An upcoming exhibition at the India International Centre, New Delhi, will make public for the first time the works of anti-establishment painter Brij Mohan Anand (1928 – 1986).
In December 1972, at the height of the Vietnam War, embassies and consulates all over New Delhi received a new year’s greeting card. Reproduced on the card was an etching entitled “Stop Burning Asia. The Death is Following You.”
The sender’s message was clear enough: by waging war on Asia, the US was paving the path to its own destruction.
Brij Mohan Anand, the largely unknown, anti-establishment painter and illustrator, received no response to his bold move. Even so, two years later, he produced another painting, this one protesting India’s first nuclear test at Pokhran in Rajasthan. He intended to formally present the painting to Indira Gandhi. More than twenty years earlier, in November 1955, Anand had made an uninvited appearance at a reception hosted by Jawaharlal Nehru for Soviet Premier Nikolai Bulganin and Communist Party First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev. His intention had been the same then as now – to present a “painting in protest.” Anand’s action elicited an unfortunate response: the Indian government confiscated his passport and placed him under local police surveillance.
Anand’s were bold political interventions, which no other artist of a newly independent India is on record as taking.A prism for modern India
India’s journey from colonial nation to modern democracy shaped Anand’s life and work.
Much before he was born, his older brother Madan Mohan had been killed at the “Jallianwala Bagh massacre” – a tragedy following which his Western-educated father Mani Ram Anand and his progressive, feminist mother Bhagwati grew disenchanted with the Congress, of which they had previously been staunch supporters, and began to support Bhagat Singh and the other revolutionaries seeking a violent overthrow of the Raj. His parents’ break with the Congress resulted in a tumultuous series of events and eventually their death while Anand was not even in a teenager, which in turned caused, one could speculate, his dropping out of school at the age of fourteen. Not long after, Anand would witness the euphoria of independence, as well as the bloodshed of partition.
It is easy to imagine that the events of Anand’s early life contributed to the dramatic and rebellious nature of his art, although the subtler tonalities of his works remain open to interpretation: was Anand an “angry young man”? Do his works show, as suggested by art historian Alka Pande, an almost passive aggressiveness, in the sense that ideology became refuge for unresolved anger?
Although Anand dropped out of school and never received formal art training, he continued the passionate art production he had begun at the age of nine. He began to do commercial illustrations for newspapers, novels and textbooks. He earned his living in this way by day, and by night developed his distinctive style through working on projects of his own choosing – most notably, his sketches on scratchboards, a highly sensitive, difficult to find and expensive medium (and therefore, an intriguing choice).
His range of work, including erotic drawings, portraits, figure and genre studies, landscapes and book covers, demonstrates not just his formidable natural talent but also his independent and fearless politics.
Nothing he did resembled the work of his Bombay Progressive contemporaries. These included M.F. Hussain, Tyeb Mehta, S.H. Raza, F.N. Souza and Krishen Khanna, all of whom were working within a nationalist context, like Anand. But while his contemporaries were principally concerned with matters of narrative, materiality and identity, Anand engaged obsessively with not just India’s potential political awakening but also politics on a more global scale.
His own visual language
A vehement critic of American intervention in Asia, Anand used the aesthetics of Soviet Socialist Realism and the genre of propaganda art to express his convictions.
Satirical drawings were a common feature in Indian newspapers at the time. But by transcribing the form into finely wrought etchings on scratchboards, Anand created his very own visual language. As Aditi Anand and Pande summarise, his stark compositions and landscapes, dramatic monochrome and intense colour palettes reflect his defiant, subversive politics. Anand’s language was not that of a fine artist trained conventionally but of an individual who had trained himself to gather from a variety of styles to forge his own. This eccentricity and brilliance is what makes Anand so exciting to re-discover today.
From partition and independence to the cold war and the complex modernity of the 20th century, Anand traced India’s journey through his highly politicised aesthetic. Sticking to his socialist principles, he made no attempt to sell his paintings, instead approaching art as a medium for social commentary, and a tool for dissent and advancing social justice.
Ahead of his time
Anand’s career, despite spanning almost fifty years, was scantily recorded and virtually unrecognised. Anand was among the few artists who remained steadfastly rooted in India. As a result, he received less critical attention than those members of the Progressive Artists’ Group who left in the late 1940s and ’50s to pursue careers in the UK, US and France.
He is yet to receive the critical attention he deserves, and the upcoming exhibition hopes to take a critical first step in that direction.
As biographer Aditi and art historian Grant Pooke note, the discourse of “subaltern studies” has only of late begun to address the specificities of non-Western postcolonial cultures on their own terms, rather than according to the canons of a westernised art history. But this remains work in progress. Many Indian artists await the detailed and considered treatment that has historically been given to their Western peers and contemporaries.
Anand’s career preceded the theoretical debates of postcolonialism and subaltern studies. But, in another mark of his brilliant intuition and foresight, the ambivalence he demonstrated in his lifetime towards the British art schools in India as well as India’s westernised avant-garde groupings of the ’50s and ’60s shows that he recognised the dangers of cultural re-colonisation.
In Pande’s words, it is the combination of reflexive nationalism, adapted Soviet aesthetics, and anti-imperialist sentiment that makes Anand’s a visual language still revolutionary today, and one with which to be engaged.
Text written with inputs from Alka Pande and the monograph Narratives for Indian Modernity: The Aesthetic of Brij Mohan Anand by Aditi Anand and Grant Pooke, Harper Collins, 2016.