Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) opens the season with two exhibitions from its own collection, with an extensive display of 500 artworks, and some lent by artists and artists’ estates.One is Common Course, a zestful, humorous ride through caricatures, satirical, poetic and political commentaries of four artists of modern India. This exhibition brings forth stereotypes, contradictory/critical impressions, resistance, bold alerting signals to the civic and the political consciousness and moral crises of colonial India as marked in the political posters of Chittaprosad and commentaries of Gaganendranath Tagore on the topical and social history of Bengal. These, along with KG Subramanyan’s incisive and stinging poetics on the political drama that unfolded during the Emergency period of the 1970s and the recurring character of the common man in RK Laxman’s cartoons, interprets — and voices opinions on — the political events and politics of everyday life in post-Independence democratic India.
The exhibition includes original lithographs and collaged pages of two seminal books. The first is Gaganendranath Tagore’s album of caricatures, Adbhuta Loka (Realm of the Absurd), made in 1917, which captures the strange deformities, social negotiations and transformations happening in the then colonial city of Calcutta. The urban drawing of stereotypes of the dubious priest and aristocrats and the semi-urban, or anglicized, bhadralok that he called ‘hybrid Bengalis’ are represented in his works as young men half-clad in the Indian dhoti and half in European dress.
In the introduction to another of his albums, Virupa Vajra (The Wry Bolt: Play of Opposites), he wrote, “When deformities grow unchecked, but are cherished by blind habit, it becomes the duty of the artist to show that they are ugly and vulgar and, therefore, abnormal.” The second book is The Tale of Talking Face by KG Subramanyan. The original collages not only give an insight into the workings and artistry of the master storyteller and pedagogue Subramanyan, but also the satirical verses that lead us onto the threat of totalitarianism looming through the autocratic ruler/protagonist of his tale. Published in 1989 by Seagull, KG Subramanyan started work on the series around 1975, when India was under Emergency rule. An array of 43 paper collages constitute the template, building and holding the tension through the black-and-white spatial registers of events layered with multiple focal points of the narrative.
Treading across varying nomenclatures and understanding of the role of an illustrator, graphic novelist, cartoonist and agitated political resistance, the exhibition reflects on the rich visual syntax and narratives rooted in the conflicts and contradictions of the respective times. It highlights the practice of chronicling social, political and cultural changes in society through the myriad ways of telling a tale. Common Course cuts across genres of popular prints and book illustrations, subverting, parodying, lampooning with characteristics of pictorial journalism, exaggerated physiognomies of protagonists, readings of the political ties and social tensions, common sets of criteria, or the rising collective effort of the oppressed. Common Course is a play on the assertion and rights of commoners.
RK Laxman, as an artist, could be hailed as the vidushak, or jester, of modern Indian politics. The protagonist of his cartoons, The Common Man, is a curiously omnipresent, bespectacled, middle-aged, balding man in his modest dhoti and chequered coat, who silently witnesses the humdrum from the tiny corner of the front page of the daily newspaper. This quintessential Common Man bears resemblance with the daily affairs of the Indian nation for anyone acquainted with them. From the prolific oeuvre of RK Laxman, the KNMA showcases a rare feat of cartoons, where listening, observing, sharp analyses and political commentaries are performed on the most crucial events of the nation. When showcased as a tableau, the immediacy of his swift brush strokes and stinging nature of his humour while disrobing the follies of his peers is palpable. They take you on a tumultuous journey of a newly independent country, its various domestic and international vagaries and hypocrisies of its leaders and the scandals from the 1950s to the 1970s. He caricatured almost all significant political leaders and popular public figures of his time, and a few of the iconic ones are part of the exhibition.
The intense pen-and-ink drawings and political posters of Chittaprasad from the 1940s and 1950s document — and comment on — both the world and national political scenarios. There is no meddling, or double-speak with the ideologically charged political art of Chittaprasad. It cuts straight and hard, just like a hammer and a sickle. He critiques everything from imperialist domination, British India’s repressive policies, the unity of the peasants’ and workers’ union in the face of the trinity of sarkar, sahukar and zamindar, the Royal Navy mutiny, the communal politics of Partition, to the challenges, tyranny and social evils of post-Independence India.
Chittaprasad demystifies the ‘politician-capitalist nexus’ manifesting ‘neo-liberal free trade propaganda’ to its bare bones of exploitation and the growing rich-poor divide. Yet, we see that, somewhere, there is a dream of a utopic future that comprised peaceful and self-sustained villages with plenty of food and work, unfurling under a hoisted communist flag. The regimes have changed, the role of the Communist Party is debatable in today’s time and the monsters of neo-liberal economy have grown beyond comprehension. Yet, Chittaprasad’s artworks adhere to a recounting of the buried truths of a troubled history of India’s development, albeit drenched in ink and strokes of compelling figuration of the common citizen from the margins, upon whose aspirations it has pillared its growth.
The exhibition, Over the Edge, Crossing the Line: Five Artists from Bengal, continues to be showcased at Saket, after its opening in early-January at the Noida branch of the museum.
Continuing the extensive explorations of different art movements, regions and artistic ideologies within South Asia, it presents in-depth oeuvres and artistic inclinations of five modern masters from Bengal: Ganesh Pyne (1937 -2013), Meera Mukherjee (1928 – 1998), Somnath Hore (1921 -2006), Ganesh Haloi (b.1936) and Jogen Chowdhury (b. 1939).
Coming from various parts of Bengal, their visual vocabularies reach maturity during the 1970s and 1980s, with the city of Calcutta emerging as an intersection point. The social and political changes, witnessing and observing major occurrences, such as the Bengal Famine, the Tebhaga movement, the Bangladesh Language Movement, the Vietnam War and avant-garde mobilization in the creative disciplines of literature, cinema and theatre, have shaped their individual artistic styles and preoccupations. The chronological radius of the exhibition spans more than five decades, from the 1960s to the early-2000s, showcasing more than 200 artworks from the KNMA collection and a few lent by some private art collectors.