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Twelve Hidden Gems of Indian Art

Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”

Pablo Picasso

From early petroglyphs to a flourishing contemporary art scene, India’s vibrant artistic legacy is the result of a variety of cultural influences. The diversity of art from this area—which includes anything created in the historical regions of modern-day India, Bangladesh, and areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan—is reflected in vivid, distinct, and enchanting styles that represent many different civilizations. Because some of the world’s major religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam either began or flourished in India, much of Indian art is based in religious or political subject matter.

Pablo Picasso (Malayalam)

Although ‘art is a universal language’ is a term that’s become a cliche, even bastardised in a certain manner, it’s undeniable that it continues to hold true. Indians have often turned to the world of art in its various forms and medium, to use as an outlet of creative expression, exploration of one’s self and identity, as well as a reflection of society. Here are some 12 leading artists from India who have carved a niche for themselves and brought the Indian art to the global art world stage, yet are not known to many.

Bikash Bhattacharjee

A painter from Kolkata, Bikash Bhattacharjee worked in various mediums including but not limited to oils, watercolour and acrylics. The themes he addressed in his paintings were mundane – like that of the life of a middle-class Bengali. Over the years, Bikash became internationally known and did various shows abroad. He received the Lalit Kala Akademi fellowship from Lalit Kala Akademi in 2003.

His drawings form a fitting introduction to his paintings, revealing the predilection of the artist for forms: forms that are consist in terms of tone rather than line. Bhatacharjee carefully expresses the textural effects of crayons, pastels and pencil using the combination of highlights and depths of passages built of varying intensities of line. Improbable characters (both psychologically and physiologically) play a role on the canvas and dominate his oils. Yet his work is a powerful combination of realism and fantasy, where reality sets the ball rolling and fantasy helps the canvas assume a new reality.

His subject is always clear, recognizable, painted with faithfulness to detail and invested with a sense of the dramatic. Female beauty is a major preoccupation with him. But he also creates a varied cast of characters in his canvases - old men and women, children, domestic help. The ability to create an authentic milieu as a background to the characters heightens the drama. Bhattacharjee's women are a strange mixture of spirituality and sensuality. Different moods of the painter are reflected in his different paintings. Some times flesh and blood figures turn shadowy. Where women in his canvas are an abstraction, men appear to live in their own world.

The artist explores the possibilities of oil as a medium and can depict the exact quality of drapery or the skin tone of a woman, the peeling walls of an old building. He had also achieved mastery over the capturing of the quality of light, an effect that lends his work a superb realism as well as an enigmatic quality. His love of cinema had a lot to do with this. He creates a wide variety of characters in all walks of life, but his preoccupation is with female beauty. His use of art techniques of post Renaissance European oil painting could be responsible for creating this illusion of reality. Indeed, he leaves the viewer thinking, his canvases haunt, his paintings are an enigma that suggest and the mind is but a slave that must follow. Bhattacharjee is also known for his Kolkata cityscapes that he worked on in his twenties.

Jangarh Singh Shyam

Gond art is among the most popular and well-known indigenous art traditions of India. Taking its name after the tribe which practices it, Gond art is mainly centred in Madhya Pradesh. Within this form, there is a wide spectrum of artistic styles, primarily connected to certain painters and their practices. The tribe’s strong tradition of oral narrative—often focussing on their gods who corresponded to elements of nature—transposes to their paintings as well.

These indigenous art forms have now evolved in their social and cultural roles. Efforts by art historians and the government have helped push them to prominence and artists themselves have painstakingly modified a centuries-old ethos to contemporary demand. At the forefront of giving the folk and tribal arts the recognition they deserved, was Jangarh Singh Shyam, famed for his Gond paintings and for popularising the art form abroad.

Invisible Webs (An Art Historical Inquiry Into the Life and Death of Jangarh Singh Shyam)

Jangarh belonged to the Pradhan-Gond community of Mandla district in Madhya Pradesh. His talent was discovered by J Swaminathan, who brought him to Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal, where he perfected his art. He developed his own style which was a beautiful amalgamation of tribal and contemporary art. His paintings featured tribal deities, animals, and nature in the traditional Gond style, with lines of coloured dots to make shapes and forms, as well as a master of the rotary pen. He is considered the pioneer of Gond art and is one of the most celebrated folk artists in India.

S Elayaraja

S Elayaraja’s paintings are renowned for being hyper-real, almost photographical as he depicts ‘Dravidian girls’, in his much-acclaimed, inimitable style. In the painting, the girl is seen sitting with her parrots and smiling subtly into the frame with a knowing look in her eyes. Elayaraja painstakingly breathes life into every detail, from the folds of the girl’s dress to the shining gold-threaded patterns and borders of her skirt, the pretty parrots perched on the window sill behind her, the brown wooden frame behind her and the cemented floor. Bathed in an almost angelic golden light, the painting showcases the artist’s deep bond with his cultural background, growing up in a temple town in Tamil Nadu.

K. G. Subramanyan

A part of the Baroda Group, K.G. Subramanyan’s art was heavily influenced by folk art from Kerala, Pattachitra from Odisha and Bengal, and Kalighat. Subramanyan received the Padma Vibhushan in 2012.

A theoretician and art historian, Subramanyan has written extensively on Indian art. His writings have formed a foundation for the study of contemporary Indian art. He has also written some delightful fables for children and illustrated them. A man of multifaceted talents, Subramanyan demolished banners between artist and artisan. He experimented with weaving and toy making. He also reinvested several mediums earlier used in Indian art. For example, the terracotta mural and glass painting found a new lease of life with his experiments. The artist gave the human figure a new dimension. Drawing upon the rich resources of myth, memory and tradition, Subramanyan tempers romanticism with wit and eroticism. K.G. Subramanyan is a major presence on the Indian art scene.

Bengal Art - New Perspectives

His flexibility of expression and richness of visual language evolve from the diverse materials he works with as painter, muralist, printmaker, relief-sculptor and designer. In his recent work Subramanyan uses many registers of language to slide from high seriousness to irony, celebration to subversion, descriptive rendering to lyrical evocation, fact to metaphor, and from real to surreal with the ingenuity of a consummate craftsman and the alertness of a nimble thinker.

Bhajju Shyam

An apprentice of Jangarh Singh Shyam, well known Gond artist Bhajju Shyam has exhibited extensively in the Museum of London and on tour in the UK, Germany, Holland, Italy, and Russia. His books on illustrations have attained widespread popularity and sold more than 30,000 copies. They have also been translated into 4 languages. Bhajju’s intense visual imagery makes him one of the most popular contemporary Gond artists.

Bhupen Khakar

Bhupen Khakar was one of the pioneers of Indian contemporary art. He was a part of the Baroda group, a collective of artists from the Faculty of Fine Arts at Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda. His artwork was mostly figurative. Khakar was an openly gay man, and he tackled various gender identity themes through his artworks.

"Through the innumerable changes of oeuvres between those first collages and the present [1995] "confessionals"; through the various avatars as collagist, neo-miniaturist in the '60s, diarist of the demeaned in the '70s, painter of the narrative in the '80s, gay icon of the '90s; through all the aspersion, appreciation, rejection, acceptance, pannings, panegyrics, Khakhar… has remained unapologetic."

S. Mehra, ‘An Accountant of Alternate Reality,’ Outlook India, 13 December 1995.

Jivya Soma Mashe

Born in Maharasthra in 1934, Jivya Soma Mashe is one of the most widely recognised names of Warli art. His fame within the community reached the ears of eminent artist Bhaskar Kulkarni, who further refined his raw artistic talent. Jivya painted his beliefs, life, customs, and rituals in simple drawings that made him a legendary warli artist. His works today feature in major art collections and museums across the world.

S H Raza

S H Raza was famed Indian modern artist who popularised Indian iconography around the world. Syed Haider Raza was so fond of painting the the Bindu or the Shunya in various forms that is became the focal point of energy in his work. Raza once stated that “Bindu is a source of energy, source of life. Life begins here, attains infinity here.”

Passion - Life and Art of Raza

Raza worked mainly with a few primary colours, assembled and reassembled to simulate the passion and colours of his homeland. At the same time, he had realised the spiritual and metaphysical aspects of nature and began incorporating these principles in his works. In the late 1970s, the artist's focus turned to pure geometrical forms; his images were improvisations on an essential theme: that of the mapping out of a metaphorical space in the mind. Around this time, the Bindu—a motif that would become synonymous with Raza’s art— began emerging in his work. It was the result of his concern with “pure plastic order” combined with his preoccupation with nature. “Both have converged into a single point and became inseparable. The appearance of the Bindu as a single, meditative form marked Raza’s transition into pure geometric abstraction, the hallmark of his art in later years. In his long and illustrious career, Raza’s works have been a part of numerous exhibitions including the São Paulo Biennale in 1958; the Biennale de Menton in France in 1966; 1968 and in 1978; Contemporary Indian Painting at the Royal Academy, London in 1982; Roopankar Museum of Fine Arts, Bharat Bhavan, Bhopal; Jehangir Art Gallery, Mumbai; National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi in 1997; Celebrating 85 Years of Living Legend S H Raza, a travelling exhibition at Hong Kong, Singapore, Dubai, Mumbai, New Delhi organised by Aryan Art Gallery, and Raza – A Retrospective, Saffronart, New York in association with Berkeley Square Gallery in 2007; Paysage: Select Works 1950s-1970s, Sovereign FZE, Dubai in 2014; and Nirantar, Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi and Art Musings, Mumbai in 2016—to name a few. He was conferred the Padma Shri Award by the President of India in 1981 and the Padma Bhushan in 2007. Baua Devi

Baua Devi

Born to a Brahmin family in Bihar, Baua Devi spearheaded Madhubani painting. In 1966, noted crafts connoisseur Pupul Jaykar chose Baua Devi as one of the first artists from the Mithila region to transform traditional Maithili patterns onto white sheets of paper. Today, after attaining popularity and commercial success across the globe, Baua Devi is an inspiration to generations of Madhubani painters. Despite the modernisation in form and theme, she still prefers using natural colours in her works. The Government of India awarded her a Padma Shri for her contribution to Madhubani art.

Baua Devi was only a teenager in the Sixties when a Mumbai artist called Bhaskar Kulkarni came visiting her village, Jitwarpur. Encouraged by him, the women and girls of the community learned how to transfer their artistry from the walls to paper. Baua was part of a pioneering generation of Madhubani artists who would make that shift. Legends like Jagdamba Devi and Sita Devi would blaze ahead and bring great honour—not to mention, two Padma Shri awards—to Jitwarpur. Baua would go on to make her own distinctive mark upon the field. Baua Devi uses modern motifs and topical issues to make her canvases brim with urgency and life. But the colours are still largely made by hand so her paintings feel organic and earthy. There is a strong feminist perspective to Baua Devi’s work, whether she’s depicting the raw power of Kali’s roar (below) or articulating the interior life of the Nag Kanya, a creature with the head and torso of a woman and the lower body of a snake.

Tyeb Mehta

Tyeb Mehta’s Mahishasura is the artist’s impression of the immortal tale of the demon Mahishasura. Created by Mehtra after his visit to Shantiniketan, the painting fuses ancient imagery with simplicity of form, colour and line to give us a powerful modern work that exudes vitality. It was the first Indian painting to cross the million-dollar mark and sold for a mind-boggling $1.584 million at Christie’s in 2005.

In the year 1954, Tyeb Mehta went to London and stayed there till 1964. During his stay in London, he was deeply influenced by the works of Francis Bacon. Meanwhile, his first solo exhibition of drawings, paintings and sculptures was organized at the Jehangir Art Gallery, Bombay (now Mumbai) in the year 1959. After his stay in London, where he worked briefly, he visited New York where his works were welcomed with outstretched arms. In 1968, he was honoured with a fellowship from the John D. Rockefeller 3rd Fund as Americans simply loved his work. He then returned to India and started living in Delhi. He also worked as an Artist-in-Residence at Shantiniketan for about a year. When he returned to Mumbai, with all the knowledge that he had gained over the last few years, he was a much-improved painter, and his works reflected the same.

Throughout his illustrious career, Tyeb Mehta has come up with a host of impressive works. The most important ones are mentioned below:

Falling Figures – Created in the year 1991, this was inspired by his real-life incident when he witnessed a man being stoned to death by a mob. The incident took place during his stay at Lehri House in Mohammed Ali Road. The violence that broke out as part of the partition of 1947 had a deep impact on him.

Celebration – This was a triptych, a work of art which is usually divided into three parts. This particular work of his fetched a whopping $317,500 (Rs 15 million) at a Christie's auction. The auction which took place in the year 2002 became famous for the price paid for his work. Back then, it was the highest sum paid for an Indian art work at an international auction.

Santiniketan triptych series – During his stay at Santiniketan, he came up with a number of triptych paintings that were later collectively known as the Santiniketan triptych series.

Kali – At Saffronart's online auction, an Indian auction house, his depiction of Kali fetched an impressive 10 million Indian rupees.

Mahishasura – This was a controversial painting as he had depicted the demon Mahishasura in an embrace with Goddess Durga. But there were no controversies as far as its value was concerned as the painting sold for a massive $1.584 million at one of the auctions.

Gesture – In 2005, the chairman of Kuomi Travels Mr. Ranjit Malkani paid 31 million Indian rupees for Mehta’s work ‘Gesture’. This was the highest sum paid by any Indian for an Indian art at an auction held in India.

S L Haldankar

It is not very often that perpetual themes of everyday life fascinate so much and so many to render it iconic, even when manifested through the compelling fineries of art. It then indeed is a celebration of the artist’s perceptive abilities that make him the creator of such a work of art that holds everyone in awe in pure simplistic depiction on the face of it. One such highly regarded piece that is definitely among the most famous paintings in India is the ‘Glow of Hope’ by S L Haldankar. Also popularly known as the Lady with the Lamp, this is a portrait of a lady - Haldankar’s daughter to be precise- who holds a lamp that remains shielded by her hands even as the light emanating from it is enough illuminating of the vicinity.

Interestingly, Haldankar painted the picture with his muse indeed holding her pose for at least three hours straight even as the image conjured is also as real a vision- one that had enthralled the painter when he saw his daughter in such light one Diwali. Soft and subtle colors characterise this world-famous piece of art that dwells in a semblative approach even as the intelligent play of light and darkness render it further surreal even in its realistic depiction. There also is symbolism at play, that come to fore in tones that are far more subtle - or dare we say, insignificant. The saree clad woman is a definite epitome of beauty and feminity while the lavender saree symbolises grace and the gold therein and thereof perhaps an accurate foreteller of the continuing gleam of the charm embodied by the painting.

Kalam Patua

Kalam Patua is accredited as being one of the painters who single-handedly revived the dying tradition of Kalighat painting. Born into a family of Patuas, he learned the art form from his father and grandfather and followed their traditional style of painting. From an early age of 12 Kalam started to paint the Patachitras made by his father and grandfather. However, with the change of time and exposed to some ugly truth of society, Kalam decided to take the Kalighat style to another level by introducing contemporary themes by moving from the conventional mythological themes. Thus, in this move, he happened to be the first Kalighat painter to revive the traditional art form from its conventional Patachitra style towards a more contemporary subject, form and style. The changing times made him introduce contemporary themes and subjects, moving away from conventional mythological themes in Kalighat painting. Over his 40 years of practice and dedication, he established himself as a pioneer of contemporary Kalighat painters. Kalam Patua’s works are shown worldwide in different exhibitions and some are also possessed by museums abroad as their permanent collection.

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