There are weighty aesthetic reasons for taking Mohan Samant’s Midnight Fishing Party very seriously indeed. It is an important work, by an artist who was unfairly neglected. He might have been born in Bombay and may have been part and parcel of the Bombay art scene for years – but he moved permanently to New York in 1968 (where he died in 2004). This means he fell through the cracks in identity: he was counted neither as a major ‘Indian’ artist nor as an ‘American’ one. Until recently, both artworlds have mostly marginalised him. So, Midnight Fishing Party has social significance – and its merits are not just derived from its deft combination of colour and form. We can easily make a case for its importance to debates about modern Indian painting.
Samant’s offering is my favourite work in the show that I guest curated at the Asia Society museum in New York, The Progressive Revolution: A Modern Art for a New India (from the 14th of September 2018 to the 20th of January 2019). Tan Boon Hui, Director of the museum, was the co-curator. The exhibition contained over 80 artworks – mostly consisting of those by the Progressive Artists’ Group (and their close associates) which were juxtaposed with Asian antiquities and miniatures from John D. Rockefeller the 3rd’s collection. (The latter was the founder of the museum on Park Avenue in 1956 – and his antiques continue to compose the core of museum’s collection.) I decided that Samant would get a look in, and this was not least because he had been awarded a Rockefeller Grant. (In fact, he was the first of the Moderns to win it in 1959.) After some soul searching, Midnight Fishing was included in the section of the exhibition called “National/International”, which argued that modern Indian art was influenced by its own Asian heritage as much as by Western Masters. Thus, inserting Samant’s work in the show served two main agendas.
Firstly, I was adamant that it was vital to include Samant in any overview of the Progressives – of which he always claimed to be a member. In the light of new evidence (unearthed from Krishen Khanna’s archive), I was able to verify that Samant was indeed affiliated with the Group, since he showed with them in their second exhibition in 1953. He was – just as he and Khanna always claimed – a second generation member.
Samant’s Midnight Fishing was made to do some ideological heavy-lifting for me as well. It has an obvious connection with ‘Asian-ness’ (rather than just Indianness). The collaged figures that drift on the vast expanse of midnight-hued sea resemble Indonesian shadow puppets (wayang kulit) and in fact they resemble the ones that Samant collected in a market in New York, which graced his studio ever since. As his wife Jillian explains, “One day Mohan and I were walking in Greenwich Village and came across an Indonesian dress store. We went inside to look for a dress for me. Although it was a clothing store, it also displayed six Indonesian puppets. Mohan instantly recognized them as characters in the great Hindu epics. So, we bought all six of the puppets, and they have lived in our loft ever since.”
As such, Midnight Fishing shows the Asian inspirations behind Samant’s art – putting paid to that tired notion that ‘Indian art is derivative of the West’. And, even more appropriately, the painting’s point is made via Indonesian puppets (inspired by the Ramayana) that the Samants discovered in multi-cultural New York. Midnight Fishing exudes the kind of hybridity that would even satisfy theorist Homi Bhabha. So, these are all good reasons why Samant’s work should be one of my favourites.
Mohan Samant. Midnight Fishing Party.
Mixed media with folded paper on canvas. 177.8 cms x 228.6 cms. 1974. The Collection of Jillian Samant. Photograph by John Berens. Image courtesy Asia Society.
The Indonesian puppets in Samant’s collection. Photograph by Jillian Samant.
Ultimately, though, it wormed its way into my heart not because of what it argued – but because of what it does. Whatever the intellectual merits of Midnight Fishing, what hits you first (and, perhaps, last?) is its use of colour. Small fragments of papery collage (are they supposed to be islands?) hang suspended on a deep blue sea. The water seems to shine – as if it has absorbed all the light in the room – and one’s eye keeps pulling away from the swimming bits of pinky-red, and is quite carried away, punch-drunk, happy to drown in colour. Some pleasures are best experienced rather than described – and just once in a while a work of art manages to fit itself into this category. The whimsically named Midnight Fishing is one such.