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Bhanu's ode to the Progressive Artists' Group

Bombay, May 2010 - "I was exposed to paintings from a very young age. My father was a self-taught artist who sometimes painted in oils by studying the old European masters and sometimes following his own inspiration. In his studio, he had many books on paintings of European masters like Leonardo Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Turner, Gainsboro, Constable, and others. I enjoyed looking at these books just as I enjoyed washing my father's brushes and pallet.

My father passed away when I was 10 years old. However, my education in art and passion for it had already begun.

Kolhapur was a princely state and the visual and performing arts flourished there in a big way. Abalal Rehman, who was the first person from Kolhapur to go to Bombay to study art at the Sir JJ School of Art, had won many awards. One of Abalal' s paintings of a woman going to the temple painted in the realistic manner was a prized possession in my father's personal collection and I admired it frequently. Artist Dhurandhar' s paintings were displayed at the Kolhapur Palace. It was a common sight to see artists with their easels propped up and painting at the scenic spots like the Mahalakshmi Temple, around Rankala Lake, and on the banks of the Panchganga River. 

All this caused a deep impression on me and I took to drawing at a young age.

"At the high school annual exhibition, I won three awards for my paintings on a flower study, a glass painting, and a sketch of a young girl with a deer, the latter that was inspired by a Grecian style sculpture. Of this, I did a pencil sketch in a realistic manner. This prompted my teacher to take me to Sir JJ School of Arts to study art."

Simultaneously, I landed a part-time job as a Fashion Illustrator for the women's magazine Eve's Weekly. In my graduating year at Sir JJ, I won the gold medal and a fellowship to study mural painting. By this time, changes were happening in the art world all around Bombay. Amrita Sher-Gil was a much talked about artist among the young painters in those days. I myself was very impressed with her pioneering style of art.

Although she had her education in the European academic style of painting while she was in Paris, she came back and re-discovered her own idiom in art. This inspired me a great deal. So much so that in my final year my paintings had that idea and thinking and it was noticed by all and much talked about. It would take eight days for us to prepare our final year assignments; we would do it in open studio style and many class fellows noticed my work and word traveled to the PAG members. So, when I won the gold medal they contacted me to come and be a part of their group and exhibit with them.

 Now, in the JJ school curriculum, I studied in the European and British academic style of painting. Along with that, I was also learning miniature style with Prof Ahiwasi. Those days the academic studies consisted of sketching live models to get a grip on the human anatomy. Students were also asked to paint color portraits of models. All these studies borrowed from the west. The only authentic Indian art was the study of miniature paintings and adapting that style of composition to contemporary paintings.

Outside the school, many changes were happening which we found exciting. Artists were breaking away from the European academic style and were being influenced by abstract, modem as well as new Indian art which was being taken up everywhere.

"I, along with other upcoming artists such as MF Husain, Kishen Khanna, Raza, Ara, Souza, Gade, and others would meet and hear talks and accounts of the changing scene in art from other parts of the world."

Foreigners like Rudy Von Leyden and Sleshinger and some others including a European painter who worked for the Times of India would bring these new radical ideas to us.

We would often meet at social get-togethers at Mulk Raj Anand's place in Colaba where we used to meet the likes of Ibrahim Alkazi and discuss the latest trends and happenings in the world of art. I distinctly remember many discussions about a painting by Alkazi, that of Christ. On one Holi occasion, members of the PAG painted on a huge canvas their ideas to celebrate Holi. We also had annual exhibitions of paintings by the members of the Progressive Artist Group held at the Artists' Centre in Kala Ghoda, which had exhibited two of my paintings.

Soon, I faced a dilemma where I had to choose between painting full time or designing costumes for cinema. Both were serious pursuits of creativity, even though some of my peers may not have seen it that way. 

"One cannot explain in clear terms, but the pull to be involved in cinema was far stronger and I finally gave in to it. Perhaps it was my early exposure to the wonderment of cinema in Kolhapur, watching cinema pioneers like Baburao Painter and my father in front of my eyes; watching Hollywood classics like Greta Garbo's Queen Christina, Charlie Chaplin films, and even Walt Disney's films such as Fantasia all had an influence on me."

 While cinema had a deep impact on me, it by no means discounts my work and education in the art field. Cinema was a new emerging form of creativity that was not commercial in those days. I was able to carry my art into cinema and more importantly, treated cinema as a high form of creativity and art. "

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