As the Baroda school of art finds itself in the middle of a bitter row, eye profiles five brilliant, eccentric and controversial figures of this avant-garde bastion
Posted online: Sunday, June 03, 2007 at 0000 hrs
“In Baroda, the bar is set high. Works and artists are expected to be extraordinary because the past generation has set very high standards,” says art critic Ina Puri. The department has been the training ground for leading artists of the country like Jyothi Bhatt, Dhruva Mistry, Rekha Rodwittiya, Nilima Sheikh, Surendran Nair, Gulammohammed Sheikh and many others.
One of its defining features, for example, is the narrative school of painting. Put simply, the artists told stories of their loves and lives, of the city around them and the influences that came from beyond its walls. They told these tales on their own terms, rebelling against the British academic style of painting being taught at the JJ School of Art in Bombay (now Mumbai) or the attempt to revive the Mughal and Rajasthani miniatures by the Bengal School.
It was also a time to look back at the past for inspiration. Far from being slaves to western traditions, Baroda artists like Gulammohammed Sheikh and Subramanyan revisited indigenous art, both ancient and tribal.
Subramanyan’s most path-breaking work at the time was the King of the Dark Chamber (1963), a glazed terracotta mural mounted at the Rabindralaya in Lucknow. The work symbolises the quest for indigenous alternatives to the modern western notions of art that favoured either a slavish realism or complete abstraction.
But even as it fostered scepticism, the school accommodated diverse strands of thought. It helped that the department was a melting pot of cultures and traditions. As Rodwittiya points out, “When I was a student, the faculty was made up of students from all over India. This brought many interesting influences to the campus.” The revival of the past and the referencing of roots has always been tempered by a critical note. “There was less fear to (sic) question authority. Resistance and protest were instruments of change that students incorporated (in their work) ,” says Rodwittiya.
In 1978, a new radical voice emerged in Baroda—that of Khakhar. The artist debunked the Western formalism that had crept into the university with his brand of irreverent and revolutionary kitsch. “Bhupen brought the bazaar with its common place vulgarisms, small business enterprises, even its cheap passing pleasures, to his canvas. He was known to cock a snoot at art’s high-mindedness,” says critic Gayatri Sinha. His openly homoerotic works did raise the ire of many conservatives. “Khakhar came out of the closet in Baroda. His works were very cutting-edge and he was a very confrontational artist. But at that time, there was a lot of admiration for this unconventional approach,” says Puri.
It’s a freedom that is under threat. “Given the history of infringements of artistic freedom during the last two decades, especially the campaign of vilification launched against M.F. Husain, and the rise of intolerance, the Faculty of Fine Arts appears to be under siege,” says art critic Ranjit Hoskote. But cast a look at its tradition of nonconformity and you can bet this house of rebels will fight back.
The dohas of Kabir and seething cities, trees that branch off into mystical worlds and a metaphorical journey back home—the works of Gulammohammed Sheikh, painter, art historian, and writer, merge different perspectives with striking ease. He is not just an important artist whose works fetch anything between Rs 45-50 lakh but is also one of the most erudite and distinguished alumni of the Faculty of Fine Arts, MS University. Some of his major works are the Speaking Street and City for Sale, a depiction of the horrors of the Baroda riots of the mid-1980s that returned to haunt Gujarat in 2002. In his journey from birthplace Surendranagar in Kathiawar, this 64-year-old artist has always been inspired by tradition. He was an integral part of the development of the narrative school of painting that incorporated features from the Indian miniatures. As a student at the faculty, he was part of the Group of 1890, a radical artists’ collective spearheaded by the likes of J Swaminathan and Jeram Patel. He also taught at the faculty for three decades. With artist friends that included wife Nilima Sheikh, Bhupen Khakhar, Nasreen Mohamedi, Vivan Sundaram and art historian Geeta Kapur, Sheikh drew inspiration from subjects as varied as the mysticism of Sufi poetry to the mindscape of the city.
The alleys of urban life recur in his work. Baroda, especially, is an abiding inspiration. “The twisting lanes, the buildings whose architecture was inspirational, the old and the new city that merged yet held on to their own identities has all fed my art,” says the veteran.
In his Kahat Kabir series, Sheikh, also a poet, brings Kabir to canvas to set up a conversation between poetry and painting. Merging an urban narrative with Kabir’s secular idealism, Sheikh has come up with a brilliant metaphor for communal harmony.
Currently, the artist is experimenting with multimedia and Photoshop alongside his canvases and works on paper—proving that the thirst for adventure has nothing to do with age.
He is the rebel of the Baroda school. One of the most experimental painters of his times, Chintan Upadhyay was one of the first artists to challenge the norm in Baroda—that painters should stick to brushes and paints. He dabbled with soft sculpture, installations in galleries and interactive art work long before they became fashionable. One of his best-known works is the Designer Babies—a series of paintings that looks ahead to a future when babies will be commercially produced to meet specific demands. Upadhyay has sat in the buff in the same art gallery that was stormed by Niraj Jain in Baroda. His paintings have sold for Rs 30 lakh at the Christie’s auction in Hong Kong, but it has been quite a struggle for the non-conformist artist. “I was initially influenced by the narrative school of painting in Baroda. Gulam and Bhupen were my icons. I was interested in talking about the commodification of sex and sexuality and did many works relating to phallic objects,” says Upadhyay. Needless to say, works like his Phallic Telephone were difficult to sell. “I am not quite through with hammering out my argument against the establishment, but I do find my work changing. Now I am more concerned about issues of cloning, globalisation and migration,” says Upadhyay whose Designer Babies, Mutants and Clones are covered in the tale-tale miniatures reminiscent of the Baroda school. Even though he is known to experiment with various mediums, he calls himself a painter at heart. “I love working on a canvas, dabbling in paint and watching the work develop. I never start off with a fixed idea of what I am going to end up with,” says the artist.
The sweeping terrain of poetry and history is Nilima Sheikh’s canvas. Having completed her studies in history at the Delhi University, she joined the Faculty of Fine Arts in the ’70s where she met husband Gulammohammed and became a part of the Baroda group. Inspired by saintly figures like Virashava poet Mahadevi Akka, her key works include the series, When Champa Grew Up, that talks of the trials of a young girl sold into marriage and then burnt. Her more recent series deals with Kashmir. Titled Firdaus I, II and III, the work—tempera on canvas—explores how a land that was once a heaven on earth has been torn asunder by war. Her works fetch around Rs 12-15 lakh while larger scrolls fetch around Rs 25 lakh. Shireen Gandhy, who usually handles Sheikh’s work, believes that the artist is “conservative when it comes to her pricing.” Interactions with her guru K.G. Subramanyan were the shaping influence on her work. “He taught me about the interdependence of the plastic arts and arts like theatre, dance and poetry). We learnt of the non-hierarchical interweaving of craft and folk practice with art…,” says Sheikh. Put simply, she blended her studies in art and its history with the lived experience of the people of Baroda and other cites. From her other mentor Gulammohammed, she learnt the “passionate love for the world history of art and narratives of time”.
One of the foremost artists of her time, Rekha Rodwittiya has consistently foregrounded feminist concerns in her works. Born in Bangalore, this 48-year-old moved to Baroda in 1967 where she spent her childhood and later her student life at the Faculty of Fine Arts. Her prominent works include Two Figures on a Horse, that talks about the violence that disfigures women, and Small Openings Give Way to Large, which is more celebratory in tone. In Rodwittiya’s works, the figures of women in voluminous clothes fend off the gaze of the voyeur. However, the artist believes each of her work is an important milestone. “As a painter my challenge lies in every new work that I struggle to bring articulation and coherence to. Sometimes it is the works that fail miserably—and which may be ultimately discarded—that become the touchstones.” Rekha is in the process of revising her pricing before her London exhibition Second Skin, which is presented by Sakshi Gallery and opens in London on June 19. “I hope my works are affordable,” she says. Married to painter Surendran Nair, the couple shares an intimate bond. “ We were friends before we became lovers and I think this has been the anchor of our relationship that spans 22 years… Our closeness has not obliterated the individuality of our personalities. We both delight in each other’s works and yet maintain the space for critique.”
He is one of the most reclusive artists of the country and also one of the most prolific, second only to Atul Dodiya. He exhibits once every year, or sometimes once in two years. But his oeuvre is slowly finding its place in the sun—he won the Sotheby’s prize for Contemporary Indian Art in 2000. His works have been recently displayed in the US but the 49-year-old continues to live and paint in Baroda and travel around the country to attend workshops in Delhi, Bangalore and Goa. Having studied in the city, he also spent time teaching in the university’s department of painting. Besides Marcel Duchamp, Sharma draws a lot of his influences from the Baroda school of art, its flair for simultaneous narration and its referencing of the urban landscape. “The Baroda school has given Indian art a new direction. It is one of the most vibrant schools today,” says the artist, whose images recalls the jagged, cold spaces of industrialised life. Sharma’s prints and sculptures are priced at Rs 20 lakh while his large oils fetch around Rs 27-30 lakh. One of his more acclaimed works is the Freedom Bus, which was displayed at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai. Cutouts of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and aide Sardar Patel stare out of the windows of a rickety rattletrap—it’s a work that comments on how stirring political ideologies have been dumbed down to a few pin-up images. “I got the impulse to make Freedom Bus while at the KHOJ workshop in Delhi, from my interactions with a metal smith Habibbhai,” says Sharma.