Mohan Samant

In the Beginning there was a Man, a Woman, and a Benevolent Ghost

1980

In Tate Modern

Artist
Mohan Samant 1924–2004
Medium
Graphite, watercolour, ink and oil paint on paper on canvas and paint and sand on canvas
Dimensions
Frame: 1335 × 1330 mm
Collection
Presented by Jillian Samant (Tate Americas Foundation) 2020
On long term loan
Reference
L04294

Summary

In the Beginning there was a Man, a Woman and a Benevolent Ghost 1970 is a mixed media work made on unprimed canvas. The three main figures of the title dominate the composition. To the left-hand side is a reclining woman holding a pair of set-squares whose triangular shapes are broken up into zig zags and repeated across the surface. To the right-hand side stands a man. Like the woman, the figure has multiple limbs and faces made of paper cut-outs and folded papers that overlay one another and coalesce. The ghost at the top of the canvas resembles a four-legged beast with a large pair of crescent-shaped horns, reminiscent of the cows that are typically seen throughout the artist’s native India. The ghost’s feet and hands resemble those of humans and the work’s title suggests that he is a friendly creature. In addition to these main figures, four patches of vibrant colour spread across the surface of the composition and stand out against the unprepared canvas; a bright blue circle at the top of the beast’s horns, a boot-shaped patch of purple-pink forming the ghost’s feet, a yellow triangle pointing towards the bottom of the picture and a large smudge of green near the centre. Between these, at the centre of the canvas, is a naturalistically drawn yet rather incongruous head of a duck, while a variety of animals, especially elephants, appear on the edges of the canvas in delicate stencilled patterns.

Like Samant’s earlier work Midnight Fishing Party 1978 (Tate T15430), In the Beginning there was a Man, a Woman and a Benevolent Ghost is typical of Samant’s distinctive technique and invented visual language. It was made after the artist had experimented with paper relief processes and wrought iron throughout the 1970s. A heart attack in 1974 and the subsequent time spent in hospital drawing on paper, was a turning point in his artistic renewal; but a formal shift away from oil on canvas had already begun in the years that preceded. In the following years, until the end of his career, Samant would develop his technique, carving shallow recesses in the canvas and adding ever more complex wirework constructions.

While Samant’s early canvases can be compared to those characteristic of the Progressive Artists’ Group – a defining group for post-independent Indian art founded in 1947 by the painter Francis Newton Souza (1924–2002) and with which Samant was associated in the 1950s – his surreal, playful assemblages, such as In the Beginning there was a Man, a Woman and a Benevolent Ghost, are representative of the singular path Samant charted for himself and combine his plural inspirations. In addition to being an artist, he was a lifelong player of the sarangi, an Indian string instrument. Samant applied the agility and creative imagination that comes from musical improvisation to his paintings and wirework constructions. Musical themes, human processions and references to Indian mythology also recur in his work, among other inspirations. His paintings retain the depth and mystery that come from his densely layered references and the gods, demons and benevolent spirits that inhabit it.

Further reading
Ranjit Hoskote, Marcella Sirhandi and Jeffrey Wechsler (eds.), Mohan Samant: Paintings, Ahmedabad 2013.
Shanay Jhaveri (ed.), Everything We Do is Music, exhibition catalogue, The Drawing Room, London 2017.
Zehra Jumabhoy and Boon Hui Tan (eds), The Progressive Revolution: Modern Art for a New India, exhibition catalogue, Asia Society Museum, New York 2018.

Devika Singh
May 2019

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