art guide

Overview of Indian Art

A glance over the terrain traced by Indian art over the past century shows a diverse range of artistic responses to reality. While in the early years Indian painters seemed to concern themselves primarily with the societal, the coming of the modernists and then the contemporaries, a younger group of artists born after independence, variegated India's artistic outlook dramatically in the following decades. Artists' assertions became, at different times, nationalist or modernist, socially responsive or intensely subjective, fiercely indigenist or defiantly international, or self consciously traditionalist or fashionably post-modernist. These moments were not, of course, mutually exclusive and did not necessarily follow in the order listed, but mirrored to a great extent the diversity of the artistic impulses developed in India during the 20th and early 21st centuries.

Here, Saffronart provides a brief overview of the evolution of Indian art practices from 1900 to the present, touching on the convergences and divergences that spurred their development.

1. Art in Pre-Independence India (1900-1947)

During the early and mid 1900s, one could 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 or Swadeshi movement. An aspect of this project was the artistic rejection of the Romanticisation of Indian reality by Company Painters and the mannered portraits of Raja Ravi Varma and his followers. The artists who adopted this mandate belong to what is termed the Bengal School of Painting. 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.

Among the artists who expressed themselves through the form and style of this school were Abanindranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose, D.P. Roy Choudhury, A.K. Haldar, Kshitindranath Mazumdar, Sarada Ukil and M.A.R. Chugtai. Some artists, like Rabindranath and Gagnendranath Tagore, though allied with the school's general goals, preferred more personal idioms, experimenting with concepts like cubism and executing paintings in strikingly modernist terms. It was in Tagore's Santiniketan Institute too that Ramkinkar Baij and Benode Behari Mukherjee expressed their love for nature and its rhythms in work that is today recognised as pioneering. Other artists like Jamini Roy, in the spirit of Gandhi's teachings, turned their gaze inwards to the simplicity of Indian folk art.

A seemingly more direct challenge to revivalists like Ravi Varma came in the thirties from the bold, post-impressionistic colours of Amrita Sher Gill, and in the forties through the 'socially responsive' work of the Calcutta Group; the latter collective consciously choosing to integrate foreign influences in their work in order to enrich their art and create an artistic vocabulary that was both international and interdependent.

2.Independence and its Impact (1947-1985)

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 and Shiavax Chavda, seemed at peace with life around them, and aimed to capture its fleeting, joyous moments. This innocent interlude is characterised by simplified forms and lively colours.

The response of the Progressive Artists Group (founded in 1947) in Bombay, too, seemed 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. Their manifesto called for a total break with the past and its stultifying constraints, both cultural and artistic. F.N. Souza, S.H. Raza, K.H. Ara, M.F. Husain, H.A. Gade and S. Bakre were determined to fashion an art that was entirely Indian but also modern. Their work did contain the latter two elements in ample degree, though the modernism, in the spirit of the Nehruvian internationalism of the time, relied a great deal on Parisian abstract Expressionism and post-Impressionism. The group was joined briefly, in the fifties, by others like Mohan Samant, V.S. Gaitonde and Krishen Khanna.

Sculptors, too, broke away from the naturalism and portraiture of colonial art and experimented with different materials and techniques to lend a more personal and reflective quality to their work. Among the modern vanguard of Indian sculptors were Dhanraj Bhagat, Sankho Chaudhuri, Adi Davierwalla, Pillo Pochkhanwalla and Meera Mukherjee. In addition, printmakers like Krishna Reddy and Jyoti Bhatt championed means of artistic expression that had not been taught and explored in India during the preceding decades, opening up several new possibilities for artists in the country.

In the late fifties and intermittently over the next two decades, the centre of artistic endeavour seemed to shift to Baroda, where the Fine Arts department of M. S. University had been very ambitiously put together. The result was the collective of practitioners, the Baroda Group (including artists Sankho Chaudhuri, N.S. Bendre, Nasreen Mohamedi, Gulammohammed Sheikh and later Bhupen Khakhar, Jeram Patel and K.G. Subramanyan), whose experiments in abstraction, Pop Art and Neo-Dada considerably deepened 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. Another group of artists, from the Cholamandal Artists Village outside Madras consciously attempted to distil an Indian idiom through the use of techniques derived from rural handicraft traditions and textile design. While some artists adopted the rural South Indian kavacha and kreeta traditions of beaten sheet metal, others like Meera Mukherjee worked with the tribal dokhra style of metal casting in the creation of her bronzes. It was also late in this decade that several artists, Biren De, Shanker Palsiker and G.R. Santosh among them, turned to an abstraction inspired by the geometric ecstasies of Tantric art.

The seventies saw an intense turn towards the social and political, primarily through figuration. The 1971 war with Pakistan, the famine and Naxalite Movement in Bengal, and the imposition of Emergency by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi formed the backdrop for this phase. In the cities of Bombay, Calcutta and Delhi, Tyeb Mehta, Rameshwar Broota, Gieve Patel, Somnath Hore, Ganesh Pyne and Bikash Bhattacharjee, among others, felt it their responsibility to directly refer to the national situation and document the pain of the people. The role of the artist in a developing country and the need for social responsiveness were interrogated by these practitioners. This 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. Nalini Malani, Arpita Singh, Madhvi Parekh, Navjot and others often addressed the issues of subjectivity and victimhood, but also expressed introspective and apolitical themes in their work.

3. Contemporary Indian Art (1985-present)

It is clear that the modernism of the preceding decades prefigured the tone of Indian artistic practice in the late eighties and nineties. However, during this time, the preoccupations of the earlier part of the century were considerably attenuated and, with some younger artists, even become a non-issue. The hard facts of disappearing borders and a globalised economy made post-modernism the preferred artistic mode. In keeping with the tenor of the times, photo and hyperrealism, installation art, new media creations, and digital representations found their way into Indian artistic and public awareness. The "hybrid mannerisms" excoriated by Jagdish Swaminathan became "hybrid signs", and ironically, began to seem normal and familiar.

However, even as many of the earlier divides blurred, and the borders between imported and indigenous seemed to suture, some rough edges continued to show. During the 1990s, a pluralist and fragmentative mood dominated the creation of contemporary art, highlighting the difficulties associated with the dawn of an age of information and instant gratification, and with the emergence and novel concerns of 'the global Indian'. Dually charged by the excessive information they received and their personal responses to this environment, the work of artists like Shibu Natesan, Surendran Nair, Jayashree Chakravarty, Rekha Rodwittiya and G. Ravinder Reddy responded to newer and greater numbers of stimuli than any of their predecessors could have imagined.

With the old, outmoded dualities loosened, Atul Dodiya's metaphoric montages took cognisance of the space in which Indians found themselves face to face with other citizens of the world, while Subodh Gupta used his paintings and installations to filter and magnify the everyday experiences of rural and middle-class Indians for a global audience. In the work of Baiju Parthan, the past and the present cohered without dissonance in a new, digitized realm, and Anju Dodiya's personal struggles with the violence of the creative process were spelled out for viewers in her watercolours.

Like painting, contemporary sculpture evolved in accordance with new shifts in ideology and paradigm. Sculptors found that the only limits imposed on the techniques and materials they could use were those of their own imaginations. Traditional media like stone and metal were subjected to new treatments and unusual combinations, and inventive techniques like site-specific installations and kinetic sculpture gained popularity. In addition, boundaries between traditional disciplines like painting and sculpture were dissolved, with artists like Sudarshan Shetty, Anandajit Ray, Jagannath Panda and G.R. Iranna hybridizing the two through their practices.

With this contemporary wave came the opening up of the market for Indian art abroad, as also the profusion of art galleries within the country, meaning that the Indian artist now had no choice but to address a more diffuse audience, through themes that resonated with the local as well as the global. Today, the work of artists from the Indian diaspora, the blurring of design and art, and the videos, installations and digital spaces of an even younger generation of artists have all added new dimensions to Indian contemporary art, a seemingly nebulous concept ever-receptive to growth and change.

Through the trials and tribulations of its practitioners, Indian art has yielded a picture of a vital and vigorous creative practice over the last century. It is this frequently bewildering heterogeneity, this multiple and plural nature of Indian art which, perhaps, will eventually deliver up the insights its practitioners continue to pursue so dedicatedly.