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Overview of Indian Art

Contemporary Indian Painting

A glance over the terrain traced by modern and contemporary Indian painting shows a diverse range of artistic responses to reality. While in the early years of the past century Indian painters seem to concern themselves primarily with the societal, the following decades variegate their gaze. Their assertions become, at different times, either nationalist or modernist, socially responsive or intensely subjective, fiercely indigenist or defiantly international, or self consciously traditionalist or fashionably post-modernist. These moments do not, of course, necessarily follow in the order listed, but help us mirror to a great extent, the diversity of the artistic impulses developed.
Throughout these phases, one may discern three emphases common to artistic practice in most countries with a colonial past: an interrogation of Western influences on artistic expression, the overpowering need to establish a distinct identity and idiom for Indian art, and an engagement with the role and function of the artist in a country like India.
The questioning of the West, and the attempt to resuscitate the cultural identity suppressed by the British, commenced in early 1900 and took momentum from the ongoing nationalist (Swadeshi) movement. An aspect of this project was the artistic rejection of the romanticisation of Indian reality by Company Painting and the mannered portraits of Raja Ravi Varma.
The artists who adopted this mandate belong to what is called the Bengal School of Painting. They received their initial impetus from the ideas of an Englishman, the Orientalist-Romantic E.B. Havell, who had taken over as Principal of the Calcutta Government College of Art in 1896, the painter Abanindranath Tagore and the critic A. K. Coomaraswamy.
Among the artists who expressed themselves through the form and style of this school were Nandalal Bose, D.P. Roy Choudhury, A. K. Haldar, K. Venkatappa, Samarendranath Gupta, Kshitindranath Mazumdar, Sarada Ukil and M.A.R. Chugtai.
The main traits of the work in this school are the artist's sources of inspiration, choice of media and artistic technique. Given their aims, the artists' themes derived mainly from Indian mythology and religion; they also consciously followed the principles of painting they could discern in Indian miniature paintings and Indian sculptures, particularly temple sculpture and the frescoes at Ajanta. As oils were a Western medium, water-colour, tempera and ink and the Japanese wash technique were preferred.
Rabindranath Tagore, also a poet and Nobel laureate, allied with the school's general goals, but preferred to devote himself to his more personal and universal vision, though one that was expressed in paintings executed in strikingly modernist terms. It would be in the latter's Shantiniketan Institute too that Ramkinkar Vaij and Benode Behari Mukherjee would express their love for nature and its rhythms in work that would be recognised as pioneering only much later.
However, not all artists were prepared to subserve the demands of the prevailing isms. Jamini Roy, taking a more individualised stance, turned his gaze onto the immediate reality around him. It is his studies of the Santhal tribals, with their sharp angular lines and clear colours, which indicated the possible direction that must be taken to discover an indigenous idiom and sensibility. Gaganendranath Tagore was another artist to follow his personal impulses, freely responding to artistic influences from all directions, including from the derided West, and choosing to delineate the hypocrisies of the society around him.
A seemingly more direct challenge to the revivalists came in the thirties in the form of the bold, post-impressionistic colours of Amrita Sher Gill, and in the forties through the 'socially responsive' work of the Calcutta Group; the latter artists consciously choosing to integrate foreign influences in their work in order to "enrich our art" and to create an art both "international and interdependent."
The country's independence from colonial rule in 1947 might have seemed like the right moment for a form of expression that would match the significance of the occasion. However, it appears that art does not always take its cues from events seen as historical or defining; and if it does, seems to make references that appear to veer sharply from the direct. The so-called 'artists of transition', for instance, seem to be engrossed in a contemplation of life's simpler pursuits, the everyday, small and trivial. Perhaps it was a way of suggesting that now that the overriding objective had been attained, it was time to savour the pure sense of being alive. These artists, among them Sailoz Mukherjea, N.S. Bendre, K.K. Hebbar, Shiavax Chavda and K.H. Ara, seem at peace with life around and feel they must capture its fleeting, and now intensely more joyous, moments. This innocent interlude is characterised by simplified forms and lively colours.
The response of the Progressive Artists Group (1947-1956) in Bombay, too, seems apolitical, the fact of their coming together in the year of Independence being purely coincidental. What these artists were more exercised about was the fact that art as practised in India till then had to change; a total break with the past and its stultifying constraints, both cultural and artistic, was called for. F. N. Souza, S. H. Raza, K. H. Ara, M.F. Husain, S. H. Gade and S. Bakre were determined to fashion an art that was 'entirely Indian but also modern'. Their work does contain the latter two elements in ample degree, though the modernism relies a great deal on Parisian abstract Expressionism and post-Impressionism. The group was joined briefly, in the fifties, by Mohan Samant, V. S. Gaitonde and Krishen Khanna.
Up north in the capital, the Delhi Silpi Chakra, a group of artists displaced from Lahore after the country's Partition in 1947, deployed a finely-honed technical skill to register their anguish at the trauma of displacement. They also continued the quest for a national style of expression, turning to local craft traditions for inspiration in this direction. These artists (B. C. Sanyal, Kanwal Krishna, Dhanraj Bhagat, P.N. Mago, K.S. Kulkarni and others) would also prove to be instrumental in the future artistic development of K.G. Subramanyam, Satish Gujral, Bimal Dasgupta, Shanti Dave and others).
In the late fifties and intermittently over the next two decades, the centre of artistic endeavour seemed to shift, if ever so briefly, to Baroda, where the Fine Arts department of M. S. University had been very ambitiously put together. The result was the group of practitioners, styled the Baroda Group, whose experiments in abstraction, Pop Art and Neo-Dada would considerably deepen contemporary Indian art's engagement with modernism.
As though in reaction, the overarching need for a 'national' art came to a head around the same time. J. Swaminathan and his Group 1890, declared that Indian artists must reject the "hybrid mannerisms" imported from Europe. And a group of artists in south India cocooned themselves in the Cholamandal Artists Village and consciously attempted to distil an Indian idiom through the use of techniques derived from rural handicraft traditions, textile design and the inspiration of Jamini Roy. K.C.S. Paniker, J. Sultan Ali, S.G. Vasudev, K. Ramanujam were some of the artists following this persuasion.
It was also late in this decade that several artists, Biren De, Shanker Palsiker, Ghulam Rasool Santosh and Jagdish Swaminathan among them, turned to a form of abstraction inspired by Indian Tantra art, the symbolic and religio-erotic interplay of circles, triangles and squares. This Neo-Tantric turn, it was hoped, would show the way to an unmistakably-Indian and modern idiom.
The turbulent seventies saw a more intense turn towards the social. The 1971 war with Pakistan, the Naxalite Movement in Bengal, and the curtailing of democracy during the Emergency, formed the political backdrop for this phase. In the cities of Bombay, Calcutta and Delhi, Gieve Patel, Sudhir Patwardhan, Vivan Sundaram, Ganesh Pyne and Bikash Bhattacharjee, among others, felt it incumbent on them to directly refer to the national situation and document the pain of the people. A pre-occupation with the role of the artist in a poor country and the need for social responsiveness also gained greater urgency now.
But artistic journeys can also be intensely personal and idiosyncratic. Tyeb Mehta, A. Ramachandran, Rameshwar Broota, Akbar Padamsee, Jehangir Sabavala, Laxman Shreshta, Laxma Goud, Anjolie Ela Menon and others would carry forward their individual pre-occupations, trying to tease out the insights they sensed lurking somewhere.
The decade also saw many more women artists come forward on the artistic scene, the majority of them delineating a point of view that combined the feminist and the subjective. As may be expected, Nalini Malani, Arpita Singh, Madhvi Parekh, Ira Roy, Veena Bhargava, Suruchi Chand, Navjot and others address the central issues of subjectivity and victimhood, but the introspective and the apparently apolitical also find a voice in their work. The obsessions of their male counterparts (modernism, indigenism etc.) seem relatively peripheral concerns.
This trend would, of course, be a prefiguration of the tone of artistic practice in the eighties and nineties. During these two decades, the preoccupations of the earlier part of the century get considerably attenuated and, with some younger artists, become a non-issue. The hard fact of the globalised economy makes a post-modernised utterance seem de rigeur now. Thus, in keeping with the tenor of the times, installation art, mixed media, and digital representations insinuate their way into public awareness. The "hybrid mannerisms" excoriated by Jagdish Swaminathan now become "hybrid signs", and ironically, begin to seem normal and familiar. The earlier divides blur; the borders between the imported and the indigenous seem to suture, though the edges continue to show.
Thus, Bhupen Khakkar will combine a sinuous mix of both influences, the local and the foreign, but also not hesitate to draw in the viewer to the fact of his alternate sexuality. And M. F. Husain will take further the project that he has made his very own: to mix the religious with the secular and the elite with the popular. His attachment to Hindu icons will, however, not be seen in the proper light by religious fundamentalists, who will vandalise his paintings in protest against his alleged misinterpretation of the true spirit of Hinduism. But in keeping with his image as the painter most representative of the Indian ethos, Husain will also go overboard celebrating his discovery of a woman, the Hindi film star, Madhuri Dixit, who, he will claim, is the living embodiment of the quintessential Indian woman (Bharatiya nari). (Such an entity, it seems, can really exist! Isn't it usually artistic intuition which discovers this before the rest of us?!)
Among the younger artists, the pluralist and fragmentative mood predominates. With the old, archaic bonds loosened, Atul Dodiya's montages will take cognisance of this new place we find ourselves in, while Anandjit Ray will combine his colours as easily as his narratives.
In the work of Baiju Parthan, the past and the present will cohere without too much dissonance. As it does with most of the artists, too numerous to mention, painting today. An unexpected nuance comes into the picture with the work of artists emanating from the Indian diaspora. Additionally, the opening up of the market for Indian modern art abroad, as also the profusion of art galleries within the country, will mean that the Indian artist now has no choice but to address a more diffuse audience, through themes that resonate with the local and the global.
But alongside these highly personalized and contemporary gestures, the thematic concerns of the past still continue to haunt the artist: the search for that elusive Indian voice, the anxiety over the looming shoulder, and the guilt over an activity which seems like so much fiddling while the country burns. In short, through the obsessions of its painters, Indian art seems to yield a picture of a vital and vigorous creative practice, which, at times, also seems a bit bewildering and confusing. But let the poet phrase the matter:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then, I contradict myself.
I am large, I can contain multitudes.
  It is this heterogeneity, this multiple and plural nature of Indian art which, perhaps, will, eventually, deliver up the insights its practitioners pursue so dedicatedly.
------------------   Recommended Reading The Flamed-Mosaic - Indian Contemporary Painting
Neville Tuli (Abrams, Harry N. Inc.)

Creative Arts in Modern India
Ratan Parimoo and Indra Mohan Sharma (Books & Books, New Delhi)

Expressions and Evocations: Contemporary Women Artists of India
Gayatri Sinha (Marg Publications, Mumbai)

Indian Contemporary Art Post Independence
Yashodhara Dalmia, Ella Datta et al (Vadehra Art Gallery, Delhi)

India's Culture, the State, the Arts, and Beyond
B. P. Singh (Oxford University Press)

The Art of Modern India
Balraj Khanna, Aziz Kurta (Thames and Hudson, London)

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