In November 1955, a young artist barged into a reception being hosted by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. The reception was in honour of visiting Soviet dignitaries Nikolai Bulganin and Nikita Khrushchev, and the 27-year-old wanted to present them with a “painting in protest”. Nehru, it is believed, did not appreciate the gesture or the subversiveness of the artwork, and the artist’s passport was revoked as a result.

That didn’t change the artist’s convictions, though. Nearly two decades later, in 1974, Brij Mohan Anand attempted to present Prime Minister Indira Gandhi with a painting protesting against India’s first nuclear test at Pokhran.

For the fiery, yet largely unknown, Anand, art was a powerful medium of social and political commentary which he used effectively to voice dissent. Anti-establishment was not the theme of his life’s work but its heart.

Three decades after his death, a book titled Narratives for Indian Modernity: The Aesthetic of Brij Mohan Anand, records his vast body of work. Authored by writer Aditi Anand and art historian Grant Pooke, the monograph recounts Anand’s artistic journey, which ran “parallel to the first four decades of India’s emergence as a fully independent nation state”.

The release of the book coincides with an exhibition, curated by art critic Alka Pande, of 80 illustrations and paintings of Anand at the India International Centre in Delhi.

Renaissance (1953). Credit: Brij Mohan Anand
Renaissance (1953). Credit: Brij Mohan Anand

“His work has a timeless quality and remains as relevant as it was in his own time,” said Pande. “The anti-imperialist sentiments and reflexive nationalism render Anand’s visual language an essential part of understanding India’s journey towards modernity.”

During the day Anand worked as a commercial illustrator, but his nights were reserved for personal expression. He would go from drawing kitschy covers for books and pulp fiction – inspired by Bollywood and popular culture – to creating sophisticated works with complex political themes. Yet, the two pursuits, though distinct, carried his political philosophy.

“We don’t know where Anand the illustrator stopped and where the artist began,” said Pande. “There’s a thin line and Anand walked it well.”

Commercial illustration for 'Chidiyaghar', authored by Hari Shankar Sharma. Art by Brij Mohan Anand
Commercial illustration for 'Chidiyaghar', authored by Hari Shankar Sharma. Art by Brij Mohan Anand
Commercial illustration for 'Sookhe Ped, Sabz Patte', authored by Gulshan Nanda, publisher Ashok Pocket Books. Art by Brij Mohan Anand
Commercial illustration for 'Sookhe Ped, Sabz Patte', authored by Gulshan Nanda, publisher Ashok Pocket Books. Art by Brij Mohan Anand

He never tried to sell his paintings, said Pande. “It is a rare privilege to not be constrained by the need for monetary gain. It gave him a freedom that not many artists enjoyed.”

In her foreword to Narratives for Indian Modernity, Pande writes:

“A self-taught, gifted draughtsman, painter and highly successful graphic artist, Anand’s spectacular visual imagery was very different in tone, tenor, style and form from that of his Bombay Progressive contemporaries. This grouping included M.F. Hussain, Tyeb Mehta, S.H. Raza, F.N. Souza and Krishen Khanna… Whilst these modern masters were principally concerned with identity and materiality, Anand was steadfast in his commitment to the personal politics of a renewed Indian Renaissance and to India’s political awakening, as he perceived it. Anand remained vehemently opposed to even a whiff of Western imperialism and his scratchboard paintings are a living testament to this refusal.”

It is the combination of “reflexive nationalism, adapted Soviet aesthetics, anti-Western and anti-nuclear sentiment,” writes Pande, “that renders Anand that hidden treasure, a voice which needs to be heard through a contemporary narrative and retelling”.

Untitled. Credit: Brij Mohan Anand
Untitled. Credit: Brij Mohan Anand
Muse of the artist (1968)/Art by Brij Mohan Anand.
Muse of the artist (1968)/Art by Brij Mohan Anand.
Brij Mohan Anand
Brij Mohan Anand

The exhibition Narratives For Indian Modernity: The Aesthetic Of Brij Mohan Anand is on at the India International Centre, Delhi, till May 22.