Arko Pravo Mukherjee performing at DAG New York
The New Jersey-based Bollywood-centered AVS (Asian Variety Show) weekly program provider, in conjunction with South Asian entertainment websites DissDash and Starrlife and India’s Yuvraj Entertainment, kicked off the holiday season with the first of what is hoped will be a continuing series of informal arts-promoting get-togethers Tuesday evening at Midtown Manhattan’s Delhi Art Gallery (DAG).
Accompanied by an acoustic guitarist, award-winning Bollywood singer-songwriter Arko Pravo Mukherjee—who is also known as Arko—performed several of his hits from recent movies including Rustom and Kapoor and Sons. He also taped an extended interview with AVS TV Network president/CEO Raju Sethi for an upcoming AVS segment.
Prior to the performance, attendees strolled through DAG’s current exhibition, India’s French Connection: Indian Artists in France. First held at DAG’s New Delhi headquarters to celebrate its 25th anniversary, the exhibition displays paintings and sculpture from over 20 modernist Indian artists who studied in Paris and incorporated modern Western art attributes into their work--while at the same time leaving an Indian art impression upon France.
But Akshay Jain, assistant manager at DAG’s New York gallery, further notes that the show “focuses on how we define South Asian modern art—and how these artists experienced and absorbed French art and culture.”
But it’s not just a case of the South Asian artists going to France and then returning home and that’s the end of it, Jain continues, “but an ongoing process that is still going on today.”
Significantly, “Much of Western European art came from non-Western art ideas,” notes Jain, “and a big portion of the modern European art of the late 1800s is a direct result of those artists’ awareness of art and culture from non-Western countries.”
French post-Impressionist Paul Gauguin offers a ready example of this trade in artistic ideas, as does the great Indian artist Amrita Shergill, who in the 1920s studied the academic painting style in Paris at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts, and became the youngest artist and only Asian to win a gold medal and election as an associate member of the Grand Salon.
“She was influenced by Paul Gauguin, but saw major flaws in his paintings of native people in French Polynesia,” says Jain. “She thought they were interesting, but problematic in their very clear white European male viewpoint. So her most famous paintings are of native Indian people doing very simple everyday things—and she’s considered a national treasure artist.”
Indeed, Shergill’s paintings are not allowed to be taken out of India, and are exhibited now at DAG only on video from the preceding New Delhi DAG show.
Jain also singles out S.H. Raza, another major Indian artist represented in India’s French Connection, noting that his work followed India’s independence and the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. Like Shergill, the late Raza, whose artwork recently set the record for biggest public auction sale of a South Asian modern artist, studied at École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts; he then remained in Paris for most of the remainder of his life.
“He was very influenced by abstract expressionism, but his work had a flatness that was always part of South Asian art--especially in the early 1900s--and color-staining. And while his focus was on his life in Paris, it also dealt with growing up in India.”
The “flatness” that Jain speaks of is characteristic of traditional Indian paintings created by artists in temples and sold outside as inexpensive religious icons, or kalighat.
“That’s the main concept of South Asian art that most Europeans had prior to these artists [in the exhibition] traveling to France and Europe,” notes Jain. “They considered Indian art to be Hindu gods and goddesses, kings, elephants and other animals that appeared in the kalighat paintings and miniature paintings of pre-colonial India.”
Yet many Indian modernist painters do in fact include such “essential Indianness” in their works, says Jain, citing the internationally renowned 20th century Indian painter M.F. Husain.
Jain notes, however, that Husain did not take his art outside India very often, unlike those artists featured at DAG.
“After 1947 and independence, you really see an opportunity to travel and see the world—which we take for granted now, but at that time it wasn’t really happening. So for those who did go to France, it was a huge deal.”
Those artists who did return to India after partition brought with them their own political ideas, concludes Jain.
“They painted what they wanted to paint, in a more welcome environment and with more freedom.”
DAG’s India’s French Connection: Indian Artists in France exhibition, which is accompanied by an extensively researched and illustrated book, runs through March 1, 2019.