Art, the Hungryalists, and the Beats
By Juliet Reynolds
As both movements were predominated by poets and writers, there can be few to argue with the established perception that the Beat Generation and the Hungry Generation were primarily literary in character. While the two movements have tended to invite comparison with the Dadaists, no-one would define either as an ‘art movement’, as Dada so patently was, its literary associations notwithstanding.
Yet a closer look at the history and legacy of the Beats and the Hungryalists reveals beyond doubt that visual art and artists occupied a more pivotal place in their movements than is generally supposed. This seems at first reckoning to be truer of the Beat movement, whose annals contain a riveting art narrative that runs from their very beginnings and has barely come to a stop. Of course, it must be borne in mind that Beatdom is much better documented and appraised than Hungryalism, thanks in the main to the First World-Third World divide. While the Beats’ counter-culture evolved in the most powerful nation on earth, the Hungryalists’ took shape in an impoverished, underdeveloped country, that too in a single state or region.
Moreover, Hungryalism was politically suppressed in a way and to an extent that Beatdom was not. Ginsberg, Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, Corso, Burroughs and the rest could turn their notoriety to advantage, even if they didn’t desire it. This would allow their movement to endure and evolve so that it would live on in the collective consciousness and become a cult.
On the other hand, the movement launched in 1961 by Malay Roychoudhury, Shakti Chattopadhyay, Samir Roychoudhury and Debi Roy was decimated within a few years due to official hounding as well as internal strife, a good deal of it fomented precisely because of the harassment. The prosecution of Malay and others for obscenity and his subsequent imprisonment was but part of the Bengal administration’s crackdown on Hungryalism. Booked for conspiracy, every member of the group was subjected to ruthless police raids resulting in the confiscation of their intellectual and personal property, including books, writings and letters. The Hungryalist artists – Anil Karanjai, Karunanidhan (Karuna) Mukhopadhyay, and others attached to their studio in Banaras, named the Devil’s Workshop – witnessed the seizure of their art works and all
records of the movement, never to see their restitution. Fortunately, a body of Anil’s work, created in the immediate post-Hungryalist era, remained in his hands or became part of collections, and because the imagery this encompasses is strongly marked by the ideas and concerns of the movement, it provides the basis for a more comprehensive understanding of Hungryalism. It’s not a cliché to state that images so often speak more eloquently than words.
Just as Anil Karanjai (1940-2001) was the only adherent of the Hungry Generation to dedicate his life to art,
there was a sole true Beat painter, Robert LaVigne (1928-2014). As recorded by Allen Ginsberg, LaVigne had helped give birth to the Beat Generation. The artist’s roomy house in San Francisco was a gathering place for the wild, unclothed ‘bohemians’ of all genders who personified the movement. LaVigne did graphics and poster art for the group, as well as producing his own paintings. Anil and Karuna worked similarly with the Hungryalists.
Ginsberg and LaVigne shared aesthetic concerns. They both focused on themes of decay and death reflecting the angst of the young generation in the Atomic Age which, to quote LaVigne, ‘gave the lie to permanence’. The question of creating durable art in a world with no future had a paralysing effect on him, a state he might not have come out of had he not discovered Beatdom. ‘The mad, naked poet’, as Ginsberg was known, and ‘the naked, great painter’, as Ginsberg
described LaVigne, both created telling portraits of friends and intimates, the former searingly in ‘Howl’, the latter more gently in lines and colour. His oil portrait of the young Ginsberg illustrates this amply.
In contrast to his Beat counterpart, Anil Karanjai came to portraiture quite late in his life. Stylistically, the two artists are at variance but in several of their portraits there is a similar expression of tenderness for the subject. This is much in evidence, for instance, in Anil’s charcoal sketch of Karuna’s young daughter, a girl Anil had known since birth and who had been almost a mascot for the Hungryalist artists.
Ginsberg’s favourite work by his painter friend LaVigne, also his rival in love, was a huge portrait of the young Peter Orlovsky. Naked with an uncircumcised penis and crop of dark pubic hair, the work is sexually charged but it is also sad and contemplative. Ginsberg wrote that when he first saw the portrait, before ever meeting the subject, he ‘looked in its eyes and was shocked by love’. By the standards of the day, Ginsberg and LaVigne were both pornographers. But unlike the poet, the painter managed to evade prosecution, a remarkable feat given that full-frontal nudity was deemed obscene until the early 1970s and homosexuality was a cognizable offence.
Like Robert LaVigne, Anil Karanjai painted nudes, without legal repercussions. But, as may be remarked in his romantic canvas ‘Clouds in the Moonlight’ (1970), the Hungryalist was more of a visionary than the Beat painter.
The grand poet and co-founder of City Lights, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who was charged with obscenity for publishing ‘Howl’ and who published the Hungryalists when they were standing trial, was also a painter of considerable accomplishment. Ferlinghetti’s expressionistic imagery – the earliest semi-abstract, the later figurative and often directly political – is very compelling and underlines his deep commitment as an activist.
The prosecuted author of ‘Naked Lunch’, William Burroughs, is a further major figure of the Beat Generation to have been a visual artist. But the paintings and sculptures of Burroughs are literal horrors. He was known at times to have painted with his eyes shut in order to explore his psyche, which was considerably deranged, not just by an overload of hard drugs and perverse sexual drives. Some of his canvases are riddled with bullet holes, a reminder to his viewers that he shot his wife to death while playing William Tell, mistaking her head for a highball. Later known as ‘the father of Punk’, Burroughs enjoyed a friendship with the ‘father of Pop Art’, Andy Warhol, himself no stranger to guns, even if as victim rather than shooter. Burroughs was a frequent visitor to Warhol’s New York studio, known as ‘The Factory’.
In their earlier days, the Beats were loosely linked to the Abstract Expressionist painters and although the latter were not quite so flagrant in their unorthodox personal lives, they shocked the media and public in equal measure when it came to their work. They also created in a similar vein, eschewing conventional art forms and expressing themselves spontaneously; to achieve this end, they applied rapid, fluid strokes on outsized
canvases; this was consistent with ‘the orgasmic flow’ that was a lynchpin of Hungryalism. Abstract expressionist paintings may appear anarchic but, in common with the writings of both the Beats and the Hungryalists, their art was conceptual in construct; in essence, their chaos was planned.
The image of the artist creating in a frenzy of uncontrolled passion is but a cliché, and few painters underlined this more cogently than Anil Karanjai. Even as a neophyte, full of fury and restless energy, he produced painstaking, considered work. If anything, his experience with the Hungryalists, among whom he was one of the
youngest, served to heighten these qualities. The only western painter to have influenced him in any way was the Dutch master, Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450–1516). Bosch’s grotesque satirical imagery inspired Anil as he struggled to create his own unique vision of the hierarchical, oppressive society around him. Abstract Expressionism was unknown to Anil until much later on.
The most notorious Abstract Expressionist, Jackson Pollock – ‘Jack the Dripper’ – likewise an ‘action painter’, is one of several artists who finds a place among the writers at The American Museum of Beat Art (AMBA) in California. So too is the supreme Dadaist, Marcel Duchamp, who had coined the term ‘anti-art’ before any of the Beats were born and was, therefore, one of their idols. But the story goes that when Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso met Duchamp in Paris in the late 1950s, they were so inebriated that the former kissed his knees while the latter cut off his tie; by now an elder of the art world, Duchamp was probably not amused. The Beats’ conduct in those days could be so selfishly outrageous that they managed to antagonise many, including Jean Genet, hardly known for model behaviour himself.
It’s doubtful whether the subject of art arose in a meaningful way between Anil Karanjai and Allen Ginsberg when they spent time together in Banaras. The American had his mind on ‘higher things’, namely sadhus, burning ghats, mantras and ganja. Apart from introducing Ginsberg to the harmonium, in the company of the Buddhist, Hindi poet, Nagarjuna, Anil and Karuna taught Ginsberg and Orlovsky the art of chillum-smoking, an almost ritualistic activity, not at all easy to master. Otherwise, Ginsberg appears to have shown little curiosity about the art of the Hungryalists. This did not offend Anil who was then very young, thrilled to have the opportunity to converse in English, a language with which he was not then familiar. Neither Anil nor Karuna would have been overawed by the feted American, but Anil would sometimes quote him later: “America when will you send your eggs to India?”, from the poem America, was a favourite line.
Ginsberg no doubt was not a racist, not at least on a conscious level. But there was an element of white man’s arrogance within him, as there surely was in other Beats. Despite being an anti-establishment movement, it was at some levels a highly elitist one as well. Burroughs, for example, seems to have got away with his wife’s killing because he was a Harvard alumnus and came from a rich family. The background of Ginsberg was not quite so privileged but he rose to superstardom young. No amount of ‘slumming-it’ in India could change that, could knock him from his pedestal; in addition, he must have been treated to a fair share of ‘chamchagiri’ during his travels. Probably the Hungryalists were among the few to exchange ideas with him as equals, and his failure to acknowledge their impact on his poetry and thinking reflects poorly upon him.
Ginsberg, who was evidently quite taken by religion in India, may not have entirely appreciated the Hungryalists’ views on the subject. They denounced god and all forms of belief and worship in the most condemnatory of terms. Anil’s upbringing in Banaras had rendered him particularly irreligious; he’d been challenging temple elders since the age of 12, often defeating them with his superior knowledge of the Hindu scriptures and his sharp tongue. With a scientific bent of mind, he would remain a staunch atheist throughout his life. Early Buddhism did appeal to him, but he was critical of the Tibetan form of Buddhism, later embraced by Allen Ginsberg. Of course, the Beat poet’s anti-war politics and activism did accord with Anil’s worldview, as it must have with others of the erstwhile Hungry Generation.
As far as the Hungryalists’ politics was concerned, Anil was at one with their ferocious attack on the entrenched establishment, but he rejected their anarchism, their precept that existence is ‘pre-political’ and that all political ideologies should be precluded. He had enrolled in and quit the Communist Party much prior to joining Hungry Generation, but he would thereafter remain committed to the far left. It is a myth he became a Naxalite when Hungryalism fizzled out.
There is truth in the legend that the Hungryalists engaged in sexual anarchy in Banaras and Kathmandu, but compared to the shenanigans of the Beats this was really quite tame. Anil and Karuna did live with seekers and hippies in an international commune, and indeed Karuna was its manager and sometimes head cook. Further, a large part of their subversive activities did involve the consumption of consciousness expanding substances including LSD, magic mushrooms and the like, but their experiments were always undertaken in a controlled environment. This did make a great mark on Anil but because he never consumed substances irresponsibly, the outcome was positive, helping to liberate and enhance his vision as a painter. This hardly constituted ‘drug abuse’ as claimed by some.
Further, the deliberate burning of paintings by their Hungryalist creators is a much exaggerated story, largely based on the aftermath of an exhibition in 1967 at a well-known Kathmandu gallery. The event coincided with a writers’ conference that was attended by Malay and others who had remained loyal to Hungryalism. It was Karuna alone who destroyed his work. Anil enjoyed the spectacle but remained on the side-lines. Such anti-art gestures didn’t fit his philosophy. His iconoclasm was of another kind.
Yet, whatever his divergences with Hungryalist ideology, Anil shared the movement’s aesthetic concerns. This is most immediately perceptible in his works of the late ’60s such as ‘The Competition’. Painted in 52 straight hours in the Banaras commune, the work is based on a banyan tree, a metaphor for the chaos and struggle of the times. It also reflects the aspiration of the Hungryalists, as well as that of the Beats, to reintegrate humans with the natural world, a world in which obscenity is non-existent and lost innocence is restored.
Although Anil’s work metamorphosed and matured in his post-Hungry Generation decades, his experience with the movement remained in his consciousness. His ideas may have come from many sources, but he never lost sight of that Hungryalist goal. Much of his late work is apparently classical, an expression of realism. His landscapes in particular seem to be the antithesis of his early ‘surreal’ imagery and this tends to confound his viewers. But while it is certainly true that the provocative, rhetorical imagery has vanished, the foundations remain the same. From beginning to end, Anil’s art expresses the drama of the human condition through the moods and forms of nature. And this does accord with Hungryalist poetry. Take, for instance, the lines of Shakti Chattopadhyay:
“Like a football the moon is poised over the hill
Waiting for the late night game and the war cries
At these moments you can visit the forest…”
(Translated by Arunava Sinha)
The poet conjures up an image very close in mood and feeling to a late work of Anil’s, part of a series of mysterious night landscapes. Binoy Majumdar also approaches the spirit of this image when he says:
“all trees and flowering plants stand on their own
grounds at a distance forever
dreaming of breathtaking union.”
(Translated by Aryanil Mukherjee )
The concept of nature’s creations ‘dreaming of breathtaking union’ is echoed time and again in the life’s work of Anil Karanjai.
So too is the theme of the lonely creator or thinker which he expressed with great range. In a canvas of 1969, titled ‘The Dreamer’, the thinker is
shaped by confrontational Hungryalism and LSD, while a work in watercolour presents the theme in a way that parallels a declaration of Malay Roychoudhury: “…for me, the first poet was that Zinjanthropus who lifted a stone millions of years ago and made it into a weapon.” Later, Anil’s solitary poets or philosophers, set in stone, are encircled by nature, their only weapons their knowledge and experience. All these works are executed with mastery. It reflects well on Hungryalism that it is associated with an artist of such calibre and originality.
*All the works by Anil Karanjai accompanying this piece belong to the collection of the writer, with the exception of ‘The Dreamer’, which is in the collection of Anjana Batra, New Delhi; ‘Clouds in the Moonlight’ is part of the collection of The Kumar Gallery, New Delhi and New York.
Juliet Reynolds is a critic and writer, specialising in Indian art and socio-cultural issues. Of mixed Irish-English descent, she was born in Ireland and educated in England, France and Italy. A gold medallist from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, she worked for many years as an English and drama teacher with students of diverse ethnicity. Based in New Delhi and Dehradun, she has spent most of her working life in India. Here she has established a reputation as a resolute critic and commentator, and as a bridge between scholars and the lay reader. The publications to which she has contributed include The Spectator, The Insight Guide to India, The India International Centre Quarterly Review, The Pioneer and Biblio. She is the author of In the Eyes of a Rasika: a connoisseur’s view of art and politics, art and science (Srishti/Bluejay, 2003) and Finding Neema, (Hachette, 2013). Her late husband was the Hungryalist artist, Anil Karanjai.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.
in her essay Juliet has made excellent connections. It is a very conscientious and absorbing piece of writing. It restores so many things in to their rightful place, and recovers historical memory.
What a wonderful piece. Got to learn so much!