Does the question of being Indian become more important if the person is living outside the country? I began to address this issue in my talks when travelling recently to Canada and the US. Here I discovered the expansion of an assertive spirit of nationalism among non-resident Indians—being Indian means declaring your Indian identity publicly.
Delhi Art Gallery (DAG) Modern in New York has opened a comprehensive exhibition focused on ‘Memory and Identity’. Assembling the work of 14 artists from India living in Europe and the US, this brings insightful perspectives to Indian identity. The emphasis of the artists is to recall India but not to reclaim it. Hence the emphasis as I see it in this show is on memory as identity.
These acclaimed artists in the exhibition include Zarina Hashmi in New York, Krishna Reddy and Viswanathan in Paris, Sohan Qadri in Copenhagen, F.N. Souza in London and New York, Raza in Paris, Ambadas and Eric Bowen both in Oslo. Among them, perhaps S.H. Raza has received the most recognition in India and in France. Not all of them received acclaim in their lifetime, including Ambadas and Sohan Qadri. Yet their work is carefully documented in a huge book catalogue more impressive than the exhibition itself.
What emerges from the exhibition is the nature of memory in images as their work is about mapping their identity by abstracting from memory. We may expect to find memories of specific places, villages, the Himalayas, India’s monuments, rivers, temples, mosques, dancers, figures and people. None of the artists resort to these metaphors of the Indian landscape—quoting M. F. Husain who also lived abroad sadly in self-exile for the last five years of his life, who is absent and used them.
None introduce the human figure, with the notable exception of F. N. Souza who introduces seated nudes as well as fiendish heads as his comment on the human condition. This absence is significant as Indian art, sculpture, dance valorise the figure.
Instead, most artists resort to abstract forms in geometry—the point, line, circle, square and triangle to recreate their memories of time and space. Memories may be inscribed by Zarina as the grid floor plans of her father’s House at Aligarh, or defined as geometric spaces in her series titled Home is a Foreign Place. My book titled Bindu and several other studies describe how 30 years later in Paris, Raza returned to reinventing the Bindu. He used the circle and triangle and diagonal to refer to the elements in nature of earth, water, air, fire, ether. In his large canvas of 1980 titled Maa, he installed the sacred geometry of the circle as his country, whom he addresses as ‘Mother’.
Several years before Raza’s rediscovery of the bindu, the ‘point’ was being used by Sohan Qadri who was initiated from age sixteen into Tantric practice. His training led him to conceive of Purusha-Prakriti in union, of the dot expanding into the infinity of the cosmos, as well as representing the nine points rising through the yogic body. Set against luminous colours of red and deep yellows or blue, these are mesmerising.
The circle, point, seed, the atom, the bindu—manifestations all of the same form. Remarkably, the circle as iconic and pure form appears in Raza, Sohan Qadri, Natwar Bhavsar, Avinash Chandra. They return us to Buddhist, Jain and Tantric yantras of the cosmos. Only Krishna Reddy breaks free from restraints of pure geometry in his viscosity prints, where the atom scattering into a hundred dimensions of particles. Yet he may title his work as Spider Web, as Insect, or Clown, perceiving the microcosm in the macrocosm. Perhaps the most innovative spirit for me is found in the works by Ambadas which explode with energy.
Viswanadhan’s compositions of triangles and squares in vivid green and vermillion reds resonate with the rhythms of India. He explicates his philosophy, defining the spirit of this show.
Painting is neither an object nor a resemblance. It is a non-object, an image that beholds the power, the presence. It does not represent, it does not reproduce. It exists. Nothing is less immaterial than a painting.