by Parvez Kabir
‘Place for People’  is generally known as the exhibition which signalled the transition from modernist to postmodernist art in India. It featured six artists whose practices were threaded by a common interest in figuration and narration. Their approach is best recognized in the canvases of Ghulammohammed Sheikh and Bhupen Khakkar. In there, depictions of everyday life, in all its humble plenitude offer a stage for human dramas to be played out; dramas where fact, fiction, experience and desire intermingle in the form of storytelling. These stories, personal or communitarian, situate the self into the collective, giving visibility to the social subjects and thereby moving away from the formalist closures of modern art. My interest, however, lies less with the exhibits of this show, and more with a critical note, penned by Geeta Kapur in defence of the artists and their practice.
Three decades separate us from this essay. This distantness, with all that have happened in between over the world horizon of culture and politics, may not help us share the arguments put forward here. Much of its polemic; the partisanal interpretation of tradition or the flattening out of the realms of representation and realpolitik may not appeal to us anymore. But then, we’ll do good to remember that this essay was written against an already institutionalized form of Indian Modernism. And who doesn’t know that its practitioners ranged from the revivalists to the indeginists, from the symbolists to the transcendentalists; from the naïve to the profound; always ready to shun everything that has to do with depiction and storytelling!
This is why it is all the more pleasant to see, that to state her concerns, the author of this essay does not pen an arrogant, chauvinistic manifesto as was the custom those days, but rather chooses to reason with sensibility and logic.
The essay categorically establishes the centeredness of the human figure in traditional Indian Art, and stands by depiction in itself. It hails the corporeality of the figure against its much celebrated spirituality, and recognizes its irreducible presence in narrative representations throughout history. From there, it moves on to show the problematic caused by the strategic suspension of differences between modern oriental and occidental arts, in favour of a universalist eclecticism. This apparent suspension, the author correctly observes, does ultimately settle with a mutable language, mirroring forms across traditions without a care for lived contexts. Moving on, the essay sums up the overall character of modernist art, its symbolizing attitude and its excessive reliance on formal syntheses. Finally, it goes on to state that the present scenario calls for representational modes and solutions away from the already exhausted ones; and that it can best be met by a praxis that draws its resources from life: lived, experienced and articulated by real subjects.
All these critical observations taken together, it transpires that the essay had introduced a fairly new paradigm for art practice in its time. That it occupies a special place in our art critical heritage, only affirms the scale of impact it had on the art thinking in the last three decades.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Parvez Kabir is an art historian whose research interests include premodern temple building in India and Modern Indian Art and Design. He works as an assistant professor of Art History in Kala Bhavan, Santiniketan and is presently doing his doctoral work on the discourse of craftsmanship in colonial India.