It was while living in Oslo, Norway, in the 1970s that Allahabad artist Eric Bowen’s work finally shed the universality that had characterised his art and transitioned to the tantra-inspired aesthetic he is known for. The tantra art form comprises triangular and spherical shapes while incorporating elements of folk and tribal art. “If one looks at his work without dates, they are likely to expect his tantra-based work to have been created while he was still living in India, when quite the opposite is true,” said Kishore Singh, president of DAG Modern gallery and author of Memory and Identity: Indian Artists Abroad.
Singh’s book traces the journey of 14 Indian artists who went overseas and practiced their profession while clinging on to the cultural ties that still linked them strongly to their homeland. “The book tries to study how each one interacted or reacted differently to migration,” said Singh. “Did they deliberately become more Indian? Did they feel a certain pressure to conform to their ‘exotic’ identity? Some looked back to claim their Indian roots while some to revisit their identity.”
Memory and Identity dedicates its chapters to the 20th century modernist artists, such as Bowen, Francis Newton Souza, Syed Haider Raza, Sakti Burman and Zarina Hashmi, among others. An exhibition of the same title is currently on at the DAG Modern art gallery in Delhi.
About Bowen, Singh writes: “In Oslo it [his art] underwent a complete metamorphosis, almost as though, by creating art in an alien land – and seen within his context of a group’s cultural moorings tying them together – he demanded visibility as an artist of Indian origin whose works were forever imbued with the spirit of those roots…”
These artists went overseas post-independence for different reasons – to study art, to find inspiration or to showcase their work. “Western art critics, eager to spot the Indianness in their work, they would read too much into it, attributing an Indian aesthetic where none existed,” said Kishore.
The book and the exhibition is an endeavour on Singh’s part to analyse how these artists handled the two divergent identities they experienced and how the land they left behind manifested in their works.
For Raza, re-engagement with the landscape of the country he fiercely claimed as home, showed up in the form of symbols – more specifically, the bindu, or dot, which started showing up in his works since 1979. This, according to Singh, was the “very year when his language changed and became more Indian”.
“In my work as a painter, the revelation of bindu as a centre of gravity has been a major event,” Raza wrote in 1999.
Singh goes on to explain the significance of the bindu, which signifies multiple things in India – the dot on a woman’s forehead, a third eye that symbolises fertility, a mark of shunya, or zero, which is the black void from which all creation emerges.
“In claiming his heritage in his art practice, Raza proved that he may have lived and worked in France but his conscious and unconscious thinking came from India,” writes Singh. “Raza’s metamorphosis to the complex language of symbols had brought may interpretations among the art intelligentsia, all of them attributed to India.”
Each artist interacted with their home country and resident country differently – if it was the bindu that connected Raza to his Indian identity, for Sakti Burman it was his subject matter that marked him out as an Indian artist. His works, influenced heavily by his memories of home, incorporated mythological figures like god of war Kartikeya, goddess Durga and lord Ganesha, tales from the Ramayana, and even characters from India’s history.
For Ambadas, it was his existence bound by his Dalit status which inspired a body of work signifying freedom from a world of turmoil.
“Ambadas’s identity had not so much to do with his Indianness as his position (or absence) in its pecking order, humiliation from which he must have felt liberated only in his studio, and when he was far away, in a country called Norway, where he would be judged on his own merit and not on the basis of the home in which he had been born,” writes Singh.
Memory and Identity: Indian Artists Abroad is on at DAG Modern, Hauz Khas, Delhi, till March 15.