Art Musings brings together the works of Ram Kumar, Prabhakar Kolte and Laxman Shreshtha in a compact group exhibition.
The juxtaposition of works on display in “Troika” enables art lovers to see how the three artists continue to renew their chosen idiom.
Expression through abstraction
“Troika” features the works of three of India’s most accomplished abstractionists at Art Musings – Ram Kumar (b. 1924), Laxman Shreshtha (b. 1939) and Prabhakar Kolte (b. 1946) – who trod different paths in their journey towards using the non-representational medium as their chosen mode of expression. Kumar first studied economics in Delhi before turning to art, primarily figuration in his early years, while Nepal-born Shreshtha has always been preoccupied with landscape painting as a genre with Kolte, the youngest of the three, having taught art for over two decades at the prestigious J.J. School of Art in Mumbai. As stated in the Art Musings release accompanying “Troika”,
Each artist has devoted several decades to the activation of the non-representational painted surface. Each, in his own distinctive way, has pursued the half-glimpsed image and the half-heard resonance; each has labored to commit an elusive reality of the spirit to the materiality of pigment. Kumar, Kolte and Shreshtha continue to renew their chosen idiom with an admirable energy of inventiveness that is matched by a magical richness of emotion.
It was with the founding of the Progressive Artists’ Group, which included members like Francis Newton Souza, Sayed Haider Raza and Maqbool Fida Husain, in Mumbai in the late 1940s, that 20th century modernism entered the art world of a newly independent India. The group was keen to push Indian art forward and they wanted to function in a broader, international context so as to make their work more relevant on the global stage.
It was in this era of experimentation and a quest for identity that Ram Kumar entered the world of Indian art. After studying Economics at Delhi’s St Stephen’s College, he went to Paris to study painting under Andre Lhote and Fernard Leger in 1949-52, where he was exposed to different philosophies and ideologies – both in art as well as in social structure. He became a member of the French Communist Party and upon his return to India, he painted mainly figurations, often focusing on class restrictions and the negative influences of industrialisation and urban growth on Indian society.
Kumar slowly moved towards cityscapes and was deeply inspired by the sacred city of Varanasi in his “Benaras” series of the 1950s – monochromatic representations of the city with architectural elements and motifs that showcase his seamless move from figuration into abstraction. The city and the landscape continued to remain at the core of Kumar’s paintings, and while his earlier works had a bleak colour palette of greys and browns, his more recent experimentation with colour has introduced a vibrancy and freshness to his canvas. This is evident in “Troika”, particularly in the brightness of the yellows, blues and greens; and the warmth of the browns and reds of his 2014-15 works. “When I paint, I don’t think about any specific elements – be they spiritual or supernatural elements of nature,” he has said. “They are paintings – pure, simple, plain, painted colour propositions, emerging from one’s past experiences.” (A. Jhaveri, A Guide to 101 Modern and Contemporary Indian Artists, p. 49).
Kumar has received a number of awards during his long and illustrious career, including the John D. Rockefeller III Fellowship in New York (1970), the Padma Shri (1972) and the Padma Bhushan (2010) from the Government of India, Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from the Government of France (2003) and a Fellowship of the LalitKala Akademi (2011). His works have been exhibited around the world with several solo exhibitions over the past 65 years in Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, New York, San Francisco and London. As a commercially successful artist, Kumar’s paintings have been auctioned by leading houses and have commanded high prices with The Vagabond (1956) fetching USD1.16 million at Christie’s South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art Auction in 2008 . Even more interesting is the fact that Kumar is also a talented author and has written several short stories in Hindi often accompanied by his own illustrations, such as in The Face and Other Short Stories published in 2009. As renowned art critic Meera Menezes aptly wrote in her essay introducing the retrospective “Traverse the Landscapes of Ram Kumar’s Artistic Mind” at Saffron Art, Mumbai in 2017:
After six decades, Ram Kumar still keeps us guessing at how the landscapes of his mind will unfold.
Abstract layering: where space meets form
In the works of Shreshtha and Kolte we see a vastness and monumentality that comes from the paring down of their compositions to bare geometrical essentials. Their abstractions feature an interesting use of space on the canvas, and while Kolte focuses on rendering architectural forms deeply buried under several layers of paint, Shreshtha’s preoccupation with the vast, meditative landscapes of his birth country Nepal are evident in his work.
Kolte’s canvases such as Untitled-6 (2017) are characterised by a single, dominant colour in the background, on which lighter and more complex forms, both geometric and organic, are placed. There is a three-dimensionality to his paintings, which also comes from his interest in multiple media and his use of paper, fabric and staples at the back of the canvas, giving the final artwork a textural definition unique to his practice. Shreshtha’s works on the other hand are both, sensuous and meditative in their shifts and balances of colour – reminiscent of the mountains, valleys and rivers of his childhood. The dazzling light and brilliant colours that appear with an almost marbled effect on the canvases on display at “Troika” are mesmerising and have an almost spiritual intensity in their rendering. In Shreshtha’s work process as in Kolte’s, there is a uniqueness to the application of colours and media – with the mixing of pigments with wax and oil paints with water to achieve the layered, translucent, marbled effect we see in his paintings.
Shreshtha was born in Nepal and currently lives and works in Mumbai. He studied art at various schools, including the J. J. School of Art in Mumbai, L’Ecole National Superieure des Beaux Arts des Paris and Academie de la Grande Chaumiere, Atelier 17 of Willain Hayter and The Central School of Art and Craft, London. His journey from the land of his birth and as a member of an aristocratic family in Nepal to his days as a struggling student and artist led him to embark on a spiritual quest, turning to Western philosophy, the Upanishads and Buddhism for answers. It is this soul searching that is evident in most of Shreshtha’s art.
Kolte was also a student of the J. J. School of Art in Mumbai and stayed back to teach at the school for 22 years. He worked closely with Shankar Palsikar, his teacher and later Dean of the school, a formidable art educator of the 1950s-60s who experimented with the idea of an indigenous abstraction. Kolte was also inspired by the highly individual style of Paul Klee and like the German artist, he sought to represent the spirit of nature, architecture and landscapes rather than simply imitate it. A common thread that seems to run through the works of both Shreshtha and Kolte is the semblance of a mystical experience for the onlooker – an almost transcendental quality to the canvas that slowly reveals hidden secrets to us. And as our gaze lingers longer, we find that we are looking directly into the essence, heart and soul of the beauty of nature.
“Troika” is on view from 18 December 2017 to 25 January 2018 at Art Musings, Admirality Building, 1 Colaba Cross Lane, Colaba, Mumbai 400005.
- “Homecoming”: Eminent Indian-American artist Natvar Bhavsar – artist profile – January 2018 – curated by Kishore Singh, the exhibition is the first retrospective of the artist in his native India
- “Where the Water Takes Us”: weaving histories through time and space with Rithika Merchant in Mumbai – in conversation – January 2018 – Merchant’s first solo in Mumbai showcases her idioms of epics and myths to explore issues of migration, displacement and belonging
- “Sub-Plots: Laughing in the Vernacular”: Exploring Indian contemporary art with a sense of humour – curator interview – January 2018 – Curated by Meena Vari and supported by Sakshi Gallery, this exhibition is on display at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), Mumbai
- An exhibition of contemporary art acquisitions at Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum – January 2018 – Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum presents an exhibition of its contemporary Indian art acquisitions, the first of its kind at the Museum
- Exploring abstraction in art: “That Was Then, This is Now” at Sullivan+Strumpf, Singapore – June 2017 – 5 artists in the exhibition “That Was Then, This is Now” in Singapore explore notions of abstractions
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