Book Review | Roads Across the Earth: On the Life, Times and Art of Anil Karanjai | Dhritabrata Bhattacharjya Tato

Modern and Contemporary Indian Art is an oft-used term to define artworks, movements and traditions that occurred in the post-Independence era. But it gave rise to a  new problem: the creative community of the newly-born nation was compelled to define the ‘Indian-ness’ in their works, which so-far had primarily been anchored around linguistic, regional and community identity. Nehruvian period responded to it by coining a phrase ‘unity in diversity’. After more than seven decades, the unity has been achieved by erasing the ‘diversity’, and this process has now gained a new momentum with the present ruling dispension at the central government.

Chroniclers of Indian visual art tried to create a coherent history to justify works of the visual artists either in the light of some artistic movements like the Bengal School or Progressive Artists’ Group, or in terms of market value. All other movements which occurred in the next few decades, were consciously kept away from formal and academic art discourse. Eminent art historians consciously chose not to talk about several art movements due to the interest group they serve. This, on one hand pushed many talented artists into oblivion, and on the other hand, made the artist community heavily dependant on galleries, and private art foundations that does not offer artistic and artistic freedom.

Herein lies the significance of Roads Across the Earth: On the Life, Times and Art of Anil Karanjai (1940-2001). Karanjai was the chief exponent of United Artists – a group that was founded in Banaras in 1962. Unlike previous movements like the Bengal School or Progressive Artists Group, United Artists was truly independent in terms of its philosophy and existence. While both the previous movements were trying to establish the raison-d’etre of their art practices, United Artists seemed to have the basic quotient of art in the right place: art as a way of experiencing life. Needless to mention, United Artists never appears in the present historiography of Indian visual art due to their non-conformist attitude towards the discourse of the Nehruvian era and its art historians. United Artists was also linked to the Hungryalist movement, which after several decades of oblivion seems to have recently resurfaced for a reason that has little to do with both the entities: the mythical visit of American poet Allen Ginsberg to Benares and Calcutta.

The book opens with a long chronological biography of Karanjai from his birth till the last day of his life. The early part of his life is much more elaborately described than his later days. This essay is particularly important on two counts. Firstly, art historian Juliet Reynolds poignantly situates the works of Karanjai in the right context, along with the factors that determined his success and failure. Secondly, Reynolds’ essay is one of the rare documents on the artists, art movements and establishments of the 60s till the early 90s. For example, she might be the first one in India to point out the reasons that led to the so-called boom in Indian visual art industry in black and white:

‘The exchange of black money in the art world was hardly new. As in most sectors of the Indian economy, undeclared cash as part payment on transactions had for long been the norm. But through fundraising events for good causes – ranging from earthquake or flood relief to annimal welfare or communal harmony – it had now become possible to collect art with black money alone while facing no recriminations; as a bonus, the new collectors can cover themselves in glory as philanthropists and art patrons.”  In this paragraph Reynolds talked about the art market of the 90s onward. At the turn of the millennium, this trend would become more acute and slowly the ‘noble causes’ would completely disappear. Indian visual art would sustain by itself with mushrooming galleries and art events catering to a few interest groups. Reynolds also provides a vivid account of Karanjai’s activities in Delhi from 1970-74, particulary hinting at the reasons behind the imminent collapse of Nehruvian art institutions.

While Reynolds offers well-founded grounds to appreciate Karanjai’s works in terms of art theory, her essay does not talk of the overall cultural and political situations he worked in. This gap is filled to some extent by Maglesh Dabral where he vividly decribes the Delhi art hubs and haunts with some stray references to larger political developments. While Suneet Chopra’s essay provides a more politically contextualised account of Karanjai, Sumanta Banerjee’s A Friend in Remembrance supplements Karanjai’s contribution as a graphic artist to peoples’ movements on which Reynolds’ longer narrative makes some passing remarks.

Karanjai’s paintings can be divided into two visibly different periods. It may not be incorrect to say that this shift appreared in the late 1985 with his solo exhibition Images of Silence that took place in Dhoomimal Gallery in Delhi. His earlier works were full of human figures which were often termed as Daliesque. He, along with his fellow members of United Artists set up a studio called Devil’s Workshop, and created a body of work that was politcially charged and socially rebellious. This workshop was raided by the police in the wake of Naxal movement and most of the works were detroyed. Since his Images of Silence show, his visual language, form and content changed so dramatically that many of his friends of yesteryears refuted and refused to appreciate his art anymore. In The Nature of Art, a documentary made on Karanjai by Anasuya Vaidya and Ajay Shetty, the painter himself says that his art of this particular period is that of a healer. His new language was devoid of the human figures that crowded his earlier paintings; even the colour palette is more serene. Another piece by Reynolds at the end of the book titled Anatomy of a Painting offers a detailed critique of one of his paintings, The Door of Kusma, which would have been better as a part of Reynolds’ longer essay.

The most intriguing essay of the book is The Varanasi Scene Midwinter 1969-70 by Edward Loring. This piece was originally published in VARANASI SCENES at the behest of the members of United Artists and Hungry Generation. In this piece, like that of Malay Roychoudhury and Subimal Basak, the readers are exposed to the glimpses of life-style and experimentations of young band of artists and writers who indeed tried to take a route different from the ‘mainstream’ Indian cultural trends. Libertine life-styles that these young people led along with their left-leaning political thoughts marred with use and abuse of sustances portrays an atmosphere which is no less heroic and legendary than that of the Dadaists and Saint-Germain de Près of the 20s in Paris. Some shorter articles including that of Roychoudhury and Basak often repeats the information that readers are already acquainted with, courtesy Reynolds’ first article, making it less readable. One major short-coming of the book is the absence of personal information on Karanjai’s later life; equally there is almost no mention of his conjugal life except some stray references. His days in the US have no mention about his activities except a few lines in Reynolds’ first essay and another essay by Ross Beatty, Jr. which primarily deals upon the reception of Karanjai’s paintings in the US. Well- produced, this book has a few visible errors like the footnote number 93 is missing on page 72,  and the font type of Karanjai’s year of birth in Appendix 2 is different  from the rest of the book. However, apart from these minor apsects, Roads Across the Earth is definitely a well-researched historical document that would enrich Indian mainstream historiography, and may prompt academic research around this talented artist.

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