The recently concluded Sailoz Mookherjea exhibition in New Delhi threw up several questions. The show, “Revisiting Sailoz Mookherjea”, organised by Mohit Jain, owner-director of Dhoomimal Art Centre, hoped there would be more than some octogenarians to see it, including the few surviving students of the artist who passed away in 1960. Yes, there were many young and middle-aged visitors who knew nothing about Sailoz but went away amply rewarded.

The exhibition had works from the last decade of his life, including pen and ink drawings for the Delhi edition of The Statesman depicting certain aspects of daily life in the city and to celebrate the man-in-the-street. Activities on the steps of Jama Masjid, old Delhi, sugarcane juice vendors at work, labourers tarring the road in Connaught Circus; these drawings put him in the swim of things, making him a socially engaged artist.

Sailoz’s work was about the everyday aspects of the rural India of his times as well as urban Delhi where he came to settle before the end of World War II. His work, “realistic” in the beginning, gradually moved towards a more abstract version of reality and culminated in a rage of brush-strokes and scratches towards the end of his life.

His work was recognisably Indian in character and international in spirit and in his lifetime he was hugely popular. Thanks to air travel and new routes over land and sea, people could travel and acquaint themselves with cultures and civilisations other than their own. Sailoz, who went to Europe in the early 1930s was the first Indian artist to benefit from the exposure to European art and culture. His work, though, was accessible only to the educated urban middle and upper classes, as art and the finer things in life were (unjustly) their exclusive privilege.

Art in Delhi of the 1950s was the preserve of the diplomatic corps posted in the city. There were not many Indian lovers of contemporary art with deep enough pockets to appreciate and buy works by modern artists. Sailoz became a great favourite of diplomats, particularly from France, England and the United States, who saw something distinctly Indian, in addition to a modernist sensibility, at work. Dhoomimal Dharamdas had the only art gallery in Delhi, in Connaught Place, the cultural hub of the capital of a newly independent India.

In Sailoz’s time, the art school—it was called Delhi Polytechnic—was a new phenomenon. Starry-eyed art students were seeking formal instruction in the vague hope of creating beauty, being appreciated for their efforts and possibly earning a living whether by selling these works, or from teaching; the latter being a remote possibility as teaching jobs in art schools, or even in the art departments of just plain schools, were scarce and badly paid.

The government, following the example of other foreign counterparts, commissioned sculptures and murals dealing with the freedom struggle, for example, the group sculpture behind Rashtrapati Bhavan done in the “British” naturalistic mode with considerable skill by Debi Prasad Roy Choudhury. Its location—unusual for a public art work—has not attracted the gaze of too many people over the years.

In contrast, the massive twin sculptures by Ramkinkar Baij of the Yaksha and Yakshi outside the Reserve Bank of India on Parliament Street, New Delhi are seen, mostly in passing, by thousands of people, and possibly appreciated by a few. Ramkinkar was the first dynamic, modern sculptor to work on public commissions with notable artistic success in India—he was, however, not happy with the Yaksha-Yakshi sculptures, which he thought needed a bit more work before installation. He couldn’t have his way, though, as both time and money had run out as had the patience of the generous government led by Jawaharlal Nehru.

Ramkinkar was more than equal to the task of creating large, even monumental public sculptures. “Mill Call”, for example, in Shantiniketan, where he worked in the art department at Kala Bhawan, is a huge masterpiece of a Santhal family, on hearing the early morning siren, going to work in a (rice) mill, possibly located nearby. Made with cement and stone chips, its poetic intensity has been admired by many over the years.

The depth of emotion in “Mill Call” displayed in a public space in the campus of Vishwabharati University in Shantiniketan, is matched by another sculpture, “Santhal Family”, also displayed in an open space in Vishwabharati. Ramkinkar did a tall, controversial sculpture of Mahatma Gandhi in Guwahati, Assam, in which he is seen as stepping on human skulls. It is displayed in a public garden in the city. What response it evokes in viewers has not been properly analysed over the years, though individual responses range from outrage to mirth.

Binode Behari Mukherjee, also from Kala Bhavan, Shantiniketan and a master like his colleague Ramkinkar did two frescoes that immortalised him. The first was on the lives of medieval saints from the Bhakti period on the northern wall of Hindi Bhavan on the campus and the second in Cheena Bhavan. Binode Behari was a man of wide reading, and an exquisite artistic sensibility, capable of absorbing such diverse influences as Giotto (Italian) to Tawarya, Sotatsu (Japanese), the frescoes of Ajanta, the sculptures of Mamallapuram (both ancient), Mughal and Rajput miniature painting as well as cubist techniques (multi perspective and faceting of planes) from early 20th century France.  

It is difficult to assess the impact of his “public art” on lay viewers although it continues to hold the cognoscenti in sway. The condition of his frescoes in Shantiniketan, to put it mildly, is not good. What the Vishwabharati University administration is doing to address the issue is anyone’s guess. The government of India ought to treat the Binod Behari frescoes, indeed all his work, as a national treasure, in practice not just theory.

Art appreciation in India is the exclusive preserve of the well-heeled, educated upper class, hence upper castes. In a country where economic disparity is so large between the privileged minority and the overwhelming majority struggling to survive, it is a luxury even to think of art, leave alone practise it.

Art appreciation in India is the exclusive preserve of the well-heeled, educated upper class, hence upper castes. In a country where economic disparity is so large between the privileged minority and the overwhelming majority struggling to survive, it is a luxury even to think of art, leave alone practise it. Ironically, India’s most successful contemporary artist Maqbool Fida Husain came from a humble background and struggled long and hard in the years of apprenticeship painting large cinema banners well into middle-age when he finally got noticed and fame and fortune came and stayed till he died at 94, in 2010, in exile.

Sailoz Mukherjea. Photo: Special arrangement.

His contemporaries S.H. Raza, V.S. Gaitonde, Francis Newton Souza who also sold at very high prices in the international market, came from the middle-class. Therein lay the advantage of upward mobility, though Souza, and more so Gaitonde, were wary of being lionised; Souza with a fine sense of irony—he made and lost a lot of money, and Gaitonde, distrustful of accolades by the glitterati with fat bank accounts. He died in obscurity in 2001. Now his paintings sell for millions abroad.

To come back to the original question what purpose or to be more accurate, public purpose did their art serve?  A precise answer would be that a microscopic number of Indians have seen their work or got any pleasure out of it, despite their obvious interest. Art in India is a luxury. Sometimes, however, it can have enormous public influence.

At the turn of the 20th century and into the first two decades a prince from the kingdom of Travancore revealed a talent for drawing and painting in the prevalent style of European academic painting; his name was Ravi Varma. He painted for his own pleasure and did coloured oleographs with the printing press he had bought for the purpose. He became, willy-nilly, the father of “calendar art” in India. He printed figures from Hindu mythology which were reproduced in the thousands, and eventually lakhs of calendars that hung in (Hindu) households all over India. It has shaped the way we see our deities to a degree that we probably don’t realise.

The notions of God, nationhood and, subliminally, selfhood, were born in British India in the 20th century and may well have inspired “upholders” of the faith—which at that point was nebulous—into thinking of India as the land of the faithful—of a people wedded to a peculiar kind of Hinduism (itself a term coined by the British) hostile to the practitioners of all other faiths, especially Islam.

Ravi Varma’s imagery of Hindu mythology and its important figures was turned on its head as other printing presses became available to do coloured calendars on a large scale. Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, iconic figure of the militant Hindu Right, is said to have rallied the Maharashtrian Brahmins in particular, to slowly but surely paralyse the Muslim” enemy who had “occupied” India nearly a thousand years ago. He was aided and abetted by the Hindu bania businessman, and the Rajput warrior class that had a long standing grievance against the erstwhile Muslim rulers of India.

The visual stimulus was provided by a clever reworking of Ravi Varma’s image base to give a decidedly communal slant, including calendars of Rana Pratap and his legendary horse Chetak, symbols of vaour and defiance against Mughal tyranny. There were also calendars depicting the Prithviraj (Chauhan) and Samyukta romance, and others that hailed his heroic fight against the invader Mohammad Ghori.

The visual stimulus was provided by a clever reworking of Ravi Varma’s image base to give a decidedly communal slant, including calendars of Rana Pratap and his legendary horse Chetak, symbols of vaour and defiance against Mughal tyranny. There were also calendars depicting the Prithviraj (Chauhan) and Samyukta romance, and others that hailed his heroic fight against the invader Mohammad Ghori. Of course, it is conveniently forgotten that their dalliance aroused the ire of Jaichand, Prithviraj’s father-in-law, who sought the help of Mohammad Ghori to fix the man who had eloped with his daughter. A political move against an adversary was cleverly turned into another occasion to rouse nativist passions.

Indeed, Jaichand is today regarded as a traitor rather than the ruler of an independent state with a legitimate grievance. The public impact of such art is hard to quantify but the purpose is clear. Today’s “Us” and “Them” politics was probably helped along by images such as these on the walls of almost every middle-class Hindu household in northern and western India in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. They continue to serve that function even in 2018.

Another, more secular kind of calendar that was influential from the 1930s to the early 1980s came with images of Bhagat Singh, Raj Guru, Sukhdev, and Chandra Shekhar Azad, all of whom died a martyr’s death in a vastly unequal armed struggle against the British. There were variations on this theme that had Subhas Chandra Bose, founder of the Indian National Army, after resigning from the presidency of the Indian National Congress over irreconcilable differences with Gandhi, the ruling deity, along with Bhagat Singh and his contemporaries. Bose’s “Dilli Chalo” image also appeared by itself in calendars. Then there were calendars of Gandhi, Nehru, Bose and, as a variation, Maulana Azad. But it is difficult to remember an image of the Dalit icon B.R. Ambedkar, either with other important Congress leaders or by himself. Politics in India was controlled then as now, by the upper castes who enjoyed the fruits of power that grew out of it.

In the early 1950s Shilpi Chakra, a group of artists led by Bhabesh Sanyal in Delhi, came out with a novel idea to popularise art among the educated middle-class. They sold paintings at affordable prices, and had a scheme for selling by instalment, even one for hiring paintings by the month. The idea petered out after a while. Unlike now, when the privileged classes have money to spare, there was not that much available to the middle-class. The rich mostly regarded art as an idler’s pastime.

It was with the coming of foreign art houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s, and the penchant of the non-resident of considerable means for contemporary Indian art that interest has been awakened, and how! Indian art auctions, particularly those conducted by Neville Tuli, an England–born Indian were hugely successful, and for the first time, fetched really high prices. Other auction houses proliferated and did well for a decade or more till the financial recession. Then there was a slump.

Did public awareness about art increase through these events? No, not particularly. The Internet was/is used aggressively to promote a particular artist or group of artists representing a common commercial interest. The “common man” represented by the relatively educated lower middle-class hardly gets a chance in the small towns or in cities other than metropolises like Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore.

There are exceptions, however. Ashok Bajpai, IAS officer, well-known Hindi writer and poet did something unprecedented while serving in Madhya Pradesh. He set up Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal, a unique institution, in his capacity as director of the Raza Foundation, with the corpus left by S.H. Raza (who got fame and fortune in old age).  

In collaboration with the painter J. Swaminathan he set up the Tribal Arts Museum, which inspired local artists to paint, sculpt and draw. It also led to the discovery of Jangarh Singh Shyam, a gifted tribal artist who killed himself in Japan when still in his thirties.

Bharat Bhavan, apart from helping young talent from Madhya Pradesh in the visual arts also served as a cultural hub in northern India. Hindustan musicians like Kumar Gandharva, Mallikarjun Mansoor and many others came to sing here, as did the Gundecha brothers, exponents of Dhrupad. Theatre personalities like B.V. Karanth and Habib Tanvir and writers from all over India came over to read from their work. In short Bharat Bhavan helped to inspire and educate not just visual artists but practitioners of the other arts as well. Need one add it became popular with local population, which was exposed for the first time to the arts.

Tourists flock to Badami, Aihole, Hampi and Pattadakkal in Karnataka to see the remains of monuments with figures from the Hindu pantheon along with the royal patrons who commissioned sculptors to find a via-media between Heaven and Earth with their mastery of craft and magnificent yet self-effacing heart. Who were these artists? To which caste did they belong? Were they allowed on completion of their task to see their achievements and access their true quality? There is no telling, but one fact is unassailable. It was the Brahmin-Kshatriya-Vaishya nexus that held the reins of economic power and the lower orders were their slaves, to be exploited and shunned at the same time. Has the situation changed all that much in 21st century?

Toilet in the woods. Oil on paper by Sailoz. Photo: Special arrangement

The Constitution guarantees equal rights to all citizens, regardless of caste or religion but it is violated every day, with Muslims and Dalits the favourite targets. What about art, then? M.F. Husain and S.H Raza found fame and fortune in independent India, so how can be it be assumed that Muslims artists have been discriminated against?

Husain’s persecution on specious charges led to his exile from India. His paintings of Hindu deities in the nude inspired religious extremists to slap hundreds of cases in courts across the country, on the ground of hurt sentiment. The Supreme Court rejected all the cases in a landmark judgement in 2008 but the government failed to stand by him. He was still forced to leave the country and die an exile. Did they succeed in destroying him? Of course not! He became much more successful abroad.

Raza never was a figurative painter like Husain. He took the path of abstraction upon discovering a richly illustrated manuscript of Jain cosmology in Paris, courtesy (the late) Ravi Jain. Raza’s discovery of what he called the ‘Bindu’ and subsequent progress from there led to huge commercial success in the international market. The buyers were probably very rich NRIs, subliminally influenced by the trends in abstraction in western art that began with the Russian master Kazimir Malevich a century ago.

Success came very late in life to Raza. The old, childless widower left his money to a foundation to encourage practitioners in all the arts. Unlike the magnetic, sexually attractive (even in old age) Husain, Raza, looked like an amiable grandfatherly professor.

Why should a piece that began with Sailoz take such a circuitous route to try and explain the nature of public appreciation of the visual arts in india and the efforts of the state to bring it to the people? It is important to establish the social context in which art is produced in a given country.

In medieval Europe, and late into the 18th century, it was patronised by royalty and the aristocracy. Considered by many to be acme of renaissance art, the Sistine Chapel in Rome was commissioned by the Pope. Michelangelo, who did this fresco on Biblical themes immortalised himself. But Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, a portrait of a woman with an enigmatic smile was commissioned by her aristocratic husband. The Church, the aristocracy and the merchant class formed a phalanx of political power and artistic patronage in Italy and elsewhere in Europe, from the 15th to the late 18th century, till the French revolution in 1789. That is when the nature of artistic patronage began to change in the continent. What about India?

Patronage vested in royalty and the landed aristocracy well into British times. The opening of British-style art schools in late 19th century Calcutta, Bombay and later Madras, introduced a new element, “decadent” English art. The great age of public art in the form of temple sculpture was over by then and miniature painting with Indian themes and motifs too was gasping for breath for lack of patronage. European (British) style portraiture, with a smattering of interiors and landscapes was all that was taught in the government-run art institutions. Abanindranath Tagore of the Tagore family learnt western art in Calcutta and also traditional Indian painting. He became principal of the Calcutta Art School in 1905 and stayed there for the next five years. He wanted Indian artists to learn from the past in their own tradition and integrate it into their work to produce a new art that was vital.

Two students from the Government Art College in Calcutta in the late 1920s, Bhabesh Sanyal and Sailoz distinguished themselves in later life, having integrated into their own work the best from the West and their own tradition. Abanindranath, a master in his own right was more successful in implementing his ideas at Shantiniketan set up by his cousin Rabindranath where the art department at Kala Bhavan under Nandlal Bose, produced Binode Behari Muherjee (a Brahmin) and Ramkinkar (barber community). Both were startlingly original. Ramkinkar could only have flourished in Shantiniketan, as Rabindranath (1861-1941) a Brahmo Samajist believed in the merit of the individual rather than in his caste or religion. In the post-Tagore era, particularly in the late 1950s, Ramkinkar was harassed and humiliated by the administration in Shantiniketan.

The only monumental sculptural work he did then was the Yaksha-Yakshi duo for the RBI in Delhi, thanks to Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi.

Creating art in and for public spaces was an initiative of the Congress government in the 1950s onwards. The idea was to make the lay public aware of contemporary art. How successful this effort has been remains to be seen. The recently deceased Nagji Patel created monumental sculptures of enduring value that grace public spaces. The Banyan Tree at Jodhpur, and another massive sculpture, also in stone in Udaipur, are but two examples. He created beauty in sandstone and granite in several places. How many people have seen them, and how many with discerning eyes have enjoyed their aesthetic pleasures is a moot point.

Art in public spaces in Europe and America is a reality. The people, not necessarily of the middle and upper class are far better educated and informed than their counterparts in India. There is no deliberate attempt at mystification or indeed at depriving an individual of his basic rights as in India because he/she may have different (religious) beliefs or dietary habits, or skin colour.

To come back full circle, the Sailoz Mookherjea, mini exhibition in his memory, came as an eye-opener. His work, sensitive and sophisticated, was completely Indian. His commitment to the ordinary Indian was unwavering, he immortalised them in his art. But how many people have seen his work and recognised its enduring merit? Is it not because art and its appreciation in India are available only to a privileged few?