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Badri Narayan: Life of a modernist rooted in tradition

Soumitra Das | Updated on March 02, 2021

Signature image: Badri Narayan drew inspiration from myths and allegories   -  BHAGYA PRAKASH

A book on Badri Narayan is a tribute — albeit a belated one — to an artist who did not enjoy the recognition he truly deserved

* Narayan did hark back to the past but his works were, nonetheless, grounded in the 20th century

* For the storyteller that Narayan was, Indian miniatures, Ajanta frescoes, other Oriental aesthetic legacies mattered as much as Marc Chagall, Henri Matisse and William Blake

* Author Prema Viswanathan has, with admirable tenacity and acuity, dug up the biographical details of the artist

* Narayan wrote and painted tirelessly all his life but he had little interest in making money

***

Badri Narayan (1929-2013) stands out among the modernists of India for he alone drew inspiration from myths and allegories drawn from all over the world. His thoughts on life and death and other philosophical questions found expression in his paintings through archetypal imagery and symbolism. He did hark back to the past but his works were, nonetheless, grounded in the 20th century by virtue of the clarity and forthrightness of his egalitarian, multidimensional vision, and the utter simplicity and childlike candour with which this self-taught artist brought alive kings and queens, bhikshus, elephants, unicorns, hamsas, boats and rivers in his paintings veiled in life’s timeless mysteries.

Badri Narayan: Portrait of the Artist as Storyteller / Prema Viswanathan / The Marg Foundation / Non-fiction / ₹999

 

Although he was on familiar terms with the Progressive Artists’ Group, who were active in Mumbai when he arrived in the city in his youth, he did not always see eye to eye with them as he felt they fell back on the avant-garde ideas of the West for inspiration, forgetting home-grown traditions. For the storyteller that Narayan was, Indian miniatures, Ajanta frescoes, other Oriental aesthetic legacies mattered as much as Marc Chagall, Henri Matisse, William Blake, William Morris, Maurice Denis and the medieval illuminated manuscripts of Europe.

The Mumbai-based Marg Foundation — which, in its 75th year, has embarked on a new journey under the stewardship of CEO Rizio B Yohannan — has chosen to kick off its series ‘The Indian Modern’ on lesser known but worthy enough Indian artists with this informative monograph on Narayan, who never enjoyed the renown that he so richly deserved. The saffron cover is probably a nondescript detail from one of Narayan’s works.

Author Prema Viswanathan had earlier reported for leading Indian newspapers from Mumbai, Delhi and Singapore and interviewed well-known artists. She had the privilege of meeting Narayan — “a very modest man with a smile on his face and a tin of paan masala in his pocket” — in the 1980s, while she was working at The Times of India, Mumbai; the artist in his khadi kurta and pyjama would come to deliver his articles and sketches to the newspaper office. She had started on this project in 2009, but it remained in cold storage till recently. The profusely illustrated paperback (many photographs of the artist and his family and friends) opens with a rather rambling piece by Yohannan as she presents the book, followed by Ranjit Hoskote’s introduction. Poet, curator and cultural theorist, Hoskote knew Narayan from his late teens when he himself started writing.

Narayan was born in Secunderabad, but he lost his mother with whom he shared a close relationship when he was 13. His grandmother was the only one in his family who lent him support at home. Little wonder that women, some from mythology such as Savitri, are symbols of power and strength in his works. Viswanathan has, with admirable tenacity and acuity, dug up the biographical details of the artist and sensitively analysed the various themes that recur in his paintings and writings, although, occasionally, she stretches it a bit too far — equating the introduction of the “observer” in Badri’s paintings with “Brechtian disengagement” is perhaps an exaggeration.

Narayan was estranged from his father who had to support a huge family on his meagre income. He left home when he was 16 armed only with a school certificate. Narayan landed odd jobs to sustain himself, but continued to write poems and stories and filled up his sketchbook with his drawings. By 19, he had begun contributing to a leading magazine, and after he won a prize for a small painting in an all-India painting exhibition, he managed to visit Bombay and hold a solo show at the Jehangir Art Gallery in 1955, no mean achievement for one so young.

Bombay was his home for half a century when he lived in penury with his wife and two daughters in a one-room flat in Chembur. Narayan enjoyed close relations with senior artists such as KK Hebbar and Hari Ambadas Gade, who was his mentor. He wrote and painted tirelessly all his life but he had little interest in making money, although the Indian art market had started gaining recognition even abroad in his lifetime and many of his contemporaries had made fortunes for themselves. He spent the last days of his life in Bengaluru but his mindset never changed.

This is indeed an admirable quality, but does it warrant mention from time to time in the text? This overkill could easily have been avoided had the book been more tightly edited. The book’s biggest drawback is that it has important nuggets of information strewn throughout, nuggets that needed to be collated instead of allowing them to stray.

Soumitra Das is a Kolkata-based journalist

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Published on March 02, 2021
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