‘I belong to the world of art, which knows no boundaries’: Natvar Bhavsar

Rohini Iyengar | Updated on July 24, 2020

Riot of pigments: Colours in the works of Bhavsar celebrate his cultural roots in India   -  IMAGES COURTESY: JANET BROSIOUS BHAVSAR

Abstract expressionist Natvar Bhavsar on the emotional, spiritual and physical involvement with his art, inspired by rangolis, advaita philosophy and Sanskrit

* Natvar Bhavsar believes that the focus on the element of colour comes from his cultural roots in India. His passion for languages is reflected in the Sanskrit and Hindi titles to his works.

Vast expanses of colour cascade through abstract realms in the works of Natvar Bhavsar. The 86-year-old artist of Indian origin, who has been living and working in New York since 1965, has won many awards and grants, including, in 2010, the Barnett and Annalee Newman Foundation Grant Award for Creative Contributions in the Arts. The artist, who continues to paint using a spectrum of hues, tells BLink that his focus on colour comes from his cultural roots in India. Excerpts from an interview:

Abstract expressionist Natvar Bhavsar


You are a pioneer as far as the focus on usage of pigments is concerned. Was this an outcome of influences from the US or did the inspiration come from elsewhere?

I enjoyed all the colours around me during my childhood in my village, Gothava, in Gujarat. Also, as I belong to a family of woodblock printers on my maternal side, I could see yards of colourful textiles every morning at my grandmother’s place. Plus, the Indian festival of Holi and the tradition of rangoli made deep impressions on my mind. I even made a huge 80-foot rangoli in a college hall when I was a teenager.

Did these interests prompt you to follow a career in art?

In my case, art teaching happened even before I took it up for a professional degree. My father passed away when I was 10 and I had to look for work after completing high school. I was 19 when I first began to teach art at the Chanasma High School in Gujarat. In 1957, I joined the Sheth CN School of Fine Arts, Ahmedabad, to teach art. While teaching there, I also prepared for the Bombay state higher art exam (1958-59) conducted by the Sir JJ School of Art and also obtained a BA (Eng Lit) degree from Gujarat University in 1960.

What was your experience of modern Indian art during the 1950s and early ’60s?

I was in Bombay for an exam when a friend introduced me to (VS) Gaitonde and other artists. I also met (MF) Husain and saw his works. In Ahmedabad, which was a growing cultural hub, a few artists including Piraji Sagara, Jeram Patel, Chhaganlal Jadav and I came together to form a body called the Progressive Group in 1956. I was its general secretary. Our first group show in 1957 was at the Cultural Centre of Ahmedabad, a museum designed by Le Corbusier, the famed French architect.

When and why did you choose to move to the US?

In 1961, when I was studying in Ahmedabad, a fellow student, Hansa Gajjar, mentioned that her brother, Navin, had graduated from MIT, US, and also introduced me to her father. Not only did they inspire me, but Navin further helped me with the visa to the US. I enrolled to study industrial design at the Museum College of Art, Philadelphia, in 1962. Later that year I joined the Tyler School of Art at Temple University to study painting. It was there that I met Janet Brosious, who was pursuing a master’s in painting. We got married in 1978. Meanwhile, I enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania and graduated in 1965. I was introduced to abstract expressionist artists Robert Motherwell and Barnett Newman by Piero Dorazio, an Italian artist who taught at the university. Piero’s recommendation letter was instrumental in my receiving the JDR III Fund Grant 1965, which caused me to move to NYC, the global centre for the arts.

Did your work change to abstraction after you saw their works?

When I was in India, my work was semi-figurative with cubistic elements. Fragmentation of motifs was part of this style. Although I had earlier seen the works of Mark Rothko at a MoMA travelling exhibition in India, the strong urge towards abstraction was consolidated when I met the abstract expressionist artists in the US.

How did you integrate ‘Indianness’ with your American abstract expressionist mode?

I believe that my focus on the element of colour comes from my cultural roots in India. My passion for languages is reflected in the Sanskrit and Hindi titles to my works, which are like cues to the deep-seeded Indian philosophical aspects of arupa and advaita. Reinforcing these conceptual tenets is the uniqueness of my technique, which derives from murals and rangolis, and which I have devised and developed over the years. For this, the prepared canvas surface is kept wet with thick resin layers, over which the dry pigments are then dispersed using a variety of tools and means before being fixed with oil and resin. This technique demands emotional, spiritual and physical involvement, much like the way American abstract expressionists did. However, I belong to the world of art, which knows no boundaries.

Tell us about your subsequent journey in the art world.

A major breakthrough came in 1970 when an Australian dealer exhibited my works at his Max Hutchinson art gallery at SoHo, NY. Next in importance was the show at the Jewish Museum, where I exhibited a huge work titled THEER-A-THEER-A, which means ‘slowly-slowly’ (derived from Sanskrit). My works were appreciated and when I shared a studio with [dancer-choreographer] Elaine Summers, I could meet several artists and intellectuals at a cultural hub, the Judson Church. That year my art gained recognition with five more shows across the US. Now, more than 2,000 works are in major public museums and a number of corporate as well as private collections.

What are your plans?

My sons Ajay and Rajeev will carry out my creative vision and mission and contribute further through the foundation and archives that Janet and I have established.

Rohini Iyengar is an art historian based in New Jersey, US

Published on July 24, 2020

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