Back to Basics : 4 Indian Modernist Artists

Back to Basics : 4 Indian Modernist Artists
Written by Rati Agnihotri
Modernism in Indian art made its way slowly, never all of a sudden. And it had a lot to do with India’s struggle to carve out a distinct identity post-independence and its desire to accommodate different ethnicities, sensibilities and cultural terrains with ease. As is the case with every civilization, nothing comes out of a vaccum. For Indian modernism too, even though the technique of painting was influenced by the west, there was a ready ground of Indian subject matter and style. The Mughal period miniature style paintings, Ajanta – Ellora cave paintings, these greatly shaped the ethos of Indian modernism.  The subjects of a changing India – its women, peasants, people living on the fringes of society alongwith the vast repertoire of Indian culture (including pop culture), religions and philosophy furnished the canvas of the ‘Indian Modernist’. Let’s visualize the story of modernism in Indian art through the eyes of its 4 major proponents – Amrita Shergill, Maqboool Fida Hussain, Francis Newton Souza and SH Raza.
Amrita Shergill (1913 – 1941) came in at a time when the scene in Indian painting was vastly dominated by the Bengal School of Art represented by the likes of Abindranath Tagore and Jamini Roy.  The school marked the distinct fusion of classic Indian painting style with modern aesthetics. By and large, the focus of the school was not to copy the west but to look back at Indian culture for inspiration and style. Amrita furthered the aesthetics of the Bengal School by merging Indian and European sensibilities in her work. Influenced by Indian art forms such as miniature art and the Ajanta – Ellora cave paintings, Amrita Shergill revolutionized Indian art in the way she blended the outlines of ‘modern European painting’ with primitive forms. She fused the aesthetics of Indian cave paintings with the techniques of oil painting she had learnt at Paris.
Amrita Sher-Gil, Bride’s Toilet, 1937
Amrita Sher-Gil,  The Child Bride, 1936
Known mostly for her poignant portraits of Indian women, Amrita Shergill is known to have travelled all over India, looking for her women subjects. Works such as Bride’s Toilet, Three Girls, The Child Bride and Tribal Women evoke a poignant world of rural Indian women in bright, colourful clothes, seemingly passive and devoid of an agency through their demeanour but the very passivity of the body language and the quiet, brooding but interrogating eyes questioning the status quo, as it were. There is something detached and dreamy about Amrita’s works, a characteristic that lends her paintings a certain enigma. There is a quiet melancholy in the works, almost lyrical but the portrayal is never complete, somehow something is left of that reality for the viewer to fill the gaps in. It is like the painter is half outsider, half insider trying to gaze into the veins of a society, much like Amrita Shergill’s hybrid cultural roots.
Amrita Sher-Gil, Self-Portrait
Amrita’s full bodied woks sort of pave the way for the magical canvas of one of the most popular and perhaps the most charismatic and flamboyant of Indian modernists, MF Hussain (1915-2011) that is! Hussain’s paintings are pretty much like his life and persona – full of energy, flux, fermentation, always topsy-turvy, restless, edgy, never static. Hussain was a cult figure of sorts. His rags to riches story, combined with his many eccentricities such as walking barefoot and always painting by spreading his canvases on the floor, mirror his painting style. Hussain’s works are literally magnum opuses, one after the other! Broad in scope and imagination, his paintings straddle with ease a bizarre and riotous world of Hindu Gods and Goddesses, characters from the ancient Indian epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata alongwith images of Indian rivers, festivals, cities and symbols of modern Indian pop culture. 
Maqbool  Fida Husain, from the Mother Teresa Series, oil on canvas
Maqbool  Fida Husain, Naked Bharatmata
Hussain’s modernism lies in the seeming irreverence of his works. There is no attempt at seriousness, no attempt at making his works speak a particular language. Rather, there is a play of energy and multiplicity, a play of complexities, very much suited to a changing nation, laying bare all its self-contradictions and inconsistencies.
Maqbool  Fida Husain, MAHABHARATA,1990, oil on canvas, 129.5 × 477.5 cm
Maqbool  Fida Husain, Untitled
Just as Hussain chose to depict the chaotic through an aesthetics of colour and imagination, Francis Newton Souza (1924 – 2002) chose to lay bare the ugly and grotesque in everyday life, without any embellishments whatsoever. Closest to European modernism, Souza is known for his inventive human forms, the heads in particular. Souza’s work is not pleasing to the eye, rather it lashes out at the eye, challenging the human eye’s very notions of beauty and aesthetics. The large heads with the exaggerated features exude an almost childlike vulnerability, yet very macabre at its core. Souza’s heads portray the vulnerability of the underdog, those who lives on the fringes of the modern metropolis. The subjects of his interest are not grand and beautiful people – it is rather the grotesque other of that celebrated aesthetics, that ugliness that is shoved off under the carpet.  Just as Souza’s heads become symbolic of the fragmented human subjectivity, the nudes portray the exaggerated female form, not with voluptuous beauty like Hussain’s women but rather with the characteristic ugliness and coarseness that is closer to life.
Francis Newton Souza, a typical Souza head, 1995
Francis Newton Souza, Birth, 1955
Francis Newton Souza, Crucifixion, 1959, oil paint on board
SH Raza (1922-2016) represents the next phase of Indian modernism – the shift from figurative to abstract. Raza is an avid colourist known for his abstract works that weave together an intriguing cosmos of geometric shapes and patterns. Raza’s works are nurtured by his own interest in Indian philosophy and mythology. However, unlike Hussain and Raza’s works, the icons and motives of Indian philosophy and mythology do not find a tangible representation through figures. It is rather the essence of this philosophy and culture that Raza captures through his maze like works that almost seem like complex algorithms representing the workings of the inner consciousness, as it were. Bindu or the dot is a prominent motif in Raza’s works, something which he believes is the origin and essence of existence. And that existence is itself a cyclic process, what goes around comes back in concentric circles.Raza’s contribution to Indian modernism is significant as his work heralded a move from painting things towards painting their pure essence. While Hussain and Souza captured the pulse of the changing nation through distorted, surreal figures, Raza moved towards pure form with use of vibrant colour, an exercise in which the complex workings of the form and colour gave an insight into the inner workings of a civilization that was evolving, pulsating and was extremely complex.
Syed Haider Raza, Saurashtra, 1983, acrylic on canvas, 78¾ x 78¾ in
Syed Haider Raza, Prakriti, 1999, acrylic on canvas