Akhilesh witnessed Husain, Raza & Swaminathan, and shines on his own

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Noted painter Akhilesh comes from Madhya Pradesh and his works are admired internationally. He has prolifically written original books and also translated many books in Hindi. He is one of the rare artists who had the good fortune of being associated with the three great masters of Indian art; J Swaminathan, Maqbool Fida Husain and Saiyad Haider Raza. He is a mentor of many emerging artists today and keenly follows their journeys from a close perspective. This is an English excerpt of an hour-long, unwinding conversation Abir Pothi had with Akhilesh.  You can watch the interview here and also read excerpts of his book on Raza here.

How did you negotiate the last two Covid years? How did that influence your practice?

It was perhaps for the first time in human society that one had to compulsorily shut themselves inside the house. We are social beings and mental stress was clearly evident. I used to be in touch with many artists over the phone during this period. I felt that if one did not get intimidated by loneliness, that period could be used for creativity. I divided my day into two halves; in the morning half I would concentrate on reading and writing work and in the second half, I would work in my studio. During this time, I worked on four books. One was a biography on J Swaminathan, the second was ‘Raza Jaisa Meine Dekha,’ on S H Raza through my eyes. I also worked on a compilation of long-form interviews of Swaminathan and translated three of his interviews. Next, I worked on a project called ‘Bacchon Ke Liye Chitrakala (Art for Children)’ where the idea is to select 50 great works of Indian painters and introduce the artists as well as their works to children to spark an artistic creativity in them. These books will be published soon. I also read a fascinating little book by Freud on Leonardo da Vinci and started translating the same in Hindi. So, my morning hours were occupied amid these books, reading and writing. My evening hours, I reserved for painting. I noticed that a lot of sketchbooks were empty and started filling them. I kept myself completely occupied in these two years and did not let my discipline stray. My studio is full of paintings and sketches as a result of these two years. 

How did Corona affect your way of looking at art or at life? Or, is it just that your routine changed?

Only my routine has changed because I feel these kinds of viruses may affect life, but cannot affect art, because the existence of art remains untouched by any virus or external happening. I did not want to indulge in the reporting of the virus with my art; the virus is linked with the body, the sense of art is linked to the heart. For me, it is not a creativistic response.

No, for example whenever such challenges come, like the World War in Japan, or how Dali’s paintings have been inspired by the war… Now that we are getting out of the tunnel and returning to light where exhibitions are being held again, how do you see this move ahead?

Humankind has an amazing gift of adaptation and it is such that we even forget what we have gone through. This time of forced solitude had made things difficult. People were fed up. Some were able to deal with it, some were not. 

You have had a fascinating journey. Tell us about it. 

It is only during conversations such as these when I look back at my life. One does not try to go back to what one has already done or has been through and try to recreate the same. The nature of art is futuristic, it looks at the future and is woven in imagination; it is inspired less from memories. I have always felt that the futuristic nature of art is its strength. It cannot be woven into words. In my journey, I was fortunate to meet people who were very fond of me and who showed the right directions at right time or even outrightly pointed me to certain directions. For example, I find myself most fortunate to have met my teacher Chandresh Saxena; to find a teacher like him is difficult. I always feel grateful that I got to study with Saxena sir and Ramnarayan Dubey ji. Saxena sir had studied at Shanti Niketan under Nandalal Bose and then at JJ School of Art. So he was a student of Ahivasi sir and Professor Langhemur as well and had a deep understanding of Western and Eastern arts. He could explain the two forms in a very simple manner. He never encouraged us to compare the two but encouraged us to find the beauty of both these forms. I will share a very interesting anecdote on how he inspired us to concentrate on artworks. At that time, a new book of Husain’s work was published and he held a function in the college to celebrate the book. He showed us each page of the book, including his famous painting called Between Spider and the Lamp. Next day, he called a few of us and showed us Between Spider and the Lamp and said that a fine inscription made by Husain has a swear word. We were so intrigued with that claim that we kept looking at the image with great attention. In a few days, we completely forgot we were looking for a word but absorbed the detail of the painting completely. So much so that much later I wrote an article on this work and compared how just as Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon had five women, Husain’s painting also had five. Husain differed with my observation and he said my painting had only four but I insisted. Then he found a catalogue with great effort and verified that in his painting he indeed had five women. And it is in this way that Saxena sir encouraged us to go deeper into the prominent works of the time. Then when I came to Bhopal I got associated with Swaminathan and I realized that Swaminathan was such a complex personality; on the one hand he was a great intellectual and on the other he was an extremely simple man. I learnt a lot of things from him. Whenever we would display, Swami would start explaining the works, the artists. At the time I did not know of many emerging artists of the time such as Manjit Bawa, Jogen Chaudhary, Prabhakar Kolke, Bikash Bhattacharya, Amitav Das. Swami would talk about them and their works and I cultivated a point of view of how to appreciate works and truly get into their intricacies. 

You also had a great association with Raza saab. But before that let us talk about your time with MF Husain. You spent a long time with him, within India and abroad. He was also from Indore, your hometown. I feel Indore also must have played a big role.

In this, my father played a big role. He was also a painter and he had no bias (about different schools of art). I used to see in my childhood that Vishnu Chinchalkar and DJ Joshi used to come to our house and they were famously at loggerheads. So sometimes they even used to end up in fights which my father tried to mediate between them. It is not only artists, we had a lot of musicians coming to the house and having performances. Even poets and poetry recitations. And my father was the central figure in all this. He was a good friend of MF Husain who used to stay right behind our house. At the time, three children grew up together in the neighbourhood — one was Wahid Bhai, a photographer, Husain, and my father.  Since they were involved in photography and art, they had frequent interactions. The first memory I have of Husain is that he used to come to our house at six in the morning with a basket full of jalebis and us sitting around and eating them. He was like a family member and he would even call us and reprimand us as and when. 

Another thing I didn’t know was that S H Raza was one year junior to my father at J J. My father never told me. In those days students had to go to Bombay to take exams at the JJ School of Art for which they had to stay there for four months. So there were three applicants to the program from Madhya Pradesh — Chandresh Saxena from Ujjain, my father from Indore, and Raza from Nagpur. Since they were all from Madhya Pradesh, they took a room together and during the breaks in between they used to go outdoors together for landscapes. But my father did not tell me about it even when I asked him to invite SH Raza to our house. “You call him,” he said and I got to know when Raza came to our house and he pointed to a cot and said, “This is where I used to sleep.” 

Similarly, Kishore Kumar was a very good friend of my father. They were classmates at Christian College. We used to have an old harmonium and Kishore Kumar used to come to the house after college and sing, people would gather outside our house to listen. But he never told us and I got to know about it through his common friends Mr. Tiwari and Dr. Dulichand. He encouraged me to make my own connections independently if I wanted to make those.

I think that would have been an entry point when you were studying under Chandreshji. After that developing the bond of a friend, guide and philosopher would be a different thing altogether. I feel there would rarely be such fortunate people like you who got three eminent people as their guru.

I believe they were very refined and wise people. While working with Swami I never thought that I was a subordinate, I always approached the relationship as that of an artist interacting with an artist. I had the same equation with Husain and Raza. And because of this they used to clearly understand that I do not seek to simply please them or get something from them but rather seek a genuine relationship. I was not into sycophancy. Instead I had a chance to argue with them and they provided a space for that. For example Husain was a great fan of FN Souza and he used to show me his works with great admiration. I used to always tell him that I believed Souza had no contribution to art. He used to argue on this point and recommend that I see his works done in the 50s. Of course, he knew I would have seen those works without which I would not make a point but what is important is that he gave space for discussion. The same prevailed with Raza and Swami. There was no sycophancy involved.

When you see the three of them, all of different characters, Husain who is greatly impacted by Mumbai and influences Mumbai, too, Raza who comes from a tribal area and goes worldwide, and Swaminathan with whom you have interacted extensively at Bharat Bhavan — tell us about your learning from them. 

Swaminathan was a very thoughtful person. I believe if we are to look at those who have intellectually intervened in the art world, then it is just three people — Swaminathan, Akbar Padamsee, and KG Subramaniam.  Swami’s intellect was not limited to himself, it reached out to tribal artists as well and he worked to give them a platform. He had a deep understanding of art and at no time did he succumb to the pressure of the Western art world. Yet, at the same time he celebrated the intricacies of Western art. He knew Picasso was a monumental figure at the time and would often quote him even though he was more drawn to Paul Klee’s work. Staying with him one’s vision expanded, not only on the tribal level but about contemporary arts and then on a global platform. On the other hand, I noticed that Raza had a deep understanding of colours. The way he used colours was not an easy task. I learnt for the first time, with him, that colour is an element of art and not just a medium. 

With Husain saab, there was a constant learning curve and he was such a personality who was involved in several media at several places at the same time. For example, at one point he was simultaneously working at four museums in four different studios on Arab civilization, Indian civilization, history of Indian cinema, and on horses. In addition he was also working in London, Italy, and wherever he was. At the same time, he was a very caring person. 

He had a deep connection with young artists and he was aware of the state of the Indian art scene that he on his own strived to build and bring up the stature of Indian art in the world. I got to know this through an anecdote shared by Tyeb Mehta. Mehta told me that when the first auction was organized (in 1985), their paintings were sold in the range of Rs. 30,000. Husain came up to him and said that at the next auction, he was pricing his painting at 5 lakh. At this, Mehta apparently made a lot of fun of him and told him not to do it because it would backfire. The painting sold for Rs 10 lakh at the auction. And this brought up the selling price of paintings of all artists. Next, when he told Tyeb he is going to price his painting at Rs. 1 crore, Tyeb laughed and readily gave him a go-ahead, calling him a think tank. 

On the other hand, Husain was a very simple, approachable person. He called me one day, and asked me to meet him in London the next day. I told him it takes a visa to go to London and that takes time. So he asked me how much time it will take and I said 10 days. He said, alright we meet in 10 days then, and cut the call. He used to always do this; make a call and invite me over to Patna, or Delhi for Holi, or say we will watch a play, and so on. And you cannot tell Husain saab that you are busy because there was no one in India busier than him! So it is obvious I used to leave everything, take leave from Bharat Bhavan and go. When I reached his London studio at 6 am, I saw he was painting. I sat with him and then he quietly left me there and went inside and did not return for a long time. Now Husain saab was famous for leaving meetings quietly and I began wondering if he had left me by slipping away from some back door. So I got up and went inside to see he was making breakfast and tea for me. He did not let me help him. “And there is some Indori sev too!” he said, pulling out a packet from a cupboard. No one can imagine that at another level he was such a simple man without any aura. For example, Raza was amazed that one could get eggs in Paris at 7 am. So these people were like that, so engrossed in their work, without any inkling of the material world but also very caring at the same time.

You have worked with Bharat Bhavan for a long time. It is a different thing when an artist works in solitude. But when one goes into the direction of bringing out the evolution of the art world, that requires a different vision and collaboration that Swaminathan must be indulging in when he was looking for new artists and giving them a platform. You have been a witness as well as a collaborator in that process. Share that experience with us. 

Bharat Bhavan was a unique experiment, perhaps in the world, where all art could be viewed under one roof that included theatre, music, dance, paintings, films, even poetry. It was a very encouraging and creative atmosphere. After that, I do not think anyone has replicated this kind of an institution anywhere. We have specialized museums, for example the tribal museum will be different than the urban museum or that this space would be for dance and that would be photography. It is this kind of separation that prevailed upon and amid all this Bharat Bhavan was the first institution in the world that brought varied mediums on one platform. The attempt to bring the diversity and the inherent nature of these forms on one platform was successfully executed by Mr. Ashok Vajpayi. It is because of him that these people could come there. It was also possible because no other states had a Cultural Secretary such as Mr. Vajpayi. It was difficult to find a personality who had the capability to understand different art forms with equal ease. Another reason (for its success) was that artists from all over India were supporting the cause. So when I came to Bharat Bhavan I saw that John Martin was directing a play at three different venues in three parts. Or we had Bansi Kaul, Shyamalan Jalan, Badal Circar, KN Panicker performing. On the other hand we would have Mallikarjun Mansur and a week-long festival with Bhimsen Joshi, Kumar Gandharva, Ravi Shankar opening the biennale, a week-long festival with Samsher Bahadur Singh, Kavita Bharti, World Poetry Festival… This kind of an atmosphere was to be seen for the first time in the world at Bharat Bhavan, after that no one has even taken the risk to establish such an institution. It was a beautiful place where we all learnt a lot. 

The connection that was built with tribal arts and to develop an affinity to see and understand it in such a way that these too are our country’s citizens and their art is just as contemporary and the distinction between tribal and urban art ended at Bharat Bhavan. Swaminathan carried out this feat with great ease. He had a vision to reinstate the honour that they had not gotten for years. While working with tribal artists I realized that they have been deceived for so long and on so many occasions that they do not pay attention to what an urban person is saying even if it is in their interest. I also noticed that a lot of specialists from Harvard or Cambridge or from all over the world were quite visually illiterate. At the same time if a tribal artist stood in front of a work with a group of friends, they never faced any difficulty in appreciating a piece of art on their own. This was because the tribal artists believed in their process of seeing while the educated people have forgotten this act of viewing and need an artist who can explain what is made in the artwork. So he cannot see what is made and wants to see it from someone else’s viewpoint. 

I had seen some works by Jangarh Singh Shyam. In the book No Full Stops in India, there is a chapter on how Swaminathan had discovered Jangadh. He was also a game-changing and a phenomenal artist and you too associated with him for long. It started with him that tribal art got its place, fame, as well as innovations. Tell us about Jangadh and your association with him.

Swami, in fact even Husain and Raza, had a beautiful ability to easily comprehend anything good that is happening in the art world. So Swami spotted not only Jangarh but also Pema Fatiya, Belgur, Shankar Mudhiya, Bhuribai and they all have won national awards and gained an unprecedented platform. Jangarh was a prolific artist and in comparison if we see other artists, they did not try to deviate from their medium whereas Jangarh could very easily express himself in different mediums. I saw that in a Graphic Camp, for the first time an artist gave Jangarh an etching plate and he made such a beautiful print. He had this god-given gift. His silk screen prints were just as lovely as his drawings and paintings whereas originally he was a sculptor. Now no one knows that he was a sculptor; he got famous for his paintings. The others did not have this versatility and the work to discover all these people was very efficiently carried out by Swaminathan on his own stead. Take for example Mittibai from Bilaspur as well; numerous such artists were introduced to the world and even now when we talk about Swami’s contribution, it is so far-reaching that even today almost four lakh tribals in Madhya Pradesh earn their living through art and have stopped doing manual labour, digging roads, and so on. So this self-confidence that they got and they realized that they can express their own identity and as a result their self-image also changed.

Yes, I have seen Bhajju’s book where he had gone to London and depicted London through Gond Art. It is quite a phenomenal book! So now those who are doing their journeys now, a lot has changed in the meanwhile and we are staying in a globalized world as well. Abir is focused and invested in young artists who are making the transition from small towns to cities. So how do you see their journeys?

There are two things. One you see a lot of good artists fading away because of self-righteousness. I am more interested in those young artists who are ready to question their own work and keep challenging themselves without any sense of complacency. It is these artists who can do well in the future. In the art world, or in any kind of discipline, self-righteousness is an extremely self-destructive thing. Another obstacle is the fixation of medium and young artists run from one medium to the other and cannot focus. I have observed that not only in Madhya Pradesh but also in India good young artists are coming out. It was always my dream to hold an exhibition of 100 young artists and we are now able to execute this on Raza’s 100th birth anniversary. I see a lot of talent from Madhya Pradesh but they do not have clarity on how to present their work and they need moral support and that is all that you can give because it makes a lot of difference. Madhya Pradesh has so many young artists. There is one significant thing there too that I would like to share in the context of Indore School of Art and Mr Dewlalikar who founded the college. NS Bendre was the student of the first batch and Maqbool Fida Husain was the student of the third batch. To teach Bendre he had a different technique which allowed Bendre’s affinity towards colours to blossom whereas with Husain he had a completely different approach where he encouraged his instinctive affinity towards lines rather than colours. So these three elements, colour, line, and form, were taught differently. So Indore School of Art has amazing diversity and these students do not do similar work compared to Santiniketan, JJ, or Baroda Schools of Art where you can easily identify the works with the schools they come from. These are the seeds that were sown by Dewlalikar that are spreading out even today. 

You have been associated with Raza Foundation as well. For example you just said you are organizing an exhibition of 100 young artists. So what is happening there with new artists? For example Bharat Bhavan was a different institution in a different time. The time we are staying in has its own truth. So in that context how does Raza Foundation’s work stand out?

One very good thing about Raza was that he was also interested in other art forms and established the Raza Foundation and poured all his money into it. He instituted five awards at the time for art, music, dance, and literature; the only bunch of awards to be instituted by a single person at a time. Raza Foundation initiates many works continuously. For example, Raza Pustakmala is a series of rare books on different topics; we brought out a book on Gandhi’s speeches during his prayer meetings. We have also worked on many biographies and some have been completed as well and there has been a continuity in this exercise. We have a Speaker Series on Habib Tanveer, Swaminathan, Agyey, Mani Kaul and many others where experts come and talk about artists and their art. We have exhibitions twice a year, one curated by an artist and one by an art critic. We also have an exhibition series of 12 young artists, of which the seventh edition is going on, in which the foundation sponsors them for a period of 10 days at Triveni. This boost a young artist gets upon getting a solo exhibition sponsored by Raza Foundation is a big thing. The Foundation also holds Art Matters, Uttaradhikar, Yuva, a young poet meet. To mark the 100th birth anniversary of Raza we will hold three exhibitions this year in Delhi. One exhibition is of his works, the other is of Raza awardees curated by Udayan Bajpayee, and the third is of 100 young artists from India. The latter is curated by five people — Ushmita Sahu from the East, Gita Hudson from the South, Jaisal Thakkar from the West, Meera Menezes from the North, and I am looking at the Central region. So in this way a lot of work is continuously done through Raza Foundation and it is our endeavour that we reach as many towns and cities as possible. 

One thing I wanted to discuss regarding you and your art. Your colours also stand out and have a unique melting point, at different levels. You often use bright and fluorescent colours. How do you paraphrase this observation about your work?

In this regard there are two things. One is when we were in college, we were reading a book of letters by Van Gogh and in one of those he had written that the artist of the future would be of colours. So I got thinking, “Why is he saying such a thing?” and understood the importance of colours for the first time. This was something he said 150 years back and today, we see a lot of artists expressing themselves only through colours. When I saw Raza’s exhibition for the first time in 1978 and I realized that yes indeed, the artist of the future would be oriented towards colours. After that, when I returned, I attempted to use a blue that is as fiery as a red. These colours are different in their nature; red is a warm colour while blue is cool but Raza could alternate their function very beautifully. He could translate the red to represent calm and could put a blue on fire. Inspired by this unusual play of colours that I got to observe in Raza’s paintings I also tried working like that but even though I was quite good with colours, when I started experimenting like this I realized that I do not know anything about colours, even applying them. We had a lot of artists coming over at the house and I began asking them how do I apply a yellow, or a blue, or a red. Their answers used to be quite contradictory and my confusion increased. I even asked one of my father’s students, Dhaval Klant, and he said if you want to understand colour, work with only black for the first six months. I worked with black for ten years before returning to colours and I understood the importance of the tonality of colours whilst working with black. So my fear of colours vanished.  I notice this hesitation in many artists who create a particular kind of a colour palette to work with for their entire life and do not even eye another palette. So I got rid of my fear and I can easily use the colours that I earlier would not use. Colours make you realize, through their nature, their diversity and when you apply them in a particular context; for example if used in a certain way a blue may function as a grey. So my understanding of colours can be attributed to these two people, that one sentence in Van Gogh’s letter and second, seeing Raza saab’s exhibition. And now I enjoy colours a lot. 

This is about a colour. But how it is presented and how you say it astonishes and impresses. So what is the process of enabling such a dialogue? For example it could be like a digital art or there is a span in your art, it could also be like a Gufa Chitra (cave painting). It has bright colours but it is also minimal, the simplicity of your personality is also reflected in your work. It is not flashy, but it gets your attention, astonishes, makes you think; I think there is also some humour involved, and it is subtle despite being bright. How does this come about?

This is the same as the matter about context that I have talked about. When you put one colour in the context of another, then it changes its nature. For example, I once applied metallic orange on a canvas and it seemed so repulsive that I could not work on it for three-four days and every day I would just look at that colour and try to get involved with it to find a way to proceed with the work. Then one day, I applied fluorescent orange on it and the metallic orange appeared to change its shade to brown. It was a big surprise for me that one is seeing an orange colour changing to brown and the context of that is another orange colour. This was such a beautiful incident that made me realize that the nature of colours can be transformed in the context of other colours. I mentioned that while working with black I realized the importance of tonality. I had worked with black in such a way that the drawings were more or less white in appearance. And this is how I gained the understanding that the attraction of a fluorescent paint will change when you place it in the context of another colour. It is also important which tone of the other colour is going to contextualize it, one cannot just use any colour. A specific tone of the same blue will be functional along with it. One continuously observes and researches in these matters the results of which you may not note somewhere like a ceramic artist but it keeps registering in your mind and helps you in your next painting. However, most of the time I fail in these experiments. 

No, it is also a matter of experiments and more than one is doing thing it is also making itself and dictating its own terms. You have travelled a lot in the world such as America, Europe, Japan… If we ask you to share some picture postcards of the places or works that have inspired you greatly. Tell us about some of these works that have been life-changing for you.

April 13, 1997, was a very important day for me when I saw all those significant artworks in Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York. At that time when I entered MoMA, the first work that I saw was Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and I was so shocked, I could not believe that I was seeing it; I touched it albeit it was a crime then even as it is now. Then, in the next room, there was Gypsy Girl by Rousso and it is a divine artwork for any artist. And after that I saw The Persistence of Memory by Dali. Then there were paintings of Marshall Duchamp. I went to the guard and asked him where the Guernica was exhibited and he told me it had been sent to Spain the month before. I thought it had gone there for an exhibition but they had returned it to Spain after a lot of to and fro. I realized this after I went to Madrid and saw the work there. I bought a book named Guernica there and realized after how much effort it had reached there. When you keep travelling you establish a connection with many things and you are able to see those works about which you had read or heard or which were recommended by people. You also make new friends along the way and spend good time with them. But after all this travelling, I felt there is no other country more beautiful than India. 

Another question that I had was, out of all the new and emerging artists out there, whom are you looking out for more closely? 

I have a predicament that while looking at an artwork I instantly recognise what is the culmination of that practice, in the sense that is it going to be an endless journey or will it stop somewhere along the way. So if I see it ending, I warn them indirectly by giving examples, and many of them are not able to understand. If they are able to understand it is evident they benefit from it and try to expand their horizons in a different direction. Since one is young one can express themselves in different ways. Many good young artists are working here. It is not possible to spend time with all but we keep on meeting and discussing occasionally about their work and progress. Smriti Dixit is doing great work, Manish Pushkhale, Siraj Saxena, Preeti Mann, Avdhesh Yadav, Avdhesh Tamrakar, Divya Patwa, Govind Vishwas and his wife Poonan, Rafiq Shah, Uday Goswami, Ekta, Shabnam Shah… It is difficult to recollect these names at one go.

During Covid, the digital format is becoming popular. For example, there was always a long queue at Jehangir, but now a lot of galleries have come online. How do you view this change? Will the journeys of young artists become better?

No. One cannot play football on the rules of cricket. The appreciation and criticism of a physical exhibition can take place only there in that venue which cannot ever happen online. I have also observed that people often go on a bitter tangent in online forums. Imagine a five-star chef having all the right ingredients to prepare food for people he doesn’t know. His food will not have the same flavour as that of a mother’s who has lovingly prepared food for her son even with little resources. This digital world does not provide a platform for the artist to know the viewers and vice versa. We organized many state-wise digital exhibitions for Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Andhra, Telangana, Kolkata. Our experiences were that one is stuck due to Corona and has nothing to do and a lot of people were engaged in the organization but it was good as a diversion and not an exhibition. Some paintings were also sold. But I do not understand how the process of seeing a 6×6 image on a 2-inch mobile screen works. The pleasure of seeing it physically is unique indeed. 

All artworks and photo courtesy: Akhilesh