In abstraction

In abstraction
In August 1962, an artists’ coalition — ‘Group 1890’ — was formed in Bhavnagar, Gujarat. Led by the legendary artist and intellectual Jagdish Swaminathan (1928-94), the Group envisioned an indigenously fashioned modern Indian art based on Indian folk art and mysticism. It did not advocate any specific aesthetic or artistic style, but firmly rejected “the vulgar naturalism of Raja Ravi Varma and the pastoral idealism of the Bengal School, down through the hybrid mannerisms resulting from the imposition of the concepts evolved by successive movements in modern European art.”

Group 1890 comprised only male artists, and Ambadas Khobragade (1922-2012) was the only Dalit among its members. Artists like Jyoti Bhatt, Himmat Shah, Ghulam Mohd. Sheikh, and Jeram Patel, who were part of the Group, went on to make substantial contribution to the Indian modern art scene. The Group’s ideas were endorsed by Octavio Paz (1914-1998), who was Mexico’s ambassador in India at the time. The Mexican writer and poet (who went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992) penned the catalogue essay titled Surrounded by Infinity for the Group’s exhibition in October 1963.

The show, inaugurated by the then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, evoked enthusiastic response. Hungarian Indologist and art/theatre critic Charles Fabri (1899-1968), in his review for The Statesmen, declared that the event was comparable to the exhibitions in Paris, Berlin, Rome or Amsterdam. “Abstracts dominate,” he wrote, “the artist claims total freedom to follow his fancy, and there is here — as in Europe — a strong tendency to surprise the spectator with novelty and originality.”

Not giving up

No artwork, however, got sold out during the exhibition. Worse, this first exhibition turned out to be the Group’s last. Despite efforts by Swaminathan and others to keep it going, the Group disintegrated with several members leaving the country either to study or seek greener pastures. Among them was Ambadas, who went to Norway in 1972 and remained there till his death in May 2012. Before the shift to Norway, he travelled on a scholarship to the United States of America and Germany.

Born in Akola, Maharashtra, Ambadas reportedly grew up close to Mahatma Gandhi’s extended family and got indoctrinated by Gandhian values and ideals. He was trained in the well-established academic style and received his diploma from the J J School of Art, Mumbai in 1952, but chose abstraction early in his career and remained committed to it all his life. He was part of a generation of artists that was swayed by the many social, political and cultural churnings of the 1950s and 60s, and got attracted towards following abstract and non-representational art.

Ambadas developed a compelling style and technique with oil paint that complimented his powerful brushstrokes on canvas. His images created a sensitive dialogue with medium, surface, form and textures. He believed that colour alone had ‘character’, which helped him eliminate any form of representation in his art. Along with colour, he focused on textures, gestures and movements, which came to characterise his work.

Following Group 1890’s exhibition, his abstract canvases caught the attention of viewers and reviewers including American art critic Clement Greenberg. (It was Greenberg who later arranged for Ambadas to tour America’s art centres and interact with major abstractionists of the country.)

Ambadas’s work was praised for evoking ‘the feeling of an unstructured terrain, a mysterious expanse, that held many other worlds in it.’ Critics also saw that his paintings marked with the unpredictability of the final image.

“For all the enthusiasts who understand texture as a kind of façade to the painting and innovate endlessly upon that, without concern for its total intention, Ambadas is a good painter to watch,” wrote eminent art critic Geeta Kapoor. Elaborating on his technique, critic and historian Krishna Chaitanya observed: “Ambadas dilutes oils with kerosene to enable him to weave his surface with broad, continuous, ribbon-like strokes which have a fibrous feel, looking as if composed of numerous parallel strands. These strokes meander all over, getting knotted into distinct visual foci at some places, more loosely spread elsewhere.” Over time, Ambadas unburdened his work of the hitherto strong impasto strokes and opted for a lightness and subtlety, which could be seen particularly in the images he painted in the 1990s when he returned to his first love — watercolours.

Involved & uncompromised

Ambadas’s wife, Hege Backe, was a long-time witness of the artist’s creative process. “When Ambadas paints, he goes into a trance, his speech goes all slurry, and he forgets his self in the act of painting,” she once revealed. “He has been uncompromising; he has not changed in five decades of painting abstracts.”

Several factors — like his subaltern origins and the Dalit identity, admiration of Gandhian values and ideals, Indian spiritual traditions, and carving a career in a foreign soil — are cited to have contributed to Ambadas’s overall approach to art. “His work and his life were part of his Gandhian philosophy that rejected materialism — perhaps the reason that his art too remained spartan and endowed, like him, with a suggestion of nature and spirituality,” says Kishore Singh, president of DAG Modern gallery and author of Memory and Identity: Indian Artists Abroad. “By his own admission, Ambadas drew inspiration from the Indian mystical thought Vedanta. He believed that Vedanta had affinities with abstract expressionism in that both regarded art as revelation.”

Singh also believes that Ambadas’s love for and memory of the land of his birth fed his soul. “In its resonance he found a way to communicate what he remembered of the country. There was its immense heat, riot of colours, hot spices, festivals, chaos and camaraderie, all of which he missed acutely, and which he recreated on his canvases, even though it was a sign language which no one understood as well as he did.”

Five years ago, when Ambadas passed away in Oslo, he was 90. In his sunset years, he is said to have yearned for the country of his birth, ‘its sounds and smells, and food’.
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