Mark of a maverick

Different strokes


In his lifetime, J Swaminathan (1928-94) played many roles besides being one of the most significant artists of his era.  “By the time he died he had a large following and was eagerly sought by collectors,” wrote Krishen Khanna in a concise but illuminating monograph (J Swaminathan / Contemporary Indian Art Series / Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi). “Yet his success never altered his lifestyle. He continued to live in his working space which was always crammed with stretchers, cans of beesware, oils of various description, powdered pigments, tubes of paints, brushes, knives, rages, finished and unfinished paintings and goodness knows what else. His friends who came to see him had to navigate carefully till they reached some place where they could settle for a prolonged convivial evening with much promise of discussions on poetry and sparkling good humour.”

Born in Sanjauli, Himachal Pradesh, Swaminathan’s interest in art is said to have triggered at an early age when his aunt gifted him a set of oil colours when he was just six. In his teens, he failed as a pre-medical student and ran away from home and college to Calcutta. “I could draw a cockroach much better than dissect one,” he would recall about the episode.

A year and a half later he returned to Delhi where he first joined the Congress Socialist Party in 1945 and later, the Communist Party (1947-53). A scholarship took him to Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw for six months in 1958. On his return he became a journalist actively writing on politics and art.

In 1962, Swaminathan became a founder member of the artistic assemblage, Group 1890, which included Jeram Patel, Ambadas, Rajesh Mehra, Ghulam Mohd. Sheikh, Jyoti Bhatt and Raghav Kaneria. The Group had its first and last show in 1963 which was inaugurated by then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru; its catalogue was written by poet and essayist Octavio Paz.

In the same year, he published polemical monthly, Contra, in collaboration with Paz (1914-1998) who was the ambassador of Mexico in India. (Paz went on to become the first Mexican to win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1990.)

Swaminathan’s association with Paz was close and mutually rewarding. Both challenged the prevailing views of modernity in their articles on art and aesthetics. “Octavio is one of those rare geniuses, (who) have the power of devising the submerged intelligence in you and then listening to him is the experience in self-discovery,” acknowledged Swaminathan. Paz, on his part, admired Swaminathan’s vision, ideas and artistry. He even wrote a poem, ‘To Painter Swaminathan’, with some stunning imagery:

With a rag and a knife / Against the idée fixe / The bull of fear / Against the canvas and the void / The uprushing spring / Blue flame of cobalt / Burnt amber / Greens fresh from the sea / Minds’ indigo /... ...With a rag and a knife / Against the triangle / The eye bursts / Fountain of signs /

The serpentine undulation moves / Wave upon wave of imminent apparitions /
The canvas a body / Dressed in its own naked enigma.

People who came in contact with Swaminathan were overwhelmed by his enormous if restless energy. He gained the reputation of being an unusual artist, sensitive poet, committed activist and later, an able if unorthodox administrator.

“Swaminathan was fiercely independent,” recalls Khanna, himself a distinguished artist. “He was aggressive in his polemic.  He thought all modern painting in India since 1947 was far too concerned with the mundane physical world. He emphatically stated again and again that the obsession with the phenomenal world was Western and no matter how elegant or competent and efficient its art, it was too self evident and immersed in the practical day to day. By the very nature of its concerns it failed to gain access to the regions of mystery which were central to art.”

Swaminathan’s works were widely exhibited in India and abroad, including Vancouver, Budapest, Montreal, and London. Recipient of Jawaharlal Nehru Scholarship for his project on ‘The Significance of the Traditional Numen in Contemporary Art’, he also served as a member of the International Jury at the Sao Paolo Biennale. He was a trustee of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts and a member of Lalit Kala Akademi’s executive board.

In his images, Swaminathan presented hills, birds, insects, plants, water, air, unbuildable buildings but no human beings. Khanna explains how their relationship on the canvas had nothing to do with the laws of this physical world. “The arena of painting was its own unique universe in which the impossible is credible. A rock suspended in mid air with a sleek bird atop it, a mountain reflected in a lake which leaves you guessing as to which is which, and steps on a monument leading nowhere. The entire drama enacted in the richest and most unusual colours.”

Tribal beauty

In a final burst of creativity Swaminathan abandoned his carefully nurtured colour geometry and ‘virginal state’ of nature. In its place came a fascinating display of tribal perceptions and symbolic forms. “The stream of paintings which gushed out uninterrupted bore no resemblance to the preceding phase but were related to the paintings executed in the 50s and early 60s when he had employed symbols with known connotations,” writes Khanna. “Significantly, the paintings of the last phase of his life were concerned with the passage of a sign on its way to becoming a symbol…While looking at his last large paintings I was reminded of Beethoven’s late quartets. There was authority of utterance without the slightest imposition of personality.”

Swaminathan’s association with Roopankar, Museum of Fine Arts at Bharat Bhavan, Bhopal as its director (1981-90) became legendary; the pioneering work he did at Roopankar in assembling the folk and tribal museum and in such a short period is often mentioned as a unique model worthy of emulation. “The region is famous for its folks and tribal cultures, yet until Swaminathan got involved, Indian museums knew little about talented artists living in the hinterlands,” observed art historian John Bowles. 

Swaminathan, who wrote evocative poetry in Hindi, had an intuitive eye to recognise talent, particularly of the unheralded tribal communities. Many of his ‘discoveries’ went on to win national and international recognition. When Swaminathan (lovingly called ‘Swami’ or ‘Swamiji’) breathed his last 15 years ago, he was 66.

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