Maverick artist finds deserving slot 30 years after death

Ongoing Delhi show triggers curiosity over why BM Anand remained obscure


New Delhi, May 18: All his life, Brij Mohan Anand sought to evade fame despite his command over a wide range of media in art. Today, three decades after his death, a milestone art show has triggered wonder amid aesthetes and scholars over the near-obscurity of the painter-illustrator.

If the 80 select works of maverick B.M. Anand at the ongoing show in the national capital are anything to go by, the Amritsar-born Delhiite was driven as much by ideology as skill which he sought to express in the form of paintings, scratchboards, water-colours, drawings, sketches, book-covers and posters.

‘Narratives for Indian Modernity: The Aesthetic of Brij Mohan Anand’, which is on at the Indian International Centre here till May 22, thus marks the grand acknowledgement of a hitherto-unaccounted figure in post-Independence Indian art. A profusion of applause the works have earned from top art commentators apart, many are baffled why the artist largely remained unsung during his lifetime (1928-86) and even later—till the B.M. Foundation opened the event last week.

As the show’s curator, Dr Alka Pande notes, this paradox could have largely stemmed from B.M. Anand’s basic approach to art as a political tool. “As a Left-leaning anti-imperialist, he always sought to infuse constructivist imagery into his work. Never did the artist work for the market nor did he believe in the ‘art for the sake of art’ school,” she points out.

Celebrating the rediscovery of the self-taught artist, whose chunk of work was stumbled upon from the attic of B.M. Anand’s attic West Delhi house a couple of years ago, a book by the title of the exhibition has now come up with an array of revelations about his life and times.

The 192-page monograph notes, with deserving focus, how B.M. Anand’s family was radicalized after it lost a pre-teen child in the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre carried out by the British army. This, the book notes, had a cascading effect on the aesthetic of B.M. Anand, whose career went on to intersect with some of the foundational events that defined as well as shaped modern Indian consciousness.

The artist’s biographer Aditi Anand (no relation to the artist) notes that B.M. Anand, unlike his peers, made no attempt to sell his paintings. “Visitors to his home and rare exhibitions usually walked away with his paintings for free,” she notes also recalling Anand’s first interrupted exhibition in Kashmir in 1947-48. “It is possible that this abortive attempt had made him cautious and unwilling to expose his work to the scrutiny of public and peers.”

Aditi’s co-author Dr. Grant Pooke of University of Kent throws light on another aspect of B.M. Anand that could have contributed to his reluctance to sell his work. “Anand was popular as a commercial illustrator for a range of leading publications and journals besides his designs for novellas and pulp fiction covers,” he points out. “The financial autonomy possibly precluded the need for him to make money as such from the sale of his scratchboards, landscapes, nude compositions and portraits.”

At the May 12-22 show which was inaugurated by celebrated filmmaker Imtiaz Ali, the curator has thematically lined up the B.M. Anand works. “There are a number of striking works—from surreal oil paintings to sensitive sketches of the human anatomy,” Dr. Pande notes. “Anand worked as an island in the art-scape of Indian modernity. His art resonated with the subaltern voice and mirrored his commitment to the social cause.”

As for the exhibition, which opens with a specially created lifesize laser-cut scratchboard, the credit also goes to designer Sourav Brahmachari, informs the curator. “The image serves as a metaphor to express the complex socialist thought and the visual language of B.M. Anand’s modern aesthetics,” she says.

One of the works at the show is a scratchboard work titled ‘Stop Burning Asia. The Death is Shadowing You’. This, Aditi notes, is backed by an interesting story: in December 1972, B.M. Anand used the image on 50 greeting cards that he subsequently mailed to various embassies and consulates in New Delhi, as well as to the UN Secretary General and the editors of two leading Indian newspapers.

Sample this. Nearly 20 years earlier, Anand had in November 1955 barged into a reception being hosted by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to honour his Soviet counterpart Nikolai Bulganin and Communist Party’s first secretary Nikita Khrushchev at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. The artist’s mission: to present a ‘paintings in protest’ to the visitors. Result: authorities confiscated his passport and placed him under local police surveillance.

Anand’s views, observers now note, was a combination of nationalism, adapted Soviet aesthetics alongside anti-Western and anti-nuclear sentiment, thus making it a voice which needs to be heard through a contemporary narrative and retelling.

 

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