Asked for first impressions, visitors to India often speak about the smell -- that peculiar perfume blended of curry, cows and tamarind, dust and dung and smoke -- that surrounds one on arrival. The complicated, rich, exotic aura of that land is sensed almost as quickly among the varied objects in "Indian Art Today: Four Artists From the Chester and Davida Herwitz Family Collection," the telling exhibition that just opened at the Phillips Collection here.
The colors speak of trampled earth, dank foliage and blinding sun. The images are cluttered with little salvaged objects -- straight pins, lengths of colored cotton thread, fishhooks, reused wooden screws, bits of silver chain. The walls are filled with gods, demigods and demons -- and with a touching sense of modern European painting wondered at, examined and partially absorbed.
Long before these pictures -- by Laxma Goud, Sayed Haider Raza, K.G. Ramanujam and Maqbool Fida Husain -- are individually observed, their Indianness is felt.
"Indian Art Today" is the Phillips' contribution to the yearlong Festival of India. Though purists might complain that the exhibition's title in one small way misleads -- not all its art is new; a number of these pictures were painted in the '60s, and Ramanujam has been dead since 1973 -- that seems of small importance. The new and the antique are mixed inextricably in that huge, exotic land.
And in Husain's impressive prints of the Ganges at Benares. Husain's silk-screen stencils imply modern mass production, but his images suggest that timeless holy river, the pyres on its banks, the praying, bathing pilgrims and the floating bodies of the dead. His calmly rippling lines of white on ink-black grounds -- whether they depict the serpent that is Shiva, or moonlight on the water, or monkeys playing on the stairs leading to the water -- suggest the river, too.
Born in 1915, Husain began his art career in 1937 painting brightly colored movie billboards in Bombay. He exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1953, and at the biennial art fair in Sao Paulo in 1959 and 1971. His loyalty to modern art is never much in doubt, but his themes are from the epics, the Mahabharata, the Ramayana. Hanuman, the monkey god, cavorts in his pictures, defeating demons with 10 heads, or calmly smelling flowers or carrying entire mountains through the air. In one watercolor here, the controlled bleeding of the paint nicely conjures up Hanuman's brown fur.
One of Husain's oils here bows, with high good humor, to America's traditions: A standing figure of George Washington, transported from the boat in which he crossed the Delaware, rides a chariot into battle accompanied by Arjuna, silver bow in hand.
The pictures of Ramanujam are also dense with myths. But his are less familiar. It seems he made them up. Much impaired by birth defects (his growth was stunted, his hearing and his speech impaired), Ramanujam retreated when still young into a strange world of his own creation. His small, mustachioed figure appears in many of his pictures, usually accompanied by adoring nymphs and servants. In one of his pictures he rather unexpectedly rides a gondola in a dreamed-of Venice. He makes mosaics of dark colors -- browns, blacks, rich maroons.
In selecting these four painters, director Laughlin Phillips sought "artists that have some affinity with those represented in the permanent collection." The Ramanujams, it's true, recall Chagall, Rouault, Prendergast -- but his vision is his own. While he lived he did not show his art. He killed himself in 1973.
The drawings here of Laxma Goud are impressively meticulous. His pencil points are needle-sharp, his imagery erotic and surreal. The village women he portrays have skin dark as leather, and like leather it survives abuse. It is often sliced or torn, then roughly stitched. The eyes of one of his dark beauties -- despite the damage done them, their beauty does not leave them -- have been nailed shut.
Sayed Haider Raza, who lives and works in Paris, blends the Indian and the European in his nearly abstract oils. His brushwork is assured and free, his colors rich and sunny. His pictures often call to mind antique Rajput miniatures -- densely crowded narratives, complicated borders -- but his paintings are scaled to the wall. His dual loyalties, to India and France, are especially apparent in his strongest painting here: Its top half is a Bindhu, a glowing disk of black, an emblem used in India in Tantric meditation; its bottom half, instead, evokes the landscape of the South of France. The title of the painting, "Bindhu, La Terre," is binational as well.
Westerners, not long ago, often expressed pity for India's poverty and problems. But visitors discover there a rising land of self-confidence and promise. One feels that optimism here in these 50 pictures provided by the Herwitzes, a Massachusetts family that fell in love with India and Indian art many years ago. Their exhibit closes April 6.