A part of your upcoming show deals with the theme of Partition. Are you
trying to educate those who weren’t there, or is there a larger project?
A retrospective exhibition attempts to put together an artist’s work from its very beginning to the time when the event takes place. It is like an artography that guides the beholder in following the artist’s journey, providing clues to the changing topography of the artist’s life. I had chosen the tragedy of Partition as my first theme not just because it coincided with my debt as a painter. Time and again I have tried to explain that the Partition only provided me with a theme to express my personal predicament. I believe external events, however important, cannot sow the seeds of inner compulsion. For me it is the other way round. The phase of Partition paintings cannot be extended because I cannot be the same person again. Even if such horrific events occur again, which indeed they continue to do—I need not remind you of the Sikh holocaust of 1984 or the events in Gujarat just a short while ago.
On a related theme, according to you, is the political aspect of art something that isn’t stressed enough anymore? Would the ‘progressive’ movements of the mid-twentieth century survive in the present? Or is the present move away from an overtly political stance a good thing for art and artists?
Art and politics may never cease to mingle with each other. The progressive movement of the 1930s and ’40s was the peak of this synthesis, although it largely remained confined to literature and could not make any foray into painting or sculpture. In the short span of its existence, the progressive artists’ group (PAG) differed in its concepts and agenda to its literary counterpart (which believed in giving expression to local issues with a left leaning perspective). The PAG, on the other hand, was formed to make a break with the conservative art trends then in vogue within the country and introduce popular elements of Western modernism (which was progressive in its aesthetic belief, but not in its intellectual pursuits). Witness the birth of non-objective art in the West at a time that coincided with the birth of the progressive group in Bombay and Calcutta. But with the exception of Souza, the rest of the clan later returned to seek their salvation in indigenous mythological themes.
The rebirth of the modernist movement is in fact a welcome development as it is more rooted in indigenous kitsch.
The political element is there, is alive and makes an appearance in the work of a few of these modernists.
How has the Mexican master Diego Rivera shaped you as an artist?
I don’t deny my being ‘shaped’ or inspired by Diego Rivera and other Mexican masters like Orozco. The phase was however short-lived. I went to Mexico at the end of 1952. Prior to this, my encounter with the works of the Mexican masters was pretty faint. It was during my stay there that the influence really took root. But it did not last longer then two or three years after I left Mexico. Observe my paper collages and drawings executed in the early 1960s and also my ceramic murals (I returned from Mexico in the late 1950s).
Does public art appeal to you?
I pioneered muralism in this country. But my enthusiasm for murals was short lived. I soon began to realise that a mural, being part of architecture, cannot insist on a separate identity. Further, I came to believe that a building should breathe with a single man’s lungs otherwise a mural cannot integrate into a building, remaining only a cosmetic decoration. It was this realisation that made me dabble in architecture myself.
If earlier I had believed in bringing art to a public space, I now believed in making a public space a work of art.
Have you seen the murals in the Metro?
The murals in the Delhi Metro are a sad testimonial of how in the wrong hands even drops of nectar can turn into a deadly poison. Without appreciating the dominant architectural space that a Metro station is, its artworks were handed over to amateur students in the name of economy. It is like administering an adulterated medicine because it is more affordable.
Has the corporatisation of the art market effected the quality of art that is being produced these days? If it has, has it made it better, or worse?
The art market seems to have been fully overtaken by the rules that govern the share market. Rigging, hype and all else is turning art into a commodity. Its effect? Negative or positive, it depends on the capacity of the individual artist. I may only say that patronage in the wrong hands is more deadly then neglect no matter from what quarter it may come.
You are also noted for the buildings you have designed over the years. You obviously have an opinion about Delhi’s changing topography. Could the rash of builders’ flats coming up in Delhi have obeyed a more cohesive aesthetic? Or is there no need for one?
Architecture in Delhi is becoming more and more a mirror image of the page 3 culture, shoddy and rootless. Like birds shape their nests around their bodies, older societies built their architecture to embody their cultural aspirations. What legacy will present-day architecture leave for succeeding generations? We have forgotten that just as a man’s nationality is recognised by his character and appearance, a city is also identified by its character and appearance, which says who it is, where it belongs. Going by this rule what Delhi stands to be recognised for is a poor cousin of the Emirates.
Are there any new buildings coming up in Delhi that you think are worthy of special mention?
There might be one or two good buildings that are coming up, but sadly they are lost in the confusion created by the jungle of formless building. Like in a society drowned in corruption, it is difficult to point out a man of integrity even though more than one may exist.
Architecture, by its very physical presence, effects human beings like no other art form can. Painting, poetry, music—it is possible to avoid all of them if you so wish. But you cannot ignore architecture, whether you are inside it or outside.
Are there any artists whose paintings you would like to own?
Rameshwar Broota is an artist whose work I would love to own.
You’ve written about your own attachment to Lahore before. Would you like to take this particular exhibition to Lahore?
Lahore never ceased to fascinate me. I owe to it whatever is creative in my being. Of course, I would love to have my retrospective there, which at 80, which I have just crossed, is like my last hurray. But alas, circumstances will perhaps not allow this wish to be fulfilled.
This article originally appeared in Delhi City Limits, January 31, 2006