Alternative modernism

Two new exhibitions revive the significance of Group 1890, an art collective from the 1960s

An untitled work in watercolour, gouache, and pen and ink on paper by Jyoti Bhatt from 1957.
An untitled work in watercolour, gouache, and pen and ink on paper by Jyoti Bhatt from 1957.

Perhaps one of the most enduring images of Group 1890 is the one taken by photographer Kishor Parekh in 1962. The picture simply crackles with energy as it shows 10 young artists—Jeram Patel, Himmat Shah, Raghav Kaneria, Rajesh Mehra, J. Swaminathan, Gulammohammed Sheikh, S.G. Nikam, Balkrishna Patel, Ambadas Khobragade and Jyoti Bhatt—posing against the stone-and-rubble remains of the Chor Minar, Delhi. Each is shown holding up a work which highlights his distinctive oeuvre. The only members missing are Eric Bowen and M. Reddappa Naidu.

A year later, in 1963, the group would go on to hold its only exhibition, which was inaugurated by then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, at Rabindra Bhavan, Lalit Kala Akademi, Delhi. “Something precious is being born with these artists,” wrote Octavio Paz, renowned poet and Mexican ambassador to India, in the introduction to the exhibition catalogue. Sadly, the group never held another exhibition and faded into oblivion, even as its member artists went on to carve impressive individual trajectories. It is to examine the story of the group’s rise and later disbandment from the perspective of the ensuing decades that DAG Modern has organized the first commemorative exhibition, titled Group 1890: India’s Indigenous Modernism. “Over the years, people have lost sight of the manifesto and its driving force. While they have acquired an almost mythical stature, no one can articulate on its importance,” says Kishore Singh, president, DAG Modern.

While showcasing the distinctive style of each of its members, the show also focuses on the one ideal that tied all the members of the group together: the autonomy of the image.

Quirkily named after the house number of a friend, who hosted the meeting in a plotted colony in Bhavnagar, Gujarat, the group started with the idea of stepping away from the continued championing of Western modernism in Indian art in the 1950s-1960s. “We were getting fed up with this kind of crap,” Swaminathan, the founder of the group, said in his memoirs. The manifesto, dated 31 August 1962, outlined this vision and can be seen printed in its entirety, along with the 1963 exhibition catalogue, in a 600-page, scholarly volume brought out by DAG Modern.

It hasn’t been easy for DAG Modern to source paintings that formed part of the 1963 exhibition. Mehra, for instance, stopped painting in the 1970s, and his works were hard to find. “Bowen moved to Oslo in 1971. Getting his works out of Oslo to DAG proved difficult. Finding works by Nikam and Balkrishna Patel was next to impossible,” says Singh.

The one member of the group who continued to uphold the ideal of the autonomy of the image through his lifetime, even after the group disbanded, was Jeram Patel. “Certainly. Jeram bhai remained an exemplar of the kind of art-making that the group upheld for itself,” writes Singh in the DAG volume. This can be seen illustrated at yet another exhibition—incidentally the first retrospective on Patel—at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA), Delhi. This is the last of the trilogy of retrospectives at the KNMA that examines abstraction in Indian art from the early post-independence period. The series began in 2013 with Nasreen Mohamedi’s A View To Infinity, was followed by Himmat Shah’s Hammer On The Square (2016), and is ending with Patel’s The Dark Loam: Between Memory And Membrane (on view till 20 December).

“He, along with Mohamedi and Shah, explored the fragility of paper at a time when the Progressives had made painting on canvas popular among artists,” says Roobina Karode, director, KNMA, and curator of the show. A major chunk of the 180 works on display is devoted to the 1960s, when Patel worked extensively with a blowtorch—a new tool at the time—on the skin of plywood sheets stuck together to burn, finally arriving at a charred image. This act of creation was very much in sync with his personality, which his contemporaries describe as anything but mild-mannered.

Group 1890: India’s Indigenous Modernism is on view till 4 December at DAG Modern, Delhi

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