Jhaveri Contemporary presents a solo exhibition of an artist who is considered to be an important link in the trajectory of late 20th century Indian art.
Art Radar also talks to the gallery’s founder, Amrita Jhaveri.
An international artist with Indian roots
“Masked Dance for the Ancestors” includes the paintings and works of Indian artist Mohan Samant (1924 -2004), spanning three decades of his practice from the 1970s to the 1990s. Samant was a member of the short-lived Progressive Artists’ Group and exhibited alongside many of India’s leading artists, including FN Souza, SH Raza, and MF Husain. He also showed with the Bombay Group, which included KK Hebbar and KH Ara. In the 1950s Samant first visited Rome on a scholarship awarded by the Italian government and then Egypt, after which he spent several years on a Rockefeller Fellowship in New York City, where he would remain until 1964.
Born in Bombay, Samant grew up in a cultured environment where music and literary pursuits were central to his family. He attended the JJ School of Art and upon graduation in 1952, he won the Governor’s prize at the Annual Bombay Art Society Exhibition. In 1956, he was awarded the Gold Medal at the Bombay Art Society’s group exhibition, the Gold Medal at the Calcutta Art Society show, and the Lalit Kala Akademi All India Award. He also participated that year in the seminal exhibition “Eight Painters: Bendre, Gaitonde, Gujral, Husain, Khanna, Kulkarni, Kumar, Samant” curated by Thomas Keehn in New Delhi.
Exhibitions during Samant’s first New York period included what is considered the first showing of the Progressive Artists’ Group in America: “Trends in Contemporary Painting from India: Gaitonde, Husain, Khanna, Kumar, Padamsee, Raza, Samant, Souza” curated by Thomas Keehn and held at the Graham Gallery, New York, as well as “A Collection of Contemporary Art” (organised by the Art in Embassies Committee), the Museum of Modern Art, New York (1961); “Recent Acquisitions”, the Museum of Modern Art, New York (1963); Dunn International:102 Best Painters of the World, Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada, and the Tate Gallery, London (1963).
In 1968, Samant, like SH Raza and FN Souza before him, left India permanently. Returning to New York he turned his attention to his other great passion – music. An accomplished sarangi player, he spent the better part of the day practicing. With his wife Jillian, who was an accomplished musician herself, they hosted recitals and concerts in their New York loft surrounded by Mohan’s paintings and collection of objects, which ranged from Indonesian shadow puppets to African masks. For a prolonged period between 1975 and 1994, Samant held no public solo exhibitions, although he never stopped painting.
Celebrating the Multiplicities of Mohan Samant
Samant’s paintings are a marriage in diverse materials, exploring the boundaries between painting and other disciplines, including sculpture, drawing and architecture. Unlike the medium-specific practices of the Progressive Group, Samant’s hybrid and playful compositions deploy unusual materials that challenge the distinctions between high and low art, art and craft. American curator Jeffrey Wechsler observed in his essay that Samant’s practice was the antithesis of a signature style. Throughout his career, he delved into divergent materials and techniques and constantly shifted imagery. While some of his processes and forms can be perceived on a regular basis over long periods of time, there was no hewing to a given image, endlessly repeated. Samant stated:
I find that stagnation in style and the search for the same forms cause an artist to suffer an immense amount of laboriousness in his work.
As the 1970s progressed, Samant began to incorporate increasingly complex imagery and techniques into his work. Gone were the textured impasto paintings of the previous decade. Samant began to cut into the canvas, folding paper to make dense overlapping constructions that teeter between figuration and abstraction. He began to incorporate hand-twisted wire and readymade toys into assemblages that were painting, relief, sculpture, found object and wirework construction in equal measure. His inspirations were wide ranging too: from prehistoric cave paintings and Egyptian funerary wall drawings to Indian miniatures and folk art. Samant’s unique approach to the surface of the canvas raised new conceptual questions, prising open psychological and sexual experiences. His work paves the way for the new generation of Indian artists who emerged in the 1990s, such as Atul Dodiya, whose experimentation with materials and processes stretch the limits of painting practice.
A renewed interest in the modern period has meant that Samant’s works have begun circulating once again in significant exhibition in Europe and America. These include “Abby Grey and Indian Modernism: Selections from the NYU Art Collection”, Grey Art Gallery, New York (2015); “Postwar Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic 1945–65″, Haus der Kunst, Munich (2017); “Everything we do is music”, Drawing Room, London(2018); “South Asian Modernists, 1953-63”, the Whitworth, Manchester (2017/18); and most recently, “The Progressive Revolution: Modern Art for a New India”, Asia Society, New York (2018). Jhaveri Contemporary presented a solo display of paintings and works on paper by Samant earlier this year at Frieze New York (May 2018), for which it was awarded the Frieze Stand Prize.
Art Radar speaks with Amrita Jhaveri, one of the founders of Jhaveri Contemporary, about Mohan Samant’s art and his legacy.
Could you share the genesis of the show with Art Radar readers, including how it connects with your display at Frieze New York earlier this year? How is it different from other solo exhibitions held in Mumbai, London and Paris since the artist’s demise in 2004?
I first encountered Mohan Samant’s works at the Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation (JNAF) in 2014. The works at the JNAF left a deep impression on me and I began to research Samant’s work. I discovered that Pundole Art Gallery had held exhibitions of Samant’s work but since the closure of the gallery, his legacy had been languishing.
I also discovered that Mohan had carefully selected many of the works on view at JNAF and brought them to India in 1997 for an exhibition celebrating 50 years of India’s Independence. The show never happened and the works remained with the Samant family at the Rukmini Museum in Goregaon.
We selected a few works – primarily paper cut outs – from this group to show at Frieze New York and added one or two larger paintings with hand-twisted wire that were with Jillian Samant in their family home in New York. For Frieze we chose works that were perhaps more suited to a New York audience. For Mumbai, our space allowed for us to show a greater number of large wire paintings. Both presentations covered a range of media from drawings in pen and ink and collage to large wire paintings.
“Masked Dance for the Ancestors” mostly features Samant’s later works – those in which he started incorporating increasingly complex imagery and techniques. Amongst the varied influences during the course of his career, which do you find most significant in the works on display?
As Avani Parikh points out, what unites most of the large works is the artist’s interest in nature and culture. In Medusa on the Moon, Medusa inhabits a pre-historic world of dinosaurs, both painted and in the form of small toys. The ancestral spirits of ancient cultures populate these paintings, for instance figures from Greek mythology in Medusa on the Moon and the Ejagham Ekpe culture of Nigeria in Masked Dance for the Ancestors. As Ranjit Hoskote suggests, Samant’s was an “archaeological imagination” and it is this imagination that is the conceptual link in all the works in the exhibition.
In the 1970s and the 1980s Samant’s unique approach to painting was path-breaking for 20th century Indian modernism, with its conflation of abstraction, figuration and diversity in technique. How do you think it influenced the trajectory of contemporary Indian art?
Samant was working in ways that were current in New York, but only arrived in India with the next generation of artists. He was too contemporary for the modern generation in India and practically unknown to the subsequent generation of contemporary artists. I do not believe contemporary Indian artists – the generation that came of age in the 1990s – were even aware of Samant’s work, let alone influenced by it. However, Samant was already working in ways that were embraced by this generation of artists, for instance playing with the picture surface but cutting into it or building it up using a range of materials including foil, fabric and toys.
How different were the styles, techniques and themes that Samant used in his earlier years from those that are on display in the show?
The earlier works were more closely aligned to Samant’s contemporaries in India. For instance, paintings from the 1950s resemble those of Shankar Palsikar or Vasudeo Gaitonde whilst those from the 1960s such as Green Square (1963), in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, echo the abstractions practised by his peers from India. This earlier work is very distinct from what we are currently showing.
Do you agree with American curator Jeffrey Wechsler that Samant’s practice was the antithesis of a signature style? How is this evident to visitors in the works on display at “Masked Dance for the Ancestors”?
I’m not sure I agree with Wechsler’s statement as I find that that Samant ‘does’ have a signature style. His mature works are unmistakeably his, although he does borrow from a wide range of sources.
Art theorist Ranjit Hoskote considers Samant to be the “missing link” in the narrative of Indian art. The artist’s official website states that Samant rarely commented on his association with the Progressive Artist’s Group. In your opinion, what was the role that he played in post-Independence India’s fledging art world?
I cannot answer this with any certainty as I have not been involved with Samant’s earlier works and do not know the role individual artists played in these groups such as the Bombay Group and Progressive Artists Group, both of which Samant exhibited with. From my understanding, memberships to these groups were fluid and certain members like Samant had affinities with both groups.
There has been increasing interest worldwide, in the work of illustrious Indian modernists such as Mohan Samant, Nasreen Mohamedi and Vasudeo S Gaitonde with retrospectives at leading international museums. Do you feel that this trend will continue?
Exhibitions by one or two artists at major American museums do not constitute a trend. I don’t believe it will become a trend either, as funding for these types of exhibitions always presents a problem. The real opportunity lies with University Museums to mount exhibitions such as NYU’s Grey Art Gallery’s “Abby Grey and Indian Modernism”. These small exhibitions tease out forgotten histories of individual engagements with Indian art and artists.
What is next for Jhaveri Contemporary? What should Art Radar look out for from you in the coming year?
Jhaveri Contemporary will continue with its trajectory of showing underrepresented diaspora voices, alternating solo exhibitions with well-researched group exhibitions of overlooked artists or movements.
“Masked Dance for the Ancestors” is on view from 11 October to 17 November 2018 at Jhaveri Contemporary, 3rd Floor, Devdas Mansion, 4 MereweatherRoad, Colaba, Mumbai 400001.
- “Under the Canopy of Love” with Indian artist Jayashree Chakravarty – in conversation – November 2018 – the critically acclaimed solo exhibition “Earth as Haven” explores the materiality of nature with an immersive installation of handmade forms
- “Drawn from Practice”: re-examining the role of drawing with 11 Indian artists – directors interview – October 2018 – Art Radar talks to Experimenter gallery directors Prateek and Priyanka Raja about their latest show, “Drawn from Practice”
- “Traversing Terrains”: a retrospective of eminent Indian artist S.H. Raza at Piramal Museum of Art, Mumbai – October 2018 – Art Radar also talks to the exhibition’s curators Vaishnavi Ramanathan and Ashvin E. Rajagopalan
- Ram Kumar (1921-2018): celebrating one of India’s foremost abstract painters and Modernist masters – artist profile + in conversation – September 2018 – Ram Kumar is considered to be one of the country’s first artists to give up figurativism for abstract art
- “What’s essential”: inaugurating Jhaveri Contemporary’s new space in Mumbai – in conversation – September 2018 – Jhaveri Contemporary moves into the city’s illustrious art district in the sylvan surroundings of Colaba