An art exhibition which gives rebirth to an artist, 30 years after his death
Aasha Khosa | June 2, 2016
Brij Mohan Anand would have remained yet another name in the not so exalted annals of India’s commercial art but for his daughter, who, 30 years after his death, has presented his creative and unknown art works to the world.
The art exhibition, ‘Narratives for Indian Modernity: The Aesthetic of Brij Mohan Anand’ at Delhi’s India International Centre (IIC) is in fact a tribute to the genius of thousands of small-time artists who struggle all their life and die unsung. And above all, it’s a beautiful story of a bond between a man and his daughter.
Kriti Anand, the youngest of Anand’s four children – two sons and two daughters – who lives in Amsterdam, says it is like a dream come true as she surveys 90 of her father’s 1,500 artworks at display in the art gallery of the IIC. “He had passed away when I was 19-years-old. We lived in a two-room rented house in Delhi at that time.” The premature death of Anand at 58 left the family emotionally distraught and economically weakened. Little did they know that he had left them a treasure trove of his paintings and scratchboards.
Kriti remembers her father as an eternal optimist and a highly energetic person who believed in living in the moment. He involved his children and wife in his work. Each morning, Kriti, now 50, remembers how the children would wake up early, even on a holiday, to clear one room for their father’s use as studio for the day. While Anand took a two-hour morning walk in the Buddha Jayanti Park and their mother was busy in kitchen, the children cleaned the room. “We would happily get up early morning to ensure that our father returned to his studio,” remembers Kriti.
She saw him paint and sketch all the day; on a particular day she saw him tense because he had a deadline to meet; the other time, he would instruct the children not to entertain friends and neighbours in the house who might have no specific purpose of their visit. His job involved making illustrations for book covers, advertisement campaigns, posters and sketches for various magazines and publications. The money would come from this. “As a freelance artist, he would earn on daily basis – so sometimes it would be a party and sometimes a dull day. However, he made sure that all of us ate dinner together,” Kriti says. On a day he earned well, he would celebrate with the family by buying them sweets from the halwai shop next door.
In between Anand would make his two sons run errands to the market for materials for his scratchboard art – colours, blades, brushes, etc. This was a subtle way to acquaint his children with art. His artistic works are mostly in scratchboard, oil on canvas and even water colours. Even today very few Indian artists have taken up the scratchboard form.
Alka Pande, a renowned art critic who has curated the exhibition, has this to say about Anand: “An imaginative and sensitive and gifted artist. Anand lived his life with what might be perceived as inflexible tone and tenor.
“His scratchboards offered a polemic commentary and a highly personalised perspective on a range of neo-colonial conflicts, from the cultural politics of cold war to India’s assumption of nuclear power under the aegis of prime minister Indira Gandhi. Other work across a wide range of media including landscapes, both pastoral and dystopian, portraits, pen and ink compositions, water colours, poster designs and book covers for novels, suggests both a tangibly modern sensibility and a post-independence zeitgeist.”
Kriti says, “I think he was too busy making a living through commercial art, so he never even thought of pursuing art as a profession, leave aside showcasing his works to the world in his lifetime.”
Possibly, those days, there was a clear demarcation between the pure art form and the commercial and blurring the line was unthinkable. Hence, Anand kept pursuing his passion but never found time and perhaps nerve to exhibit it to the world.
His artistic brilliance apart, BM Anand as a person comes straight out of an era when young people didn’t attend formal courses to develop their skills and when people felt responsible for making their neighborhood a happy place for all.
Anand, a tall handsome man, as he looks in his photographs, was born in a village close to Tarn Taran town of Punjab in 1928. His family faced retribution from the British rulers and had to abandon everything and shift to Kullu, Himachal Pradesh. As a child he was attracted to the Russian artist Nicholas Roerich, who had made Kullu his home. Soon both his parents died and he had to shuttle from one city to another to be in the care of different set of relatives. At the time of partition, Anand was with a family in Lahore. He boarded the last train to Amritsar before India and the newly created Pakistan closed the rail link.
During one of his initial exhibitions in Srinagar in 1949, he was scolded by Begum Akbar Jehan, wife of the then Kashmir’s prime minister Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, for painting a nude. Anand quickly ordered her out of the place to defend his artistic freedom. Next day an enraged Sheikh visited him. The two argued over the painting and it ended with the 21-year-old Anand slapping the Sheikh.
The police were out to arrest Anand but he managed to escape to Delhi in an army truck. “My father never went to his village and came to Delhi’s Daryaganj area where he began a new life as a commercial artist,” Kriti says.
To his neighbours, Anand came across as a Santa Claus, who had something for all in his goody bag – sugar candies for children in park, acacia stems as tooth cleaners for those who couldn’t afford toothpastes. He cobbled together a community of morning walkers who would raise funds for the welfare of the poorly paid gardeners. He made sure that his wife cooked food for vegetable vendors, who came to his house to sell vegetables.
Kriti says while she was living in Holland after her marriage, each time she visited home, she would make sure to clean her father’s works and stored them properly. She felt guilty of not being able to perpetuate her father’s memory but like most people she too was also caught up in work, home and raising children.
Kriti, a cancer survivor, says finally when she separated from her husband and her two daughters were in vocational colleges, she decided to repay her gratitude to her loving father.
“Twice I tried to sell one of his paintings to raise money when I was passing through a difficult phase but each time something ominous happened and I had to withdraw,” Kriti recalls. Her father had always told his children never to sell his works for profit.
Finally, Kriti’s friend Neeraj Gulati came to her help. Neeraj has taken care of the finances for setting up the exhibition. The two have even set up a foundation in Anand’s name which helps small-time artists.
BM Anand has been resurrected 30 years after he left the world.
(The column appears in the June 1-15, 2016 issue)