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Master artists ‘in search of the vernacular’
Featured in a significant exhibition, entitled ‘In Search of The Vernacular’ are the works of Post-Independence South Asian Masters, including Jamini Roy, Abindranath Tagore, Nadalal Bose, F. N. Souza, S. H. Raza Anjolie Ela Menon, Bikash Bhattacharjee, Sadequain, Jagdish Swaminathan, M. F. Husain, and Laxma Goud.

An accompanying note to the show at Aicon Gallery, New York, states: “Several Indian artists since the beginning of the 20th century have attempted to articulate a vernacular visual language that has often taken the form of taking Western art as something which had to be either rejected outright, or significantly changed in order to address an Indian vernacular.”

To illustrate the point, the organizers cite the example of artist Abanindranath Tagore who deliberately sought an indigenous style through firstly referencing the Mughal manner and subsequently through the development of a pan-Asian style. Jamini Roy is another noteworthy example. He initially produced works in a hybridized post-impressionist style, which echoed Seurat and Van Gogh before turning towards the paintings made outside Kalighat temples.

The curatorial note explains: “His switchover from Western Modernism is a very pronounced one, yet paradoxically it is then possible to read his subsequent development in parallel to Modernism's increasing move towards a flattened picture plane. So somewhat paradoxically, in turning away from Western Modernism in order to articulate a new vernacular tradition, he aligned himself with Modernism's stripping back of ornament in favor of line and color planes.”

If Jamini Roy's rejection of the then modern style of painting and his foray into the realm of Bengali folk paintings marked a new beginning in the history of Indian modern art, Abanindranath Tagore viewed art as work being strung together on a sustained level and continuously. On the other hand, Nandalal Bose played a leading role in the renaissance of art in India. His integrity and intent idealism were reflected as well as widened with his nationalistic consciousness, his commitment for classical and folk art, along with its underlying spirituality and symbolism. He was equally fascinated by nature and all her colors.

Several artists who followed Jamini Roy employed a strategy of utilizing Western Modernism albeit yoked to Indian subject matter. These included Souza, Husain and others associated with the Progressive Artists' Group (PAG). They looked toward Western Modernism, even while trying to make it India- specific, often foregrounding rural inhabitants of the country as a way to mirror its life.

M. F. Husain is the most recognized figure of modern and contemporary Indian art. Themes in his work have repeatedly returned to his cultural roots, but he has embraced diverse influences, including the cinematography of Buñuel, folk, tribal as well as mythological figures to create vibrantly contemporary, living art forms.

An iconoclast known for his powerful imagery, F. N. Souza’s repertoire of subjects covers nudes, icons of Christianity, still life and landscape, all rendered boldly in a frenzied distortion of form. A recurrent theme in his work is the sexual tensions and friction within the relationships and their ensuing conflicts. S. H. Raza's subject, style and technique have evolved in distinct stages through his migration to France, his interaction with Abstract Expressionism through the 1950s and 1960s and his return to a core Indian aesthetic philosophy in the 1970's. Breaking away from frames like nation and specific locations in time and space, his body of work is trans-cultural in its appeal.

Among the other artists featured, Sadequain Naqqash, one of the first Pakistani artists to gain international recognition, launched his career with an award from the 1961 Biennale de Pari. Born in Amroha, India, he is recognized as an astute calligrapher and painter, responsible for bringing the Islamic calligraphy into the mainstream. Last but not the least, Laxma Goud is recognized for his graceful, yet powerful line drawings, etchings and watercolors. His simple images reflect an idyllic reality under threat owing to urbanization. The works recreate the rural landscape as if it’s frozen in time.

The curatorial note concludes: “It’s perhaps correct to start to trace a complex pattern of rejection, influence and echoing between these artists working in India and Western Modernism in the various ways they attempt to articulate a vernacular visual language. This survey exhibition attempts to tease out some of those complexities.”