Thrice the impact

Different Strokes: Here are three leading artists who pushed the limits of abstraction in their own ways

Vibrant expressions

Perhaps that’s why we create. Because death is certain.And because we can’t believe it will happen to us, we react as children might.

We try and throw something at the bogeyman, to scare him away.

That something is art.

- MEHLLI GOBHAI

Three eminent artists passed away within a short span of just six months this year — Ram Kumar (April 14, in Delhi), Krishna Reddy (August 22, in New York) and Mehlli Gobhai (September 13, in Mumbai). Kumar and Reddy were in their 90s while Gobhai was 87 when death came calling.

Hailing from different parts of the country, the trio immensely contributed to modern art in India. Gobhai was born in Mumbai; Kumar and Reddy came from the relatively small towns of Shimla and Nandanoor (Andhra Pradesh), respectively. Interestingly, all three spent years outside the country and got exposed to international trends in art. 

Ram Kumar (1924- 2018), who gave up his bank job in 1948, managed to get a one-way ticket to Paris, where he resided for about seven years before returning to India. In Paris, he studied under illustrious artists such as Andre Lhote and Fernand Leger. In 1971, he received the J D Rockefeller III Fund Travelling Fellowship and spent some time in the United States. 

Ways of life

The journey of Krishna Reddy (1925-2018) was even more interesting. After educating himself in Santiniketan (West Bengal), he travelled to London to study at the Slade School of Fine Art.

He moved to Paris in the early 1950s and joined Stanley William Hayter’s famous printmaking workshop, Atelier 17, of which he later became the co-director. He travelled widely and in 1976, joined the New York University as a professor and director of graphics and print-making. He became its professor emeritus in 2002. 

Reddy lived in New York till the very end, but maintained close connection with India and its artists all his life. The 1931-born Gobhai completed his undergraduate education at St Xavier`s College, Mumbai before going on to train at the Royal College of Art in London, and the Pratt Graphic Centre in New York. For more than twenty years after his studies, he lived and worked out of New York, before returning to Mumbai in the late 1980s.

Quiet lyricism 

The three artists came to be generally hailed as abstractionists, but their practices and output differed substantially. 

Ram Kumar, who started figuratively, slowly moved towards semi-abstraction and finally abstraction with jagged lines and uneven colours forming intriguing landscape-like compositions. His most famous works, influenced by his travels to Varanasi and Ladakh, revealed the sweeping sensuousness of his brushstrokes. “Whether I do figures or landscapes, my passions and concerns remain the same. It is the human condition that leads me to art.” A quiet man who desired for no public attention, Kumar was prolific in his output. 

Critics observed how the lyricism of Kumar’s work was matched by a disciplined structuring; how his images showed an inner harmony, form and grace; and how even the blank spaces on his canvas seemed to become part of an ongoing conversation. Krishna Reddy, whose earliest paintings were murals on temple walls in his village, became a master printer and had a great influence on many printmakers across the world.

His abiding interest and expertise in complex processes and techniques became well-known during his lifetime. His own prints with their coloured grids, ingrained textures and starkly abstract geometricism, evoked a pulsating organic world, where the mysterious nature of the universe was closely examined. Reddy’s admirers saw how the dedicated artist carried deeply spiritual and philosophical insights into his work.

For him, all natural and organic creations were dynamic expressions; and part of a web of interpenetrating forms and radiating movements. In his tribute to the print-maker, Holland Cotter of The New York Times wrote: “Mr Reddy belonged to a generation of artists who gained international recognition after India’s independence from England in 1947. Like many of his Indian colleagues, he was fully conversant with developments in contemporary European art but was working in fresh directions — demonstrating, for example, that Abstract art was not a Western invention, as it is often assumed to have been, but had distinctive sources and forms in other cultures.”

Surface & structure 

Mehlli Gobhai was the most inconspicuous of the three artists.  As art critic Ranjit Hoskote points out: “Had Mehlli’s career trajectory been managed differently, or had he belonged to a later generation that benefited from globalisation, he would undoubtedly have been acknowledged as a key figure in the history of global abstraction.”

Gobhai’s paintings, critics observed, recorded the dialogue between the spare line and burnished field. They were amazed how both the surface and structure were critical to his works; and the artist approached his canvas with no feelings of certainty about what he wanted, with no pretence that it was a willing ally in the act of creation.

Hoskote observes that unlike other Indian abstractionists, Gobhai made no concessions to the phantoms of landscape, or to inherited symbolism, or to the evocation of retinal reality. “He was proud to describe his art as a ‘non-objective’ art. And in the late phase of his work, he experimented boldly with blurring the line between painting and sculpture, to produce results that were neither and yet more expansive than both.”

Gobhai, who remained unmarried all his life, had illustrated the covers of India’s first jazz magazine Blue Rhythm, published out of Bombay in the 1950s. Sadly, he was stricken by a series of ailments in his final years.

It may perhaps be appropriate to end this piece with a quote from Ram Kumar.  In one of his conversations, he reportedly confessed: "How long can one wish to be remembered —100 years, 200 years, 500 years? So your soul may rest in peace? No, I don’t care about all that. I will not like to be remembered for anything… sometimes, I feel like obliterating every single trace of my existence. Not my paintings though."

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