THE THROBBING PINK of the Jaipur sky. The carmine chaos of the streets of Calcutta and New Delhi. "Indian Art Today" at the Phillips Collection is a colorful refrain in the continuing chorus of the Festival of India.
The recent Indian sculpture show at the National Gallery and "Aditi" at the Natural History Museum left one thinking that not much has happened in Indian art since its classical era. But "Indian Art Today" travels in distinctly new and modern directions.
Having said that, the four artists never fully leave behind their origins -- an art filled mysticism, multiple gods and occasional sexual explicitness.
Of the four, Laxma Goud is the draftsman, outlining love and tragedy. In one drawing of a couple, a woman beckons to an aroused man. A clump of trees is their destination. Reflecting the overt sexuality of the tribal area where he grew up, Goud further charges the seduction scene by drawing a male organ sticking out of some rocks.
Goud likes to surprise. He finds bits of things to draw -- a nail, a piece of machinery -- and may weave them into a woman's face, piercing her earlobes with scores of studs and stitching up the odd tear in her neck. Damaged but dignified, some of his figures stand for survivors of the 1978 floods in Andhra Pradesh.
Although K.G. Ramanujam is of the same generation as Goud (born in 1941, a year after Goud), his style couldn't be more different. Ramanujam's mythical paintings seem plucked from a child's picture book. They tell of princesses and animals to ride on -- every Hindu god has a mount. A carefree royal couple takes a joyride on an ecstatic-eyed purple beast.
But it is all the stuff of fantasy. Ramanujam was extremely short, deformed, a stutterer, and often too poor to buy paint. Although his friends advertised for a woman for him, she never materialized. And so the fantastic goddesses in his paintings are the women he never had. An alcoholic, he committed suicide at age 33.
While Ramanujam is almost unknown in India, Maqbool Fida Husain is probably that country's best-known artist. He blends European influences with his own Indian vision. With trembling white lines against a black background, Husain chronicles a trip to the sacred river Ganges in a Picasso-like series called "Benares." He also interprets the Andhra Pradesh flood disaster: In "Cyclonic Silence," a lamb stands beside a woman's corpse. It is a silence that can be heard, a tragic scene, but not without its glimmer of hope.
After Independence, in 1947 Husain helped to found the Progressive Artists' Movement, along with Sayed Haider Raza, the fourth artist in this show. In the 1950s, Raza went to live in the south of France. But he took with him the sun-soaked colors of India -- exploring their intensity in magical Hindu diagrams, in bands of color that seem to vibrate with the rhythms of classical Indian Ragas, and in the mystical black circle called the Bindu, a focal point for meditation.
"Indian Art Today" comes from the collection of Chester and Davida Herwitz, who, for six weeks every year, visit India on a collecting tour. Chester Herwitz cautions people who see this show against reading too much Western influence into the art.
Says Herwitz: "It's very easy for the Western world to look and say, 'Picasso! Oh, see, Kandinsky? Ah, Klee!' They see a serpent and say 'Picasso,' while anyone who knows anything about India knows the serpent is a sign for Shiva. It's all over India."
INDIAN ART TODAY -- At the Phillips Collection through April 6.