Art News & Views



Painting as Social Protest by Indian artists of 1960-s

by Mrinal Ghosh

Art itself contains in its core a form of rebellion. This was the contention of Arbert Camus in his celebrated book The Rebel. The rebellion may have many characteristics, metaphysical, aesthetic, social and political. In the process of creation the artist transforms the reality. This transformation, this negation of reality, in its core is a kind of rebellion. In Greek art philosophy there are two concepts: 'mimesis' and 'fantasia'. Through 'mimesis' the artist depicts the reality of the visible world, whereas through 'fantasia' he distorts the reality in the form of fantasy. This distortion registers a kind of rebellion.

Social and political protest is more apparent in modernist art than in the modern. Modernist art very often generates its form to come in term with the concept of protest. Expressionism and cubism are two of its examples. But all expressionism or cubism may not contain protest against violence. There is a difference between the cubism of Picasso and Braque. While Braque's cubism has a classical sobriety, Picasso's cubism mostly contains the essence of protest against human predicament. Expressionism of Kandinsky is more tranquil than that of Edvard Munch, whose works contain rebellion against metaphysical and social disorders.

In the Indian context also social and political rebellion figured more prominently in the modernist period, since the decade of 1940-s. The artists of the neo-Indian school showed more impressions of classical and religious traditions than here and now reality. One of the exceptions being Gaganendranath Tagore, who was very much concerned about socio-temporal reality. His series of caricatures are the best examples of protest art in modern India and may be considered as first in this genre. Abanindranath's paintings in Arabian Night series also showed subtle traces of social critique. But his manuscript of Khuddur Jatra or Kshudi Ramlila in its collage type of illustrations was more expressive of societal protest, both national and international. Rabindranath was the first modernist painter of our country. But the rebellion in his painting was more metaphysical and psychological than socio- temporal though social and political protest was not absent in his works. The artists who came to light during the decade of 1940-s were more concerned about social here and now reality. The paintings of most of the artists of this generation registered social and political protest in form and content of their works.

This trend got more refined and elaborated in the works of the painters of 1950-s and 1960-s. The social and political conditions for them were running through a dilemma, oscillating between positive and negative reality. All the artists of this generation were born between 1930 and 1940. They have experienced colonial domination and exploitation in their childhood. They also had seen the protests against it. The nationalist protest movements led by Mahatma Gandhi and other leaders set before them the ideal values of life. Most of them in Eastern region had seen the violent man made or the then British government made famine of 1943 and innumerable deaths of innocent people caused by it. They have seen the violence of Second World War and decay of human values in the Western world. The Independence of India came to them like a jolt due to fragmentation of the country and onslaught of communal violence consequent to that. The free India and incorporation political democracy engendered dream for the positive. But with passage of time when they entered their youth during 1950-s and 60-s the dream tended to be shattered due to rising corruption, violence due to social and communal inequality, the growing poverty and illiteracy. All these reality-centric conditions and psychological and metaphysical discontent made their art rebellious. Social and metaphysical protest was a dominant trend of the art of 1960-s.

The artists who made serious contribution towards this protest art were Nikhil Biswas, Shyamal Dutta Roy, Rabin Mondal, Prokash Karmakar, Bijan Choudhury, Dhiraj Choudhury, Ganesh Pyne, Jogen Chowdhury, Bikash Bhattacharya, Sunil Das, Veena Bhargava and others in the Eastern region; Bhupen Khakhar, Gieve Patel, Gulam Mohammed Sheikh, Jeram Patel et. al. from western region and Baroda; Arpita Singh, Manu Parekh, Anjolie Ela Menon and others in Northern region; A. Ramachandran, K. Laxma Goud, C. Douglas and few others from Southern region. We will try look into the outline of the nature of works of some of these artists.

Nikhil Biswas (1930-1966) within the short span of life of only 36 years created a vast number of works in various forms and mediums. He was haunted by social and personal void from which his paintings developed. His series of paintings like Clown, Christ, Crucifixion, Combat, Horse etc reveal a sense of melancholy and pathos generated from deeper human predicament.

Shyamal Dutta Roy 1934-2005) was very much attached to the ground reality. His childhood was constricted with physical ailment, which ingrained in him some sort of psychological inhibitions. He had direct experience of the famine of 1943 and the communal violence in the pre and post Independence era. He had seen the exodus of refugees and their sufferings. All these features of reality made him rebellious to the core. This rebellion is best expressed in his Broken Bowl series of paintings, where the 'Broken Bowl' turned out to be a metaphor for poverty and suffering of humanity. This had some reflection of his memory of the famine of 1943 and also of the growing poverty and inequality in independent India. He used water colour as his principal medium and transformed the sobriety and softness of water colour into a rigid medium of protest.

Prokash Karmakar's rebellion grew out of his severe abhorrence against the colonial exploitation that emptied humanity of all its positive possibilities. Violence against woman is also a dominant theme of his works.

Ganesh Pyne's paintings are introspective and intuitive. It generates out of his submerged inner consciousness. It has a spiritual characteristic, a search for the positive light. Within this search he dissects the self and the existential reality around him. He turns towards history, extracts myth out of it and connects the myth with contemporary reality. Through assimilation of tradition with modernist idioms he has devised a unique form that posits an identity of our modernity entirely different from any of the Western trends. A few examples may be cited. His tempera The Assassin of 1979 based on the theme of Ashwathwama of Mahabharata shows a devilish masked man approaching in a posture of opening out his sword from the scabbard. The person represents the eternal killer and the situation indicates an environment of ubiquitous violence. Rebellion against violence is his primary theme. His beauty also is very often replete with violence as in the tempera Vasanta of 1975 or The Relics of 1982.

Academic naturalism was the principal mode of form of Bikash Bhattacharya (1940-2006). One of the best naturalistic portraitists of the country he distorted his naturalist renderings towards expressionist fragmentation introducing in it various kinds of pathetic fantasy often bringing out an environment of surrealism. The aims of such distortions were to reveal the pain and suffering of tortured humanity. The city of Kolkata, its environment, its people, women, and its decayed flowing life was the background of a large number of his works. He transformed these into a general global predicament of humanity. His paintings were mostly of large format and experimentations in multifarious style and technique. The large oil of 1967 titled Family shows three emaciated nude figures, man, woman and child in a broken standing posture within a room. The distortion brings out the severe wretched condition of the human situation. The City's Soul on the Stage, a Kolkata based oil of 1968 also reveal such a situation in surrealist distortion. This was the beginning of his violent protest. From here he moved to his Doll Series of 1969-72, Durga Series of 1984-85, The Cross, The Fire Works of 1993, Monument of 1996 and other innumerable works registering his pain and protest against the decay of humanity until he ended his battle for life on 18 December 2006.

The root of protest in the paintings of Jogen Chowdhury germinated from his experience of pain of being displaced form his mother land in East Bengal due to partition as a consequence of Independence of India. The life lived as refugee in West Bengal gave him a pathetic sensibility of human condition. During next part of his life he was constantly on the move from Calcutta to Paris to Madras to Delhi to Santiniketan. All these places made some imprints in his expressions. The greed and corruption of a particular class, the violence generated out of it both locally and globally determined his forms since 1960-s and transformed it in various directions. The swollen ugly human body that he called the representative of hell became one of the prototypes of his metaphors to convey his protest. From here he moved towards his fantasy oriented surrealist imageries during his Madras stage in 1970-s, then towards a kind of black humour, whose best expression are the large format painting in ink and pastel titled Tiger in the Moonlit Night of 1978 and the oil Neel Shari of 1995. The economic globalization of 1990-s and the intrinsic violence generated out of it created great impact in his forms. Santiniketan conveyed to him a sense of sublime beauty but that also was ingrained with an insight of pathetic melancholy. 

Since the beginning of 1960-s or a year before that the drawings of horses turned to be the prototype of protest for Sunil Das. During his first stay in Paris from1960 to 64 he made innumerable drawings of fighting bison. From these early beginnings his works flowered in various directions and in every stage he has created some unique and original idioms manifesting his rebellion from both aspects of content and form. Sunil is a myriad minded artist always experimenting with new forms to open up new avenues. Experiments with the images of Tantra and other indigenous folk elements during 1967, the impasto technique of paintings during early 1970-s and the internalization of Kalighat forms of nearly the same period, the works executed in reaction to the Bangladesh War during 1971, the extraction of designs from the flongs of news paper during 1973, the Apple Series of 1975-76, the Rotation of Mankind series of 1976-77, the Captive Series of 1979-81, the Confrontation Series of 1980-s, the Woman Series of 1990-s and finally his sculptures during the last two-three years are some the instances of his constant shifts and experiments. In every stage he has reflected some form of protest, socio-temporal and aesthetic.

Bhupen Khakhar (1934-2003) was one of the most celebrated, yet almost self trained internationally famed Baroda based artists of 1960-s who devised his rebellion in two ways. Firstly, he developed his forms from the hybrid downcast middle class culture of lower region of city life and adjusted it with his untutored naive expression to build up an apparently simplistic form which turned out to be very original reflecting an outstanding strength. Secondly, he transposed his gay personality to impose a sexual void and transcending it as a gloomy and dismal condition of human predicament. With these two characteristics he built up expressions of unparallel rebellion.   

So far as apparent naivety, introduction of popular elements and hybridity are concerned, some sort of parallel may be detected in the art of Arpita Singh with that of Bhupen Khakhar. But Arpita's feminine fables in deeper introspection are entirely different. Her strength lies in the incorporation of rural feminine culture and its assimilation with modernist technological urban elements. Through synthesis of these two opposite poles she creates a very sublime and melancholic tune of feminine rebellion.

These are a few of the instances of how the protest elements function in different directions in the paintings of 1960-s.

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