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‘Bharat Ratna’: Jewels of modern Indian art.
A new exhibition currently on view at Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Boston, offers a view of exquisite paintings from the captivating Chaudhri Collection. In what is described as one of the most significant exhibits of Indian art at a major US museum in the last several decades, paintings by established artists from the country, including S. H. Raza, F. N. Souza, and M. F. Husain among others are on display.

‘Bharat Ratna’ literally means the ‘Jewel of India’. Staying true to its name, it includes a fine selection of outstanding artworks by some of India’s most noteworthy modern painters that stand for an intriguing international synthesis of visual traditions, embracing a heritage colored by the rich Indian art narrative, myths coupled with western modernism and classical traditions.

Sourced from exquisite treasures collected by Mr. and Mrs. Rajiv Jahangir Chaudhri, it focuses on a generation of post-Independence artists. Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund, the MFA director, terms it as one of the most outstanding examples of modernist & contemporary Indian art, which document the evolution of an influential artistic period in India.

Rajiv Chaudhri has been quoted as saying, “I firmly believe in the idea that the art of all ages and regions is the common heritage of mankind. Since Greek, Chinese and Egyptian art are all part of my heritage, it follows that I also feel Indian art is, or should be, an integral part of the heritage of Europe, America and other regions of the world.” The museum, recognized for the brilliant quality and vast scope of its collection with over 450,000 objects, strives to attain this aim.

A curatorial note to the show at the MFA’s Indian Paintings and Decorative Arts Gallery, explains: “The vibrant collection represents some of the finest examples of post-Independence Indian art. It offers a visually exciting dialogue between the deeply rooted traditions of India, the multiple different approaches by Indian artists and the evolving modernism of western art, in the aftermath of Independence, to define their own and ‘Indian’ art.”

The spotlight is clearly on luminaries associated with the Progressive Artists Group (PAG) that formed an influential and important artistic avant-garde at a crucial transitional moment in the Indian history. Reacting against the nationalist and conservative precepts of the Bengal School, the Progressives wove principles of western modernism into the rich fabric of Indian art.

Their paintings—often created with vivid hues and abstract imagery—reflect the unsettled period of artistic creation that occurred as India struggled to achieve independence from British colonial rule, the bloody Partition and the heady, idealistic period that followed, of fashioning a new India and new Indian art as seen Husain’s golden-toned Ganesh Darwaza (1964).

Equally vibrant is an untitled work from the 1975 Rajasthan Series by Raza that evokes the brilliant colors of Rajasthani and Jain miniatures in its spirited depiction of the countryside. In contrast, Souza’s more contemplative painting, entitled ‘Man and Woman’ (1954), draws from his strict Catholic upbringing in Goa’s Portuguese colony, whereas Ara’s ‘Bharata Natya’ depicts famous temple dancer Ram Gopal in classical pose with a keen eye for the natural fluidity of the body.

Other artists like V. S. Gaitonde, Akbar Padamsee, Krishen Khanna, Tyeb Mehta and Ram Kumar, who joined the Progressives later, are also represented. Gaitonde’s lush tonal landscape Untitled (1970) shows his meticulous attention to the nuances of light, space and color. On the other hand, Ram Kumar switched from the stylized figure painting to a spiritual touch to his native landscape as evident in his Untitled (1970) that features a sweeping array of greens, grays, blues and oranges.

Its drama contrasts with the poignancy of Tyeb Mehta’s ‘Falling Figure with Bird’ (1988) that exudes the social upheaval of the Indian partition. An Untitled (1960) by Avinash Chandra shows his boldly colored, sensually, abstract streak reminiscent of mosaics or stained glass. ‘Bharat Ratna’ also features Arpita Singh’s ‘Munna Appa’s Kitchen’ (1994), a dream-like, densely colored painting that captures a magical realm where familiar objects assume a life unto themselves around a middle-aged woman. ‘The Tree, the Bird, the Shadow’ (1981) by Jagdish Swaminathan is also showcased. Paintings by K. K. Hebbar, G. R, Santosh, Ganesh Pyne and Jehangir Sabavala are also on view.

The divergent works featured in ‘Bharat Ratna’ underline the fascinating mediation and dialogue between the indigenous and foreign, the sacred and secular and the traditional and modern in an effort by Indian artists who sought an independent identity.