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The situation is further complicated in India by the circumstances in which an indigenous abstractionism came into prominence here during the 1960s. From the beginning it was propelled by the dialectic between two motives, one revolutionary and the other conservative-it was inaugurated as an act of emancipation from the dogmas of the nascent Indian nation state, when art was officially viewed as an indulgence at worst, and at best, as an instrument for the celebration of the republic’s hopes and aspirations. Having rejected these dogmas, the pioneering abstractionists also went on to reject the various figurative styles associated with the Shantiniketan circle and others. In such a situation, abstractionism was a revolutionary move. It led art towards the exploration of the subconscious mind, the spiritual quest and the possible expansion of consciousness. Indian painting entered into a phase of self-inquiry, a meditative inner space where cosmic symbols and non-representational images ruled. Often, the transition from figurative idioms to abstractionist ones took place within the same artist​.

At the same time, Indian abstractionists have rarely committed themselves wholeheartedly to a nonrepresentational idiom. They have been preoccupied with the fundamentally metaphysical project of aspiring to the mystical-holy without altogether renouncing the symbolic. This has been sustained by a hereditary reluctance to give up the murti, the inviolable iconic form, which explains why abstractionism is marked by the conservative tendency to operate with images from the sacred repertoire of the past. Abstractionism thus entered India as a double-edged device in a complex cultural transaction. Ideologically, it served as an internationalist legitimisation of the emerging revolutionary local trends. However, on entry, it was conscripted to serve local artistic preoccupations– a survey of indigenous abstractionism will show that its most obvious points of affinity with European and American abstract art were with the more mystically oriented of the major sources of abstractionist philosophy and practice, for instance the KandinskyKlee school. There have been no takers for Malevich’s Suprematism, which militantly rejected both the artistic forms of the past and the world of appearances, privileging the new-minted geometric symbol as an autonomous sign of the desire for infinity.

Against this backdrop, we can identify three major abstractionist idioms in Indian art. The first develops from a love of the earth, and assumes the form of a celebration of the self’s dissolution in the cosmic panorama; the landscape is no longer a realistic transcription of the scene, but is transformed into a visionary occasion for contemplating the cycles of decay and regeneration. The second idiom phrases its departures from symbolic and archetypal devices as invitations to heightened planes of awareness. Abstractionism begins with the establishment or dissolution of the motif, which can be drawn from diverse sources, including the hieroglyphic tablet, the Sufi meditation dance or the Tantric diagram. The third idiom is based on the lyric play of forms guided by gesture or allied with formal improvisations like the assemblage. Here, sometimes, the line dividing abstract image from patterned design or quasirandom expressive marking may blur. The flux of forms can also be regimented through the poetics of pure colour arrangements, vector-diagrammatic spaces and gestural design.

In this genealogy, some pure lines of descent follow their logic to the inevitable point of extinction, others engage in cross-fertilization, and yet others undergo mutation to maintain their energy. However, this genealogical survey demonstrates the wave at its crests, those points where the metaphysical and the painterly have been fused in images of abiding potency, ideas sensuously ordained rather than fabricated programmatically to a concept. It is equally possible to enumerate the thoughts where the two principles do not come together, thus arriving at a very different account. Uncharitable as it may sound, the history of Indian abstractionism records a series of attempts to avoid the risks of abstraction by resorting to an overt and near-generic symbolism, which many Indian abstractionists embrace when they find themselves bereft of the imaginative energy to negotiate the union of metaphysics and painterliness.

Such symbolism falls into a dual trap: it succumbs to the pompous vacuity of pure metaphysics when the burden of intention is passed off as justification; or then it is desiccated by the arid formalism of pure painterliness, with delight in the measure of chance or pattern guiding the execution of a painting. The ensuing conflict of purpose stalls the progress of abstractionism in an impasse. The remarkable Indian abstractionists are precisely those who have overcome this and addressed themselves to the basic elements of their art with a decisive sense of independence from prior models. In their recent work, we see the logic of Indian abstractionism pushed almost to the furthest it can be taken. Beyond such artists stands a lost generation of abstractionists whose work invokes a wistful, delicate beauty but stops there.

Abstractionism is not a universal language; it is an art that points up the loss of a shared language of signs in society. And yet, it affirms the possibility of its recovery through the effort of awareness. While its rhetoric has always emphasised a call for new forms of attention, abstractionist practice has tended to fall into a complacent pride in its own incomprehensibility; a complacency fatal in an ethos where vibrant new idioms compete for the viewers’ attention. Indian abstractionists ought to really return to basics, to reformulate and replenish their understanding of the nature of the relationship between the painted image and the world around it. But will they abandon their favourite conceptual habits and formal conventions, if this becomes necessary? 

Which one of the following, according to the author, is the most important reason for the stalling of abstractionism’s progress in an impasse?

  1. Some artists have followed their abstractionist logic to the point of extinction.
  2. Some artists have allowed chance or pattern to dominate the execution of their paintings.
  3. Many artists have avoided the trap of a neargeneric and an open symbolism.
  4. Many artists have found it difficult to fuse the twin principles of the metaphysical and the painterly.
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