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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.
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.
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
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.
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
EMERGENCE OF MODERN ART IN INDIA
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
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.
PROGRESSIVE ARTISTS GROUP
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.
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.
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.
Souza left for England and Raza for France, PAG, as the group had came to be
known, faded out.
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.
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.
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.
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.
© Arts Indian Atelier 1999-2000