Towards What Has Never Been Done

The art of Madhuri Phalnikar Bhaduri, who has been exhibiting for the last twenty years, is both profoundly Indian and profoundly modern. This should not surprise us for while India was a colony of Britain, it had its own ancient culture that was older than that of its colonizing power. And like all ancient cultures that survive, it had the capacity to borrow from others without losing its own perspective.

Nor was it slow in picking up new ideas it found worth emulating. In Indian art too we came to a liberated modern aesthetic outlook fairly early in its history. In an article entitled ‘The Aesthetics of Young India’ in the January 1922 issue of the lavishly produced art journal of the Indian Society of Oriental Art, ‘Rupam,’ the art critic Benoy Sarkar, rejecting representational and decorative art, wrote:

“The creations of mass in space are problems in themselves. And a ‘message’ is immanent in each problem, in each contour, in each coexistence of forms, in each treatment of colour… we do not have to wander away from these lines, surfaces, curves and densities in order to discover the ‘ideals’ of the maker. The ideals are right there, speaking to my eyes.”

Just ten years earlier, Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger, among the founders of the cubist movement, had noted how “a painting carries within itself its raison d’etre. You may take it with impunity from a church to a drawing room, from a museum to a study. Essentially independent, necessarily complete, it need not immediately satisfy the mind: on the contrary, it should lead it, little by little, toward the imaginative depths where it burns the light of organization. It does not harmonize with this or that ensemble, it harmonizes with the totality of things, with the universe: it is an organism”.

While both Sarkar and Gleizes and Metzinger express a clean break with the concept of art as a mere instrument of the literary or political establishment, announcing the liberation of aesthetics from religion, visual glorification and decoration, beyond that their vision is very different. Where the European founders of cubism seek an inner organization as the essence of artistic expression, Sarkar looks for ideals that are emotionally perceived by the artist and the viewer.

The reason for this was obvious. Two types of changes were taking place in the world. On the one hand, the world empires were discredited and weakened both by the struggles between themselves as well as between them and the conquered. On the other hand, a new world of social equals had emerged in the former Czarist empire as the soviet Union. Elsewhere, the doors to the process of decolonization were opened even though the imperial centres continued to remain untouched. So we get a universal vision but from two perspectives. Both of them are modern, but both are different.

This difference expresses itself in art as well. When cubist experiments emerged in both Europe and India, European cubism was sculptural and explored volume, while Indian cubism was prismatic and colour-based. This is not surprising as India is a country with sharp contrasts of light and shade, as well as of a myriad of colours. So Indian abstract expressionism is naturally rooted in colour rather than in form. But even that is not sufficient as a framework to explain an artist’s work.

More than one element enters into the work of every artist. So from this angle each artist is unique. In the work of Madhuri one can see colour as the liberating element; but her earliest works are clearly landscapes, although the colours in them express the artist’s internal organization of hues. The sky is not necessarily blue, or even yellow. It can be crimson. Still, in these works of hers we can see domes, high rise buildings, the sea with hulls of streamers, even rocks with clothes drying on them when the tide has ebbed away into the distance. These works have the formal structure apart from that of colour alone. It reminds one of the work of artists like Ram Kumar. But her range of colour is more varied.

She has also produced a series of works that are very different. These works of hers reflect her training as an economist. They veer towards the minimal, rather like the art of our most admired abstractionist, V.S. Gaitonde. Here the ‘landscape’ is irrelevant to the interplay of colours that dictate the forms they take in a process of self-organization in two dimensional space. The organization of colour in space emerges as a free flowing activity, bringing with it a sense of liberation not only from representation but also from formal organization, allowing for a spontaneous emergence of organisms that have a life of their own. They may look like other works but they have never been created before nor will they be created again. And if they are, they will be fakes.

This was the dream of the Gutai artists of post-war Japan: to create something that had never been created before. And they had the never before/never again experience of Hiroshima to propel them into that space. In India, the process of gaining independence was more complex and contradictory. But both the Gutai artists and Madhuri share a peculiarly Asian concern with the interrelation of matter with the spirit of felt reality with its emotional component. This distinguishes modernist concerns in Europe from those of Asia even though they share a common universal agenda. Their works may look alike, but they cannot be reduced to each other. This element of a distinct and different perspective in the production of Western and Eastern expressionism is also essential to the understanding of Madhuri’s palette of colours and their organization. That we can measure her success within this framework assures us her work is serious and worth the attention it has got so far.