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Portrait of the artist as a radical man: A retrospective of Altaf Mohammedi’s art

A retrospective of the late artist Altaf Mohammedi displays works that hold up a mirror to the inequalities of society

art and culture Updated: Mar 17, 2018 08:58 IST
Manik Sharma
Manik Sharma
Hindustan Times
Altaf Mohammedi,Figurative artist,India's figurative artists
In the pantheon of unambiguously radical artists Altaf Mohammedi stands tall.(Photos courtesy: Delhi Art Gallery)

When Navjot and Altaf Mohammedi met on the pavement outside the Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai, in 1970, little did they know that their lives would take them to a point where the role of the street, both as politics and an inspiration, would be crucial. At that time, Mohammedi, a 27-year-old artist, had other things besides art on his mind.

By the time he met Navjot, he had already become active in Left-leaning politics in an increasingly unsettled Bombay. But this was a Bombay that, with its capacity to host dissent, gave us fine artists, writers and thinkers. In the pantheon of unambiguously radical artists, Altaf Mohammedi stands tall. In a first retrospective of the artist in Delhi, his oeuvre shines through, with a prickly conscience at its heart and stirring politics in its mindspace.

The younger brother of the already established artist Nasreen Mohammedi, Altaf spent the first half of the ’60s in London. But while he aspired to train in the methods of the West, he found himself at odds with it; dropping out of Central Saint Martins (a well-known centre for art and design education), he took to the streets to protest for nuclear disarmament and other issues. He returned to Bombay in 1967. “Altaf came in with a freshness... He was still the kind of artist who would struggle to find patronage, as in people who would be willing to pick up his art, given his Left-leaning politics and the things he was involved in,” says Kishore Singh, curator of the exhibition.

‘Untitled’ from 2002, is part of Altaf’s Turmoil series. It evokes the suppression of freedom of speech during the 2002 riots.

After returning from London he began frequenting cafes, reading Marxist literature and discussing ideas with the likes of filmmaker Mani Kaul, artist Akbar Padamsee and other such notable figures. Both Navjot and Altaf joined PROYOM (Progressive Youth Movement), a group of young Marxist scholars and writers, and held exhibitions together on the streets, and in the chawls and bastis of Bombay. They would later become part of Namdeo Dhasal’s Dalit Panthers as well.

“I remember those numerous conversations, exchange of ideas, sharing of books, with baba (my father) making newspaper clippings of articles for Navjot and me, based on what would interest us, to read. I remember the Marxist meetings that would take place in our home, their activist, sociologist, psychoanalyst, filmmaker friends constantly coming over,” says Sasha, Altaf’s daughter. “Baba positioned his critical reasoning as a process of intense reflection and often quoted Rilke, ‘the point is to live the questions now and perhaps you will then gradually without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.’

Despite his obvious connection with Baroda (where he was born in 1942), and his life spent in Bombay, Altaf’s work mirrors an unequal, oppressive society. “He has that edge of political activism in his work. He was very literate in the way he interpreted things,” says Singh. “Often this politics overrode the aesthetic, like his works during the Emergency. And then there was always also the spectre of death over him. His mother died giving birth to him. His father died young as well. So he was not in any sense celebrating life as much as he was anticipating its end.”

Both Altaf and Navjot continued their activism through PROYOM during the years of the Emergency, printing pamphlets and posters to try and mobilise people.

Hospital series 3, from 1987, is a meditation on the inevitability of death and what is perhaps its doorstep, the hospital)

In today’s day and age of capitalist corruption and fanaticism of one kind or the other, Altaf feels like a find, a reassuringly strong hand raised in protest. The melancholia of his work, his unflinching dissection of social order, though heavy for some people, resonates with the dead-eyed existentialist angst of today. Whether it is the Turmoil series or the inevitable dread of the Hospital series, Altaf has a narrative running through each work, positing constantly the degradation of the lowly and the loneliness of the highly placed in society. “We are living in a time when political art is all the more significant, not just in India but all over the world. Given the context, to reassess Altaf makes more sense than ever. But not just his work, but his letters, his posters, his writings as well,” Singh says.

Though Altaf turned to teaching in the ’80s, the activist inside him never quit. He held exhibitions at the site of the Union Carbide tragedy in Bhopal and at places where the coal mafia belt was located in Dhanbad.

One can’t help but wonder about the many thoughts a child growing up in the care of parents so well-read, so active with their opinions would have had? “They were each other’s strength -- I recall them having long discussions on their art practice, their concerns ranging from their art, domestic [affairs], raising me etc. I could not say what set them apart from other couples, but they shared a valuable friendship,” Sasha says.

Altaf passed away in 2005, after a brief illness, his last canvas unfinished, much like the idealism he wanted to perpetuate. In doing so, he was relentless and uncompromising, essaying several roles in activism, art and politics. None more so than the loving husband and inspirational father that he was. “My father was the closest I could come to a best friend. He did discuss his angst as I grew older, but there too, there were so many layers to our friendship. One thing he did say and has stayed with me was ‘hope the fire of life always remains with you’,” Sasha says.


What: Retrospective of Altaf Mohammedi

When: Till March 17, 11 am – 7 pm.

Where: Delhi Art Gallery, Hauz Khas village

Nearest metro station: Green Park

First Published: Mar 15, 2018 19:13 IST