“In Search of Art that transcends Culture”
in search of art that transends culture, Mumbiram article 3

“In Search of Art that transcends Culture” (1985, Pune Sakal) Mumbiram describes his adventurous and romantic becoming an artist in the 70s in the US after ‘throwing away‘ his Ph.D certificate from the University of California at Berkeley. When he was a child he had dreamt of being an artist being fascinated by his grandfather who was a master of watercolour painting.

“All my sweet memories of childhood revolved around my grandfather’s house. He was a very gentle man and never lost his childlike innocence. He was fond of collecting birds and animals. He surrounded himself with a large family that included peacocks, doves, ducks, chicken, turtles, rabbits, guinea pigs, dogs, cats, etc. Every room of his house was full of paintings. He also had a very large collection of prints and cuttings out of magazines of the works of great masters of the past. All these he had meticulously pasted into oversized albums. Finding treasures in the junk market was another of his passions. For my child’s mind his house was indeed a living fantasy.
Inside the house he had rare china porcelain statues, brass cannons and trinkets. Outside the house he had a variety of trees: jamool, tamarind, sandalwood, mango, guava. There were birds in the trees and fish in the streams. The sun would rise, the clouds would gather, the grass would grow, the cattle would rest under trees. I watched my grandfather depicting all this in his paintings. Could there have been a better institute that I could have learnt art at ?
In this way I was initiated into art at a very early age. I made my first memorable picture when I was three. I learnt how to handle the brush, how to wet it, how to drain it, how to mix colours, stretch the paper, use the sponge. Besides these technicalities I had also figured out why and where to keep the paper blank, how to distribute the detail, how to make the composition effective, how to show distance, how to use colour harmony and colour contrast among other things.”

As a teenager he was persuaded to go for something ‘practical’ bringing him to California.

“‘To want to be an artist in India is to ask for a life of poverty and misery’. This was the refrain of everybody’s advice to me thereafter. Fortunately, or unfortunately. I also liked mathematics very much and was also good at it. Therefore, everyone would urge me to be practical and take a degree in science or engineering. I could always pursue art as a ‘hobby’, they would add sympathetically. As a result of all this, I quit art at the age of 12. 

Goodbye emotions, hello intelligence. I could never have looked at art as a ‘hobby’. Will a man who truly loves a woman be able to visit her as a prostitute afterwards ?”

“I felt that anything that would be achieved with the help of intelligence was on the palm of my hand. Yet deep inside somewhere I was being untrue to myself.”

Soon Mumbiram rediscovered his ‘first love’, which was art, in 1969 in Berkeley.

“The years 1968, 69 were the years of turmoil and transformation, introspection and self-criticism to all of America. In 1969 America was successful in sending the first man to the moon. Mr. Nixon became the president of the United States. American youth openly rebelled against the war in Vietnam. The very foundation of the American value system was rocked by the tremors of ideological innovations. Berkeley attained prominence on the map of America as the epicentre of that ‘shaker‘.”

“It was on one such afternoon that some organization had put up a table with a sign ‘Come and Paint a Picture’. There were plenty of paints, paper and brushes. I was drawn to that table like the proverbial deer that is attracted by the hunter’s song. Before I knew it, I had dipped a brush in the paints and was moving it quite freely onto the paper. I splashed those paints on the paper like on the day of Holi in India. My hands and clothes were all full of paints. After much splurging and revelling in colours I reached home in an ecstatic state. My mind was crowded by memories of childhood.”

“It was about this time that I learnt about my grandfather’s sad demise. He had waited eagerly for my return. He had hoped that I would carry on his artistic ambition. His last years must have been full of despair. Whatever few paintings he now had with him he used to throw away, anywhere, by the riverside, under the bridge, in the market place, anywhere. The last year of his life he went silent.
I cried a bitter tear. Now there was no going back from art. On the contrary, I decided to channel my energy into art in a more planned and concerted manner. Before that, I decided to complete my Ph.D. I wrote a very concise thesis in Mathematical Economics. It was about ‘Competitive Growth Models’. I completed it within a year. My Ph.D. certificate bore the signature of the then Governor of California, Ronald Regan. I threw it to the wind and also left California in search of a new aesthetic ideal.”

Having made friends and lived among the great variety of people as an itinerant artist and philosopher in the US Mumbiram discovers his philosophy of Personalist Art, the very foundation of Rasa Renaissance.

“The art of a sovereign artist never becomes a slave of style. It is undergoing transformations, taking on new dimensions. My art had now become entirely ‘personalist‘. I could only see people. My art revolved around the drama of the human situation. I omitted all material details such as houses, buildings, vehicles, furniture etc. As if I was preparing to come back to India. I began painting group portraits with two or three people. The characters themselves provide the context for each other. The characters create the perspective as well as meaning. It became my ambition that Art should transcend culture.”

Mumbiram sees a healthy aesthetic as a thriving force in all human affairs.

“On my return to India what struck me the most was the inundating variety of human beauty one sees here. Very few Indians are aware of it. The ideas about human beauty are extremely stereotyped here. For example the exaggerated preference for lighter complexion. I say it is a malady to not to be aware of your own beauty. Some say it was because the English ruled India that we got this idea of superiority of the lighter skin colour. It must have been the other way around. A handful of Englishmen could rule India precisely because Indians were in awe of the lighter skin. The consequences of a perverted ideal of beauty are so pervasive and far reaching that we don’t find an ideal of dark beauty after the example of Draupadi of the Mahabharata. We find this same neglect of human beauty in contemporary Indian painting. Even a leading painter like Hussain paints blank faces. The affected distortion one sees a lot today is the most offensive example of blind following of western streams. India will have nothing to do with the so called existential void and degeneration. India will give the world great ‘personalist art‘.”

The paintings ‘Marathi Poets’ and “Chitalyanchi Soon”, that were published in the article, show Mumbiram’s sensitivity to contemporary trends in Marathi literature.