Revolutionaries of Indian Art: Revisiting the Kerala Radicals Today

Shankar Tripathi

Over the course of preparing to write this article, I stumbled upon two articles on the auction house Christie’s website. They talked about the life and art of two of India’s prolific artists, F.N. Souza and S.H. Raza. Reading through the lucidly detailed introduction of these stalwarts in modern Indian art on Christie’s website, what stood out for me, were the entries that spoke of their involvement with the Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG) and was referred to it as India’s most radical art movement. 

 

Bold as the claim may be, it’s not difficult to understand why they called the PAG so. Orientalism had depicted Indian art as being all about multi-limbed, grotesque ‘monsters’ or peasant landscapes (1). The PAG artists broke out of this mould and  wedded their art with modernist trends of Europe. In Souza’s nude drawings or Raza’s geometric abstractions, Europeans were surprised to find ‘modern’ ideas that defied their expectations of Indian art. For them, these artists were nothing short of being radical.

 

The PAG’s involvement in shaping the direction taken by Indian art post-Independence cannot be stressed enough. But did that really make it ‘India’s most radical art movement underscoring several other art movements that’d come after it?’ 

 

Surely, naming someone a radical doesn’t automatically make them one. However, before coming to that, we need to address the fallacy in the West’s logic of calling PAG the most radical art group. The growth of the Calcutta and Bombay school of art owed a debt to the presence of British administrators that brought new ‘modern’ trends (Santhiniketan also saw a Bauhaus exhibition which attracted international attention) (2). Coupled with the moralizing agency of paternalism and Orientalism, Indian artists found their art under the influence of Western ideas. This was the stage on which the PAG’s curtain rose (3).   

 

Such western influences meant that the PAG behaved as like any other art movement in the world, taking forward the preceding movements and styles and responding to their contemporary circumstances.  One can argue then that it was only natural that these artists behaved in the way they did, considering the interaction they had with international artists, events, and the patronage their established (and privileged) positions provided. This is also the reason the PAG overshadowed other movements of the era which may have been more radical for its time — such as the Kerala Radicals.  

 

Before delving into the the what made the Kerala Radicals radical,  I concede that asserting who or what is radical is a subjective interpretation based on the socio-political locations and  perspectives of individuals, but in this case, as we shall see below, Indian art historiography and the developing trends in an early post-modern India decided for us what place the Kerala Radicals would come to have. Over the course of this article, I would highlight the existence of a group of artists from the 1980s that have largely been absent from major narratives surrounding Indian art. Our cultural traditions today are bogged down in a quagmire of political landmines and elitist narratives. That makes it all the more necessary to remember these artists.

 

A new kind of art

The Indian Radical Painters' and Sculptors' Association (also known as the Kerala Radicals or the Radical Group) comprised artists who (all but one) hailed from the state of Kerala. Growing up in a state famed for its high literacy rate and subsisting on a diet of Marxism, the artists were part of an intelligentsia that was naturally disposed to leftist politics. Their reproach towards the growing commercialization of the art world found a strong voice when they formalized in 1987 with the exhibition ‘Questions and Dialogue’ held at Baroda’s Faculty of Fine Arts (4).

 

The artists fostered their ideological leaning in an environment which for them reeked of fascist propensities - the period of Emergency from 1975 to 1977 saw them plugged in an atmosphere that constantly demanded agitations and street protests. Art for them could no longer shy itself away from politics and they utilized their talents in expressing the grievances and conditions of oppression, marginality, and existential terror that was settling in those decades.

 

Interestingly, though the PAG artists were also Marxists in their ideological standing, an important distinction explains why they can’t be placed along with the Radicals. The PAG was hurrying to shed a historical ‘burden’ that they thought would prevent their growth (5).  Indian art historically was courtly and artisanal, and the PAG was quick to disassociate from that image. They were quick in identifying themselves with an aesthetic notion of avant-gardism that individuated the self from societal issues and concerned itself only with an autonomous logic of art practice. This orthodox communist epistemology largely ignored immediate concerns of caste, gender, and ethnicity. Furthermore, their marriage with the European Salon/gallery system of presenting their art alienated them more from the common (and often impoverished) masses. What all this meant was that the PAG (and subsequent artists) was most suited to cater to a wealthy and privileged upper-class. 

 

It was only by the 1970s that things started changing. The Radical Group was one of the first to break away from the notion of an aesthetic avant-garde to a political avant-garde that negotiated the presence of art rooted in the political (6). Art in India began concerning itself with issues of the community. More importantly, this also marked the point where the Radical Group broke away from figurative, narrative, and revivalist tendencies of the dominant art traditions that existed then. They found an affinity with the German expressionist movement (this was a multi-faceted art movement during the interwar period that challenged the social conservatism and strict bourgeois tendencies over the society. Artists like Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc broke away from straightforward compositions and produced raw and emotionally charged works of art that spoke for the muzzled mass) which resonated with their connection with the peasants and the proletariat (7).

 

The existence of the Radical Group found an echo with what Jacques Derrida understood as a ‘Politics of Friendship,’ where a new radical friendship would find its future in the future of the political, restaging an important coupling of friendship/enmity and private/public life (8). Yet for all this, the Radical Group has had a fraught legacy of several unresolved issues - something which makes remembering them today even more necessary.

 

The politics of exclusion

 

If it was natural for the PAG to tread the path they did, the same wasn’t the case with who got to tread (and who we got to know about) in the field of Indian art historiography. To understand the position of the Radical Group as the most radical group is to understand its exclusion from the mainstream narrative. To understand that is to realize that there has been little to no space for a radical presence in Indian art. 

 

How did we arrive at this conclusion? The narrative that surrounds developments in Indian art, till the 1970s, very comfortably dealt with art that was ideologically ‘neutral’ (or in resonance with the center’s political agenda). This largely meant tracing the history of an art practice that was part of a nation-building process; exalting the legacy of the Calcutta school or the Bombay school, highlighted the presence of a ‘modern’ Indian art that dealt with our historical identity and grappled with modern propensities. It was a reaction against the colonial idea of an undistinguished heritage. Narrative and revivalist art formed the backbone, and later the PAG’s success abroad signaled the arrival of Indian art that leapfrogged our cultural development in the eyes of the world (9).

 

The presence of the Radical Group introduced a disruption in this mainstream narrative. For the first time, there emerged a conscious effort on the part of the artist to merge politics with art, lending a voice to those on the margins, challenging the hegemony maintained by the center. Class struggle properly found itself a vehicle of creative expression which allowed the subaltern to raise their voice. Till now, art was either a splinter of cultural development, a mark of (high, elitist) society, or a leisurely activity - both elements that aided the central positions of power. The emergence of the Radical Group went entirely against this; it wasn’t just anti-establishment, but also seen as anti-art (art as what was thought it should be). 

 

Despite all their efforts, unfortunately, their political response met with a sudden end which quickly allowed the elitist traditions to relegate them to an anecdotal and marginalized position in Indian art history. It’s not hard to see why this was so. For one, the Radicals espoused an idea of art that dissented in the face of established norms. The memories of the Emergency and the clampdown on creative expression inspired the Radicals to direct their attack on central agencies dictating narratives. This naturally put a target on their back. It is also possible to imagine a polemic by the center against a Marxist ideology of the artists that barred them from breaking the mold of the mainstream narrative. 

 

The narrative that does ultimately deal with the Radicals hasn’t escaped criticism either. Shivaji K. Pannikar, in response to the writings of Geeta Kapur and Ashish Rajadhyaksha (both of whom criticized the Radicals for not comprehending capitalism as a totality) argued that it was futile to place a group that emerged from local circumstances in a national narrative because that would be pandering to a ‘framework of elitist historiography,’ a framework that played to the assertions of the elite mainstream. For Pannikar, the Radical Group’s different view of history which didn’t toe the line laid by the accepted narrative, didn’t automatically mean it was a wrong or unworkable view (10).

 

One final (and fragile) reason remains - there is little to no space for suicide, let alone an artist’s suicide. The Radical Group found itself dismantled when its leader, sculptor K.P. Krishnakumar died by suicide in late December 1989. Anita Dube, the only female and non-Keralite member of the group, noted several calamitous meetings where ‘all latent contradictions within the Group erupted violently, and a decision was taken to disband and freeze activity for one year.’ This was a shocking and humiliating blow to the leadership of Krishnakumar (already in poor health by then) who till the very end was utterly sincere ‘about the intoxicating idea of revolutionary praxis as the anchoring necessity’ of his life (11). When in 2012 Krishnakumar’s works were displayed at the inaugural Kochi Muziris Biennale, after more than twenty years, the magnitude of the catastrophe and its silence spoke loudly.

 

Finding the radical today

 

Why were Krishnakumar’s works included in the Biennale? For all its mettle, the Radical Group’s short and unsung existence in an art ecosystem which wasn’t kind to them made for an enigmatic context of how his works found an audience at one of Asia’s biggest Biennale. The answer however can be decrypted with ease. Placing Krishnakumar’s work at the Biennale rooted the exhibition to the region’s history of leftist politics, something that was visibly overt in the Radical Group’s idea of what art should be like. More importantly, however - and to answer the title of this section - it would seem that after more than two decades, the essence of what the Radicals fought for has found recognition.

 

An eurocentric grip has historically had a tight hold on what is accepted in our socio-cultural-political systems (art and its scholarship being no exception). It has only been in this century that third-world countries have lumbered ahead to challenge capitalist hegemonies and South Asian (and Indian) narratives surrounding art have certainly jumped on this train. To reorient and recontextualize ideas and histories in a globalizing stage, Krishnakumar and the Radical Group’s inclusion at the world stage signaled a new beginning, a beginning that has found a resounding voice in the art of our country with the onset of postmodernism.  

 

By the 1990s-early 2000s, Indian art found an expression that went beyond basic aesthetic appeasement. Whereas earlier Indian art was seen as a nation-building exercise to cement a ‘glorious past’ and establish an identity separate from colonial rule, rooting art in the political now allowed artists to focus more on issues plaguing our society. Issues like that of gender, violence, communalism found a ready voice on foreign and domestic soil, and moments like the Babri Masjid demolition only exacerbated these sentiments of expression. If ideas through political discourse found violent opposition, creativity through art presented the ideas in an unique and different manner that resonated more with the common masses.

 

Today this has interestingly transformed the genre of what is political art, or rather, protest art. If earlier art was something meant to be made on cloth canvases or banners, the explosion of technology and access to the internet has democratized art further.   With social media permeating all aspects of our lives, illustrators and digital artists are taking to platforms such as Instagram, Twitter and Facebook to present their art and spread awareness. It is interesting to note that in a country where a large part of the populace continues to live in semi-developed or rural settings, the presence of satellite television is a common sight. And while it is necessary to note that social differences won’t be done away with at the click of a button, the overwhelming presence and distribution of digital art has certainly meant that the idea of ‘art’ is no longer confined to the top one percent. 

 

This is important, for it (unknowingly) pays homage to another legacy of the Radical Group. As we noted above, groups like the PAG were quick to disassociate with historical conceptions of Indian artists, and with the coming of modernism this meant the adoption of European ideas. An important introduction here was of the Salon/gallery system. Art was now exhibited at (and consequently confined to) static places that were rooted in alien customs and understandings. While this aided the inclusion of our art within a global ecosystem, it also alienated the common people from it. Viewing art (in all its clothing and manners) was now an experience in itself, an experience that people couldn’t afford with low rates of income and literacy.

 

It was here that the Radicals sought a change, resolving to bring back the earlier traditions that included the viewer as an active participant in the process. Whether it were large-scale village artisan guilds or open workshops like those of the Tagores or Nandalal Bose, there were ample precedents for the Radicals to look upon, who kept their exhibitions in common grounds, markets, and public spaces. In fact, the artists of the group also utilized everyday materials like stone, wood, and cement in their works that resonated more with the realities of the common people (12). For example, N.N. Rimzon’s work Speaking Stones (1998) focused on communal violence with the visual of a crouching female figure (shielding its eyes) while surrounded by naturally sharp stones that are kept on photographs of violence and destruction.

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Image courtesy of Asia Art Archive

With all of this, it would certainly be an audacious task if I set out to trace the history of the Radical Group in this space - that has not been my intention, and beyond the need for a bigger space to properly write about each artist and their work, that’s a task art historians have to take up; a task long ignored otherwise. Instead of that, my aim here has been to try placing their existence in our history. We’ve time and again found ourselves in a state of social upheaval and transformation, and with those movements have come new forms of expression. From sit-ins and protest marches to flash mobs and street art (especially roadside graffiti), today’s generation has found unique and creative ways to provide booming calls for mobilization against polarizing rhetoric and hegemonic structures. Even when we find an intelligentsia entrenched in dominant structures and slaps of sedition constantly (and scarily) across our faces, the essence of the Radical Group’s political avant-gardism is something that echoes clearly with artists, journalists, and students today. 

 

While reading about the influences that inspired the Kerala Radicals, I came upon a conversation between the German playwright Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin. Brecht, a product of German Expressionism himself, spoke of Kafka: "...whereas the type of petit-bourgeois current today - that is, the fascist - decides in the face of this situation to exert his iron, indomitable will, Kafka hardly resists; his is wise. Where the fascist imposes heroism, he poses questions."13 Our social predicaments today echo what Brecht understood of Kafka's The Trial. He observed how society could spiral down the path of the book’s nightmarish reality if things didn't change. Situating and understanding the presence of groups like the Radicals would then be one step in the direction of understanding and being more inclusive about subaltern, lesser-known histories - our histories (13).

Notes

 

  1. https://worldhistoryconnected.press.uillinois.edu/12.1/br_hagens.html, https://www.jstor.org/stable/616150?seq=1 Partha Mitter’s book provides excellent insight on European reaction and Oriental scholarship to Indian art.

  2. https://www.hatjecantz.de/the-bauhaus-in-calcutta-5790-1.html.

  3. https://www.sothebys.com/en/articles/the-legacy-of-the-progressive-artists-group and https://www.artisera.com/blogs/expressions/the-progressive-artists-group-and-its-impact-on-indian-modern-art.

  4. Anita Dube’s article goes over the details of the Radical Group (point 11). Another article is S Jha’s introduction https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/678339. A general introduction is found here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_Radical_Painters%27_and_Sculptors%27_Association#:~:text=The%20Indian%20Radical%20Painters'%20and,of%20Keralites%20working%20in%20Baroda

  5. Refer to point 3.

  6. http://www.joaap.org/3/Katsiaficas.htm

  7. Refer to point 4.

  8. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26303875?seq=1

  9. Refer to point 3; and https://www.artisera.com/blogs/expressions/how-the-bengal-school-of-art-changed-colonial-indias-art-landscape 

  10. Shivaji K. Panikkar, ‘From Trivandrum to Baroda and Back: A Re-Reading,’ Nandan, vol.XXVI, 2006. https://vdocuments.mx/from-tri-van-drum-to-baroda-and-back.html 

  11. Anita Dube, ‘Midnight Dreams: The Tragedy of a Lone Revolutionary,’ Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context and Enquiry, vol.XXXVI, 2014 https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.1086/678338 

  12. Refer to point 4 and 9.

  13. Walter Benjamin, ‘Reflections,’ Harvest/HBJ, 1979, page 209 http://cscs.res.in/irps/inter-asia-cultural-studies-summer-school-2018/all-readings/benjamin-walter-reflections 

Shankar Tripathi is a graduate student of art history, currently studying at Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi. His primary interests, among several, lie in art, culture, history, and having good coffee. His works have been featured in various platforms such as The Punch Magazine, Standpoint, Live Wire, Hindu College Gazette, and Art Fervour. Mostly found with a book in hand, his to-do bucket list is capped with the wish to loot the British Museum (someday).