If you were in search of a gorgeous butterfly, would you settle for a chrysalis? If you dream of a perfect rainbow, would you be fine with just a cloudless sky?
With a fluttering of imaginary wings, I ventured into Eye Spy Indian Art by Ritu Khoda and Vanita Pai with excitement, even optimism. Basically because I admire the duo as active art educators via their initiative, Art1st. They melded concept, text and visuals perfectly to grab and hold an Indian child’s attention through their 2014 book, Raza’s Bindu.
Their current book seemed equally ripe with promise. Two quirky cutout eyes under squiggly eyebrows peered out from its tomato red cover. Enchanted, I hazarded a guess (bingo!), then matched the eyes to the popular nineteenth-century Kalighat patachitra, Cat with Lobster. On the double, I puzzled my way through Indian art movements, with basic keys from an “Art Historian” at the “National Art Archives”. I enjoyed the hands-on experience: tearing along dotted lines to uncover art currents, pasting the right ‘eye’ and ‘movement title’ to unveil each chapter.
Addressed mainly to teenagers (and perhaps their parents/art teachers), I found this book near perfect conceptually. Such as Ishan Khosla’s funky, playful design that is outstanding. He creates a flawless offbeat palette that includes madder red, powder-puff blue, bottle green, and terracotta. The peek-a-boo cutouts over Nikhil Biswas and Sultan Ali’s paintings invite participation in a trice. In perfect sync, readers are asked to trace over a musician with his stringed esraj, flip a transparent sheet to figure out Nandalal Bose’s watercolour cow (with and without his markings), or decode tricky clues within Gulammohammed Sheikh’s Alphabet Stories series with cool jotting spaces on each flip-out layer. Just as tantalizing is the open flap exercise with Tyeb Mehta’s painting, linked to influential American art educator Joseph Albers. The catchy titles to chapter-end exercises are all invitations to “Think”, “Explore”, “Try this” or “Look up” art provocations.
I was delighted until I read this sensational-looking book from cover to cover. Not once, but twice through. That is when my first reservations surfaced – and refused to fade away. I was charmed by the odd facts about artists packed into page corners. But the overall textual imperfections and uneven tone were jarring, almost disrespectful of the concept and design. Three essential beings seem to have missed the journey with the authors: a respected art historian, an experienced editor and a conscientious proofreader.
Missing key: an editor. Why does the Pre-Modern chapter read like an encyclopaedia entry, while the next one on Academic Realism takes on an intimate eye-to-eye voice? Why does the narrative entry on Manjit Bawa fail to explain his delicate equation with his daughter? Overall, the text lacks a unifying core voice, a focus on detailing, both distressing to the reader. Why line up six artist portraits for each defining ‘movement,’ then introduce just two at random with no further reference to the others? Perhaps the neglected four could have been linked to the mainstream briefly in an appended page. Why does each chapter open with a string of catch-all phrases (with attractive sans-serif colour play in capital letters)? But these neither fuel flights of fancy nor boost factual exploration. For instance, ‘Focus on printmaking, sculpture, painting and frescoes’ is a label generic enough to encompass hundreds of Indian artists. Why apply it specifically to the south?
If only the text and visuals were not at loggerheads, qualitatively and direction-wise between these covers, Eye Spy Indian Art could have been the key to Indian modern art education for decades. If only there were more deep backgrounders and riveting anecdotes. If only the data research was richer and more impeccable.
Missing key: a proofreader. If only the authors had sought out a proofreader to eliminate the errata that mar the pages (e.g.: page 38, line 13; page 54, line 13), including missing articles and punctuation. How come M.F. Husain attended the ‘J.J. School of Art’ (page 72), when his contemporary Tyeb Mehta studied at the ‘Sir J.J. School of Art’ (Page 80)? Even in our tech-savvy time, spellcheck does not quite measure up to a skilled proofreader.
Missing key: an art historian. A guiding light steeped in Indian art history could have ensured that Badri Narayan (Bombay-based for most of his artistic life) was not clubbed with “Modernists of the South”. Or that Nasreen Mohammedi could shrug off the imposed company of the “Delhi Modernists”. In real time, she taught at Baroda for over fifteen years and was mentored by Mumbaikars like V.S. Gaitonde. As for M.F. Husain’s high-energy life, I wish captivating anecdotes had been foregrounded, instead of couching him in mere clichés.
Khoda and Pai set the benchmark sky-high with Raza’s Bindu. If only their facts were cross-checked, their writing more uniformly cogent, Eye Spy Indian Art could have matched it, page for page.
It seems a pity that this book came into the market as a work in progress by an “Art Historian”. As an arts writer for decades and an art buff, I would have been willing to wait another year or two to review it as a text-perfect, rainbow-bright book. A book that we would not want to miss. Because we love modern Indian art and its practitioners deeply – and we would want our children to access their worlds.
By Aditi De
Authors: Ritu Khoda and Vanita Pai
Illustrator: Ishan Khosla
Takshila Publication, 2016
Subject Category: Contemporary/Non-Fiction