Oil on canvas
67 3/4 x 67 3/4 in. (172 x 172 cm.)
Signed and dated in Devanagari and further signed and dated 'J. Swaminathan / '93' on reverse
Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi.
J. Swaminathan, Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi, 15 October - 14 November, 1993.
'He is a father, lover, as well as husband; a natural polemicist; a political activisit; a public speaker, ... and above all a poet of considerable talent ... But all these seem inconsequential; essential Swaminathan is a painter. His one and only involvement is with paint, and if one can speak of his habit becoming finally addictive, the greatest of all addictions for him is painting itself.' (K. B. Goel, 'The Other', Lalit Kala Contemporary 40, New Delhi, March 1995, p. 80)
Jagdish Swaminathan was born in Simla in 1928, one of twelve siblings. When he was only six years old, his aunt Parvati gifted him a box of oil paints, and the artist stated that from that moment forward the smell of oil stayed with him throughout his life. He joined the Communist Party of India in 1948 and was an active member of the Youth front. When he married in 1955, he went on a honeymoon to Betul in Madhya Pradesh where he happened upon a tribal village. He writes, 'A young boy had been bitten by a snake and the witch doctor was reviving the boy by continuous chant and throwing full pots of water on him. We watched in rapt fascination and soon enough the boy recovered, and the snake, which had been imprisoned in an earthen pot, was let free and disappeared into a thick bamboo grove.' (Jagdish Swaminathan, 'The Cygan - an Auto-bio note', reprinted in Lalit Kala Contemporary 40, New Delhi, March 1995, p. 21) This early encounter left a lasting impression on Swaminathan, who worked tirelessly with folk and tribal artists for much of his later life.
Shortly after his marriage, Swaminathan returned to Delhi and began evening art classes in the Art Department of the Delhi Polytechnic, where B.C. Sanyal was Principal and Sailoz Mookherjea was a teacher. Although he did not continue the classes for long, he painted voraciously every evening, and worked during the day. In 1960, he held his first major exhibition with two other artists, P.K. Razdan and N. Dixit. The show was inaugurated by M. F. Husain, who opened the show with a now famous couplet 'When I paint, hold the sky in your hands, for the expanse of my canvas is unknown to me.' This first major exhibition was followed by a several one-man shows which gained him considerable critical acclaim.
In the early 1960s, George Butcher, the art critic at The Guardian, bought a large painting from Swaminathan, which for the artist was a seminal work, as it preceded all neo-tantric trends in modern Indian art. Whether or not this was entirely true, it is clear that from this point forward, the artist strove to create his own unique path within the art world. He had already rejected the 'sugary sentimentalism' of the Bengal School, and despite admiring artists such as M.F. Husain, F.N. Souza, V.S. Gaitonde, Akbar Padamsee and Tyeb Mehta, he felt that they had switched to an entirely western type of modernism, which he believed to be already in decline in the West. This led him to become a founder member of Group 1890, whose manifesto stated:
'To us creative expression is not the search for, but the unfettered unfolding of personality. A work of art is neither representational nor abstract, figurative or non-figurative, it is unique and sufficient unto itself, palpable in its reality and generating its own life.' ('Group 1890 Manifesto, New Delhi, July 19, 1963', reprinted in Lalit Kala Contemporary 40, New Delhi, March 1995, p. 84)
The Group's Manifesto became central to the manner in which Swaminathan approached his own practice. He felt that the future of modern Indian art had to consider the traditional Indian approach to art which was never meant to 'represent' reality, but rather, it should aim to be a 'poetic rendering of ideal truth'. As such, his career can be seen as a re-exploration of these concepts, beginning with the Colour of Geometry phase, followed by the Bird, Tree and Mountain period, and finally the 'tribal' period.
At the end of the 1980s, Swaminathan's works underwent a dramatic change in subject as well as technique. He moved away from the explorations of the Bird, Tree, and Mountain series that had occupied him for the previous decade, and returned to his original point of interest, that of tribal motifs and folk art. Writing in the same year as the current work, the artist states, 'Madhya Pradesh brought about a basic shift in my painting again. The live and vibrant contact with tribal cultures triggered off my natural bent for the primeval, and I started on a new phase recalling my work of the early sixties. If my work of the early sixties anticipated the journey of the eighties, my present phase recapitulates my beginnings.' (Jagdish Swaminathan, 'The Cygan - An Auto-bio note', op. cit., p. 13)
Visually, the works return to the imagery of the 1960s with calligraphic forms, geometric shapes and texture playing an important role. Some of the elements draw inspiration from specific folk symbols and legends; others are entirely of Swaminathan's own creation. Geometric shapes, especially triangles and squares re-appear and take on evocative significance. Whatever traditional imagery he references, by taking them out of their original context and placing them into his paintings, he bridges the traditional and the contemporary. In point of fact, he felt that there should be no distinction between the two. The overall effect in this later work is an energised picture plane, vibrating with movement and vigour.
Swaminathan's paintings draw 'upon the collective assemblage of myths and symbols in folk, and other subterranean passages of culture that attempted to reach the unknown in a kind of blind intuitiveness. The borrowed image held a certain amount of intrinsic power; the rest he wished to infuse by the particular confluence of elements on the picture plane. The whole became a composition of non descriptive only partly associative images, combined with 'automatic writing', darkly painted upon surfaces, appearing as if they were being seen at the end of a dark passage in a temple.' (Geeta Kapur, 'Reaching out to the Part', Lalit Kala Contemporary 40, New Delhi, March 1995, p. 17)
As an artist, Swaminathan was intent on establishing a continuum between folk, tribal, and urban contemporary art. While he drew his inspiration from these sources, he was vested in creating a unique visual language. As Krishen Khanna has said of Swaminathan, 'He had little patience with narrative or didactic paintings no matter how well they were painted. For him they lacked the mysterious realms of poetry. He found in Paul Klee a kindred spirit as he did in the folk and tribal artists. A lesser painter would have succumbed to these powerful affinities of spirit. His own work bears no formal relationship to theirs. His structures were elemental, uniquely his own. He conjugated them to create undreamt of images.' (Krishen Khanna, J. Swaminathan, New Delhi, 1995, unpaginated)
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About The Artist:
JAGDISH SWAMINATHAN (1928-1994)