Art of dissent

Art of dissent

If one were to prepare a list of artists around the period of India’s Independence, Brij Mohan Anand’s name is not likely to figure prominently in it. As a maverick, modernist and constructivist, Anand produced work with powerful graphic quality but remained unknown for years.

His life story is the subject of an attractive monograph, Narratives for Indian Modernity: The Aesthetic of Brij Mohan Anand, authored by writer Aditi Anand and art historian Grant Pooke. “There has been scant recognition and documentary record of Anand’s life and aesthetic contribution to date, despite a continuous professional practice that spanned almost fifty years,” write the authors in the introduction to the book.

Anand, who was born in 1928 to a Western-educated dentist father and a progressive, feminist mother, showed interest in art before he was 10. He dropped out of school at the age of 14; five years later, he was to witness the euphoria of Independence, as well as the bloodshed following the partition of the country.

Tragedy had struck his family almost a decade before Anand was born. His older brother Madan Mohan (1907-1919) was among the first to be killed during the infamous ‘Jallianwala Bagh Massacre’ which took place in Amritsar on April 13, 1919.

This reportedly led to his parents’ disillusionment with the moderate politics of Congress and prompted them to side with the ideology of revolutionary socialism propounded by Bhagat Singh (1907-1931).  Following the death of his father in 1942, Anand is said to have travelled extensively throughout the Indian subcontinent before settling in Delhi in the late 1940s.
   
Self-taught artist
As an artist, Anand was highly talented and largely self-taught. Growing up in times of unprecedented political upheavals including the Quit India movement (1942); the Bengal famine (1943) and Independence/Partition, he was naturally affected by them. 

Artistically speaking, he was like many others receptive to various strands of European modernism, but remained rooted to the figurative idiom which he creatively employed while fashioning a range of pastoral images, genre scenes, apocalyptic landscapes and politically-charged compositions. “Anand’s practice was one of continuous immersion within Indian culture, albeit inflected with an element of social realism and stylised figuration,” write Aditi and Pooke.

While paper and canvas formed his basic medium, Anand adopted a novel and demanding material — the scratchboard — to work on some of his most provocative works and protest art. His daughter Kriti Anand remembers him working on many works at a time, and revisiting them from time-to-time to make changes and add elements. “I often wonder how my father came up with these concepts because as kids we never really saw him leave the house to travel, meet people or read voraciously. In hindsight, his themes were extremely thought-provoking, well-researched and he even took on some of India’s icons like Gandhi in his works.”

Idealogical leanings
Anand’s visual imagery was very different from that of his contemporaries including the Bombay progressives like M F Husain, Tyeb Mehta, S H Raza, F N Souza and Krishen Khanna. “Whilst these modern masters were principally concerned with identity and materiality, Anand was steadfast in his commitment to the personal politics of a renewed Indian Renaissance and to India’s political awakening, as he perceived it,” writes Alka Pande in the foreword to Narratives for Indian Modernity.

“Anand remained vehemently opposed to even a whiff of Western imperialism and his scratchboard paintings are a living testament to this refusal.”

Pooke observes how Anand never joined the modernist-inspired diaspora of contemporaries including Souza, Sadanand Bakre and Avinash Chandra who decamped to New York or Europe in the later 1940s and 1950s. “By contrast and by temperament, perhaps, Anand’s gaze was to Soviet or occidental exemplars at a time, when, as David Engerman has recently reminded us, the Iron Curtain in India was at its ‘most porous’… While Anand’s ideological leanings visibly placed him firmly on the left of India’s political spectrum … as a practitioner, Anand largely remained an ‘outsider’ artist even within his own country… He eschewed the blandishments of state support, private patronage or gallery representation and appears to have remained ambivalent and skeptical towards the sale of either canvases or scratchboards, although work was freely given as a gift to friends or peers whom Anand respected.”

To support his family which included four daughters, Anand became a commercial illustrator and designer for newspapers, novels, textbooks, posters and public journals; this provided consistent and successful employment throughout his life.

While earning his living as an illustrator by day, by night he worked on projects of his own choosing which were strongly social, ideological and political. He admired the work of Russian artists like Nicholas Roerich, Vera Mukhina and Alexander Rodchenko; and was clearly influenced by the aesthetics of Soviet Socialist Realism and the genre of propaganda art.

Accidental discovery
Anand is known to have been an extremely warm and friendly person. “It was his appreciation for simple things, affection for those others would consider beneath them, and his generosity towards all that made him extraordinary,” recalls Kriti Anand.

When Anand died of cardiovascular complications in 1986, he was only 58. Nearly three decades after his death, a huge stash of his previously unknown works was accidentally discovered at his residence.

“The art of Brij Mohan Anand is the art of dissent,” says Shruthi Issac, curator of a recent exhibition of Anand’s work. “He was not cowed down by criticism and was unafraid to address a myriad of political, social and cultural concerns… Anand’s art is a reflection of a developing India and presents an important story told of and from the margins of Indian modern art history.”

The show ‘Dissent and Discourse - The Art and Politics of Brij Mohan Anand’ includes a sampling of the estimated 1,500 surviving works by Anand — from scratchboards, landscapes, watercolours and sketches to commercial illustrations. Currently on at Greenix Village, Fort Kochi as a Kochi-Muziris Biennale Collateral project, the exhibition concludes on March 29, 2017.

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