“In the Presence of Another Sky”: six decades of India’s Sakti Burman – artist profile

A major retrospective at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai places Burman’s works in their historical contexts.

In collaboration with the Ministry of Culture, Government of India and supported by Art Musings, the exhibition is on display at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai until 26 November 2017. The survey of six decades of the distinguished artist’s practice is curated by poet and cultural theorist Ranjit Hoskote.

Sakti Burman, Legends of Hope, 2004, Oil on Canvas, 130 x 162 cm. Image courtesy Art Musings, Mumbai.

Sakti Burman, ‘Legends of Hope’, 2004, oil on canvas, 130 x 162 cm. Image courtesy Art Musings, Mumbai.

An illustrious artistic life

One of India’s most prolific, well-travelled and internationally renowned post-Independence Indian artists, Kolkata-born Sakti Burman, lives and works in Paris. In the Presence of Another Sky”  at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai, celebrates Burman’s six-decade long dedication to painting – a visual feast of a journey that presents the visitor with the varied cultures, mythologies and experiences that played a critical role in the shaping of his world view and his practice.

Sakti Burman studied at the Government College of Arts and Crafts, Kolkata, and later at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux Arts in Paris. Since the mid-1950s Burman has been living in India and France, exhibiting extensively in both countries, and in prestigious locations across Europe and the United States. He had his first solo exhibition in 1954 in Kolkata, and has since exhibited widely across the world at leading galleries in Paris, London, Milan, Zurich, Mumbai, New Delhi and Kolkata. Some of his most recent shows include “The Beholder’s Share at Jehangir Art Gallery (Mumbai, 2016), “Rituals and Reasons: Invoking the Sensual in Art” at Apparao Galleries (Chennai, 2014), “The Wonder of it All”, a retrospective exhibition (Pundole Art Gallery and Apparao Galleries, 2012) and “Archetype and Enraptured Gaze at Aicon Gallery (London, New York, 2009).

Sakti Burman, Harlequin Poet, 2017, Oil on Canvas, 132 x 96 cm. Image courtesy Art Musings, Mumbai.

Sakti Burman, ‘Harlequin Poet’, 2017, oil on canvas, 132 x 96 cm. Image courtesy Art Musings, Mumbai.

Burman has been invited to participate in numerous salons including the Biennale de Paris, Section Française at the Musée d’Art Moderne (Paris), the Salon d’Automne Grand Palais, Paris Salon de la Jeune Peinture, the Salon de la Société Nationale des Beaux Arts (Paris) and the Salon des Artistes Française, Grand Palais (Paris). Amongst the many awards he has received in his illustrious career are the Prix des Etrangers (École des Beaux-Arts, Paris), the Medaille Arts, Science et Lettres (Paris), the Medaille d’Argent de Montmorency, the Medaille d’Or, Salon des Artistes Français (Grand Palais, Paris) and the Prix de la Ville de l’Isle-Adam (France).

Sakti Burman, Unknown God, 2016, Oil on Canvas. Image courtesy Art Musings, Mumbai.

Sakti Burman, ‘Unknown God’, 2016, oil on canvas. Image courtesy Art Musings, Mumbai.

A master of dual worlds

In his unique, almost surrealistic style of painting, Burman is known for using a marbling technique that he has developed after years of experimentation wherein he blends oils and acrylics to create fresco-esque works on paper and canvas. The artist creates his own dreamlike, private world in his artworks which are characterised by a conflation of imageries that pay tribute to the two different cultures and geographies that Burman has belonged to. His practice references the traditions, art and aesthetics of Bengal, the region of his birth and at the same time also draws extensively from European mythology, his experiences and his memories of a life lived outside of the country of his origin. It is these multiplicities of influences and subject matter that makes his work recognisable and relatable to audiences in India and internationally. In the words of exhibition curator Ranjit Hoskote (in his essay, “Sakti Burman, At Home in the World”):

My first impression of Burman’s work was strong and immediate. The surfaces of his paintings – marbled and tapestried, suggestive of the murals of Ajanta or Pompeii as they were – rewarded attention by disclosing hidden perspectives and fluidities. Figurative in its choices, this art was figural in its ability to conjure up a constellation of allegories referring to creativity, dilemma, inquiry, and the questor’s journey. At the centre of Burman’s art, it appeared to me, then as now, lay an understanding of the cosmos as pageant or dance: a theatre of appearances, kaleidoscopic in their combination of mutability and intensity, and no less compelling for being momentary.

“In the Presence of Another Sky” (PDF download) celebrates the breadth of Burman’s artistic oeuvre and strengthens his position as an artist who successfully belongs to two worlds – paying tribute to the western canon of modern art, while at the same time having created a niche for himself within a more fledging, evolving contemporary Indian aesthetic. It showcases Burman’s journey as an artist, with over 250 works on display, sectioned thematically into eight chapters that collectively pay homage to his significant contributions to engraving, the art of the book, drawing, sculpture, textiles and painting in various media.

Sakti Burman, “In the Presence of Another Sky”, 17 October – 26 November 2017, Gallery view at National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai, Image courtesy Art Musings, Mumbai

Sakti Burman, “In the Presence of Another Sky”, 17 October – 26 November 2017, installation view at National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai. Image courtesy Art Musings, Mumbai.

A spatial exploration of the artist’s practice

As the spectator walks through the different spaces created by the curator at the majestic National Gallery of Modern Art with its semi-circular galleries, high central dome and open interior space, a deep understanding of the varied transcultural dimensions that were the building blocks to Burman’s seven decades of artistic life takes shape. The sections “A Confluential Imagination” and “Travel as Education” present the plurality of the artist’s cultural influences and the diversity of his travel experiences, which enabled him to break the shackles of conformity that have often held back multicultural artists from the subcontinent. In “The Mark of the Burin” and “The Sweep of the Roller”, Hoskote introduces us to Burman’s printmaking practice, presenting the lithographs and engravings that he created as a textile designer and as an illustrator of books like André Gide’s French translation of Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali.

Sakti Burman, “In the Presence of Another Sky”, 17 October – 26 November 2017, Gallery view at National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai, Image courtesy Art Musings, Mumbai

Sakti Burman, “In the Presence of Another Sky”, 17 October – 26 November 2017, installation view at National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai. Image courtesy Art Musings, Mumbai.

In “The Inspirations of Architecture”, the exhibition celebrates the artist’s love for referencing Gothic, Romanesque and Mughal forms in his work, while “A Storyteller’s Dreams” and “A Dance to the Music of Mythology” draw our attention to the dreamlike and mythological narratives inherent in many of his paintings. And finally, in “The Studio Without Walls”, we get the unique opportunity to enter into the private world of Sakti Burman and explore the artist’s mind– by peeking into his studio to acquaint ourselves with the physical setting that helps define his artistic language – from calendar wall art and scroll paintings to traditional Dokhra objects and Kalighat paintings.

Sakti Burman, With Love to Regine, 1985, Oil on Canvas, 65 x 53 cm. Image courtesy Art Musings, Mumbai.

Sakti Burman, ‘With Love to Regine’, 1985, oil on canvas, 65 x 53 cm. Image courtesy Art Musings, Mumbai.

The retrospective is significant as it presents the breadth of Sakti Burman’s artistic practice to a contemporary audience who are far removed from many of the historical events that have influenced his consciousness, including World War II, the Indian Independence and Partition, the Cold War and Globalisation. As Hoskote says,

My aim, in this retrospective, is to invite viewers to consider the artist in the amplitude of his various avatars, as artisan, storyteller, connoisseur of reverie, and researcher-collector. […] In their elegant fusion of time horizons, Burman’s works remind us that the global contemporary is, above all, a time and place of complex allegiances. We are all entangled in multiple definitions of self, linked by heredity, affinity and choice to various sources of cultural meaning. In such a situation, the artist cannot be pinned down to a specific, narrowly regional definition of selfhood.  

Amita Kini-Singh

1944

“In the Presence of Another Sky” by Sakti Burman is on view from 17 October to 26 November 2017 at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai, Sir Cowasji Jehangir Public Hall, M. G. Road, Fort Mumbai – 400032.

Related topics: Indian artists, painting, gallery shows, events in Mumbai

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