Sacramental Visions

Transits of a Wholetimer-From Sept 8 to October 6-At Gallery Escape, New Delhi

By Alka Raghuvanshi
Classical Indian arts are rightfully proud of their gharanas and will claim their ancestry however far removed and impossible to trace – like their lineage to Mian Tansen – to the point of desperation. Contemporary visual art suffers from the opposite problem. Artists spend their entire life trying to create styles and techniques that are peculiar to them and have no obvious connection or similarity to any other artist – living or dead. Even bigger is the problem of artists who have successful artists as parents. Odious as they might be, they all have to go through the angst of comparison and influences – vocalized or silent.
So when two of my absolute all-time favourite artists – father and son duo are Jagdish Swaminathan and his son S Harsha Vardhana go on show within a week of each other albeit in different galleries, it is a matter of personal joy and delight. While Harsha’s ongoing show Ideations: Colour, Form, Dimension and Space is the “result of a sustained visual dialogue with my media. The experience of creation of the works is distinct from that of a beholder,” Swamiji’s show opens later this week. 
 I suppose it is a given that father and son will have points of convergence – in this case both artists prefer to express themselves in abstract terms. Both gave up regular flourishing careers to do painting full time and achieved success in intellectual and material terms. Articulate and well read both self taught painters contextualize their art and placed it in self created niches. Both had the confidence to rebel. But this is exactly where the similarity ends. Their idiom, form and content different from each other to the point where there are virtually no attributable similarities.
“I often tell people – don’t look for the influence, or else you’ll miss the experience! I’m not making representations of my ideas. I am doing the reverse. Seeing a painting should be long drawn experience where it unfolds to you every time you look at it. I can listen to some music a hundred times and yet the next time I hear it, it still has something new to say to me. For it is me who is finding that newness in it. If it has one meaning, it must have a hundred meanings. This strange subtly where one must not perceive it in a particular way but see the layers within. Just putting a few blobs of paint doesn’t make an abstract painting,” says Harsha.
There is an air of almost yogic aloofness that marks his personality. Given his remarkable aptitude to assimilate refined, intangible thoughts and ideas at the multi micro level those are reflected in his multi-layered work. Well-read and knowledgeable, there is a childlike gentleness about him that contradicts the idiosyncratic artist label.
“As the child of a practicing artist I didn’t want to take up painting full time. My father never interfered and in fact I remember K G Subhramayam, the senior artist, even suggested that I should go to study at the Baroda school of art, but instead I went to BITS Pilani. All my father asked me was: Are you sure about it? In fact Mallikarjun Mansur, the musician, was in our house that day and he said: Jaane do isko. In fact my father and I were planning to do a joint show but he died before that. That is the only thing I feel bad about, that he didn’t live to see my first solo show,” Harsha says.
I recall with great fondness my long and frequent conversations with Swamiji as we used to call him before in passed away in 94. In fact just a couple of days before his death he had called me. I don’t recall the exact contents but that he was reassuring me about another senior artist back tracking after having made some controversial statements. Always supportive, one could always count on him to speak his mind. Rarely, if ever, would he hide behind anonymity. Easily one of the best read artists, he could look at himself with the same dispassionate ruthlessness with which he viewed others.
One of the most memorable anecdotes that he often talked about was the crystallization feather touch moment that marked his dramatic departure from the now defunct Link magazine: “Once in the middle of the afternoon, I got a sudden urge to drink beer. I took an auto rickshaw to Connaught Place to buy beer. After having imbibed some of the stuff, I took a taxi to come back. When the taxi stopped outside Link House, I looked at the decrepit office and the thought that flashed in my mind was: Main yahan kya kar raha hoon – What am I doing here? I decided that instant mujhe yahaan kaam nahin karna or this was no place for me. I never went back!”
His living room, which also served as his studio, was always strewn with stacks of wooden mounts and rolls of canvas. The distinct smell of turpentine and paint permeated every nook and cranny. And the paints, brushes and canvases will never be used again…or so I had thought. But several years after his death, his son S Harsha Vardhana gave up his job to paint full time and is now one of the most sought after artists. A classic case of history repeating itself.
“I suppose when you grow up in a situation when your father’s studio is an extended drawing room, you assume many things and almost take them as a given. I was into bio-medical engineering in diagnostics with sophisticated laser based technology for 11 years and when microscopic examination of a blood clot started resembling a Jackson Pollock painting, I knew this was the time to give up the rat race and take up painting full-time!” Harsha had said a few years ago.
I make no bones about my admiration for J Swaminathan for he was one person who had the vision to put Indian art in the global context. And I had waited with anticipation to see more of Swamiji’s work and glimpses from a period of his life in a show curated by S Kalidas, his son and arts writer. My greed to see his hitherto not seen work was immense but it saddened me to see how little was available. It reminded me of a conversation that I had with Swamiji years ago. In melancholic mood he recounted how artists of that generation had no money to buy new canvas’.
 “Till as late as the ‘60s, very few paintings were sold in exhibitions. We would lug them right back and paint on top of them for next year’s show,” he recalled matter-of-factly. As a result, number of his paintings, which could serve as an important link in his work, have been lost. And now, some of his paintings bought for a couple of hundred rupees, and dumped over the years, have been retrieved and restored for lakhs. The fact that his work has stood the test of time is evident, for whenever his work comes up for sale at auctions, it is immediately lapped up. He had the distinction of having consistently exhibited for 32 years in Delhi, barring a year or so in between.
In the mid-60s Swaminathan’s work explored the colour geometry of space, which was an exact about turn from what he had been doing earlier. “I started exploring space with a series based on the Pahari miniatures and tried to understand space through them. Leaving out the figurative and narrative aspect, I juxtaposed geometric patterns in relation to colours. Then began the phase which lasted from the late ‘60s to the early ‘80s, of playing around with cognizable elements like birds and mountains.” The show is on at Gallery Espace.
Dr Alka Raghuvanshi is an art writer, curator and artist and can be contacted 

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