In 1964, M.F. Husain responded to a mural competition announced by Homi Bhabha with a plan for a 13ft work. It was, true to his flamboyant style, a celebratory piece titled Bharat Bhagya Vidhata. This work adorns a full wall of one of the corridors of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) which Bhabha founded, and the original work that Husain sent is part of Homi Bhabha and Modern Indian Art: The Collection of TIFR, an ongoing show at Mumbai’s National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA).
Bhabha’s appetite for and patronage of art is well-known. He discovered new talent and was part of a group of European aesthetes and critics such as Rudi von Leyden and Walter Langhammer whose efforts facilitated a dialogue between Indian and European artists. The influence of European artists of the time can be seen in the works of, say, a young Husain in the collection on display. Artists outside the city are not represented, and artists from the then prolific Santiniketan School are almost absent, but as curator and gallerist Mortimer Chatterjee writes in his curatorial note, “If the collection can be said to represent one idea or argument more forcefully than any other, it is that of an emerging contemporary art scene brimming with self-confidence.”
Artists who never got their due despite extremely evolved crafts, such as Baburao Sadwelkar, are part of the collection. Most pieces are politically sophisticated, and the politics of some doesn’t necessarily support the work of the organization, which pioneered research in nuclear science. K.H. Ara’s 1976 painting Lest we Forget his Sacrifice, is an oil-on-canvas figurative work which shows Jesus mounted on the crucifix, surrounded by nuclear clouds.
Bharat Bhagya Vidhata. Saanskrut Kumar/Mint
The TIFR owns around 250 artworks, acquired between 1952 and the early 1970s, and the show includes 140 works, estimated at a total price of Rs33 crore (the works are not for sale). Bhavini Pant from TIFR’s archives department took us on a tour of the exhibition and told us the stories behind each painting.
• Bharat Bhagya Vidhata by M.F. Husain, 1963
Husain won the prize in a mural competition announced by Bhabha for TIFR. In this work, the artist found the length and scale to use his freewheeling fluid line—it speaks of an artist at the peak of his form.
• Einstein’s bust by Sir John Epstein, 1955
About 1% of TIFR’s annual revenue was allocated for acquiring art. In 1955, Bhabha purchased a cast-bronze bust of Albert Einstein created by Sir John Epstein, despite much resistance from the institute, for Rs3,818. The amount was 50% of the cost of 32 paintings that had already been bought by him for the institute.
(Clockwise from top left) Angel’s Palace; Head of a Young Man; Einstein’s bust;Untitled; Lest we Forget his Sacrifice .Artwork courtesy Tata Institute of Fundamental Research
•A Husain sketch by Homi Bhabha, 1961
Bhabha himself was a gifted sketcher and he drew this portrait of Husain around the time Husain established himself at home and became known across the world as the torch-bearer of Indian modern art.
A Husain sketch. Artwork courtesy Tata Institute of Fundamental Research
•Untitled by V.S. Gaitonde, 1964
Gaitonde’s stark abstracts of the 1960s are a consummation of his language. TIFR collected many works by the artist through the 1960s and 1970s. In this work, largely in blue, Gaitonde uses a flat background and small bursts of colour in similar hues to accentuate his canvas. TIFR has works by Gaitonde which are comparable, if not superior, to those which have fetched more than Rs2 crore in recent auctions.
•Angel’s Palace by Baburao Sadwelkar, 1958
Baburao Sadwelkar, born in 1928, developed his own distinctive style along with the Progressives but was largely ignored by the mainstream. Sadwelkar was also an art historian and critic. Bhabha collected a range of works by him which reflect his evolution as a painter.
•Lest we Forget his Sacrifice by K.H. Ara, 1976
Christ surrounded by nuclear clouds. This work was a striking shift from Ara’s trademark nudes. If the collection can be said to represent one idea more forcefully than any other, it is that of an emerging contemporary art scene brimming with self-confidence. Ara’s nudes, which Bhabha also collected, are a strong statement against nuclear power. TIFR has been doing pioneering research in nuclear energy and nuclear power since the 1960s.
•Head of a Young Man by Anjolie Ela Menon, 1974
After Bhabha, M.G.K. Menon continued to patronize artists with overtly political artworks. In this beautiful but dark painting, Anjolie Ela Menon captures the zeitgeist of 1974: the ravages of a war and a country under Emergency. The boy’s eyes have a pale, ghostly, downcast expression.
Homi Bhabha and Modern Indian Art: The Collection of TIFR will run till 6 June at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Colaba, Mumbai.
Artwork courtesy Tata Institute of Fundamental Research