Surveying a century of art practice in India, one is struck anew by how artists have reacted to situations and crises in their lifetimes. Modernists in Calcutta were impacted by the Bengal famine of 1943, and their peers addressed issues of violence, war, hunger, corruption and poverty in their work. The succeeding generation, referred to as contemporaries, are no less activist, and their concerns have global resonances that draw upon disparities they have seen or experienced with regard to income, patriarchy, gender, society, shifting geographies, territorial claims and barriers, and environment. In between, there have been brief spells when space and its exploration awed artists. Between all this, an artist of some perspicacity seems to have slipped between the cracks.
Ved Nayar is quick to take offence — perhaps with good reason. Even though his work has been collected by Masanori Fukuoka in Japan, the collector even publishing a book on the artist and his work, Nayar has garnered less attention than he deserves back home in India. Yet, Nayar has not felt the need to accommodate the market in his work, deliberately choosing to remain away from peer comparisons.
A few pet concerns have shaped Nayar’s practice — mankind’s overwhelming greed and rampant consumerism, and its impact on the environment. In the current situation, he seems to have been prescient about how it would lead us into a state of conflict with nature and the vengeance she would wreak. It seems barely possible today that skies abuzz with flights, malls teeming with masses, endless traffic jams and a need to consume more than we could possibly cope with, had shaped our lives since India’s economic liberalisation of 1991 before the pandemic put a skid on it. It is a moment to reflect on how markets have shaped our lives, robbing them of simple pleasures to replace them with mindless hedonism.
Nayar mocks our blind adherence to this market, its booming beauty business and worship of beauty queens and their unhealthy stereotypes, the human faultlines in aspiring for the skies, and a global culturisation. Communicating his philosophy are totemic figures he has iconicised to straddle the space between earth and heaven. Their colossal monumentality speaks of mankind’s quest represented by figures that are bemused, bedazzled and seduced by superficial needs and wants but are inherently lonely. In Nayar’s paintings, these interstellar beings are surrounded by apartment buildings, modes of transport that include cars as well as aeroplanes and luxury brands in a dizzying spiral of profligacy. The iconic being is their vortex, one that they attract and are, in turn, attracted to. It is a world fated to meet its doom — and now it has.
At first, Nayar’s works are deceptive, appearing pleasant, even pleasing. But Nayar is nothing if not scornful, scathing even, and that is when you become aware of their excoriating, corrosive intent. Nayar does not aim to please, and as his work gradually opens up to its nuances, we are made mindful of his withering scorn for the society we have become. The mythic beings we look up to are ephemeral gods demanding our wealth, turning us into slaves, reprimanding simplicity, scorning our individuality.
That Nayar’s works have proved their legitimacy years after they were first created speaks of their relevance and longevity. A prolific artist, Nayar’s works have been scarcely exhibited in recent years, and have therefore become invisible to younger collectors. Perhaps it is time to look afresh at his legacy and learn from the perils he seems to have warned us against as only an artist can.