MB Maps: TIFR Collection
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Homi Bhabha is thought to be the ultimate renaissance man of the early post-Independence period. Apart from conceptualising India’s civil nuclear program and building institutions such as the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), he was also an artist, art historian and patron. The art collection of TIFR, built through the vision of Bhabha, is home to some of the finest paintings and sculptures produced between 1952 and the early 1970s. The exhibition at The National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai is the first time that some 140 highlights out of a total collection of 260 have been publicly displayed. Here are 10 works you shouldn’t miss:
1.W. Langhammer, “The Critic” (1943)
Walter Langhammer’s major canvas, “The Critic” is an apt piece for the TIFR collection. Its subject is the artist’s friend, the art critic Rudi von Leyden, who was very helpful to Bhabha and physicist and former TIFR director M. G. K. Menon in their acquisition strategy. Langhammer and von Leyden together were instrumental in mentoring artists such as Ara, Raza, Husain and other members of the original Progressive Artists’ Group. The influence of von Leyden was to be felt in Mumbai until well into the 1960s through his regular articles for newspapers and journals and personal engagement with artists.
2. Sir Jacob Epstein, “Head of Einstein” (1933 – 1955)
In 1955, Bhabha undertook the acquisition of Sir Jacob Epstein’s magnificent cast-bronze bust of Albert Einstein despite the high costs involved. The work cost Rs3,818, equivalent to over 50 per cent of the cost of all the 32 paintings that had been acquired in the three years the collection had been in existence. Indeed, there is evidence that Bhabha did not have an easy time getting this purchase passed from TIFR council members who felt it was too much money to spend on a single artwork. Epstein, by the way, also executed a bust of Nehru in the late 1950s.
3. M. F. Husain, “Bharat Bhagya Vidhata” (1964)
The most important single work in the TIFR art collection is the remarkable 13-metre mural executed by M. F. Husain titled “Bharat Bhagya Vidhata”. This work was commissioned by the TIFR and came out of a competition process that ran from the end of 1962 into the first months of 1963. Husain’s fully-realised mural is a tour de force by an artist at the peak of his powers. The degree to which the original design matches the final mural is extraordinary, and much of the assuredness with which he created the competition entry can be attributed to the artist’s apprenticeship as a painter of billboards during the 1940s.
4. Krishen Khanna, “The Dead and the Dying” (1970)
This canvas dates from a seminal period in Krishen Khanna’s career. During this time, the artist was concerned with both the social underpinnings of Indian society as well as the body politic. In the work, a group of men squat on the ground playing cards, above them a shrouded body lies prone and the only body-part visible is a decomposing hand. The card-players seem quite oblivious to the corpse, absorbed as they are in the outcome of their game. There is a darkness that envelops the whole canvas, with light only penetrating into the centre of the card game.
5. A.M. Davierwalla, “Thunder Bird” (1964)
A chemist by training, Davierwalla abandoned his career in 1959 to become a full-time sculptor. Though self-trained, his works were marked by bold and striking imagery in mediums as diverse as wood, welded steel, and aluminum. Many of Davierwalla’s works were bought by Bhabha who voraciously commissioned him to create pieces for the TIFR, the Atomic Energy Establishment, and his own personal collection. At the same time, Davierwalla was one of the confidants that Bhabha would lean on for advice on the purchases he was making for the TIFR. It is not hard to understand Bhabha’s enthusiasm for Davierwalla’s work. Here was a visual language that was purposefully dynamic in its form. Seemingly in conversation with the science of the times, some of his works seem to literally resemble laboratory apparatus. Both “Thunder Bird” (1964) and “Breakthrough” (1973) virtually scream through the space that the forms inhabit.
6. Jehangir Sabavala, “Seagulls and Sails” (1960)
The three works by Jehangir Sabavala in the TIFR collection were executed between 1960 and 1970. The earliest, “Seagulls and Sails” (1960), is a complex composition of triangles and ellipses resulting in a network of spaces into which the artist has then painted colour fields that delineate the boats and birds. Of the three Sabavalas in the collection, this semi-abstract is the least concerned with storytelling.
7. Ram Kumar, “Yatra” (1964)
Compositionally, one can already see an incipient interest in the building of geographical terrains that would be expressed most fully in Kumar’s famous “Benaras” series (paintings that, though abstract, hint at the terrain of that city). The 1964 work entitled “Yatra” suggests a geography potent with associations to the transcendental in the same way as is true of the “Benaras” works.
8. K. H. Ara, “Lest We Forget His Sacrifice” (1976)
This huge canvas is quite unlike any other by the artist. Christ is seen crucified on a nuclear mushroom cloud as humanity is consigned to ashes beneath him. The work conjures up violent apocalypse redolent of Hieronymus Bosch, the 16th century Dutch painter. As such, its purchase for the TIFR collection takes on a special resonance given the proximity of some of its faculty and members to India’s nuclear programme.
9. Nasreen Mohamedi, “Collage” (1967)
It is interesting to speculate as to how the TIFR art collection may have evolved had either Bhabha or Menon continued for longer terms as directors of the institute. By the late 1960s and early ’70s, there was a new generation of artists active in India. The one work by Nasreen Mohamedi, of 1967, catches her already into her stride as one of the most interesting new voices on the contemporary scene. The work is one of the few examples of collage that are known and combines a delicate pen-and-ink composition with photographic prints that have been roughly torn and then pasted on to the surface of the work.
10. V. S. Gaitonde, “Abstract” (1965)
Gaitonde’s early works of the 1960s are represented in strength in the collection and are evidence of the extraordinary emotional intensity he was able to eke out of a stark compositional programme. Where the base colour is given a roughly flat finish, the principal actions of the paintings are densely worked horizontal brushstrokes in blues, yellows, reds, and blacks. Here, spikes of paint interrupt the flow of these colour fields creating, perhaps, the resemblance of hazy cityscapes.