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Exploring the influence of French culture on Indian Artists
By Staff Writer
28 May 2020
Paris was the melting pot of art and culture at the beginning of the 20th century. The interaction of different cultures that took place here was not strictly Eurocentric. There was an equal interchange of information between the west and the east. One of the prime examples of this is Picasso, who was heavily influenced by the primitivism of African masks and incorporated that in his work. Similarly, there were several modern Indian artists as well who took inspiration from the atmosphere of creativity that was ingrained in the spirit of Paris and consequently France during this point in history. This fruitful exchange brought about immense influence in the works of these Indian artists who despite the french influence also maintained strong ties with India. Another key factor behind Paris being such a huge attraction for artists from all over the world was its lack of censorship which provided greater artistic freedom.
The spirit of travelling and learning from various cultures was important to these Indian artists. One of the earliest modern Indian artists, Amrita Sher-Gil, was already a world citizen and immersed in the art world of Paris before her move to India. While many of the Indian artists that came to Paris, did so after world war II, Amrita Sher-Gil was in Paris during the war years. She studied at the Ecole Des Beaux-Arts and several of her earlier works, including some of the self-portraits, reflect this European style that she learnt in Paris. Another artist from our national treasure list whose influence can directly be traced to France is Sailoz Mukherjea. It is believed that he had the opportunity to meet Henry Matisse in Paris in the late 1930s and this encounter inspired him. One can see the western influence in the lucid lines that he used in his work although his subjects remained rooted in Indian rural life. Mukherjea once said “I owe my basic inspiration to Matisse’s odalisques. I accept whatever new forms of self-expression suit my oriental temperament and tradition. No doubt my simplification of form and vibrancy of colour derives from the Ecole de Paris, particularly from Matisse and Modigliani. But my main influences are the folk art of India and the Basholi miniatures. As a result of my stay in Europe, my work has inevitably acquired a somewhat sophisticated flavour.”
Unlike Amrita Sher-Gil who had her foundation built in Europe before moving to India the other artists from the subcontinent already had their works entrenched with varied influences of their Indian roots before making the move to another country. One of the most prominent artists that come to mind when we talk about Indian art and the French influence is SH Raza. His life and work showcased a full circle with his journey beginning in India, the subsequent move to Paris, reclaiming his Indian roots through the Bindu series and then finally deciding to move to India after spending several decades in France. SH Raza’s journey can also be traced back to the journey of several other artists who were influenced by Modernism in France. His eventual decision to move to Gorbio in the South of France can also be compared to Van Gogh and several other artists who were enamored by the bright and wild colours of the French countryside.
What comes as a surprise to a lot of people is the fact that when SH Raza boarded that ship in 1950 that carried him to France, he was accompanied by his friend and fellow artist Akbar Padamsee. They were both received at Gare de Lyon by the fellow artist Ram Kumar on the 3rd of October. Raza once said ‘I do confess I loved Paris at first sight. Its buildings, the atmosphere, the charged energy; it seemed to reveal at every corner that it was marvellous and was with us’. France and the influence of Paris, in particular, was paramount to the growth of Raza as an artist. The same could be said for Akbar Padamsee as well. Paris was truly monumental for Padamsee. It was in Paris that he had his first exhibition in 1952 at Galerie Saint Placide along with Raza and Souza. During his time in Paris, Padamsee met renowned artists like Giacometti and Man Ray. Being in close contact with the avant-garde movement in Paris brought a universality to Padamsee’s works. He had a clear inclination towards the surrealist school of thought. He agreed with their ideology of letting the inner subconscious speak and reveal itself through art and literature. He even received the third prize in the Journal d’Arte competition for his 1951 work, ‘Woman with a Bird’ by the pope of surrealism, Andre Breton.
Before SH Raza and Akbar Padamsee made their move to Paris, the artist Ram Kumar was already living there and studying art under the tutelage of the artists Andre Lhote and Fernand Leger. Compared to SH Raza and Akbar Padamsee, Ram Kumar’s time in Paris was a brief one. Even though he stayed in Paris just for three years from 1949-1952 the time he spent interacting with fellow artists, poets, writers and other intellectuals helped shape his artistic ideology. After all, we are nothing but the cumulation of our lived experiences.
The artists mentioned above were just a few of the several Indian artists that negotiated their Indian roots and the French influence through their artworks. Some other artists that have a strong French connection are Sakti Burman, Anjolie Ela Menon, Zarina Hashmi and so on. The fact that we have a long list of artists with some or the other connection to France shows that the country has always had a very strong expat community of Indian artists who flourished there and brought together the best of both worlds.