Gurcharan Das: Scholar, Collector, Philanthropist
Gurcharan Das is a celebrated author, columnist and commentator based in New Delhi. His ongoing study of philosophy and politics, his long corporate career and his keen interest in art, aesthetics and the notion of pleasure continue to inform his best-selling publications.
In September 2018, Penguin Random House will launch his latest book, Kama: The Riddle of Desire. India is the only civilisation to elevate kama – desire and pleasure to a goal of life. Here he weaves a compelling narrative filled with philosophical, historical and literary ideas in the third volume of his trilogy on life’s goals – India Unbound was the first, on artha, ‘material well-being’; The Difficulty of Being Good was the second on dharma, ‘moral well-being’. Here, in magnificent prose, he examines how to cherish desire to live a rich, flourishing life.
Born in pre-partition India, Das grew up in Shimla, Delhi and Washington D.C. He studied philosophy at Harvard University and later attended Harvard Business School's Advanced Management Program, where he now features in three case studies taught there. After thirty years in the corporate sector, which culminated with him serving as CEO of Procter & Gamble (P&G) India and Managing Director (Strategic Planning), P&G Worldwide, Das took early retirement at age fifty to become a full-time writer.
Das joined the P&G India office (then known as Richardson Hindustan Limited) in Bombay as a trainee in 1966, and during his long, pioneering tenure there, was instrumental in building the firm’s impressive collection of modern and contemporary Indian art. One of the earliest and finest corporate art collections in India, this group of works included seminal paintings by modern masters like Maqbool Fida Husain, Akbar Padamsee, Vasudeo S. Gaitonde and Tyeb Mehta as well as early pieces by younger artists like Sudhir Patwardhan and Gieve Patel who Das had also befriended. In 1985, Das organized an exhibition of select works from the collection at Jehangir Art Gallery in Bombay, in order share them with the wider public.
For the past twenty-three years, Das has written a regular column for half a dozen Indian newspapers, including the Times of India, and has contributed periodically to the Financial Times Wall Street Journal, Foreign Affairs and the New York Times. He has also been a speaker and consultant for some of the world’s largest corporations and has served on the juries of the Templeton Prize, Milton Friedman Prize and the McKinsey Award.
Das is best known for his international best seller, India Unbound, which is available in sixteen languages and was filmed by the BBC. Reviewing this book, The New York Times said, “Something tremendous is happening in India and Das, with his keen eye and often elegant prose has his finger firmly on the pulse of the transformation” and the Guardian called it “a quiet earthquake”. His India Grows at Night was on the Financial Times’s list of the best books of 2013. Martha Nussbaum called the Difficulty of Being Good, “One of the best things I have read about the contribution of great literature to ethical thought”. He is also editor for the fifteen-volume series, The Story of Indian Business. His other literary works include the semi-biographical novel, A Fine Family, a book of essays, The Elephant Paradigm: India Wrestles with Change, and the anthology, Three English Plays.
Today, Das has turned his focus to the future through philanthropy. One of the founders of Ashoka University, he is particularly interested in strengthening the infrastructure for primary education in India, and in enabling the immense talent he believes exists in the country. By offering one of the works from his impressive private art collection at this auction, Das hopes to raise funds to realize some important projects in this direction.
TYEB MEHTA: DIAGONAL XV
The diagonal, the fierce weapon by which space could be reorganized and the self could stage its battle with itself was born almost fortuitously, out of painterly frustration. Having come to an impasse in his handling of the relationship between figure, field and colour, in 1969, Tyeb suddenly flung a black slash across one of his paintings: beginning as an improvisatory resolution to a periodically intractable problem, the diagonal became a device to activate the painting, and eventually, a symbol of scission, of that simultaneous separation and twinning by which the self recognises and comes to healing terms with its own contradictions.
- Ranjit Hoskote
I was trying to work out a way to define space…to activate a canvas. If I divided it horizontally and vertically, I merely created a preponderance of smaller squares or rectangles. But if I cut the canvas with a diagonal, I immediately created a certain dislocation. I was able to distribute and divide a figure within the two created triangles and automatically disjoint and fragment it. Yet the diagonal maintained an almost centrifugal unity…in fact became a pictorial element in itself.
- Tyeb Mehta
“Tyeb Mehta is striving for simple, clean solutions to the problems of painting. This simplicity is the hardest thing to achieve. In pursuing this aim, Tyeb has cleared a new path, which has led him far beyond the ‘identity crises’ of contemporary Indian art. In fact it is no longer really interesting, or important, whether Tyeb Mehta is an Indian. He speaks to us as a lonely twentieth century man of integrity and conviction.” – Georgina and Ulli Beier, 1982
Throughout his career, Tyeb Mehta sought to express the struggles of man as a member of contemporary society. From his early trussed bulls that underline the plight of the helpless animal in Bombay's slaughter houses, to his falling figures hurtling toward a metaphorical abyss and trapped rickshaw pullers who cannot escape the vehicles that have become extensions of themselves, Mehta’s paintings reflect his own disillusionment with the world around him. His unique formal treatment of the canvas only serves to heighten the impact of these images. The sight of dismembered figures with flailing limbs set against a fractured picture plane is a glaring reminder to the viewer to consider and address the violence and suffering that is both around and within.
In the late 1960s, following a year-long stay in New York on a Rockefeller III Fund Fellowship in 1968, Mehta abandoned the expressionistic style and thickly applied paint that had characterized his work in the preceding years. Instead, moved by minimalism and the work of artists like Barnett Newman that he encountered in America, he worked to achieve pristine planes of saturated color, on which not a single brush stroke could be discerned. Apart from their precise construction and conscious two-dimensionality, the most striking element of these new paintings, was the diagonal line Mehta often included in their composition which aggressively bisected the painted surface.
In a 1976 review of Mehta’s new diagonal series, fellow artist Jagdish Swaminathan explained, “What strikes one immediately in these works, is the strictly formal geometrical arrangement, or invocation of space-colour, and the line embodying the figure pulled apart like a doll and put together again – laid flat, defining, so to speak, the iconographic area […] What appears at first glance as a formal exercise in relating line to colour on a flat plane suddenly becomes very disturbing. While one was immediately moved by the angst portrayed in his former works, one could immediately reach out and share the unfathomable terror, the unrelieved sadness of man alienated, the present works enter the realm of the mystical; terror, pathos and sorrow are objectivised entities, masks, implacable deities, setting up a grotesque tableau. You enter a world of magic and are enthralled by the elemental dance of the emotions, which freeze and cease to speak the moment you seek to identify yourself with them. What Tyeb has achieved is a double transformation. In his former phase, he has isolated and insulated man’s loneliness, protecting it, so to speak, from the profane. Now he has set it up in its own right, impervious to human touch, yet threatening man’s complaisance.” (J. Swaminathan, G. and U. Beier, ‘Contemporary Art in India’, Aspect: Art and Literature, Australia, no. 23, January 1982, unpaginated)
In the present work, the focus is on two fragmented figures at the center. Their bodies, portrayed as disjointed components, are further divided by a green and orange lightning-bolt diagonal that runs from the upper right to the lower left. Heightened against the deep maroon ground, these splintered figures communicate the trauma of not being whole and together, representative perhaps of the violent centrifugal forces at play in the larger social context to which they belong. The blank expression etched on the single face they share reflects the despondency that results from their daily struggles. Mehta gives this painting a sense of balance through a calculated placement of teal and viridian expanses that anchor the diagonal and focus attention on the figures.
Paintings from the diagonal series are the first of Mehta’s mature style, with an emphasis on form over content, and mark a watershed in his long engagement with figuration. The artist explained, “Painters who are over concerned with content, burn themselves out […] my experience is now transformed into colour and form. When you transpose your ideas into colours and forms, you are making a suggestion. A suggestion is stronger than a direct message.” (Artist statement, G. and U. Beier, ‘Contemporary Art in India’, Aspect: Art and Literature, Australia, no. 23, January 1982, unpaginated)