Despite an early aptitude towards drawing and painting, J. Swaminathan took up painting seriously only much later after upon joining a pre-medical course in College, just to leave it for the restless life of a political agitator, social activist, political journalist and writer of children’s short stories. The post-Independence period saw him become a dedicated member of the Communist Party of India but by the mid-Fifties, his disenchantment with politics returned him to his love for painting. He studied art at the Delhi Polytechnic and, later, joined the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw on a scholarship. Swaminathan’s first group show, held in 1960, was succeeded by a one-man show. The artist’s earlier works show an inclination towards a style preceding the neo-tantric trends. In the late Sixties, as Swaminathan began to probe the relation of colour to space and studied Pahari miniatures, he came up with the series Colour Geometry of Space, which was followed by an extended phase of his Bird, Mountain, Tree and Refection paintings.
In the early Sixties, Swaminathan and his fellow artists formed Group 1890. The art magazine Contra, released in 1966, was another ground for the artist to express his views on reformation of Indian art, urging that it be freed from blind nationalism and imitative modernism. The Roopankar Museum at Bharat Bhavan, Bhopal, conceived in the Eighties as a blend of urban, folk and tribal art, was the output of Swaminathan’s deep concern and research on the tribal art from which the artist drew his inspiration. He was its director from 1981-90.