On K.B Goel: The Sparkling Complexity of a Maverick’s Oeuvre

On K.B Goel: The Sparkling Complexity of a Maverick’s Oeuvre

Malavika Madgulkar

In 2020, the co-publishing initiative of Sher-Gil Sundaram Arts Foundation and Tulika Books published an annotated collection of the major writings of Delhi-based art critic K.B Goel. Although K.B Goel: Critical Writings On Art 1957–1998 has been in circulation for over a year, the pandemic had meant that launch events and public discussions on Goel’s writing had to be forgone until recently. As the last COVID-19 wave relented and routines resumed, a virtual event on the book as well as on the legacy of Goel’s body of work was planned for 30th July 2021. The panelists invited were the editor of the collection, Shruti Parthasarathy, art historian and academic Chaitanya Sambrani, curator of the Alkazi Foundation of the Arts, Rahaab Allana and curator of international art at Tate Modern, Devika Singh (who, due to an emergency, could unfortunately not participate). The event was chaired by art critic and curator, Geeta Kapur.


Kapur, who has written a foreword to this volume, introduced K.B Goel as a maverick personality, albeit one whose work was often carelessly overlooked. Informed with a distinctly Marxist sensibility, it was precisely Goel’s non-conformism that resulted in a general neglect towards his work. Goel, incredibly well read in a variety of subjects, was further energized intellectually by his close friendship with the artist J Swaminathan. Having already read the phenomenologists, Goel recognized at once the embodied and experiential potentialities of installation art when it arrived in India in the 1990s. Alongside his wide ranging self-study of the arts and social sciences, the influence of Swaminathan’s rejection of Western historicity and Cartesian binaries generated in Goel a willingness to engage with the avant-garde. For Kapur,  Goel’s approach is characterized by the search for a practice of art as a site for the unfolding or contestation of existing philosophical frameworks. This search was not always a successful one, was perhaps always already an unfair demand, but it did lend Goel his distinctive perspective. Kapur sees in this figure a remarkable commitment to trouble and problematize established notions about Indian contemporary art. She called this quality the ability to introduce to understandings of contemporary Indian art “a peculiar kind of discomfort” – a necessary precursor for reflection and change.


The first presentation was by Shruti Parthasarathy, who foregrounded Goel as one of the pioneering generation of Indian art critics, distinctive because of his long career of over 50 years throughout which he maintained the originality and clarity of his writing. Particularly notable in Goel’s work is his unique preoccupation with establishing a dialogue between Indian and global contemporary art. In this aspect of his work, Parthasarathy read an “ambivalent embrace of internationalism” – a tentative call for international solidarities while acknowledging the political value of engagements with local traditions of art. His reviews, which unusually engaged with concepts from Western philosophical texts, possess the capacity to raise intellectually charged and complex questions through and around contemporary art. New readers of Goel will be surprised to know that he was published not only in fringe leftist publications like Link and Patriot but also in hegemonic media like Times of India, bringing a critical and politically conscious sensibility of art to the Indian reader of English newspapers. This particular form of review, formidable and cerebral, one that finds a place in the mainstream while offering original insight, Parthasarathy regretted, is now just short of extinct.


For Parthasarathy, two qualities stand out in Goel’s characteristic review – a  nuanced  understanding of theory which he rendered in his work with the astuteness of a scholar (despite never having trained as one) without the impenetrability one might fear of such criticism;  the second is his unique interest in and response to the avant-garde, a characteristic that Parthasarathy suggests equipped him to identify and engage with the emergence of postmodernism in India, later in his career. K.B Goel handpicked most of the reviews collected in this volume, which Parthasarathy received as a manuscript prior to his death. She studied these selections, sorting them into evolving categories and developing an interest also in what he chose to omit. The final volume includes several additions to this initial manuscript – formerly lost or forgotten reviews of Goel’s that Parthasarathy fortuitously chanced upon while working on this project.


Dr. Chaitanya Sambrani, who currently lives and teaches in Australia began his presentation by paying his respects to the Ngunnawal people, the indigenous inhabitants of the unceded land he resides on. While acknowledging the traditional territory being used and its native people before an event is common protocol in many settler nations, this invocation bore a special relevance to Sambrani’s presentation on K.B Goel’s work in which the central question was that of belonging, of colonialism and the influential problematization of “provincialism” in art. An idea that features prominently in Goel’s writing and a lens frequently employed in his criticism, “provincialism” posits that art originating in the ‘periphery’ is always condescended by that of the ‘metropolitan centre’ ­– which is presumed as the locus of all artistic innovation. The peripheral, provincial artist can thereby latently imitate the metropolitan centre, have local appeal, but can never advance art’s linear progress.


Sambrani began an exploration of the location and belonging of art in India by underlining Goel’s reference to the artists of Group 1890. The work of the Group 1890, fueled largely by the intellectual force of the artist J Swaminathan, sought to fall outside modernist notions of linear time, that is, outside of history. As such, their work was deliberately self-contained and rejected any dialogue with art history. Sambrani invited the audience to think along with him and ­via K.B. Goel, whether such a stylistic mode in art could altogether escape the problematic binary of provincialism. Sambrani recalled an exchange where Goel explained to him that language, especially when deployed in prose writing, reinforces the representational logic of sign and signified and consequently, the dichotomy of Self and Other. Such a schema, within which exclusion is implicit, reinforces and validates the institution of the nation state – a construct which is in itself built on exclusion. Poetry, on the other hand, as a form concerned with breaking a straightforward relationship between sign and signified, is a much better suited for an escape from statist oppression.


Goel saw the work of Bhupen Khakhar as a counterpoint to that of Swaminathan’s. Khakhar’s painting, according to Goel, derives meaning from its existence within a predetermined “sign culture”, offering references to other preceding ‘signs’ rather than referring to any “real” existing outside this system of representation. Swaminathan, on the other hand, in his quest for self-containment and rejection of history is not concerned with “obvious levels of meaning” in his work which, on a level of signification, engages only with a presence of the ‘other’, the primordial. He cited both, a Sanskritic verse emphasizing wholeness, as well as the non-representational, pre-linguistic script of the Korwa people, jadu lipi in seeking to refute the dualism of Self/Other, modern/primitive, provincial/metropolitan. Both modes offered different routes to the ultimate escape from the provincial-metroplitan dyad. Where jadu lipi asserts a locational specificity, Sanskrit points to universalism. If jadu lipi is a deliberate rejection of signification, Sanskrit marks a sophisticated, linguistic civilization.


Indeed, Swaminathan’s refutation of colonial binary logic does not appear to be entirely unproblematic. As an audience member asked Sambrani later in the discussion, if we are to understand Swaminathan’s work as breaking the hierarchical relationship between the provincial and the metropolitan, how might we reconcile this with the hierarchy between Sanskritic and indigenous cultures within India that he invokes? For Sambrani, Swaminathan deliberately poses this binary to offer up a multitude of ways of thinking through authenticity, of belonging. Swaminathan provokes us, Sambrani explained, to acknowledge hierarchies and oppressive dualisms within the context of India even as he critiques the supremacy of the colonial West.


K.B Goel: Critical Writings on Art includes at a sub-section of the critic’s writings on photography. These were a late addition to the manuscript and their place therein is indebted to Goel’s wife, Mrs Premlata Goel, who alerted Parthasarathy to their existence. It is this collection of essays that Rahaab Allana explored in his presentation. Goel expressed in his work a regret that photographs in India still had not entered the realm of ‘art’. His writing on photography, as Allana read it, links an evolution of this medium, alongside an informed patronage of photography in museums and cultural institutions to the arrival of a modern India ­– one distinguished from its colonial past. Goel identifies in experimental photography a break with the limits of photography “proper” and suggests a better term for the form – graphic arts. Graphic creations include photograms and photomontages; in Goel’s explication, they are images that are not so much “taken” as “made”. Here, Allana noted a foreshadowing of the expansion of photography through the digital turn in the 1990s as well as a predecessor to a term widely used today – lens based practices. Goel was thus, open to a dynamic, interdisciplinary definition of photography at a time when many sought to coax it into a pre-existing trajectory of art and its evolution.


Goel describes the dominant 19th century view of the “ideal photographer” as possessing quality of an “indiscriminating mirror who saw identical to the camera lens”, that is, as someone entirely without subjectivity, a mere extension of the mechanism of the camera. Allana explained that underlying Goel’s observation that most photographs are products of this alienation was the question of what might ‘count’ as photography in the realm of art in the future. In a partial resolution to this question, Goel makes a distinction between the unseeing, alienated “casual snapshooter”, and the experimental pictorialist. Presenting an image from O.P Sharma’s Ghost Series, Allana reiterated Goel’s reading of it as a surrealist object. In Goel’s view, the intention of this series was to inject as much subjectivity into the image as possible. Sharma, as a true pictorialist, provides a counterpoint to the snapshooter whose agency is overpowered by the mechanical paradigm of the camera. Allana was most taken by Goel’s smooth negotiation of two contrasting facets of photography. The first is its relationship with inscription (a practice that has been alive since the dawn of human socialization);  the second is an understanding of image-making as a fluid, slippery practice that can provide generative critique to dominant modes of linear narrativization and representation.


After the panelists were invited to open a dialogue with each other, Sambrani put the following question to Parthasarathy: Does K.B Goel, through his writing, make a case for world citizenship? Parthasarathy noted several aspects of the critic’s work that might lead one to answer in the affirmative: Goel neglected to restrict himself to the national context, inviting Merleau-Ponty and Nietzsche into the conversations he set out in his writing, even when the subject at hand seemed niche and far from the domain of continental philosophy. He remained, throughout his career, undeterred by not having access to the most current discourse on global contemporary art and continued to claim a place in the wider discussion. While ‘world citizen’, might perhaps not be the appropriate term, Geeta Kapur noted that there was certainly a conflict between Goel’s desire to be recognised as an equal intellectual participant in the conversation on world art and the constraints of being an Indian subject in the 60s and 70s. For Kapur, there is a clear sense of Goel articulating these contradictions in the way he complicates issues around the art world.


An audience member’s question to Parthasarathy about Goel’s sensitivity to gender in his criticism led her to quote from his 1975 piece in Link titled ‘Some Women Artists’: “One hardly wishes to deal with women artists as rarities or birds of some special plumage; at the same time, to be a professional woman artist today bespeaks emancipation on more than one front”. Careful not to read Goel’s writing through her own politics and experience of gender, Parthasarathy nevertheless perceived in his work a deliberate acknowledgement of gendered marginalization. She observes in Goel a readiness to see “women artists” (for example in his writings on Amrita Sher-Gil) as contributors to innovation in art, to modernity. Kapur added that Goel was in deep intellectual partnership with his spouse, Mrs Premlata Goel, a former professor of English at Delhi University. Despite being a male writer in the overwhelmingly male sphere of art criticism, one gleans in Goel’s work a subtext of gender perhaps informed by this mutual exchange of ideas.


From the varied and unexpected topics taken up in the discussion, it is clear that K.B Goel’s oeuvre is wide-ranging and complex, not always straightforward or easy to understand but effervescent ­– eager to take up new directions in intellectual discourse, and one that pursues complexity over easy resolution. Undergirding and connecting these topics of conversation is the conviction that Goel’s work is a unique document of the continual negotiation and renegotiation of a postcolonial identity in making and thinking with art.