The other day I visited an exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai. It wouldn’t have been anything special for a student of the sciences, were it not for the story behind how this collection came to be curated.
There were paintings, sculptures and photographs on display – work from a coterie of artists that conveyed the art scence in post-independent India. I’ve never studied the visual arts formally so I’m going to desist from adding any more about the work itself, lest I end up trivialising the matter.
While this is the case, it helps for me to read the accompanying descriptions of the artwork. During this exhibition, this was particularly helpful, possibly also because I can relate to the cultural context without much difficulty.
These paintings are housed at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, a Mumbai-based institute that is also one of the most reputed in the country. It was founded just after independence in 1947, by Dr Homi Bhabha, one of India’s best known scientists and a key figure in the country’s atomic energy programme, with support from Indian industrialists and later the government.
The poster aroused my interest because it related a key scientific figure to the arts.
I should explain. I’ve been painting since I was four. I fell sick during a summer vacation and my father noticed me sketch something – I think it was on the side of newspapers, although I’m not sure. He asked if I’d like to paint with water colours, and without a clue as to how, I said yes. I was handed a little palette of watercolour cakes and a little A4 notebook whose pages would crimp at the slightest touch of water. I’m not sure what I painted, I cannot remember, but I’d finished the entire book by the end of the vacation. One painting, I distinctly remember, was a sunset between the mountains.
I’ve always been drawn to the arts and the sciences equally. Not being in touch with either for over about a month makes me feel incomplete. But while studying the sciences, I was often discouraged (not necessarily by teachers) from practising painting. Without going into why, how, and by whom I was discouraged, I will tell you that when I first started painting murals, it was a rebellious act. I’m not sure why, but not fitting into a stereotype can often be threatening to others. I often look for an artistic streak in scientists and vice versa; my search for my own sanity in others.
This is why a visit to this exhibition was such a joy. Not only was Dr Homi Bhabha an amateur artist himself, but apart from rallying for the basic sciences, he encouraged artists and maintained a sort of working group of advisors, connoisseurs of art, who would advise him on encouraging a pursuit of the arts and supporting artists in their work.
The one photograph that stayed with me was that of Homi Bhabha, Albert Einstein, John Wheeler and Hideki Yukawa at Princeton. A Husain mural, titled ‘Bharat Bhagya Vidhata’ held me for tens of minutes. This painting was the winning entry in a mural competition held by the Institute.
The basic sciences suffer in India as the best minds are drawn to applications in industry, or they leave abroad in pursuit of research interests. The condition of the arts is worse: underfunded and underrespected. The interest of greats like Dr Bhabha in both was a shot of encouragement for me.