Remembering the radical artist-critic

Published: 12th September 2012 12:21 PM  |   Last Updated: 12th September 2012 12:21 PM   |  A+A-


It is indeed the most heartfelt tribute that a son can give his father. Art critic and curator S Kalidas has put together a curated show of works by J Swaminathan, one of India’s most renowned modernist artists, at Gallery Espace in New Delhi.

Titled Transits of a Wholetimer, the show, according to Kalidas, ‘is a time capsule from my father’s archives. It is an art historical display that traces his metamorphosis from a left-wing political radical to an equally radical artist-critic’.

The exhibition features vignettes from his autobiographical notes, some early drawings, illustrations and sketches from his exercise sketchbooks, family photographs, letters written to him by his colleagues and friends, some of his early catalogues and photographs of works spanning 1952-1964 and some of J Swaminathan works from the early 1960s.

Swaminathan was born in Sanjauli, Shimla in 1928 and, by his own account, was an unruly, mischievous and self-willed boy who loved to draw and paint. He studied at the Sir Harcourt Butler High School in Delhi and Shimla where his sketches of nationalist leaders adorned the school walls. 1942 — the year of his matriculation — coincided with the start of the Quit India struggle. He joined the Communist Party of India but after the Soviet takeover of Hungary in 1956 he got disillusioned with politics itself and to continue painting, he joined the evening classes at the Delhi Polytechnic where he came under the spell of the bohemian artist and teacher Sailoz Mukherjea.

From his early ‘cave painting’ like canvases of the early 1960s, Swaminathan moved to the wall paintings of folk and Tantric art. Through the symbol of the sperm, the lingam and the yoni he explored what was to later develop as the neo-Tantric school. In 1966 he studied the colour arrangement in Pahari miniatures to develop a pictorial vocabulary that he called the Colour Geometry of Space. Within a couple of years that led to his famous and resplendent landscapes titled Bird-Tree-Mountain series that lasted till the mid-1980s.

During 1967-68 he was awarded the Nehru Fellowship to research the ‘Significance of the Traditional Numen’ in folk and tribal Indian art. He toured Kinnaur, Kutch and Bastar and that led to a life-long tryst with the indigenous peoples of India. Two decades later he set up the Bharat Bhawan, a museum of tribal, folk and contemporary art, in Bhopal, and was also till his death the chairman of the Museum of Man in Bhopal.

(Poonam Goel is a freelance journalist who contributes articles on visual arts for


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