In a country driven by a surfeit of imagery, it is rare to find an appreciation and awareness of colour-field painting – paintings that lack recognisable form and are simply pure fields of colour.

Indian art has always been dominated by an accent towards figuration. Abstraction or non-figurative art has been seen as a western influence. But in the 1960s, abstraction became more pronounced in Indian art. It was a time for introspection, characterised by a quest for an indigenous voice that kept international trends in mind but used them as a catalyst, not an influence. The tendency was to rejuvenate abstract motifs and disown the human figure in painting.

Colour-field painting, though, is completely non-representational. It moves further beyond the abstract works of artists such as KCS Panikar, GR Santosh and even SH Raza, who still spoke of the male-female energies, the powers of Shiv and Shakti and the dualities of lingam and yoni. There are only a few names in the India colour-field art landscape. These include Rajendra Dhawan, Natvar Bhavsar, Pandit Bhila Khairnar and the later works of VS Gaitonde. Abstraction in the way it manifests in colour-field painting is often seen as a break from tradition, and is quite different from the early forms of neo-tantric abstraction.

Inspired by what he calls a “silent music”, Khairnar paints while being guided by the aspects of time, space and form. His work, currently being exhibited as part of a solo show at the Threshold Art Gallery in Delhi, is characterised by a gentle layering of oil paint to create evocations of fascinating shades of light. He is often known to go up to 20 layers to create the desired effect. “Mistakenly, my work is often viewed as abstract/ nonrepresentational,” said Khairnar, a resident of Nashik, “but I strongly believe that if my works were to be categorised, they should be seen instead as representational…a representation of the infinite and the intangible…an ‘isness’ that can only be felt.”

In his hands, the abstract painting becomes an object of gestalt recognition. According to German psychologist Rudolf Arnheim, visual perception precedes thinking and steps into a form of cognition that is beyond the visual. The physicality of Khairnar’s work is different, since he is known to destabilise one hue with the existence of the other. He attempts to represent the intangible, sifting the infinite from the finite by moving beyond the pigmented interplays of conventional abstract expressionism and delves into the world of atmospheric depth.

Natvar Bhavsar (left) and Pandit Bhila Khairnar.
Natvar Bhavsar (left) and Pandit Bhila Khairnar.

Owing to the fact that it is devoid of images, human figures and any recognisable human form, colour-field painting is still a rarity in India. “I would draw parallels by giving the instance of religion, which is easier to follow or understand than spirituality,” said Tunty Chauhan, director of Threshold Art Gallery. The renewed focus on Gaitonde, following a retrospective exhibition at the Guggenheim in 2014-’15, and the Christie’s auction in Mumbai where his work Untitled (1995) commanded Rs 29.3 crore possibly augurs well for contemporary colour-field painters.

Bhavsar’s ethereal abstract paintings are fields of colour that breathe and throb with an inner energy. The artist, who hails from Gujarat, moved to New York in the 1960s and was a contemporary of Abstract Expressionist painters. But Indian culture continued to inform his work. His fearless use of colours – his pulsating reds and calming blues – are a product of the soil that nurtured him.

His work evokes a sense of fade and blur from one colour to the other. “All arts seek to elevate experience, lift you up from where you are and take you to another level,” said Bhavsar. “We all have a longing for something, since we’re all here. All of human history I think is grappling with this, this eternal longing.”

Rajendra Dhawan, 'Untitled', oil on canvas.
Rajendra Dhawan, 'Untitled', oil on canvas.

In the works of Dhawan, colour plays an integral part – the ochres, the greens and the blues have a magical effect on the viewer, which invites participation in the artist’s creation. They are visual experiences and to absorb the reality buried under his strokes, it is important to patiently look at the paintings first, and then gradually develop a connection. According to British artist Olivier Beer, Dhawan is a painter of “the interior elsewhere”.

Dhawan, who died in 2012, studied at the Delhi School of Art. His works are not entirely abstract but have an Impressionist undertone. They hint at forms but do not delineate them. His style is subtle and minimal.

A painting by VS Gaitonde. Photo courtesy: Saffronart.
A painting by VS Gaitonde. Photo courtesy: Saffronart.

“Many think he paints landscapes, I think he visually peels off the land and rest of the present or absent elements to reach to the core of their selves,” said abstract artist Prabhakar Kolte. Dhawan, rather than discovering what underlies this earth and the people on it, envelopes himself in the elusively tangible poetry arising when he probes, absorbs and shapes the sensation of being here and painting what it is, as though becoming the painting process itself. His work was featured at the recently-concluded exhibition of the modern masters at the Delhi Art Gallery in Hauz Khas village.

The continuing interest in abstract art lies in its ability to inspire curiosity about the reaches of human imagination and the potential for artists to create something completely unique in the world. Colour-field painting is important because it allows the viewer to interpret art rather than being given a story to follow.