|J Sultan Ali: portrait by K.N. Raghavendra Rao|
(Note: This interview was published in 1980, the first one I ever did with an Indian contemporary artist)
J SULTAN ALI presents a visual puzzle at first encounter. Is he a professor? Is he an artist? Few tell-tale clues uncloak his personality. Not for him the shaggy mane that the profession of the brush and easel suggests, not for him the inarticulateness that bespeaks a closer affinity to paint than to the spoken word. His opinions are expounded with conviction, interspersed with well-defined pauses. His voice is mellow, barely above a whisper. It lacks the tone and colour that his work expresses. His hands are often in motion to supplement the verbal outpour.
Born in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1920, Sultan Ali is today the seniormost practitioner at the Cholamandal Artists’ Village on the outskirts of Madras (now Chennai). Having studied painting at the Madras Government College of Arts and Crafts from 1939 to 1945, he was later employed there as a senior instructor. At this point, his career ran parallel to that of the late K C S Panicker, who founded Cholamandal.
In addition to 21 one-man shows, he has participated in the Sao Paolo, Venice and Lugano Biennales and the Lalit Kala Akademi’s Triennales at New Delhi, among other exhibitions. He won the Akademi’s National Award twice, in 1966 and in 1978. His work is represented at the National Gallery of Modern Art, the Berlin Museum of Indian Art and the Royal Tropical Museum in the Netherlands, in addition to numerous private and public collections.
Of Sultan Ali’s work, an art critic wrote in the Times of India in December 1965: “There are two types of images, the traditional and the private… the mystic figure and folk motifs are supported by calligraphy in the form of ‘quotes’ and inscriptions in Gujarati. We are aware of the sombre and the lyrical, the natural and the manifest, the latent and the supernatural.”
During our meeting at his residence at Cholamandal, Sultan Ali’s mood was ruminative. He spoke of a perceptive art teacher at St. Andrew’s High School at Bandra in Bombay, who recognised his latent talent. When the family shifted to Madras in 1935, Sultan Ali rebelled against joining his father’s confectionery business. As the inevitable row at home ensued, he ran away to join the College of Arts and Crafts under the tutelage of the late D P Roy Chowdhury, for whom he acknowledges both affection and admiration. Eventually, his mother effected a reconciliation within the family. Following his stint at the college and having meanwhile developed a fascination for the philosophy of J Krishnamurthy, Sultan Ali gently recalls the invigorating experience of communing with children through art at the Rishi Valley School in Andhra Pradesh.
Conversationally, the artist ranged across barriers of time and place. But let him speak for himself:
Do you consider yourself a modern Indian artist?
To me, that would be like asking: ‘Am I a modern scientist or a modern architect?’ In my work, I project my experiences, my knowledge. My self comes into it. It is an amalgam of all these. My work should say if Sultan Ali is a modern artist or an old, outdated mediocre painter.
What are the modern elements in your art, as opposed to the traditional?
The traditional artist is confined to certain ways of depicting figures and animals. Even his use of colour is governed by purpose and occasion. For instance, if he draws a dwara-palaka, or a king, these figures will be distorted because he adheres closely to the shilpa shastra or the chitra shastra.
I don’t have any shastras. I can draw a bull in one way now and in another way later. (Pointing to a painting in hues of grey on the wall) Look at that. The bull there has six legs, but the motifs of the chakra and the triangle are all from tradition.
How would you define your Indian identity vis-à-vis the west?
In just being an Indian, I’m bound to be different… Oil painting is basically a western technique. But things like perspective, volume, space and geometry have been with us for thousands of years. Our entire visual vocabulary is different.
Personally, I find very little that is striking in modern western art. I am not moved by Mondrian’s art, which critics raved about. Mondrian’s forms are static. Works based on Indian tradition have movement. Take the optical image of the swastika. Or the perfection of the Nataraja, which fits into a circle… Yet, the westerners claim they are pioneers. All they have are materials, machines and money.
Would you care to evaluate your own contribution to Indian art?
Let posterity decide. My mind is still developing. I am still growing as I work, deriving inspiration from various sources.
Could you delineate different phases in your work?
One phase tends to fade into another. I don’t usually notice the evolution, but someone else might. There’s one thing I would like to stress. All the audience sees is the finished product. But for me, as an artist, the process of painting is important. I am totally engrossed in it. It is spontaneous, yet highly calculated. You cannot take a single element of shading, colour or tone out of my pictures because the composition is so calculated. I regard the process of painting as meditation. At that stage, there is no difference between the painter and painting.
In my earlier work, my style was influenced by the Bengal School and the European method of painting. But from 1959-63, as the Exhibition Officer at the Lalit Kala Akademi, I accidentally came across a book by Verrier Elwin in the library. He was a Britisher, an authority on tribal art in India. These art forms are very appealing because they are direct; they come from free minds, minds which were not conditioned to any method in art. I thought I would take inspiration from them.
Even today, I find my training a hindrance because it was so intense ~ this study of anatomy and proportion and so on. I merely want to draw the spirit of the figure, but I find it very difficult. So, that period in my work from 1959 to around 1967-69, was a very strong phase for me.
My paintings now may differ technically, but not so far as the spirit is concerned. The spirit is always young. It is never old; it never goes into the past as we classify it. A Mohenjodaro figurine is valid even today.
How have different techniques evolved in your work?
(Gesturing to a series of intricate black-and-white drawings done very recently while recovering from a heart attack in January) This technique came about from doodling. At the Lalit Kala Akademi office, while answering the phone, I would always have a writing pad at hand, on which I would doodle. You know, today it is a mature technique and a lot of people are quietly copying it.
Now, you take my oil painting. The normal course is to load the brush with paint that has been mixed in the palette. This is then applied to the canvas with strokes. I don’t apply it that way. I rub the brush. By the time the painting is over, the brushes get blunt because I go on rubbing them. It is a very unusual technique, which I developed entirely on my own.
Do you have a favourite theme?
The expression of energy in a variety of ways has always fascinated me. There is energy in the sun, the bull, the human figure. I express energy deep inside. Remove all the layers ~ the figures, the tones, the colours, the arrangements, the expressions of the victory of goodness over evil. Underneath, you’ll come to this energy. You see, a work of art is a personification of one’s own self. My whole self is full of fire inside, and that’s why there is so much of vibrancy in my work. If somebody else were to paint energy, that energy would be entirely different from my energy.
Another person who paints energy like me is Alfred Jensen in the US. Maria Tucker, who has written about him, does not give his sources. But I feel he must have taken much from eastern art, particularly from Indian art. Energy is a force which is controllable with the aid of certain numbers. So, Jensen is concerned with mathematics and this energy. He has studied the subject intensely and painted powerful pictures.
I have read the history of western art and come across a lot of American artists ~ Rauschenberg, Rosenquist, De Kooning, Hans Hoffmann ~ but I have never come across the name of Alfred Jensen. He is 65 years old now. But he never believed in publicity, he never believed in money. No one knew of him until Maria Tucker insisted on an exhibition.
Do you feel Jensen may have influenced your work?
We have got almost the same way of thinking. Perhaps we were brothers in the past janma. But I doubt it very much. I came across his work recently and our approach is very different.
Why is the Indian public disinterested in art?
People today have lost interest in art because of the British regime. We were a very artistic people. It was part of our way of life ~ our dress, our worship, our writing, our cooking. It was art of a very high order. The images we worshipped ~ be they Ganesha or Shiva ~ they were perfect. They had the best of clay, the best of metal, the best of craftmanship.
And the people who conquered us ~ the Huns, the Moghuls, the Greeks ~ they all contributed something to our life and our art. This resulted in a synthesis of different styles. Rajput painting is a synthesis of pure Persian art. The Kandahar school blends Greek art and Indian art. All those who came contributed something, except the Britishers. They turned us from artists into clerks. They built art schools here only because they wanted draughtsmen. They never considered themselves a part of Indian life. The Britishers completely squeezed us out in such a way that today we are nothing. Our thinking is blank so far as appreciation of art is concerned.
If art is considered as self-expression, why would an artist require public interest in his work?
A person needs something to sharpen him inside. The mind needs to think and to feel. To the viewer, his very soul comes from Sultan Ali and from others like me. Because the very purpose of art is to elevate the human spirit. How much you take depends on you. If you don’t want it, don’t take it.
Shouldn’t prices be lowered if art elevates the spirit?
I’ve got to live. I don’t know about other artists, but my gallery owners shout at me. They say, ‘Why do you lower your prices so much? You are a senior artist.’ I reply that I want my pictures to go around. They even suggested that I should enter a contract with them so that I could do the paintings and give them to the gallery owners, leaving the pricing to them while taking whatever I needed for expenditure. But I said, ‘No.’
But there are other artists who take pride in saying, ‘Today, I am selling my paintings for Rs. 25,000 or Rs. 30,000.’ I feel sorry for them. Their entire approach is different. Paint a little, hold exhibitions, sell all wrong. Look at Van Gogh. He never sold a painting in his life. His only worry: ‘Will I have colour and canvas tomorrow morning, when I want to paint?’
How do you feel about audience appreciation?
In a sense, it is very difficult for an audience to appreciate art. They come and see a work of art and say, ‘We do not understand.’ They don’t have to understand. Or rather, they have already understood. When they come and look at a picture, they have already understood. Because it is something visual. They have already seen it. (Laughs) Now what they want is ~ and this is where the trouble begins ~ an intellectual interpretation. The moment you see art, you experience a reaction in you. That’s all. That’s it.
Do you feel strongly about art critics and criticism?
In India, we had only one art critic. The late Dr. Charles Fabri in Delhi. He was a German Jew, settled in India. He could also paint…
The people who are supposed to interpret art to the public, we don’t have such people today ~ the art critics. An art critic is different from an art historian or an art journalist. He is deeply interested. He watches artists at work and he questions. Here, nobody has the time. They come and see the finished product at an exhibition, make a note and go away, sit at a typewriter, give in their copy, and out they go. That is not art criticism.