Do you remember those days when you sat to write a letter to your friend, relative or beloved? You had time then. You had patience then. You had enough to tell then. You used to press rose petals between the pages so that your feelings for the other could have been adequately conveyed. At times the letters used to get smudged by an uncontrolled tear. And at other times in the envelopes you used to hide sighs and whirlwinds of passion. The rituals of buying inlands, post cards, stamps, pre-paid covers, airmails, writing the mails, pushing it into the post boxes hanging from lamp posts, and eternally waiting for the post man to ring your bell were exciting. Don’t you remember that with no security guards and none to look after the red post boxes were safe then? There was an unwritten rule to respect the letters because people lived through letters. You may wonder where all those times have gone? Why don’t you find time any more to write letters? Some people say that they have become too busy to write letters. That is not the fact. Technology has changed our lives. Today communication has become easier. No longer do we feel the need to write letters. We communicate with people on a real time in the virtual space. Letters have become the memoirs of a bygone time.
However the epistolary art has survived the times. Perhaps, the modern literary form, Novel was in fact started in the form of writing letters. It was called epistolary novels. Letters were expressions of personal aesthetics and documentation of time, space and places. Volumes of letters written by well known and unknown people have been published as they provide us great insights about people and times. Prisoners wrote letters to their kith and kin. Loners wrote diaries in the form of letters addressed unto oneself or to God. There was a time in schools children were taught to write letters. Also there was a time that clubs promoted the networking of pen friends. What lies behind all these writing letters? Why do people write to others when they are away or not away from each other? Is it just an unquenchable desire to communicate? A way to self-explication? During those days, even those friends who used to be together all day and night used to write letters to each other? What was it then? And above all, each part of letter was preserved. None threw letters to dust bin. Throwing or discarding letters from a personal friend was considered to be an unpardonable sin. None told us to do so. But we thought so. We even cared for the piece of envelope that we tore away from it. And we preserved all those communications. There was no delete button in our communications.
Any letter written by anybody is predestined to be read by more than one person. When the intensity of communication is on between two people, they do not think they do it for the world. They reduce the world into their letters. But one day those letters explode out into the world. That’s what intensity means. Today, when intensity is less and people consider communication frivolous, they indulge in group chatting. The most insulting form of communication is group chatting when it is done for the sake of it. The predestination of letters to be read by many is directly proportionate to the context, time and intention of those communicators. Epistolary art is a self perfecting thing without the knowledge of the writer himself or herself. As you write more and more letters you perfect your way of writing it. It becomes an art form. That’s why we enjoy reading the letters of those people with whom we share less or even hate them to the hilt. We are curious on two counts: one, we understand the psychological state of the person who was writing the letter. Two, we get to see the milieu that caused that particular psychological construct. Together they make the history of a time seen through the perspective of a person who in a way has contributed to the making of that history.
That’s why I got interested in reading the letter correspondence between noted painters Syed Hyder Raza and Krishen Khanna, jointly published recently by Raza Foundation and Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi. Titled ‘My Dear’ this book contains the letters written by these two artists between late 1950s 2000. Fifty years of correspondence and the preservation of it. I have already mentioned how people keep the letters safe. Raza went to Paris, an alien place for the young artist in 1950s. His friend Krishen Khanna was living in India and working as a Banker but nurturing the aspiration to become a fulltime painter. Both of them were adventurous and wanted to make it big in the world. The pattern that the editorial has given us in this book tells us how the early years, that means late 50s and early 1960s, made them so fervent in writing letters. In 1970s and 1980s the pattern changes and when we come to 1990s the correspondence thins down. And in 2000 we don’t have too many letters. A cursory look reveals the pattern in which the world itself has changed. How technology changed, how economic status of these two friends changed and how their concern for art changed.
As an avid writer of letters and a preserver of communications myself, what I was looking for in the early letters of Raza and Khanna was the mental state of these two young men of that time. As I mentioned before, prisoners and loners communicate intensely with their kith and kin (unlike today’s late night chat of strangers over facebook just for the pervert pleasure that it derives). It is not because they are prisoners in a materialistic and practical ways. It is because they feel the imprisonment within their bodies. Each time they get up and look at the mirror, or each time they sit in front of their canvases or files, they feel that there is someone inside them waiting to be liberated. That moment one does not know how to liberate it. This perennial urge for liberation makes one to write to a close person. Exile is a sort of imprisonment. It is from this context that Raza writes to Khanna. We see how both of them want to get out of small rooms, lesser opportunities, pressing situations and so on. They were looking for a bigger world in their temporarily chosen small worlds.
Hence, in most of the letters written by both Raza and Khanna, we see a sort of contained complaining and hope for the future. When you are pressed down by the physical situations, what you talk more about will be the needs and wants. So most of the letters have references to materialistic needs. Then there are references to friends that are not quite nice. For example, both of them do not like Souza that much. They do not mince words when they talk about him. They do not like the flamboyance of Hussain either. If you look at in the light of human psychology, you could see how these two not so successful people of that time looking at those two compatriots who have become successful with some sort of envy and jealousy. Also from the mails of Raza one could hear how he is getting adapted to the Parisian life and its sophistication. Besides, his comments on Dr.Mulk Raj Anand is quite scathing. He says that as an art critic Dr.Mulk looks less at work and talk more and talks convincingly. What one wants in the presence of Dr.Mulk is half an hour of silence from him. Similarly there are complaints about Prodosh Dasgupt who was then the Director of the National Gallery of Modern Art.
As we read on the letters we see how their dreams coming true slowly. In the earlier letters they talk more about chances of exhibiting and how to procure money. But as they get stabilized in their lives by 1980s they start speaking about art per se. We see both Raza and Khanna becoming a bit philosophical than before. As young idealists of 1960s both of them are shocked by the Indo-China conflicts and at one stage Khanna even says that if need be he would go to Indian Army. The nationalistic fervour is quite strong and the Nehruvian idealism is still around, we feel from the letters. Also they think of raising funds for the Army Welfare Funds and Forest Protection. Their idealism is high. They are sad when they hear the demise of Nehru. And their hunt for opportunities continues. By 1980s both of them set up their studios. Besides, Khanna is able to leave his job and establish himself as a well known painter and writer.
It is interesting to notice that when there was organized art market in India, still artists were surviving and working because of a good number of patrons around. The patrons group was constituted by rich Indians, expats and foreigners. Indian artists were doing well in Europe by 1980s. And in India too brisk business on art was on. What we understand from the letters is that a few galleries (only few galleries were there at that time) were catering to a few artists. We were not looking at the diversified art world of India. Professional art practitioners were very less and only those people who had dared to live the life of artists became successful or got promoted. Besides, it needed a cosmopolitan outlook, a bit of flamboyance, a sort of eccentricity and complete scorn for the lumpen society. None of these artists were concerned about the poverty, educational problems, social disparities, the still not working democracy and so on. Modern artists were a breed apart. They were not concerned about the ills of the society. They were concerned about their personal success and their aesthetics. That’s why we call them modernists. Interestingly, I do not find any references to Indira Gandhi or Emergency in their letters. Or did I miss it altogether?
May be the vantage point from which I look at these letters provides me with a different view about things. In these letters one could find two warm persons speaking to each other with all sincerity. By late 1980s and in early 1990s they talk about Delhi and its art politics. There are certain references to Rajiv Gandhi and Chandrashekhar. After a point in 1980s Raza has a complaint that he does not get enough exposure in India. The reality is that by the time other Indian painters have become prominent. In India by early 1980s the Narrative School had become quite prominent. By 1986 the young rebels have formed the Radical Group and Indian Modernism had been critiqued from different quarters. Still Raza and Khanna, from their letter I understand, were not fighting a losing game. They speak of the Triennale of Lalit Kala Akademy, Bharat Bhavan Bhopal and the activities they conduct. They are quite compassionate about their contemporaries like Bal Chabda, V.S.Gaitonde and Tyeb Mehta. I was curious to see why there was no reference to the artists like V.Viswanathan and Akkitham Narayanan, who were also in Paris of that time and doing the Neo-Abstractions. One could think about art politics.
(Perv's Paradise- Facebook Chat)
If any artist of my times complaint about art politics and politics of art, I would ask them to keep complaining because both these aspects are going continue here. When human beings are involved in the administration of art there bound to be art politics. Raza and Khanna are aware of it. They mention it in their letters several times. But the politics of art is a different thing altogether. If human beings are doing art, then that should be a political act in a pronounced or subtle way because human beings are essential political animals. The day you pay rents or pay current bills, if you buy bread and eggs from a local shop, you have to become political. I have seen punks saying they are not political. Being punk itself is a political act. Indian youngsters have to understand it. But it is not necessary that you always do political art. If you are aware of your life your art will reflect your political stance on things and events. But unfortunately most of our successful as well as aspiring artists are politically confused. That does not mean that they need to spend their times reading political theories. Nor do I say that they should follow the misguiding social researchers who double up as artists and activists. The young people should create their own paths through their political awareness and understanding. Only from that heightened awareness good art would come out. That’s what I think when I read the correspondence between Raza and Khanna. Their letters are relevant not just because they are intensely and intentionally romantic but because they are the documentation of their struggles for many things including their kind of political awareness. Herd mentality of today’s generation will not bring forth such correspondences in future.