We need to be hit on the head again

Sun 26 Feb 2017

The tone of the letter is plaintive and typical of a young man who finds himself in a cold foreign country, writing to his pals back home: has X received my letter? Has Y forgotten me or should I understand that he’s remembering me in silence? What’s the progress of Z? Why aren’t you people replying to me?

Then, of course, there are the complaints and warnings: the place is too cold and the people unfriendly; things are more expensive than they were back home; food is the first priority, everything else be damned; and so on. The letters are aerogrammes of light blue paper and, like many Indians, the man crams in as much as he can. In at least one instance the writing even carries on at the back, around the space for the sender’s name. The letters are addressed to short Bombay addresses, including ‘Chembur’ and ‘Fort’, for this is way before PIN codes were assigned. The addressees’ names are also brief, just initials and then the surnames: S.H Raza, K.H Ara. The questions are also about other surnames: Husain, Bakre, Gade, and the letters are signed ‘Yours, Newton’. The examples of the correspondence in the vitrine are from the 1950s, when the painter Francis Newton Souza of the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group found himself trying to make a career in post-war London, and what was even more expensive than back home was the paint and canvas he needed to make his work.

In another section of the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in Delhi, there are sharp black-and-white photo prints — pristine new buildings that have just been completed; the light grey exposed concrete and the white paint bits stark against a deep, clear sky; the window and jaali shadows marching in dark black grids; the surroundings often bare plots dotted with trees.

With a shock you recognise some of the structures as the ones you pass by every day in central Delhi, the lines and curves now obscured by other constructions — by the curtaining mess of the street, by the stains and grime all desi modernist architecture seems to clutch to itself.

Opening our minds

When thinking about art and architecture, we tend to forget the first three decades of Independence and the various leaps of imagination and labour that were made while coming out of the penumbra of the British Raj. This year, around the time of the India Art Fair in Delhi, various exhibitions and films bring us acute reminders of that time, its triumphs and mistakes, and the multifarious legacies to which it gave birth. There is a speech that Nehru gave to the Indian Institution of Engineers, in 1959, which appears in different contexts. Speaking about inviting Le Corbusier to build Chandigarh, Nehru says: “Many people argue about it, some like it, some dislike it. It is totally immaterial whether you like it or not. It is the biggest thing in India of its kind... because it hits you on the head and makes you think. You may squirm at the impact but it makes you think and imbibe new ideas and the one thing that India requires in so many fields is to be hit on the head so you may think.”

There is a supreme arrogance here but there is also an inescapable truth. Perhaps our environment didn’t need to be hit on the head with the dams, or our agrarian economy with the big governmental industrial projects, but we did need the hits on the head that opened up our thinking and we still do. It was what the early artists’ collectives were trying to achieve in visual art, it was what Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak intended with their groundbreaking films, and it was what the architects who built modern Delhi were continuing from the Chandigarh experiment.

The Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group may have disbanded and a lot of their work may now seem derivative or dated, the Indian Brutalist architecture of the ’60s and ’70s may have traversed time with mixed success, the films of Ghatak and the younger Mani Kaul may prove to be hard work for the uninitiated viewer, but these were the building blocks, the learning shocks of a unique cultural melange that is typically, if at times exasperatingly, Indian, and we should be thankful for the risks these practitioners took, individually and collectively.

Looking at the jostling crowds at the events around the India Art Fair, you realise that so much of urban cultural production today is enslaved by consumerism and fashion. To be reminded amidst all this about the very different ethos of the ’50s and ’60s, a very different vision of a society and a nation that isn’t mired in jingoism but in the spirit of internationalism, is startling.


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