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Artist Profile1
Analyzing the philosophy and processes of a painterly genius
Considered one among India's best abstractionists, Gulam Rasool Santosh attained fame for his marvelously mystical paintings that unfolded the secrets of one of our closely followed philosophies not only within the country but also internationally. Over all these years, critics have tried to peep into the mind of this genius and his work as a craftsman, painter, weaver and writer in order to understand the motives, inspirations and the underlying thought behind his mystical work.

Born in 1929 to a modest middle-class family in Srinagar, he hardly had any orientation in art. He had once recounted that he indulged in sketching and drawing from early childhood years. Inspired by the beauty and nature around, he took to a little landscape series, doing several of them before moving onto other art forms and evolving his own unique style. Circumstances, as he had rewound back in an interview, forced him to search for odd jobs such as silk weaving, sign board painting, and even white washing walls to see himself through the tough times after his father’s death. Interestingly, he initially achieved name as a skilful papier-mâché artist.

The struggle for survival allowed him no luxury to focus on art, but he did not give up. It was long though, before he could turn his love for art into practice and take formal lessons in it. The talented painter finally was able to pursue his passion after he won the government scholarship in 1954. He joined Faculty of Fine Arts at M.S. University in Baroda, where he studied under painter N. S. Bendre. And as luck would have it, he soon joined the much-celebrated Progressive Arts Association in Kashmir, soon after India’s Independence, formed at a nudge from S H Raza. He showed his work at many galleries across the country as a leading member of the well-established art association.

G. R. Santosh’s subtle semi-abstract treatment of superb snow-clad houses and the bewildering backwaters on the beautiful banks of river Jhelum revealed his precise visual perception. Although starting out with landscapes, he gradually switched to cubism and sort of cubist landscapes. Though influenced by the style, one could still sense the inherent emotional attachment he had for his state and its haunting, albeit inspiring past, resulting in a refreshing human touch to his work. The scenic and socially fragile, picturesque yet strife-torn Kashmir valley harbored a latent streak of mysticism wherein Buddhist and Hindu tantric cults coexisted along with serene Sufi mysticism. Such diverse influences shaped his creative faculties over time. The intertwined philosophies proved to be a significant influence on his development as an artist. He was deeply moved in particular, by a visit to the holy Amarnath caves in the mid 1960’s.

The artist even took a break from painting to research the traits of Kashmir Shaivism (a sect of Shiva followers) and Tantra (mysticism). Inspired by the twin philosophies, he combined the masculine male and fabulous female features to create fascinating near-abstract forms, subtly infused with both sexual and spiritual energies. Driven by a deep rooted and enigmatic esoteric worldview, which hinged on the primordial Purusha-Prakriti concept of cosmic creation, his oeuvre – soaked in the simultaneously soothing and teeming thought of tantra – came to be known as the Neo-Tantric school or form of painting.

Tracing his artistic influences and inspirations, a series of solo exhibits of his work took place at Dhoomimal Art Gallery, New Delhi (1994); Little Theatre Gallery, Delhi (1991); Jehangir Art Gallery, Mumbai (1989); Dhoomimal Art Gallery, Delhi (1985, 1967); ‘Hirschhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C. (1982); Pundole Art Gallery, Mumbai (1969); Revel Gallery, New York (1964); Gallery Mayer, New York, Kolkata, Kabul, Tel Aviv (1963,65); and galleries in Srinagar and Mumbai (1953,57,59,62,64).

Apart from showcases of his work at Royal Academy of Art, London (1982), International Triennale, LKA, Delhi (1982, 68,78,82); Sao Paulo Biennale, Brazil (1969, 63); Mainichi Biennale, Japan (1965); and II Paris Biennale, France (1961), among his selected posthumous exhibitions are ‘Manifestations VI, V ,and IV ', Delhi Art Gallery (2011, 2010); 'Above and Beyond', Aicon Gallery, London (2010); 'Bharat Ratna! ', Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (2009); 'The Root of Everything', Gallery Mementos, Bangalore (2009); ‘Modern India’ courtesy Institut Valencià d'Art Modern & Casa Asia at Valencia, Spain (2008-09); 'Moderns', Royal Cultural Centre, Amman, Jordan courtesy LKA, Delhi (2008); ‘Highlights from the Herwitz Collection, Aicon Gallery, New York (2007); ‘Unrealistically’, ArtsIndia, NY (2005); and ‘Contours of Modernity’, Aliso Viejo, CA (2005).

In appreciation of his invaluable contribution to the domain of art, he received several honors and awards such as Kala Ratna Award, AIFACS, New Delhi (1991); Kalhana Award, The Kashmir Education & Science Society, Delhi (1985); Artist of the Year, Sahitya Kala Parishad, Delhi (1984); Sahitya Akademi Award for ‘Besukh Ruh’ (a collection of poems, 1979); Padma Shri from the Government of India (1977); National Award from Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi (1973, 1964, 1957); The Governor of Bombay Prize (1955-56); and Cultural Scholarship, Government of India (1954-56).

In his wonderful work, the peculiar pictorial elements - mostly ubiquitous geometrical shapes like a circle, a straight line, a triangle, a plain pentagon or simply a six pointed star and polygon – suggested a deeper synergy and confluence of energy. A superb colorist, G. R. Santosh he infused his compositions with intricate patterns done in watercolor, oil and later acrylic – mostly in translucent shades like red, black & white. There was a silent streak of self-introspection evident in his paintings, which at times, revolved around the theme of chronic, inexpressible loneliness that enveloped modern man. His landscape, as if, depicted the vicissitudes of heart rather than finer points of any geographical region.

The renowned artist breathed his last on March 10, 1997, leaving behind a rich and unparalleled legacy.