On the table, near the flower vase from which three red dahlias sprout, an old paper back with a darkening cover is meticulously kept as if to tell the visitors that the artist is just around. At the Sridharani Gallery, New Delhi, a winter noon lazily sits on the steps at the amphitheatre. The book is one of the collections of Osho Rajneesh edited by late Khushwant Singh. The book has been read not once but several times, so say the yellowing pages but surprisingly without any dog’s ears. But I do not think much about Osho for I know most of the non-figurative/abstract artists read him for his mellifluous voice soothes them and reaffirm their faith if not in life but in their works that many people fail to decipher. Gopi Gajwani, the veteran artist who has been a serene presence in Delhi’s art scene for almost half a century, whose exhibition, ‘Meditative Silence’, currently on at the Sridharani Gallery does read Osho and I am not surprised for the very same reason that I have just mentioned. Once again, I do not think about Osho but I think of Khushwant Singh, the editor, who had not only penned the history of Sikhs but also essayed fictionally though, the history of partition in his ‘Train to Pakistan’. Gopi Gajwani, as a seven year old chid was there in one of those trains that ran in the opposite direction from the Sindh region without knowing what future had in store for him and his three siblings.
(Display of Gopi Gajwani's works at Sridharani)
I dare not to ask whether he was reminiscing those days as he picked up the book yet again to read, as Gopi Gajwani enters the gallery. It would be too intrusive, I tell myself but as I sit and look at the works on display, a series of non-figurative paintings and drawings, in a silent communion with the artist, I see the black lines that run mostly vertical, abruptly stopping at times and at other times dividing the canvas off the centre into two asymmetrical halves, I pick up courage to ask him about the partition days. According to Gajwani, he as a child did not face the cruelties of it or rather he was too young to know it. He was happy to run barefoot along the footpaths in Old Delhi where they had come to settle, play marbles and fly kites. Children often shut the cruel world out by sleeping endlessly; for many other children having parents around is enough. Come whatever may they do not wince; parents make their world complete. While growing up Gajwani knew the world was different from what he thought about it. The vastness of Sindh faded slowly like the last remnants of the events of a dream in the waking man’s mind and in came India, a new geographical and political entity and everyone was destined to live with it.
(work by Gopi Gajwani)
Look carefully at the works of Gajwani; they are non-figurative works (though Kishore Singh who has written the catalogue at the outset itself makes an effort to distinguish the artist from being an ‘abstract’ artist. According to Singh, qualifying Gajwani an abstract art would be a recognition and failure of it at once). One sees the colours keep coming up in bold patches without hiding their origin as carefully considered brush strokes and fading into the layers of other colours (reds, browns, ochre, green, black and so on) only to resurface again in some unexpected part of the pictorial surface, imparting a sense of surreal meandering of eyes. One sense of vision or visual experience fades away and another one takes its place. However, imposing the biographical details of the artist into the works would be a sort of over reading the works. “Figurative art is not my forte,” says Gajwani smiling profusely and it is ironic that an artist who spent almost thirty years as a graphic designer for the USIS sponsored magazine SPAN. Charles Fabri, one of the pioneering art critics in India welcomed Gajwani’s works with a title ‘Powerful Abstractions’ in his famous column in the Statesman; it was in mid 60s. However, it was not Fabri’s influential comment that had made Gajwani stick to the language of abstraction.
(work by Gopi Gajwani)
Educated in the Delhi Polytechnic, which would become today’s Delhi College of Art, Gajwani studied with Arpita Singh, Paramjit Singh and many other famous contemporaries. Pioneers of Indian modernism namely Sailoze Mukherjee, Biren De and Bhabesh Sanyal were his teachers. “Walking around without a sketchbook was severely derided and figurative sketching was a must in those days,” Gajwani remembers. International abstraction brought in by the High Modernist movements in the west had already taken the Indian art also by force and a rigorous soul search was underway in order to find an indigenous art language. The ‘modern’ art of 1960s and 70s should be seen in this light; on the one hand the artists were trying to be at par with the western internationalism and on the other hand they were disputing this internationalism to find indigenous roots of their own art. In both the cases experiments for a newer form took predominance and it was reflected both in the figurative and abstract art languages. Non-figurative abstraction got an upper hand pushing the post-cubist and post-expressionist figurative experiments in India and there was a wave of abstraction all over India in 1960s and 70s. Gajwani remains faithful to the wave that had brought him into the art scene and anchored there firmly.
(work by Gopi Gajwani)
Unlike many abstract artists in India or elsewhere, Gajwani does not use too much of spiritual jargon to explain his works. Perhaps, it comes from his early association with the artists’ movement in Delhi, Shilpi Chakra where even the abstract artists like R.K.Dhawan had a few theories about their society, world and politics in general. For them abstract art was all about being modern not about being escapists, and like in the South, the artists demanded a special place in the modern discourse by virtue of their abstract art. Gajwani could grow up in the cool shade of this discourse and could come into contact with most of the intellectuals who defined the Indian art ethos of the time including J.Swaminathan, Abu Abraham, O.V.Vijayan and so on. According to Gajwani, Indian cartoonists had more powerful lines than the professional artists. As a person who has seen Delhi’s art scene from the close quarters, Gajwani could have taken sides but he chose to remain aloof but at the same time visiting almost all the exhibitions in Delhi, irrespective of the artists’ gender, age or fame. “Young artists may have less wisdom but their potential to move towards it is immense,” says Gajwani and also he believes that experiments are done when one is young and if one keeps experimenting throughout the life the whole idea of life would be lost. “At some point one has to find the way.”
(work by Gopi Gajwani)
Gajwani had found his way in music and he almost felt that his art was like music or rather music itself. Each work of Gajwani is conceived like a musical notation in the artist’s mind and what he needs to do is to transfer those onto the painterly surface. He quotes Michael Angelo who had said that the judgement of the artist should be stronger than the work itself. Where to start a colour and where to end it without breaking the rhythm and movement is more important than playing with colours for the sake of doing it. If a painting is for looking at, then of course you have all the reasons to keep on looking at Gajwani’s paintings. If you are there to read meanings out of his paintings, may be it wouldn’t be that pleasant an experience. I resist myself from force reading meanings out of his works and try to see what makes an artist pursue a language and create symphonies while constantly breaking patterns. Many abstract artists fall prey to their own patterns and mediums. Gajwani seems to negate patterns in all his works. He had started working from a small room at his home and he still does the same though the size of the studio has increased. “I could grow with all the great masters including Tyeb Mehta, Swaminathan, A.Ramachandran, V.S.Gaitonde and many more. Art was the only concern for all of us though most of us had to struggle as art was not bringing any money to us. J.Swaminathan had the courage to silence the big star of art theory at that time, Clement Greenberg in one of the formal gatherings held in Delhi. Art critics were stars then. Then slowly the degeneration set in. I will not blame anyone for decaying is part of life and that is applicable to art too,” says Gajwani. When one is too good there are possibilities that he/she suffers silently a lot. Gajwani is too good to fault as a human being and his works are not just meditative silences but the painterly transference of his silent sufferings too.