Parul Kapur Hinzen

Into the Mirror Sisters

Author Introduction: Inside the Mirror

Preview Chapter One (PDF)

Inside the Mirror grew out of my desire to reconnect to India, the country I had left as a child.  My father had taken advantage of the opening up of U.S. immigration policies in the late ’60s, at a time when the Indian economy was stagnating, to test the opportunities in America. In 1984, I graduated from Wesleyan University with a degree in English literature and returned to India with aspirations of becoming a writer. My idea was to get a job with an Indian newspaper for a year or two in order to develop my own friendships and find a new connection to the country as an adult.

The staff reporters at Bombay, the fortnightly city magazine I joined, were young, intelligent and recently out of university like me. Our mission was to keep our fingers on the pulse of the metropolis, covering scandals in the municipal corporation, slum issues, big business, society—everything from Hindu-Muslim riots to the newest ingénue ascending to film stardom. My colleagues became my closest friends, and arts and culture the subject I was most drawn to writing about. I had gorged on great works of art a couple of years earlier, during a semester abroad at the London School of Economics, with jaunts to Paris and Amsterdam. Standing in a room full of Impressionist paintings in Britain’s National Gallery for the first time, I experienced the tremendous power art had over me. My heart soared and I felt light-headed, delirious with the pleasure of taking in so much beauty.

At a used bookstore in London, I discovered Somerset Maugham’s novel about the life of a businessman turned renegade artist, The Moon and Sixpence, which left a burning question in my mind that semester about whether Maugham’s hero, Charles Strickland, was a fictionalized version of a real artist or purely an invention of the writer. His story sounded very much like that of someone I’d read about in museums, though I couldn’t recall who. (Gauguin, it turns out, was the model for the fictional Charles Strickland, who abandons his bourgeois family to make fantastical oil paintings in Tahiti.)
      
At Bombay, I was assigned to guide a trainee reporter even less experienced than me, and one day I accompanied him to a retrospective exhibit of K.H. Ara, a founder of India’s modern art movement. In a small exhibition space at the Artists’ Centre, I was shocked to discover the display of quaint, mostly unframed drawings and paintings of women and flowers represented the career of one of India’s pioneering artistic talents. Much later I learned that Ara, who’d been abandoned as a child and forced to work as a domestic servant, was probably the weakest of the early Indian modernists. At this exhibition, or perhaps a later one, I met Kekoo Gandhy, a gallerist and frame shop owner, who had observed the evolution of the Indian modern art movement at close range since 1947. Kekoo Gandhy told me the story of how a number of talented young painters, including some who later founded the Progressive Artists Group, had been mentored by two Germans displaced in India by the war. Walter Langhammer, a former instructor at the Vienna Art Academy, had become the art director of the Times of India; and Dr. Rudy Von Leyden, a scientist with a deep interest in art, reigned as the paper’s powerful art critic. Only later, when I met Mohan Samant, an exiled Indian modernist living in New York, did I learn of the racism that tainted the Germans’ treatment of their Indian protégés.

Though the Germans were instrumental in tutoring hopeful young artists like Ara in the techniques of the Post-Impressionists and Expressionists, it was the Progressive Artists Group, led by the firebrand art school dropout F.N. Souza, who blazed the path ahead, claiming Picasso and Communism as their twin ideals at a time when nations around the world took up the struggle against colonialism..

The story of modernism’s genesis in India struck me deeply. The founding of the Progressive Artists Group in 1947, the year of India’s independence, appeared to be a profound and deliberate act of self-creation. The fact that a coterie of visionary painters had proclaimed a bold new artistic direction for India, at the very moment it won freedom, was a reach for something radical and invigorating in an ancient culture the British had kept shackled for centuries. 
 
A year later, when I returned to the United States and set about to write my novel, I had every intention of constructing a complex multi-generational family saga. The story of one daughter, who dreams of becoming a painter, was meant to be a minor part of the epic. As the novel progressed, so much fell away, diminished in importance, but the artist and her twin, a dancer, remained. All else that I had to learn about India in the 1950s, my father provided me, speaking to me for countless hours about his experiences, his memories of his family, his intimate knowledge of the culture. Several return trips to Bombay followed so I could wander through the locations in my novel and interview people who had lived in the city during the decade I was writing about.

I hope Inside the Mirror reveals the dilemmas of a willful young Indian woman fighting to make her artistic beginning in a society buffeted by conflicting cultural forces—Indian and Western, traditional and modern—the same tumultuous forces that shaped my parents and my history.

 

 

 

 

Photograph by Vivan Sundaram, Sisters Apart (2001). Courtesy of the artist and SEPIA International

 

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