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Indian Modern Art




In the nearly 150 years of British rule, Indian indigenous art had registered quite a retardation. Whatever little remained in the name of painting was made to order for the British, catering exclusively to the British taste. A distinctive genre  of paintings thus emerged early in the nineteenth  century, mostly portraying Indian tradition  and custom for the curious Britons back home. Otherwise these works generally contained Indian  exotic flora and fauna for the natural history institutions in Britain. But the British generally accorded them the status of visual documents rather than real art, providing general discouragement to the artists.

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In the early 20th century though, the emerging educated middle class began to rise above the internal divides and identify itself as a national entity. The Indian intelligentsia coalesced as a result of technological advancement and greater intercommunication, and searched once more for a forgotten cultural heritage and it’s riches. This  rediscovery inspired a fresh assertion of Indian talent which began to manifest itself through songs, poetry, street plays and paintings, resulting in a lively current of artistic activity.

           At the fountainhead of this revivalist celebration was a single aristocratic family of Bengal, called the Tagores. This multi-talented family is credited with contributions to not only painting, but also poetry, fiction and playwriting, and even singing, acting and designing.   It was headed by the most celebrated member of the family, Rabinandranath Tagore (1861-1941) who became the first non-white and first Indian Nobel laureate. He was India’s Grand Old Man of Letters, who also founded a unique University, called Visva Bharati at Shantiniketan in 1917. His nephews the brothers Gaganendranath and Abanindranath earned the distinction of being India’s first Modern Artists an art also taken up by their uncle much later in life at 65 years of age.  With the support of E.B. Havell, then British principal of Calcutta School of Art (the first Briton to declare British art education unsuitable for Indians), Ananda Coomarswamy, India’s great art-critic, and Nandalal Bose, the gifted painter, it was Abanindranath who breathed a new life into Indian painting.

            The Revivalist art was deeply influenced by the glorious past and heritage of India, by it’s great epics and it’s transcendental philosophy, by the frescoes of Ajanta and the Mughal Rajput miniature paintings. 

             Very little of Indian sculpture, though, was visible during the nineteenth century. The iconoclastic armies of the Mughals had systematically razed to ground hundreds of Hindu Temples which were treasure houses of Indian sculpture. The first attempts to resuscitate Indian sculpture in 1930, under the missionary leadership of Ramakinkar Vaij, were seen at Rabindranath Tagore’s university at Shantiniketan. Yet, after stalwarts like  Somnath Hore and Sankho Chaudhry,  although there were other prominent sculptors, it would be another half  century before India could boast of  fine sculpting talents of international repute like Anish Kapoor and Dhruv Mistry.

 The regimes and influences of the British art school, though stifling and sterile, inspired one vibrant artist whose career became a memorable success. A minor princeling  Travancore House, Raja Ravi Varma (1848 – 1906), was the first Indian to master the technique of oil painting. He learnt his craft from a European visiting artist at the court of Maharajah of Tranvacore. His dazzling works depicted scenes from the great Indian epics and other literature and the dress and form he gave to his characters in these works continue to influence the Indian  film industry immensely till date.

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Unnoticed by the most remarkable art  critics of that time, E.B. Havell (principal of Calcutta School of Art for more than a decade) and Ananda Coomaraswamy who championed the functional integrity of art with life, flourished an art form which was stunningly original. This was the art of Kalighat paintings, called ‘pats’ painted  by anonymous ‘patuas ‘ as souvenirs, for pilgrims visiting the famous ‘Kali Temple’. This authentic art form was completely ignored by the ‘bhadra lok’ (affluent class) of that time, possibly because of their cheapness and easy availability. While all the previous modern art experiments were carried out by the elite class which stuck to Indian history and mythology, the Kalighat paintings were a creation  of humble painters and made bold and witty social statements on the everyday life of that time along with  depicting mythology . 

These patua – artists had perfected  or technique learned from foreigners using cheap water colours to develop a unique and highly distinctive style. All but ignored by the art circle of the time, the Kalighat paintings did however, strongly influence and inspire two  famous artists, Jamini Roy and K.G. Subramanyam.

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At the turning point of Indian History, in 1947, when India went through the tremendous upheaval of gaining freedom from the British empire and a torturous partition, unaffected, a twenty three year old former Communist Party member of modest origin, along with five other members founded the Progressive Artists’ group. The five other members were M.F. Hussian, K.H.Ara, H.A.Gade, S.K. Bakre and S.H.Raza. Their manifesto drawn up by Souza, the most articulate and controversial of the group, declared that the world progressive meant ‘to go forward’ and  that was what they intended to do. They summarily denounced the influences of all modern Indian artists, Rabindranath Tagore as too self-obsessed and introverted, Amrita Sher-Gil as a hybrid, Jamini Roy as too unsophisticated and crude, and all eminent artists and influential teachers as too sentimental.


The group’s twentieth century modernism was unapologetically linked to the European  contemporaries. Their talent, professionalism and the blazing dedication to their art  was first spotted by Mulk Raj Anand, India’s foremost art critic and novelist of international acclaim. The Progressive Artists Group exhibited for the first time in 1948, and the exhibition was opened by Mulk Raj Anand who  dwelt on the significance of providing  a platform for a new, not yet fully formed voice, rather than the content of the show. He indicated that they had much ground to cover and three of them went on to achieve that within a decade of the show.


Raza, Souza and Husain  emerged as distinguished artists, each of his own evolved style. Raza found his fame in Paris, while Souza shocked London with his compelling work, continuing to defy, taunt  and challenge to  win  praise and success. The third success story was that of the elusive and enigmatic Husian, who stayed in touch with the soil of India to intuitively  and spontaneously paint the essence of India, it’s countryside and it’s mythology and continues to do so more than five decades later. The PAG, however, naively failed to understand the angst and disillusionment   in the work of  European artists was the result of two horrific world wars. The PAG artists were too free spirited and self absorbed, and  failed to reflect on the Indian tragedy of 1947, our Partition. The only artists ever to be influenced by it were the well known Indian Satish Gujaral and a lesser known Pakistani artist Tassadaq Sohail.

After Souza left for England and Raza for France, PAG, as the group had came to be known, faded out.

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After the bold and compelling success of the Progressive Artists Group, the stage was set for tremendous transformations in the art scene of India. Liberated from the many debilitating complexes and uncertainties, Indian artists began a quest for their individual styles, bringing forward new talent and new ideas. On the scene emerged several artists of substance like Satish Gujaral (b.1925), Tyeb Mehta (b.1925), Krishen Khanna (b.1925), Ram Kumar (b.1927),  V.S..Gaitonde (b.1927), Akbar Padamsee (b.1928), Laxman Pai(b.1926), Jehangir Sabavala (b.1922) and a host of others.


Delhi and Mumbai which did not even a single gallery in 1947, were home to several commercial art galleries by the Sixties. Pioneer galleries like Gallery Chemould and Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai and Dhoomimal, Kunika and Kumar Art Galleries in  Delhi began to display and sell the works of an increasing number of talented artists, Husian, Raza, Souza, Padamsee, Kumar, Ambadas, A. Ramanchandran, Tyeb Mehta, Gaitonde, Krishen Khanna, Biren De, Krishna Reddy and many others.


A quiet revolution took place, forging individual styles, bringing to the fore new talent and new ideas. The atmosphere came alive with art events, news and discussions, and exchanging of ideas, with more and more private art galleries and museums opening up everywhere. Visionary teachers like Subramanyan and Chaudhry at the art school of Baroda contributed to a flow of fresh talent entering the scene and artists began to travel abroad for further studies like  Vivan Sundaram, Ghulam Muhammad Sheikh, Anjolie Ela Menon, Anupam Sud etc. They travelled between the leading artistic centers of Delhi, Mumbai and Calcutta and also began to display their works in the Western Capitals successfully.


In 1950, the Indian government established the Indian Council for Cultural Relations for cultural exchanges with the rest of the world. The National Gallery of Modern Art was created in 1954 at the Maharajah of Jaipur’s palatial Lutyens-style mansion in Delhi. The same year, under the watchful eye of a committee of nine artists including Bose, Chaudhry and N.S. Bendre (1910–92), a national academy of art, the Lalit Kala Akademi, was set up. Exhibitions were regularly held in its spacious galleries together with a prestigious annual national exhibition and the Delhi Triennale.

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