Art

The Underrecognized History of Indian Artists in Paris

France’s role in Western modernism is well-trodden art historical territory. Less well-known, but equally significant, is the impact French art movements had on modern Indian artists.

Sakti Burman, “Doll magic” (1973) Oil on canvas, 28.7 x 36.2 in. / 72.9 x 91.9 cm.

Paris has always been an artistic Mecca: its museums, salons, and art schools are known for beckoning creative figures from all over the world. The Parisian influence on Western modernism in particular is well-trodden art historical territory: in the 19th and 20th centuries, Spaniards like Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí, Americans like Man Ray and Mary Cassatt, and Italians like Amedeo Modigliani all famously lived and worked in the City of Light.

Less well-known, but equally significant, is the impact that French artistic movements have had on modern Indian artists. India’s French Connection: Indian Artists in France, on view at New York’s DAG Gallery, offers a long-overdue survey of the many Indian artists who studied and worked in Paris in the 20th century — all of whom have largely been excluded from the French art historical canon.

Though artists like Amrita Sher-Gil and Shiavax Chavda had already made Paris their artistic home between the First and Second World Wars, it was only in the post-WWII period that many Indian artists travelled to Paris to study in the hallowed classrooms of the École des Beaux-Arts, Académie Julian, Atelier 17, and Académie de la Grande Chaumière. Seeking to break out of the rigid structures of colonial arts education, artists like Jehangir Sabavala, S.H. Raza, Akbar Padamsee, Sakti Burman and Krishna Reddy made their way to France, followed by many others. After Indian independence, the project of nation-building overpowered all other national interests, and arts education continued to follow the archaic colonial curriculum. Paris’ promise of modernism and its vibrant cultural milieu promised the Indian artists a greater artistic freedom.

Sunil Das, “Untitled (Erotic Drawing VII)” (1993) Marker, brush & ink and pen & ink on paper pasted on mount board, 17.5 x 13.7 in. / 44.5 x 34.8 cm.

These artists were welcomed and encouraged in Paris, often through fellowships. Raza, known for his geometric abstractions, was even awarded the Prix de la Critique in 1956. However, Indians have largely been ignored in historical surveys of artists who lived and worked in France. In fact, when the Louvre opened in Abu Dhabi in 2017, Raza was the only South Asian artist on exhibition.

DAG’s show seeks to correct this erasure. It begins with the work of Amrita Sher-Gil, a pioneering Hungarian-Indian painter who moved to Paris at age 16 and attended both the Académie de la Grande Chaumière and the École des Beaux-Arts between 1929-33. It follows with the lesser known V. Nageshkar, who migrated from India to Munich and witnessed the horrors of Nazi nationalism before being exiled from Germany. Even during the rise of abstraction, Nageshkar’s art was more figurative, marked by themes of suffering and grief, often embodied by the figure of Christ. Often painted in red and green, his hollow-eyed figures read as expressions of the violence he witnessed during his time in Munich. Most striking is an untitled 1949 watercolor of a pained Christ, drawn in green, bleeding under his crown of thorns.

Paritosh Sen, “Untitled (Woman against a city background)” (1955) Oil on canvas pasted on cloth, 42.0 x 36.0 in. / 106.7 x 91.4 cm.

Sailoz Mukherjea, one of the nine artists considered a “National Art Treasure” by the Archaeological Survey of India (Sher-Gil is another), is said to have met Henri Matisse in Paris in the late 1930s, an encounter that greatly inspired him. His trademark style of lucid lines betrays an obvious Western influence, while his subjects, rooted in Indian folk and rural life, make his art a perfect symbiosis of modernist techniques and traditional Indian sentiment. His “Kneeling Peasant Girl” (1950s), an oil painting that’s stylistically reminiscent of Matisse’s “Blue Nude,” exemplifies this east-west fusion.

In addition to paintings, the exhibit showcases sculptures from the legendary Prodosh Dasgupta, who was pivotal in forming India’s first ensemble of modern artists after returning from London and Paris in 1943. Inspired heavily by expressionists, he developed a fluid abstract style that conveyed his deep interest in Eastern philosophy. DAG features notable works in bronze, such as “Nest” (1975), “Halves” (1979) and “Genesis I” (1971), which mark his style of containing abstract ideas within the roundedness of his trademark ovoid shapes.

Ram Kumar, “Untitled” (1961) Oil on canvas, 20.0 x 31.0 in. / 50.8 x 78.7 cm.

Chintamoni Kar, who studied stone carving in Paris in the 1930s and worked in the Louvre’s conservation laboratory in the 1960s, was an exceptionally creative sculptor whose preferred materials included wood, terracotta, stone, and metal. In his 1997 untitled female figure in terracotta, Kar marries the obvious influence of his mentor, Robert Wlérick, with the ancient Indian Mother Goddess figure. Always a sculptor who worked against the established norms of technique and rigid cultural identities, Kar’s work exemplifies the confluence of artistic sensibilities that the Indo-French exchange enriched.

The show also does its best to include Indian women artists who worked in France. After arriving in Paris in 1959, Anjolie Ela Menon immersed herself in the writings of Proust, Camus, and Breton. Painting huge murals and frescoes, she bucked modernist trends and instead painted what best described her moods. Works like “Nude with Cats” (1963) and “Madonna of Merriweather Road” (1976) expose her myriad cultural influences and her deep introspection through art.

Zarina Hashmi, who had previously worked with woodcuts, travelled to Paris in 1963 to study printmaking at Atelier 17, where Krishna Reddy and S.W. Hayter encouraged her work. Hashmi’s experience of the Indian Partition led her to a preoccupation with cartography and ideas of home, expressed in her experiments with collages, serigraphs and printmaking.

Krishna Reddy, “Le Clown Celebre” (1993) Viscosity on handmade paper, 39.5 x 29.0 in. / 100.3 x 73.7 cm.

The show deftly tracks the evolution of art techniques and philosophies in post-WWII Paris and reveals how these, in turn, influenced a generations of Indian artists who adapted and combined these styles with Eastern aesthetics. From Sakti Burman’s surrealist depictions of Indian and European myths to Krishna Reddy’s expressionist printmaking, and from Sabavala’s Cubist vibrancy to Raza’s expressionist landscapes, the works on view are a striking sample of the creativity borne within France’s undersung community of expat Indian artists. It is not an exhaustive retrospective, but it’s a very informed and promising start.

Zarina Hashmi, “Untitled” (1970) Relief print from collaged wood, 27.0 x 20.2 in. / 68.6 x 51.3 cm.
Laxman Pai, “Boats” (1954) Water color and pen and ink on paper, 10.0 x 14.5 in. / 25.4 x 36.8 cm.

India’s French Connection: Indian Artists in France runs at DAG Modern, New York till March 1, 2019.  

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