Artists

As we look back at the eight decades of the twentieth century that have passed by, it will have to be conceded that the seminal phase of modern art activity in our country has been undoubtedly the decades of forties and fifties. Indeed these were also the peak years. The young Turks and the Progressive Artists’ Group which had been set up in Bombay during the mid-forties and the Bombay group of the early fifties have already been acknowledged as landmarks. But the point is that compared to many other art centres of the country the crucial development took place in Bombay, the most westernized metropolis of the country, for the new awareness was in essence a response to modern art movements of the west, that is ,trying to come out of the constricting role of the tradition and the feeling that we could be equals to anyone in the world.

Was this feeling reflecting the spirit of the impending Independence from the imperial yoke which actually did happen in the year 1947 2 ? The new confidence that this epochal event gave to many of our countrymen is especially noteworthy. I think that date around 1950 would turn out to be significant in many walks of life as well as in the creative activity through the various arts in our country. It was a point of time when by the very thought of being free from the colonial stigma, many felt that we could achieve anything possible through human endeavor. It was like the return of our primeval self respect as a great creative nation.

Narayan Shridhar Bendre was a part of this fervor that was going on in Bombay during the forties, in which many other individuals have played significant roles. But as this is a ‘tribute’ article, I am particularly focusing on N.S. Bendre’s place. Born eighty years ago and trained in the Indore school of landscape painting, he had travelled much throughout India and already earned a name as a fine landscape painter.

Something of the spirit of Independence was in the air when the Faculty of Fine Arts was started at Baroda in 1950 by the newly established Maharaja Sayajirao University. High hopes have been pinned on Bendre’s joining the Faculty. Emissaries had been sent to him. We can poeticise that the new winds of adventure which were blowing in art activity in Bombay eventually reached and pollonized in Baroda by some of the Bombay based- individuals who became associated with the new art school such as V.R. Ambedkar and Bendre to follow.

Bendre had been a hot favourite from the Bombay Art Society’s gold medal in the year 1937 which eventually went to Amrita Sher-Gil due to the tilting of Karl Khandalavala in her favour - he had been one of the members of the judging committee - Eventually, the gold metal was awarded to Bendre in 1941. It is yet another noteworthy fact that subsequently until almost the end of fifties, the Bombay Art Society’s gold medal remained the most coveted form of recognition aspired to by many modern artists of our country until the setting up of the National Lalit Kala Akademi in Delhi and its National Awards.

Bendre’s career spans more than half a century which may be divided into three phases in which the sixteen years spent in Baroda are central, that is, between 1950 and 1966, when he returned to Bombay. Unfortunately, there is no full length study of his work so far. The small monograph brought out by Lalit Kala Academi which was incidentally the first in the series of such publications on modern Indian artists , although a fitting honour to him at that time, was published nearly 25 years ago and had only one page of written text.

The Baroda Faculty of Fine Arts began with a clean slate and was completely free from any kind of conservative art school atmosphere, namely, tedious rendering from the Graeco - Roman antique plaster casts or laborious studies from the nude models, as they were supposed to be doing at the J. J. School of Art at Bombay, or some mechanical copies of stylized forms from Ajanta murals or subjecting water colour paintings to repeated ‘baths’, called the Bengal wash style, associated with Santiniketan.

Although hours and hours of discussions must have gone on at the frequent staff meetings or Board of studies meetings among the artist-teachers and external experts at Baroda, yet there has been no recorded blue print of objectives or methods of art teaching. Therefore, there is no definite document of art education ascribable to Baroda. But much dependent on the day to day studio and classroom teaching. Yet, there was this difference that all the techniques and media were assembled in one campus and accessible to all. While one was doing head studies, or still lifes, one was actually thinking of one’s creative compositions even from the first year onwards. The present author was one of the earliest students of Bendre at Baroda and remembers the lesson during his second year which had continued for several weeks in learning how to stylise the human contours in quick sweeps as seen in the outlines of Jamini Roy’s paintings.

Individual ‘creativity’ and thinking, as projected by the many revolutionary artists of the 19th and 20th century Europe, were almost unwritten slogans - an attitude inculcated also by the introduction of Art History of various world cultures in the teaching programme. For the first time there was an art institution which did not worry about trivial pedestrian art lessons but made ‘contemporary art in the making’ as the vision for the young students.

Although Bendre had been privately conducting art classes in Bombay, his experiments in art education only matured in Baroda. And it may also be stated that it was here that he embarked on his serious explorations as a creative artist. Until then he had demonstrated tremendous facility in handling water colour medium, especially in the opaque manner, called “Gouache”, and in the use of pastels, in both of which he did landscape and figure studies in what could be called Impressionist/ Expressionist manner. That is, while revealing sensitivity for the Indian tropical light and sunshine, his brush work was too broad and bold for Impressionism. He had also established himself as a fine colourist. Obsessed with outdoor landscapes, he had painted them even in Kashmir. There, once after a narrow escape from a bus accident when he woke up from the shock, the first thing he cried for was his colour box. He was thus in his own way exemplary of what is called the ‘artistic temperament’, without taking recourse to any crazy gimmicks.

The studios and buildings which gradually came upon the campus of the Baroda Faculty of Fine Arts during the nineteen fiftees were actually treated as artists’ studios kept open even after office hours, during holidays and vacations. It was here that one could watch Bendre at his own work after the teaching hours. This culminated in the memorable one man show he held in Bombayin1956.

II

Interestingly, Bendre’s work, beginning from the 1930s and continuing through the 1940s, largely aligns itself with the nineteenth century British artists who were fond of painting picturesque scenes from far off places in the exotic countryside as well as people of different ethnic caste types. This necessarily required wide travelling and this ‘wander lust’ took Bendre to many parts of India, even working on many jobs including the one in the tourist department of Kashmir. His selection of sites for his landscapes like Har Ki pauri, Hardwar, Banaras Ghats, Omkareshwar, near Indore (1932) are typical. Not only are these pilgrimage places, but they assume colourful configurations as multiple of pilgrims assemble there.

Prior to these ‘pleine aire ‘ landscapes of Bendre, there is hardly an impressionist phase in any Indian painter in whose work one could observe the combining of atmospheric effects (generally of sunshine) with the break up of colour in terms of the spectrum. The so-called Indore school of landscape was characterised by opaque water colour applied in prominent brush strokes always subduing the hues and generally preferring wet monsoon effects.

With the exaggeration of the hues and even the inclusion of the black colour which the Expressionist traits, Bendre rather successfully attempted a sort of telescoping of the late nineteenth century French Impressionist style with the German Expressionist style of the second decade of the twentieth century. Here the presence of Walter Langhammer and other central European emigres in Bombay since the 1930s is relevant. Langhammer brought into India the Austrian - born Expressionist painter, Kokoschka’s style of panoramic landscapes of the great European cities in pure hues. Similar hues of colour were employed by Bendre to replace the mellow colour scheme of the existing Indore school as if to usher the celebration of the Indian sunshine. Interestingly, the new approach was soon to be picked up by the young S.H. Raza toward the end of the 1940s. Such landscapes could be executed on coloured or toned paper with colour specs and brush strokes standing for human head, body, limbs or figures in movement since water colour was used in thick opaque strokes called ‘gouache’. The author as a young student was given a demonstration at the Banaras ghats during a study tour in 1953 when Bendre painted the surrounding landscape with coloured pasteles on tinted paper. This is another difference between the approach adopted by Bendre and the Impressionist method. The latter requires water colours to be handled in transparent washes.

Simultaneously, Bendre also painted the extensive series of one figure studies also in gouache technique, depicting different ethnic Indian types in picturesque costumes which lend themselves to variegated colour juxtapositions: The old bearded man from Rajasthan, the large turbaned and dhoti-clad man from Kathiawad, the youthful vivacious village girl, etc., generally sitting in informal, natural postures. These are again like twentieth century versions of the company school ‘firka’ types of the nineteenth century British colonial India. Many of these individual figures were painted without treating the space around them or suggesting the appropriate environment. Only occasionally in some compositions such attempt was made as in “Two Female Figures” placed in an outdoor setting or “ Finishing Touch” (1947) in an interior setting. The latter is one of the many paintings in which his wife, ‘Mona’, has been the model for the idealized female type, (see also “Woman Musician” of 1968 in the cubistic style). Many of these single-figure studies by Bendre were regularly printed on the covers of the Illustrated Weekly of Indiaduring the 1940s. The immense popularity of his landscapes and studies of the above kind earned him dozens of prizes in various art exhibitions all over the country and he became nearly the most famous painter of the time. A whole array of prizes was listed in the brochure announcing his art classes which he conducted in Bombay during the late 1940s after returning in 1939 from Kashmir. ‘Vagabond’, a version in oils of the single-figure types, had won for Bendre his earliest prize in Bombay in 1934. And in 1941, the series of Banaras landscapes earned him the then topmost coveted national prize, the Bombay Art Society’s Gold medal, four years earlier awarded to Amrita Sher-Gil.

He made a series of tempera paintings during and after a trip to Santiniketan around 1945, which show him as a master of line and draughtsmanship. It is significant that line had no place in the colouristic approach adopted by him so far. Use of line required adjustment of attitudes to nature and life as well as a reference to the traditional Indian painting. Here the impact of the preoccupation of such senior artists of Santiniketan and Bengal School in general such as Abanindranath Tagore and Nandalal Bose, may have to be acknowledged which has to be distinguished from the so-called Neo- Rajput School ushered in under the category of ‘Indian Art’ by such artists as Jagannath Ahivasi in Western India during the 1930s. In Bendre this is manifested in what may be called a sort of stylization, as in a painting entitled ‘Fair at Santiniketan’. Some of the works as a result of this adjustment are the commencement of his efforts to relate ‘naturalism’, ‘modernity’ and ‘traditional style’. I think this ‘will to stylize’ perhaps served as a bridge to the bolder experimentation with Cubistic language during the 1950s. One has also to consider here the travelling he embarked on particularly to the United Statesduring 1947/48 which enabled him especially to have a first hand acquaintance with the twentieth century modern Western Art. It appears then that things were happening very fast with him during these years which paved the way for his key phase in Baroda subsequently.

The two elements of colour and the line remained predominant in Bendre’s work almost right through from 1950s onwards. Like several artists of his generation he too emerged as a master of wide ranging techniques and media, but few of developed such a broad outlook as he. His technical versatility still makes Bendre unique among the living artists of India and had been an asset to him as a teacher at Baroda.

Having acquired just the right combination of desirable qualities for what was destined to be the most fruitful period of his life as an artist and art teacher, these reflected so effectively in the manner he implemented the complete freedom of approach to creative expression at Baroda Fine Arts Faculty. This has resulted in a breakdown of the inhibition to continue to stick to the rather limited traditional means thus enabling the artist to work with a wide variety of materials not hitherto used in this country. In this was, a whole field of new effects a large configuration has opened up which hasevenstaggered the artist himself posing him with new challenges.

III

Among his cubistic works are two distinct groups, one comprising human figures and the other still lifes. Those based on the human image appear as if the single figure ethnic or ‘firka’ studies of the 1940s painted in watercolours with colourful brushwork had been now repaintedin almost monochromatic but receding and protruding structural planes, in which by comparison with the former mode, now the space and figure were firmly interlocked. One is reminded of the transition towards cubism in the works of Picasso, Braque, Juan Gris and Mondrian. What interested Bendre most were spatial tensions and not cubistic distortions. Retrospectively, Bendre’s involvement with cubism can be linked with Gaganendranath Tagore’s works around 1920, Ramkinker Baij’s pictoral as well as sculptural work in Santiniketan and George Keyt, the Sri Lankan painter’s work during the 1940s. It appears that concurrently during the 1950s other painters like Jahangir Sabavala in Bombay and Ram Kumar in Delhi too got involved with cubistic language thus suggesting one of the significant trends in Indian painting during the mid twentieth century. Bendre’s cubistic works cannot be classified as analytical or synthetic like the original French developments. But they have a characteristic of their own because it is possible to observe in them an attempt to synthesise the simplicity of human form in Indian miniature paintings with the cubistic structure of receding and protruding planes. In that sense, these have a genuine Indian feel about them. Suitable with cubistic structure he used low key colours which have their own symphonic value like variations of greys or variations of brown. In some of his cubistic works he even introduced bright hues (normally avoided in standard cubism) which served for Bendre two purposes. One, the Indian type colour scheme, as yet another facet of Indian miniature painting, was brought into the pictorial construction. Two, the tonal modulation of the hue colours also suggested the Indian sunshine, thus establishing a clear link with his own pleine - aire paintings of the nineteen forties.

One of the convincing examples is the comparison of a painting of ‘Cow and Calf’ of 1948 in the style of that period with the cubistic painting depicting a buffalow and a crane of 1957 and entitled ‘Complimentaries’. Both are in oils and similar compositional arrangement of cow rearing its head toward the calf as it eagerly leaps towards her teats much the same manner as the dark buffalo in the other painting turns its bulky horned head towards the slim white crane. In the cubistic painting, apart from geometricizing the cattle’s form, a receding plane like a foil is established amidst space behind it. Also in the foreground are the distinguishing elements incorporated and these make it different from the impressionistically modeled earlier paintings. One more group of paintings may be cited. The painting entitled ‘Wood Cutter’ of 1957 is a typical example of Bendre simplifying the natural form with slight elongation of proportions while the limbs are made rather tubular. Holding a bundle of branches, this youthful village woman suggesting a rural activity will remain consistent archetype of rural imageries even in his later post- Baroda paintings in which the focus in rather on romanticised yet structural alienation then on the pathos of the downtrodden and the under-privileged. Somehow this ambiguity of attitude to Indian life, otherwise his source of subject matter, has never been resolved by Bendre. The structural manner in which the various components were assembled in the above painting comprising the earlier type single - figure pave the way for the few cubistic devices introduced in the other painting of the same year entitled ‘Homeward’ where the youthful elongated walking figure carries a child on her shoulder. The tree behind indicates an environment that can be altered to go with the cubistic treatment of the space. Note also the colour contrasts in both the paintings like the blue complexion and the bundle of yellow branches. These paintings are also a happy revelation as to how narrow the gap is between some aspects of the cubistic language and Indian traditional pictorial practices.

A group of paintings derived from the shepherds of barvads from Saurashtra, viz. ‘Shepherdess’ of 1956 and ‘ Saurashtra Family’ of 1958 are romanticized rural subjects, but only slightly geometricised into very compact cubistic compositions. Her dress especially the large odhni, and the long stick carried by her have been intelligently turned into receding and protruding planes involving spaces as well as parts of the figure. ‘Companions’ is more of a middle class household in which probably his own family members served as models, the mother combing the daughter’s hair as the typical Indian activity. The peculiar Gujarati cradle has been integrated ino the setting behind them. Examples of cubist paintings with colours modulated to give the sunshine effects, particularly on the dark Indian complexions, are the ‘Mother and Child’ in orange and purple hues and a group of three women entitled ‘Festive Mood’, in which green is used for shadows on the complexion, yellow for ‘planes’ in the sunshine together with ‘Indian’ colours for saris and blouses.

Another variation in his cubistic figurative paintings was when he took themes from Indian sculpture like the ‘Thorn’, which is the famous posture of a devangana from Khajuraho temples. Here a female nude with many flexions of her torso and limbs almost arranged in spirals, (the tribhanga or controposto posture) fitted well with the cubistic approach of handling the figural form, but Bendre added the dimension of volumes and their interaction with space. The conical forms in space stand as cubist planes as well as provide the environmental setting of the mountain including the tree - a motif again derive from the Shalbhanjika imagery of traditional Indian sculpture. This painting of 1955 in tones of sepia or burnt amber was followed by another painting in similar colours entitled ‘Load’ which is in the collection of Bharat Kala Bhavan, Banaras University. It is an even more complex problem of the multiflexioned female nude body bent under the tension of a heavy load structurally enmeshed with receding and protruding planes, presumably derived from a labourer from the Himalayan region requiring the suggestion of the mountain environment which comes so easily in the cubist treatment of the surrounding space. It is possible to conjecture that these relatively monochromatic cubist paintings paved the way for those with complementary colours. The marrying of Indian sculpture with cubist traits had been more the forte of George Keyt.

Bendre’s ‘still life’ groups in cubistic style of the late 1950s are among his most important paintings. This is myconsideredview, speaking retrospectively after a lapse of three decades. They will have to be recognised among the most significant bunch of masterpieces left by a twentieth century Indian painter since no Indian has done such masterly still-life paintings. The ‘Sun Flower’ is quite well known, published on the cover of his Lalit Kala monograph of 1957. Painted as early as 1955 it ushers his cubistic style already matured and very characteristic in its simplicity, though otherwise having complex elements like the variation in the relative size of the flowers. The petals of the yellow flowers. The petals of the yellow flowers are geometricized so also the green leaves intelligently turned into or merged with slanting planes serving as foils against the cog wheel like forms. The forms of the leaves echo those of the lower half of the painting derived from the contours of the flower vase. Simultaneously noteworthy is the experimentation with juxtaposing two sets of complementary colours, yellow and purple, orange and blue. The two paintings as two versions of the Kena flower of 1956 are accordingly quite instructive, as one is executed in a relatively stylized naturalistic approach and the other is cubistic structural version, that is in, the latter the union between nature and structure is perfectly obtained. The ‘Sun Flower’ was a rhythmic arrangement of squares and angles, whereas the Kena comprises rhythms of diagonals and curves with vertical emphasis. Perhaps the major masterpiece among the still life series is ‘The Parrot and the Chameleon’, for which Bendre actually arranged diagonally, but the circular form of its head is echoed by round mouths of the pots. The dead chameleom below repeats the greenish yellow colour of the parrot while its tail is coiled to conform to other circular objects. A variation of orange contrasts with green colour while purple and majenta have been used for what are to be understood as planes of shadows, not compatible with the European cubist practice.

Bendre’s very rich corpus of cubist still lifes can certainly be considered a further contribution to international cubism by an Indian painter even if slightly belated. Some of these at the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, could be among the outstanding treasures of the nation, so also those at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Bombay. But there are many more which the author has witnessed as Bendre’s pupil during the nineteen fifties, like the “Parrot and the Chameleon”. The whereabouts of the other paintings must be explored as an art-historical project.

These cubist exercises are among the highestpoint of creative endeavours of Bendre at Baroda. Quite appropriately he exhibited these at Baroda in a major one-man show in 1957 after working there since 1950. This show will have to be considered historically a a very significant one-man-show of an individual Indian painter heralding his maturity which is regarded now as an epochal moment of modern Indian art. Unfortunately this fact was not attempted to be highlighted during his only retrospective exhibition held in Bombay in 1974 to mark the occasion of the Lalit Kala Akademi’s Fellowship bestowed on him.

Some further comments on Bendre's use of colour in his cubist paintings may be noted. These paintings are all done in oils revealing his command over the medium. His paint surfaces are, literally speaking beautiful with carefully blended tones and methodically applied colour-changes. He left nothing to change. There are no smudgy or murky patches. During the taeching lessons, also dealing with colour exercises, he would warn against the use of muddy coloursand, what he called, 'raw' colours, that is, the tone or the value of the pigment as it came out of the tube. His exploitation of both the structural and symphonic qualities of colours showed his range as a colourist, inventing new juxtapositions and nuances. Besides the predominantly Indian subject-matter, often the colour-schemes too were inspired by those used in the miniature paintings or observed from the Indian locale. He devised his own way of modeling with colour modulations and tones, particularly the Indian female complexion, for which he substituted Indian red or even blue, besides yellow ochre. He would mellow down or modify the colours to get the most satisfying matching. The muting would be done in such a way that the standard hues would look more like the reds, oranges and mauves of the typical Indian variety. At times the matching of the colour of the complexion, the sari framing the face and the background space would give the effect of Indian tropical light. No doubt it was possible, as, among his favourite subjects during his 'landscape' phase, were the fisher folk of Versova engaged in their activities in the gleamimg sunshine.

As argued earlier, these cubo-figurative paintings alone could assure Bendre an important place in the 20th century Indian art. But he was not to stop here, always interested in fresh discoveries as he has been. He researches in colour took a new turn around 1958. At the same time, he gave the earlier preoccupation with Indian Subject-matter. He began experiments with drip paint, pouring thin liquid colours on canvas surface, allowing them to spread liquid colours on canvas surface, allowing them to spread out and merge at selected places. He brought into play his formidable sense of design and his sub-conscious creating strange forms and effects which are normally impossible to render consciously. But these were only transitory digressions to enable the mind to purge itself of thinking in terms of objects and in terms of subject - matter. Bendre's plunge into Abstraction may seem sudden. But his primary preoccupation with structure and reducing things to bare essentials already almost bordered on Abstraction and the next step to be taken was only logical.

If one looks at Bendre's Abstract studies carefully (which were executed during the early nineteen - sixties but have almost been forgotten by now), one would not fail to observe the presence of certain Bendre-esque characteristic traits which are found in his paintings in the 1950s and even in those done earlier. He evolved a style which retains the earlier Cubist framework as in the 'Entwined' of 1962. With inexhaustible creative power he invented endless combinations of colours and shapes forming an equally varied number of arrangements worked out in all over patterns. The execution again was meticulous and clean with carefully blended tones and colours. The colours too retained their peculiarity. They have a certain coolness about them, the predominant being cold blues, purples and greens. And when he used warm colours like reds their saturation was changed to give them that coolness. They are repeated with endless subtleties and never in flat or definite areas. At the same time they are not devoid of some amount of volume and spatialrecession. Atplaces definite contours are visible which add a linear dimension to them. The effect on the observer is of effortlessness, ease, spontaneity and abandon.

The Baroda phase work not only leads us to arrive at some assumptions regarding Bendre's personality as an artist, but also tells us how the trends in his own creative work effected his approach to his teaching. Although he was what I have called a 'typical' artist by temperament due to his carefree attitude and least involvement with worldly matters, his passion for Cubism and Abstraction is noteworthy. It was the inherently non-personal aspects of these stylistic vocabularies that fascinated him including the cold calculatedness of cubism. He rightly believed it to be the key movement of the 20th century, since even today most western critics agree that cubism had changed the concept of pictorial structure in the present century and that all subsequent pictorial movements, not the least the artists of the recent photo-realistic figurative movement, have had to come to terms with it. Bendre realised the two-fold intellectual problem involved in cubism ­- the reduction of the three dimensional world and the compression of it to conform to the two dimensional surface of the canvas. This required the emphasis on structure and simplicity, or bare essentials and avoidance of detail.

The second intellectual possibility was due to Bendre's perception of similar quality in Indian miniature paintings, in particular, the compression of space and volume, the simplicity and space divisions. A corresponding feature in Bendre's personality has been the avoidance of sociological implications even when he paints the village scene, the shepherds of Saurashtra of the tribals of Gujarat and Maharashtra. There are no metaphorical aspects, no hints of phantasy. The term 'classicist' is quite appropriate to characterise his work as wellas personality. This justifies a comparison with the 17th century French painter, Nicholas Poussin, who in contrast to his contemporary Baroque painters, stands out as a 'classicist', due to impersonal approach, and preoccupation with volume and structure.

IV

No Doubt Bendre’s activity as an artist-teacher became a source of much inspiration. Within the next few years some of his Baroda students of the early batches began to mature. He watched everyone’s work as it was growing, and gave instructions accordingly. But his focus was on how one was able to evolve one’s own way of seeing things and ‘completing’ the painting. Often he would remark, “all right you have learnt the colour-scheme and the composition, but now how will you treat’ it, or ‘finish’ it”. This is where he wanted the student to think and strive. For all these separate visual problems he would set up exercises and conduct group sessions.

At times, while scrutinizing a student’s work, exasperated or charged, he would spontaneously pick up brush and paint and give a few touches here and there to show how the whole painting could be “resolved” or enlivened. His proven versatility in many media had made him a figure for hero worship to the students, be it the execution of a head study in charcoal or life study or portraits in oils, besides compositions. His demonstrations were the most exciting occasions in the Painting Studios. The atmosphere would get electrified as he would begin demonstration of a life study. All students would crowd behind him climbing on stools and tables and with a beated breath would watch the last few touches given by the hand holding the brush like a magician’s astonishing wand. Some of us, as we became post graduate students, (and were given separate cubicles for work), would wait with intense expectancy for his arrival during the morning hours and would be hoping that he might glance even for a moment at the painting in progress on the easel. The sound of his approaching footsteps increased the pounding of our heartbeats. His approving nod was the joyous moment, his suggestion most laconically spoken, was taken as a great blessing. Besides the personal demonstrations and the already mentioned colour exercises, Bendre’s teaching strategy also included compositional exercises especially of shapes, textures and tones. One of the devices was to cut a photograph in four sections and then each of them was further cut up, which were passed on to different students. Whatever set of black and white shapes that one received, one had to rearrange them in equivalent colours and tones. Through such exercises one was able to relate to the works of Matisse (for colour) and to cubists for collage and abstraction. A course in copying from Indian miniature paintings and Ajanta murals too enabled us to observe the parallels between Indian and modern art. And at the post-graduate level, Bendre’s significant advice would be: “ Now that you know the compositional elements and the colour values, ask yourself what you wish to do and, find your own way.” During the nineteenth fifties, these must have been the first direct exercises in any art school in India to base the classroom teaching on what were then regarded as significant features of modern art.

In his notes on the painting, ‘ Still Life with Parrot and Chameleon’, he has explained how he arrived at the cubistic transformation of the group of objects of which a photograph is also printed. He made a naturalistic drawing and a stylised drawing to reveal the change in which the shapes are modified to relate in compositional terms or spacing is readjusted to integrate the objects into structural terms while the fourth and the resolved stage is the finished painting itself in colour. This paper is almost like recording in words with appropriate images a lesson demonstrating the creative process which heads towards arriving at a clear style. In 1955 this would be among the few records of a distinguished art teacher’s methods simultaneously relevant to his own creative work.

It was then that Bendre suggested to us to form the Baroda group of artists with a view to working together and exhibiting together. Many of us having completed our courses would not be dispersing and his suggestion was that we might set up some sort of artists’ community somewhere near baroda. Although this never materialized, some of us continued to study in Baroda under him with the help of National Cultural Scholarships which had just been instituted. And subsequently in the sixties some of us were inducted into the teaching staff enabling an artists’ community to grow in Baroda where there was none before.

I think three consecutive exhibitions under the banner of the Baroda Group were held in Bombay between 1957 and ’59, which were well-received. I remember, Shamlal of The Time of India had used such suggestive adjectives as “Kleever”, “Grisly”, etc., in one of his reviews.

It was also during these years that Bendre would discuss with us some of the complexIndianartists’ dilemmas. For example, what should be the approach of young modern Indian artists? How does one identify the modern elements in traditional Indian painting? How best can an artist use these as the basis for a synthesis of the two dichotomous modes? Baroda, indeed, had established that institutionalised art-training can be geared in such a manner that it is conductive to the growth of creativity, despite the still persisting skepticism about it. The ramifications of the Baroda School are far and wide not only in the field of painting, but also sculpture, printmaking, advertising and other disciplines including art history and art criticism. Even the objectives of the most recently acclaimed group of artists who like to be identified by a certain term, actually can be traced back to the early tears of the training at Baroda when rapid sketching based on direct observation of people at typically Indian and other daily activities was built in within the usual routine of classroom and home assignments.

Western India, in spite of its more than a century old practice of institutionalised art education, has not developed the tradition of revering the genuinely great art teacher, not even Gladstone Solomon, the one time dynamic principal of the J. J. School of Art. This is unlike the Bengali fervour. Note the phenomenal reverence for such an art-teacher as Nandalal Bose, whose birth centenary was nationally celebrated a few years ago. It was symptomatic and appropriate that it was Santiniketan that bestowed on Bendre the Aban- Gagan award, the year it was instituted. Some years ago, in honouring with the Kalidas Sanman, Bharat Bhawan, Bhopal, did the right thing at the right time. In Gujarat , which had been an 'art-wilderness' during the early twentieth century, the late Ravishanker Raval (addressed as Kala guru) had kindled the flame of creativity through the limited example of traditional Indian painting. Several generations later, during the fifties and sixties scores of young artists from Gujarat and other parts of India (including Kashmir) received their first lessons from Bendre, and their creative urges were nurtured by him. He opened up the horizons of possibilities before them.

There is also a "Santiniketan Connection" to the Baroda School represented by the contribution of the two other significant artist-teachers - Sankho Chaudhary and K. G. Subramanyan.

V

Bendre left Baroda in 1966 at the age of 56 and the work done in Bombay for the last 24 years could be called his post Baroda phase. He has continued to be active and almost consistently held one-man exhibitions every second year. The major change since his setting in Bombay has been his giving up of the involvement with abstraction and return to subjects derived from Indian life as before. Some traces of cubistic elements remained in the work up to around 1970 as seen in some of the works in the retrospective show of 1974. It sounded a logical continuity as in "Girl Drinking at a Stream" of 1970. But by the late 1970s, a significant change occured in Bendre's handling of the colour surfaces, which suggests that the post- Baroda phase can be again sub-divided into two, one up to around 1974, and the other post- 1974 which may be called the late period. The earlier of the two continues in a large measure the features of the Baroda phase while the later style recedes further way from them.

Compared with the meticulous tonal transitions and tension-filled planes of the Baroda phase work, he now began to cover the surfaces with dots, not often of deliberately chosen hues, to give rise to questions if such dots were necessary or the particular colour was of the right value. And of course inevitably the surfaces lost their vitality. The mechanical manner in which the filling of dots is carried out most often serves to render tonal graduations or subdue an otherwise warm bright coloured surface, an unhappy result of our unnecessary labour. Only occasionally the earlier flashes of the mastery of colour can be noted in the juxtapositions. Similarly, only occasionally in the figure compositions, a complex abstract structure underlying the middle class household can be discerned. There is an uneasy feeling in a serious observer that the work is generally becoming enfeebled or trivial. Perhaps due to old age, a certain mellowing is understandable and, maybe, the painting activity is seen more as a personal plaything by the artist, notwithstanding the fact that these have achieved much popularity among a section of art lovers, particularly in Bombay.

However, in comparison with the figurative subject matter, the landscapes of the late period are an exception. Firstly, one must remember Bendre's earlier mastery over landscape painting set in natural and outdoor vistas. Secondly, the dots technique can, in a landscape suggest textures of tree trunks, the foliage in the fields and the leaves of the trees and eveb the ruggedness of the earth. At times, the atmospheric effects of cloudy weather or approaching evening or twilight are suggested. Thus the pointllist colour is not all that incongruous for the landscape genre, although the colour dots do not often conform to the principles of colour as, by the late nineteenth century, French painter Georges Seurat. At times, instead of a casual type composition, Bendre manages to give structural compactness to the landscape to happily remind one of his great period of late nineteen fifties and sixties.

Although characteristic of Bendre's temperament and personality, the attitudes of his late period were quite simplistically expressed when he wrote at the time of the 'Kalidas Samman'at Bhopal in 1984: "Other values arising out of the art form like panic, shock, satirical amusement, disgust, erotic emotions, political allusions, deliberate attempts to unbalance your vision are not to my liking".

Serious observers of modern Indian art may feel quite put off by such a statement and may tend to dismiss Bendre's work based on the acquaintance of mostly the last decade's output as just competent and popular. Indeed, strangely, some, in spite of the oil technique, tend to resemble the feeble Bengal school kind of paintings (say, Abanindranath Tagore's 'Sinbad series ') of the earlier twentieth century, resembling their Pahari or Rajasthani revivals like the 'Swing'of 1984, published in the Bharat Bhavan booklet at the Kalidas Samman function. But Bendre's contribution is very abiding, as has been attempted in the above analysis between 1950 and 1966. The earlier work prepares for this epochal phase. In the late period, the fervour is feebled, but not many artists in the world have continued their youthful vigour in their work of the old age. The Baroda phase of Bendre is his most glorious period and also the most glorious period of modern Indian art. At that time, he was also one of the most dedicated and

Published by the Lalit Kala Akademi 37, March 1991
Sign In Close
Only Critical Collective subscribers can access this page.
If you are already a subscriber, then please log in.
 Forgot Password?
Subscribe now