to be increasingly celebrated and exhibited as the appreciation of modern Indian arts expands internationally.

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