15 Oct 2022  |   04:23am IST

Nasreen Mohamedi: Against the Grain

Nasreen Mohamedi: Against the Grain

Vivek Menezes


ncommon paradoxes abound in the art, reputation and startling posthumous trajectory of Nasreen Mohamedi, the enigmatic modernist who died at 53 in 1990. In the past two decades, her spare, subtle oeuvre – in paintings, drawings and photographs – has been appropriated wildly divergently by institutions around the world. In the process, mountains of scattershot verbiage have piled up about an artistwho fundamentally resists categorization. Thus, it is our good fortune the landmark exhibition Nasreen Mohamedi, From the Glenbarra Art Museum to India opened yesterday at Sunaparanta, Goa Centre of the Arts in Panjim, and we have until November 22 to directly view an excellent body of work from one of the most important artists of the 20th century.

There are so many different takes about this great minimalist that it inevitably recalls the parable about blind men and the elephant (where each one imagines the whole based on fragmentary understanding). Way back in 1961, just before this Karachi-born and London-trained adept headed to Paris, Richard Bartholomew set the pattern with his assessment of “graphics in the truest sense of the word [and] calligraphy as pure as classical Chinese.” That pattern of looking to far horizons to describe Mohamedi’s work has persisted. In the monumental new 20th Century Indian Art: Modern, Post- Independence Contemporary (edited by Partha Mitter, Parul Dave Mukherji and Rakhee Balaram for Thames & Hudson) Grant Watson nails down the “tendency to discuss Mohamedi’s work in terms other than simply formal ones, and to feel the need to allude to a range of additional interpretations.”

Watson cites one list from Geeta Kapur: “Zen Buddhism, Islamic architecture, Sufi poetry, Persian calligraphy, and a poetics drawn from nature or, rather, from a culturally favoured geography – desert horizon, the moon’s life cycle, the Arabian Sea connecting the shores of India and Arabia. Also modern technology, precision instruments, elegant cars and heavy cameras, all of which she handled at ease.” But that’s not all. In her soulful, Elegy For An Unclaimed Beloved: Nasreen Mohamedi 1937-1990 – it is in Glenbarra Art Museum’s elegant exhibition catalogue – Kapur adds even more references and allusions: vacana poetry, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Abelard and Heloise, Camus, Malevich and Klee and on and on.

From the same catalogue, I liked Emilia Terraciano’s refreshingly focused approach: “Mohamedi’s drawings are the result of careful perceptual translations of her immediate environment.” She accurately roots this artist in “commitment to abstraction” acknowledging how “that emerged against the grain of contemporary trends within the Indian context. In this respect, her work continues to complicate and unsettle categories within Indian art history.”

Here, of course, is another refraction of the tragedy of the Indian art world in the 21st century, which spills over with ersatz “glamour” and the social anxieties of the newly rich, but backs up the hype with almost nothing of value: nearly zero scholarship, broken authentication, legions of crooks, and the absence of even the minimal level of connoisseurshiprequired to cleanse its own fraudulence. In this miasma of mediocrity, neck-deep in fakes, anyone can say anything. Which brings us directly to Goa’s own VS Gaitonde, another toweringly great abstractionist, who provides an uncanny doppelgänger to Mohamedi, not least because their ouevres keep on being subjected to the most ludicrous flights of critical/theoretical fantasy. There’s an unmistakable symmetry between their art practices and commercial revivals. The best way to understand one is alongside the other.

In her outstanding 2016 Vasudeo Santu Gaitonde: Sonata of Solitude, Meera Menezes describes one of the crucial seedbeds of the transdisciplinary modernist impulse in India, after the Progressive Artist’s Group “gradually disbanded”: “In the early 1950s, the art scene [in postcolonial Bombay] received a fillip with the establishment of the Jehangir Art Gallery and the Bhulabhai Memorial Institute.” The first one still flourishes. The latter was “a nerve centre where the variegated strands of artistic creativity conjoined to spark new ideas and energise both the Bombay art scene and the artists contributing to it.”

Menezes vividly describes how “an old, two-storey family home was partitioned to offer much-needed studio space to Gaitonde and the other artists who worked there – Dashrath Patel, M F Husain, Prafulla Joshi, Madhav Satwalekar, Homi Patel, graphic designers Ralli Jacob and his wife, ceramic artist Perin, and sculptors Adi Davierwala and Piloo Pochkhanwala. Later, Tyeb Mehta’s wife, Sakina, ran a little bookshop on the verandah…It was here that director Ebrahim Alkazi ran his theatre unit’s School of Dramatic Art and where Ravi Shankar established the Kinnara School of Music…There were apparently no locks on the studio doors, which allowed artists to drift in and out of each other’s spaces, exchanging opinions and ideas.”

In this freewheeling environment, India’s pre-eminent abstractionists found deep resonance in each other. Menezes quotes Krishen Khanna: “Nasreen was very close to Gai. She worshipped him.” Their connectionbecame literally indelible. In Passage and Placement: Nasreen Mohamedi (2009), Grant Watson writes that “[in] Gaitonde’s almost monochrome canvases and their watery ambient spaces interrupted by areas of turbulence and surface distortion, there are correspondences with Mohamedi’s oils, her collages and her works on paper from the early 1960s” while in Stirworld (2020), Rahul Kumar reports becoming confused at Sotheby’s: “I was now even more convinced that the work on the left ought to be another Gaitonde [and] examined the canvas up close. Carefully combed all corners, looking for the signature. But there was none. Finally, I referred to the caption-label, and lo and behold… Nasreen Mohamedi.”

Another significant factor connects these two, and most of their cohort. That is, almost no one cared about them “in the moment” – with the exception of their artist colleagues – and both died without receiving even a fraction of the attention (not to mention commercial success) that is now showered on their work. Prior to this inherently dubious 21st century “boom”, very few took the time to study these unjustly overlooked exemplars, and even fewer possessed foresight enough to dig into their pockets and buy their works. That is how so many milestone modern Indian artworks have landed up in Japan – where the Glenbarra Art Museum is located in the city of Himeji in Hyōgo Prefecture – due to the solitary, single-minded obsessions of one very unusual fish processing magnate. This is the story of Masanori Fukuoka.

Fukuoka was born in Himeji in 1951, and his museum website tells us that “he was initially drawn to India as it was the seat of Buddhist learning.” After visiting in 1975, he returned many times before buying his first painting in 1990, “not as a collector but as a self-appointed envoy for Indian art in Japan.” Via interpreter and email (although he is currently in Goa), this remarkable collector told me he was drawn to how Mohamedi and Gaitonde and their ilk “were defining themselves in post-colonial India and the new nation state. They were trying to situate themselves not only within the larger canon of art history and artistic legacies, but within the field. They were paying attention to the kind of art history they wanted to belong to. In doing so, they re-scripted the future of art. That whole generation of artists resonated with me.I was intrigued by their multi-faceted and intersecting practices, and the many trajectories that they took towards expanding Indian art history, making it much more riveting with so much texture and complexity.”

In recent years, endlessly tedious reams have been written about Mohamedi, which makes Fukuoka’s unpretentious clarity so welcome: “I felt that it was time to bring Nasreen’s critical work to the Indian public where a large and diverse audience can have access to it, and can gain new insights into how she deviated from existing categories within Indian art history.Nasreen’s utmost devotion to exploring the limits of perception has both fascinated and humbled me. Both a philosopher and phenomenologist, she forged a new aesthetic, creating her own vocabulary of abstraction morphing shadows and shapes of the natural world into sparse geometric patterns and lines. The sea was an enduring source of inspiration for Nasreen Mohamedi. She revisited it repeatedly in her drawings, paintings and photographs. In Goa where the sea remains an integral part of the experience, Sunaparanta provided the ideal setting to kick start this travelling exhibition.”


Iddhar Udhar