Editorial Note: The Avant-Garde in Mumbai

Bhupen Khakhar – Man Leaving (Going Abroad) – 1970

The avant-garde is a symbol of rebellion, of an internal challenge to the hegemony of the formalism of critics, who choose to oftentimes live in the past. The dividing line between living in the past and learning from it is very blurry, and it is oftentimes easy to find oneself on the wrong side of the line. It is this that the avant-garde aims to critique, and this is perfectly encapsulated by the refrain that art historian Griselda Pollock coined: reference, deference, difference.

However, if there is one defining feature of the avant-garde, it would be a forced introspection. The conceptualism that forms the core of avant-garde art and literature forces its products to be reduced to the point where the viewer is forced to search for meaning from within, and is asked to let his own experiences inform his interpretation of that particular piece. Therefore, the objective of such art is for the viewer to lose oneself within it. This reductionism does not preclude complexity in form, it, rather rephrases works of art in a manner that ensures that viewers look at the implications of their own witnessing of the work, even if it is for the few seconds they chance to look at it in their social media feeds. Seeing a single piece of art for a long period of time, and in its historical, social, and cultural context is surely the best way of looking at it, but the quick glance too holds keys to important details, such as the immediacy of certain aspects. For example, Jackson Pollock’s Drip Painting No. 10 at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston almost seems like a painting of a woman, due to the Picasso paintings that it is exhibited alongside. However, at closer viewing, one can see what looks like phallic symbols in the outer edges of the drip painting. Further examination would reveal that the painting’s depth of field is accentuated by thick layers of paint, in a way that is not immediately apparent. Such is the beauty of close, detailed observation, of which there is no substation, but surprising impatience to conduct.

The mainstream history of the avant-garde has been largely focused on the Euro-American artistic tradition. Through this issue, we intend to rephrase the avant-garde in terms of the city of Bombay, and the artistic, social, and cultural traditions that it fosters. This is an avant-garde history of the avant-garde in Mumbai, looking at every form of artistic expression, from the visual arts to prose and poetry.

Bombay has long been the city where the colonial and the “Indian” mixed. The city of dreams, as it was christened by the millions who moved here from the hinterlands of India made this city a prime location for intellectual discourse, one where art and literature would thrive. And it did, despite not having an intellectual tradition that rivalled that of Calcutta’s history of producing academics and artists. Aided by the port and the harbour that gave it its name, Bombay received an influx of art that kept it abreast and well-versed in the happenings of the European art scene.

This is not an attempt to craft a tradition, but rather, to reframe contemporary avant-garde art in the tradition of modernism and the avant-garde of the Western canon, and incorporate Indian perspectives through the text. The avant-garde is far too complex to be described and theorised in the abstract, and current theorisations of the term and its practice have managed to limit itself to the boundaries of the European and American art world. While Duchamp and Courbet do not enjoy the name-recognition that they enjoy elsewhere, there is a new generation of artists, both old and young, who are attempting to synthesise and use knowledge of the arts of the West to create art inspired by the city and by the spirit of the vanguard. For too long, the contemporary art space in Mumbai has been limited by the acceptance of galleries, not by a systematic and thorough process of curation and intellectual discourse. This is a movement away from that path, for we are not fellow travellers. Rather, this is guided by a process that takes into account the shortcomings of previous scholarship, while attempting to bring this phrase and the way of art and life that it represents into more common usage.

The applications of critical literature and theory contextualised solely through the Western Canon would be the instinctual reaction to define the avant-garde in Bombay. A comprehensive study of the avant-garde would look at the contemporary in relation to the ancient, in a way that is not inherently voyeuristic, but makes an attempt at truly understanding the traditions and the cultures from which it is derived. For all the critical acclaim that Pablo Picasso received for Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), his incessant appropriation of the African face masks and artistic traditions received scant little criticism. Picasso even went to the extent of claiming that he had absolutely no knowledge of African tribal art, from which he drew his Primitivism.

On the short drive from Kamla Raheja Vidhyanidhi Institute for Architecture, where Kausik Mukhopadhyay teaches, to Juhu Gymkhana, the veteran artist and professor of art and design quipped that when he went to College, there was a conscious pushback against Dadaism and Abstraction, and that he and his fellow classmates were left to their own devices to figure out the intricacies of these movements. He recounted lively conversations with Tushar Jog, a fellow artist, where they attempted to grapple with the complex ideas that these seemingly simplistic works brought to the forefront.

Not too long before my conversation with Kausik Mukhopadhyay, over a series of phone calls over cold, snowed in winter nights, Delhi-based artist Rajkamal Aich and I quipped about the state of Indian art, which brought up the question: where does the spirit of the avant-garde reside? Does it reside with the socialites of Lutyen’s Delhi, who spend their time using art as social currency, or does it reside with artists who make art through a creative process informed by culture, tradition, and a deep knowledge of the history of art? This was the beginning of a conversation on how the Indian art world attempted to reconcile its inherent voyeurism and appropriation of folk and traditional art forms, with its claims of egalitarianism.

This reflects a change in the way society values art. Previously, contemporary art remained the exclusive domain of the bourgeoisie and students of art, but this demographic has seen a shift. Buoyed by easier access to the arts and conscious movements within the city and online, the arts are witnessing a cultural revival, egged on by the   massive power of social media to reach people who would otherwise have little connection or interest in art. Dominated by close personal ties between key players, the art community too is benefitting from a resurgence in membership, and the increased diversity of ideas. This, is the era of democratised access, one where close relationships are vital but their formation now open to people with otherwise no connection with the art world.

The best case-study for the democratising power of the internet is the slam poetry community. In April 2015, Kommune, a collective of poets and performing artists uploaded their first video onto YouTube. While they were certainly not the first to organise poetry slams in Mumbai, they were the first to put it up online and popularise it through social media. Two years later, in March 2017, UnErase Poetry, a curated platform that adapted the Button Poetry platform to Mumbai’s needs and sensibilities, uploaded its first poem, A Brown Girl’s Guide to Gender, by 17-year old poet Aranya Johar, quickly accumulating over three million views. UnErase was a logical progression in the use of social media to spread both primary and secondary material on art. What is unique about these platforms is the way they introduce members of the public to the art of spoken poetry. There is always an element of performativity that they miss out, but they try their best to mediate in the best possible manner between members of the public and the artists.

Similarly, the way that art is sold, too, has undergone a massive change, through the development of Indian auction houses like Saffronart and online art sales platforms like Art&Found. While both firms differ in the way they deal with art, they share in common a love for the internet and social media, and being based in Bombay. While Saffronart is a more conventional auction house, selling Indian masters, and now expanding its operations globally, Art&Found is more interested in leveraging a curated platform (not unlike UnErase’s) to sell prints, partnering with artists to produce and deliver prints.

The development of the monetary and financial aspect of the art world continues to inform where trends go within the industry, and what percolates into popular culture. It is because of this that I find particularly interesting that Bhupen Khakhar, avant-garde artist extraordinaire, first trained as an accountant, and then pursued an artistic education. The intersection of money and art continues to define what is ‘good art,’ which represents a problematic approach considering that art for many is not a commercial pursuit, but one that is driven by passion. Later in this issue, we explore the artist as an entrepreneur and salesman, a vital consideration in the economy of self-promotion.

The embracing of technology and new media is not the only common denominator in this avant-garde tradition.

Through this issue, we aim to explore the multiple ways in which the avant-garde manifests itself, from the provocative to the subversive. The avant-garde has a complicated relationship with the establishment, and the norms and objectives of the movement are not immediately apparent. By peeling back layer after layer, and engaging in a rigorous and painstaking analysis of the methods of the avant-garde, we finally reach the conclusion that there is simply no single artistic style or disposition that can be classified as being avant-garde. The gambit that Griselda Pollock creates is one of the ways of understanding the movement, and the dispositions of the people and communities behind it.

I hope that you, the reader, find valuable insight in this. The avant-garde exists all around us; it is not a term limited to the sphere of academia or the lexicon of art. If you feel like you want to talk to us about any of the articles, or want to correspond and initiate a conversation with the TMAC team, email us at letters@themumbaiartcollective.com, and we will be happy to carry it forward. I am grateful to the Leslie Centre for the Humanities at Dartmouth College for the grant that made this entire enterprise possible.

Warm Regards,

Ishaan H. Jajodia