At the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum last month, art historian Jyotindra Jain spoke on a unique early 20th century practice in the Shekhawati region in Rajasthan.
Popular images of Radha and Krishna, from posters at the time, were being pasted on to bucolic Swiss landscapes and Rhine Valley verdancy. These colonial “hybrids” by frame-makers, complying with their Marwari patron’s wishes, catered to the traders in the region.
These Shekhawati collages can be seen at an exhibition, Cut & Paste: Popular Mid 20th Century Art, that opens at Chatterjee & Lal, Mumbai, in collaboration with curator Aditya Ruia, on Friday.
The Shekhawati collages were being made around the same time that the Cubists in the West started engaging with collage—Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso glued newspaper and canvas “still life” into abstraction. “Coller”, French for glue, lent itself to the practice that came to be known as collage—the assemblage of different forms, using newspaper and magazine clippings, photographs, text and other found objects, juxtaposed against each other to make a new whole. Current events and popular culture entered these works, early modernism indicating how concept would have equal standing with process.
Before computer pyrotechnics, the process of “cut and paste” was an easy facility to move and place an image, altering the surface of the painting—an interface between sculpture and painting was being experimented with. Whatever the impulse for the artists at the time, it engaged some of the best.
Considering Collage at Jhaveri Contemporary, Mumbai, starts with a time lag; in a postcolonial India, including the modernists, as well as a larger contemporary South Asian practice.
Nandalal Bose’s collages are a good starting point in an exhibition that could get confusing—works by 14 artists are on display in this show. With time the confusion clears, understanding creeping in, of the profusion of collage styles covered over several decades. Bose’s small works punch a satirical pack. Straighten Your Back—Pakistan; Modern Grandmother—the titles suggest humorous takes on current events and society.
The singular figures of torn brown paper are embellished with pen strokes, not quite cartoon, not quite real—an in-between Chaplinesque figure keeps it modern in 1954.
Benode Behari Mukherjee, who trained under Bose, uses decoupage done post his eyesight failing; infused with colour, these folk-inspired cutouts are reminiscent of Henri Matisse’s Blue Nude II. Bhupen Khakhar’s work disappointingly lacks the interesting perspective his paintings have—surprising, as with collage one would expect the play to have been more varied. K.G. Subramanyan’s work Grey Studio, done in New York, US, captures the bursting urban busy-ness even as he divides and pastes in trademark grids.
Several energetic F.N. Souza works live on one wall; in Couple on the Beach, a photograph is covered with an overlaid cutout grid and painted over.
While arresting, both these artists offer no deviation from their painting techniques or imagery.
Dashrath Patel stands out for the different mediums he worked with, venturing into coloured and sculpted wood blocks within a frame, and with ceramic. Scattered between the other works, they work as punctuation marks; a well thought of exhibition display tactic.
It’s in the younger artists from South Asia that you see the collage form come into its own. Yamini Nayar’s works have always careened on imminent transformation; in the chaotic assemblage of found objects. Simryn Gill turns the ordinary human into Munch-like aliens peopling a normal world. C.K. Rajan’s small-format collages make cheeky, pithy comments on a modernizing society. Mahbub Shah, in subtle manipulations, using a single page, punches cutouts and rotates them minimally, making text in English take on an Urdu nuance.
Alexander Gorlizki’s graphic works and Apnavi Thacker’s ruminations are subtly altered collages. Anwar Jalal Shemza’s use of wood and colour blocks creates sparse, evocative works; architecture and landscape are redefined. But it is in Muhanned Cader’s accordion book, using pages from the National Geographic magazine, that minimalism in contemporary collage comes into its own—unbound landscapes stretch horizons, concept and craft meld poetically, in a simplicity that is profound beyond the humble material and size.
One would have liked to see a poster as example where collage engages politically; perhaps a Ram Rahman, designed for Sahmat, would have made this almost thorough exploration of postcolonial practice of collage in India complete.
Considering Collage is on display till 24 May, 11am-6pm (Sundays and Mondays closed), at Jhaveri Contemporary, 2, Krishna Niwas, 58A Walkeshwar Road, Mumbai (23693639). Cut & Paste: Popular Mid 20th Century Art will show from 10 May-29 June, 11am-7pm (Sundays and Mondays closed) at Chatterjee & Lal, 01/18 Kamal Mansions, First floor, Arthur Bunder Road, Colaba, Mumbai (22023787).