Modern and Contemporary Art

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MODERN AND CONTEMPORARY ART Modernity in Indian art can be said to have begun at the end of the seventeenth century with the setting up of trading interests in Calcutta by the British East India Company. The British occupation of India swiftly replaced the indigenous miniature schools with naturalistic company painting, and institutions such as art salons and art schools generated a new breed of Indian elite painters who turned to oils and watercolors in a British style, though often with Indian subjects from myth, portraiture, or landscape.

Raja Ravi Verma (1848–1906) of Kerala was among the most popular of this first generation of Western-style painters. In sculpture, this phase was characterized by academic classicism as exemplified by G. K. Mhatre. Around the turn of the twentieth century, the nationalist (swadeshi) movement in Bengal spawned a new movement in art: the artist Abanindranath Tagore (1871–1951) and his students broke away from Western painting styles and self-consciously sought aesthetic standards and techniques rooted in Indian and Japanese traditions. This movement was also accompanied by and closely connected with the appearance of the discipline of Indian art history, largely the creation of British Orientalists and South Asian nationalists such as E. B. Havell (1861–1934) and Ananda Coomaraswamy (1877–1947). Later designated the "Bengal School," the fantasy-laden paintings of this movement served as a pervasive influence for many artists throughout India, as major practitioners of this school became heads of art pedagogical institutions by 1925. Particularly in Bengal, the Bengal School has been a major influence to recent times, due largely to the practices of the art school Kala Bhavan, at Rabindranath Tagore's educational center in Shantiniketan, where Abanindranath Tagore's foremost disciple Nandalal Bose (1882–1966) headed a progressive offshoot of this school. Nandalal Bose, along with his senior students and other teachers at Kala Bhavan, such as Benodebehari Mukherjee (1904–1980), Ramkinkar Baij (1906–1980), and Prosanto Roy (1908–1973), fashioned a contextual Bengali modernism that has left its enduring stamp on this region. As a sculptor, Baij's monumental groupings of tribal life opened the way for an indigenous vital expressionism in modern Indian sculpture.

Another institution founded by Gaganendranath and Abanindranath Tagore and prominent in the dissemination of Bengal School styles and ideas was the Calcutta-based Indian Society of Oriental Art, headed by Kshitindra Nath Majumdar. Two major sculptors to emerge from this school were Chintamoni Kar (b. 1915) and Meera Mukherjee (1923–1998). Taking after the Neo-Primitivism of Ramkinkar Baij, Meera Mukherjee adopted the tribal technique of Bastar lost-wax bell metal casting to create monumental single and multiple figure compositions of empathic tenderness taken from everyday life (Boatman, Bauls, etc.), myth (Cosmic Dancer, Buddha), or history (Ashoka at Kalinga).

Contemporary artists who can be seen as continuing in some way the legacy of the Bengal School include Ganesh Pyne (b. 1937), Ramananda Bandyopadhyay (b. 1936), Lalu Prosad Shaw (b. 1937), Suhas Roy (b. 1936), Sakti Burman (b. 1935), Biswarup Datta (b. 1951) and Anjan Chakrabarty (b. 1956). The most celebrated contemporary figure among these is Ganesh Pyne. Shy and reclusive by nature, Pyne's haunting fantasies draw viewers into surreal landscapes where history, reality and folklore intersect. Superb draftsmanship and very subtle washed color tonalities combine in his paintings to bring to life his worlds of magic.

The Bengal School's attempt at defining an Indian "national" style was not without contestation or alternate formulations; artists such as Abanindranath's brother Gaganendranath Tagore (1867–1938) and their uncle, the famous poet Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941), were among the earliest to embrace Western modernist idioms in their work. While Gaganendranath expressed a critical sensibility through his expressionistic cartoons and evoked magic worlds using a Cubist-influenced style, Rabindranath mined the inchoate forms of the subconscious in a mode reminiscent of German Expressionism. These two were also responsible for India's first exhibition of Western modernist painting, with a showing of Bauhaus artists in Calcutta in 1922. More grim versions of Gaganendranath's political and social satire may be seen in the paintings of some contemporary artists, like Paritosh Sen (b. 1918) and Chowdhury (b. 1939). The late 1920s and 1930s saw the gradual growth of other approaches towards Indian modernism. Jamini Roy (1917–1972) in Bengal adopted a decorative iconic style based on folk scrolls and the urban folk art of Kalighat, which became a powerful influence for later painters of Bengal. Artists like Dharmanarayan Dasgupta (1939–1998), Ramananda Bandyopadhyay (b. 1936), Biswarup Datta (b. 1951), and Paresh Maity (b. 1965) are among those who have assimilated this trend.

The 1940s

Amrita Sher-Gil (1913–1941), of half-Punjabi and half-Hungarian descent, was among the first twentieth-century Indian artists to be trained in Paris and to fashion a personal artistic style combining Paul Gaugin's Post-Impressionism with the frescos of Ajanta. The fact that the successive art movements of modern Europe drew on non-Western sources for inspiration is here mirrored in an Indian seeking affiliation with Western modernism. The recognition of modernity as a global phenomenon, emanating from Europe and producing forms of cultural critique with international applicability, becomes the basis for developing indigenous national or regional adaptations or reflections of these forms. A cross-cultural vocabulary thus comes into existence where, for instance, Henri Matisse finds a regional echo in Jamini Roy, and both artists can influence the contemporary adaptations of Paresh Maity.

This trend of looking westward for an international idiom gained momentum in the 1940s, along with an impending sense of India's national independence. A number of artists' collectives were organized in major cities such as Calcutta, Bombay, Delhi, and Madras. The Calcutta Artists' Group, founded in 1942, was among the earliest of these, with a number of its members expressing leftist sentiments and traveling to Paris for training. Gopal Ghose (1913–1980), Nirode Majumdar (1916–1982), Rathin Maitra (1913–1997), Paritosh Sen (b. 1918), and Govardhan Ash (1907–1996) were some of the prominent members of this group. Of these, it is the Post-Impressionistic lyricism of Gopal Ghose and the sharp political satire of Paritosh Sen that are perhaps the most memorable. The simultaneous rise to prominence of the Communist Party, along with the disaster of a manmade famine in Bengal in 1943, spawned a sterner strain of Marxist-inspired iconography, with artists like Zainul Abedin (1914–1976), Chittaprosad (1915–1978), and Somenath Hore (b. 1920). Hore is better known as a sculptor, his emaciated figures of oppressed and poverty-stricken life executed with striking originality.

Modernist ideals and tendencies similar to those of the Calcutta Group were behind the Progressive Painters' Association founded in Madras in 1944, the Progressive Artists' Group (PAG) in Bombay in 1947, and the Delhi Shilpi Chakra in Delhi in 1949. One of the painters of the Delhi Shilpi Chakra, Ramkumar (b. 1924), also trained in Paris, went on to become one of India's most celebrated painters of semiabstract landscape. Another prominent contemporary artist encouraged by the Delhi Shilpi Chakra, Satish Gujral (b. 1925), studied under David Alfaro Siqueiros in Mexico and developed a highly individual painterly idiom based on an expressionistic Surrealism. Another art institution, the Triveni Kala Sangam, was founded in New Delhi in 1951 and has fostered a new breed of prominent contemporary artists. At its inception, the art division of Triveni was headed by K. S. Kulkarni (1918–1994), a role currently filled by Rameshwar Broota (b. 1941). Some of Broota's students at Triveni who have earned international recognition are Vasundhara Tewari (b. 1955) and Surinder Kaur (b. 1955).

The Progressive Artists' Group (PAG) of Bombay, several of whose members have assumed iconic status in India's modernist canon, was the most vocal and assertive of the collectives of the 1940s. The founding members of this group were M. F. Husain (b. 1915), F. N. Souza (1924–2002), K. H. Ara (1913–1985), S. K. Bakre (b. 1920), H. A. Gade (b. 1917), and S. H. Raza (b. 1922). Powerfully instrumental in the rise to prominence of this group were three Germans, Rudy von Leyden, Walter Langhammer, and E. Schlesinger, who had immigrated to India after the rise of Nazism. The first two were art writers working for the English-language newspaper the Times of India. The third was a businessman-patron of the PAG. Also influential, as a teacher of contemporary art to several members of the PAG and other Bombay artists of this period, was S. B. Palsikar (1917–1984). The three most important painters of the PAG, Souza, Husain, and Raza, hail from minority religions of India, the first born a Roman Catholic and the other two Muslim, and each has staked a distinctive claim as a visual spokesman for a national modernism. Each of these has also been influential as a formative source for different directions of contemporary Indian art. Souza can be seen as the most individualistic of these artists, his paintings exerting powerful expressionistic distortions to landscapes and human forms, suggesting a sexuality intensified through repression. Husain, the most celebrated living Indian artist today, aligned himself from the beginning with a Nehruvian project of secular nation-building, and has woven eclectic modern myths from varied religious and popular sources in his works. Raza, beginning with abstraction, has settled into an experimentation with the mystical geometric forms of Tantra, a message of personal transformation that has gained increasing popularity since the 1960s. V. S. Gaitonde (1924–2001), another important artist, joined the PAG in 1950. Gaitonde's abstractions turned increasingly toward a minimalism of color and form dictated by the contemplative exigencies of Zen combined with textural and compositional affinities as varied as the works of Paul Klee and the miniatures of Basholi.

A number of the artists of this generation traveled to Europe to absorb firsthand the exciting legacy of the successive movements of modernism. Paritosh Sen of the Calcutta Group, Ramkumar of the Delhi Shilpi Chakra, and S. H. Raza of the Progressive Artists' Group traveled to Paris in the 1950s and came under the tutelage of André Lhote, an important figure in the dissemination of Cubism. Another Bombay-based artist who was influenced by Cubism in Paris was Jehangir Sabavala (b. 1922), who went on to distill his own essence of a monumental nomadic serenity from Synthetic Cubism. Souza moved to London in 1949. Another close associate of the PAG from Bombay, Tyeb Mehta (b. 1925), moved to London in 1959 and worked there until 1964, before returning to Bombay (Mumbai). Mehta's work extends a Guernica-like anguish into an exploration of existential angst expressed in mythical and spatial terms. Akbar Padamsee (b. 1928), also from the Sir J. J. School of Art in Bombay and a friend of the PAG, moved to Paris in 1951 and worked there until 1967. Padamsee, in his portraits and landscapes, combines an intellectual rigor with a burning sensitivity that expresses tenderness and pain.

The 1950s and 1960s

The 1950s and 1960s saw the consolidation of a rich and varied Indian modernism through the assimilation of the successive vocabularies of modernist movements of Europe and America into regional perceptions and ontologies. This was particularly fostered by the founding of regional centers of art headed by artists with articulate ideologies. The Baroda School of Art and the Madras College of Art are two such schools. The art division of the Maharaja Sayajirao University at Baroda, initiated by the lyrical Bengal School–derived modernism of the artist N. S. Bendre (1910–1990) and the sculptor Sankho Chaudhuri (b. 1916), developed an exciting artistic and art critical voice in the 1960s, veering away from internationalism and abstraction to figuration and regionalism. Two major artists of this school are Bhupen Khakkar (1934–2003) and Gulammohammed Sheikh (b. 1937), who eschewed prevailing canons both of Western modernism and a rural or traditional indigenism to open up an urban popular space for Indian modernism. Also seminal in this shift were the efforts of art critic Geeta Kapur. Other important artists to graduate from this school include G. R. Santosh (1929–1997), Himmat Shah (b. 1933), Jyoti Bhatt (b. 1934), and Ratan Parimoo (b. 1936). Among the sculptors from Baroda were students of Sankho Chaudhuri, such as Nagji Patel (b. 1937) and Balbir Katt (b. 1939). While Nagji Patel and Himmat Shah share a vocabulary of primitive naturalism, Balbir Katt chisels monumental stone sculptures, often with metaphysical themes. Mrinalini Mukherjee (b. 1949), daughter of artist Benodebehari Mukherjee, is another major sculptor from Baroda. She studied under K. G. Subramanium and makes massive shapes using fibers such as jute or hemp, emulating plant or human forms. Suspended from the ceiling or heaped on the floor, her knotted, twisted and twined three-dimensional forms have a textured organic quality, which is unique. The tradition of originality in sculpture has continued at Baroda; recent names to make a mark include Latika Katt (b. 1953), Dhruva Mistry (b. 1957), and G. Ravinder Reddy (b. 1956). Reddy's fiberglass realism emulates American Pop Art, while Mistry's cool surreal creations seem to have walked out of the paintings of Max Ernst.

Allied to the sculptural experimentations of the Baroda School in the 1960s are the works of two Bombay sculptors, Adi Davierwala and Piloo Pochkhanawala (1923–1986). Along with Raghav Kaneria of the Baroda School, these two Bombay sculptors turned to junk metal welding for their expression. Davierwala, who worked with wood in the 1950s creating heavy angular geometric forms, discovered a new vocabulary of shapes in junk metal, creating monumental sculptures which protrude and thrust into space while retaining a balanced stillness. Piloo Pochkhanawala experimented with a number of media and techniques in the 1960s and 1970s, including direct carving, cement and metal casting, finally settling on junk welding, using found forms. Her works highlight the texture and form of her materials and her technique and have tended to move away from solid modeling toward flattened forms that reach out into space. Amarnath Sehgal of Delhi is another important modern pioneer of metal sculpture. His assemblages of human forms are modulated with an eye to their expressive potential in describing social themes, often of inequity or cruelty, as in Tyranny or The Tortured.

The Madras School, among the early art institutions established by the British in India, underwent a transformation under the leadership of K. C. S. Paniker (1911–1977), who was also instrumental in the founding of an artists' village named Cholamandalam near Madras (Chennai). In his own work, Paniker utilized the geometric mystical symbols of Tantra, though with an intent more visual and aesthetic than spiritual. In doing this, he opened up a new direction for an indigenous form of modern abstraction, which fused the iconic and calligraphic visual aesthetics of artists such as Paul Klee with Indian folk and mystical meditative designs. This coincided with the enhanced interest and presentation in the 1960s of Tantric art by Ajit Mookherjee and others, leading to an important field of Indian abstract exploration, in which spiritual practices are brought together with pure visuality to engender internal transformations. This trend in art has been termed Neo-Tantra after the traveling exhibition of that name which toured Europe and North America in 1984–1986. In addition to S. H. Raza, mentioned above, other Neo-Tantric artists include G. R. Santosh (1929–1977), Biren De (b. 1926), and Sohan Qadri (b. 1932). Many younger contemporary artists, such as Biswarup Datta (b. 1951) and Amrita Banerji (b. 1965), also make use of visual metaphors taken from this direction, though not with any principled adhesion to the forms or ideas of Tantra. The influence of Neo-Tantra can also be seen fused with an American Op Art inspiration in the paintings of diasporic artist Anil Revri (b. 1956), who lives and works in Washington, D.C.

In sculpture, D. P. Roy Chowdhury (1899–1975), a Bengal School follower, was influential as a teacher at the Madras School. Though his own work emulated an Indian version of Rodinesque allegories, his students such as S. Dhanapal (1919–2002) branched off into original terra-cotta and metal figures. Extending Dhanapal's work, metal sculptures in repoussé resembling religious icons became the hallmark of P. V. Janakiraman (1930–1995), and this, in turn, became the basis for the welded shamanic figurines on sheet metal compositions created by S. Nandagopal (b. 1946).

The quest for a modern indigenism in the work of Paniker was paralleled by a number of other artists from different parts of India, such as K. G. Subramanyan (b. 1924), a student of Shantiniketan who later joined the faculty of the Baroda School, and J. Swaminathan (1928–1994), whose own paintings showed a mysticism similar to those of Paniker, drawing on Indian folk and tribal patterns as well as the iconic arrangements of Paul Klee. Swaminathan founded Group 1890 with a number of other artists, with the aim of expressing an immediacy based on regional and local experience. Artists affiliated with this movement include Laxma Goud (b. 1940) and Manjit Bawa (b. 1941). Thota Vaikuntham (b. 1942), a student of K. G. Subramanyan from the Baroda School, also exemplifies this form of indigenism.

Recent Developments

The acceptance of the visual vocabularies of Western modernism as an international affiliation for the global condition of modernity took a further step with the increased technological and economic integration of the world since the 1980s. This has led to diasporic Indian populations all over the world, who, rather than finding an international voice for a regional experience, are presented with the reverse dilemma of articulating global experiences in terms of a subjectivity often formed in India or under conditions of an Indian upbringing. Though several artists who have made their mark in India have gone on to reside abroad, like S. H. Raza (Paris), F. N. Souza (London and New York), and Sohan Qadri (Copenhagen), already mentioned here, a number of artists of Indian origin or upbringing have grown into prominence in the artistic milieu of the West. Anish Kapoor (b. 1954) is a well-known sculptor from the United Kingdom. Natwar Bhavsar (b. 1934), another renowned artist, lives and works in New York. Bhavsar's cosmic abstractions and Anil Revri's focused optical meditations present a context-free internationalism, like that of Anish Kapoor—an important direction in diasporic art. However, another perspective on the diasporic experience is that presented by photographer and installation artist Allan DeSouza (b. 1958) of Los Angeles. DeSouza's work provides an intelligent social and psychological commentary on nation and identity, working from outside national boundaries to explore their effects on the human psyche.

Since the 1980s, a powerful body of art has been produced by contemporary artists focusing on gender issues. The homoerotic fantasies of Bhupen Khakkar or the feminist polemics of Nalini Malani (b. 1946), Arpana Caur (b. 1954), Arpita Singh (b. 1937), Gogi Saroj Pal (b. 1940), Nilima Sheikh (b. 1945), and others constitute a prominent direction of contemporary Indian art. Moreover, in keeping with contemporary art's revision of its own limits and functions throughout the world, photography, printmaking, video, computer, installation and performance art have gradually come to take center stage in India, displacing the primacy of painting and sculpture. The attempt to de-privilege the masculine spectatorial gaze from its vantage as viewer in context-less galleries or as the possessor of collections has led increasingly to the movement of art from the pictorial space of walls to more intimate and participatory social contexts. This may be interpreted as a movement from the modern to the postmodern in art, and, since the late 1980s, increasing numbers of Indian artists are presenting their ideas, interpretations, and social questions in these forms. Artists like Vivian Sundaram (b. 1943), Ranbir Kaleka (b. 1953), Subodh Gupta (b. 1964), and Sheela Gowda (b. 1957) have been at the vanguard of Indian installation art, producing some of the most exciting contemporary artworks of our time.

This however has not meant the extinction of painting as an art form. A number of artists have attempted to destabilize the conventional boundaries and viewing expectations of painting through the use of semiotic intertextuality and self-referentiality. Thus the diverse discourses of myth, fantasy, consumerism, and politics are often overlaid as coexisting pictorial signifiers offering a critical commentary on varied aspects of contemporary Indian lived experience. Atul Dodiya (b. 1959), Surendran Nair (b. 1956), and Anandajit Ray (b. 1965) are three prominent artists who have taken this direction. Atul Dodiya has moved from the play of memory using a faded photo-realism in the 1980s to a series of allegorical self-portraits locating himself critically at the intersection of myth and history since the 1990s. Surendran Nair, in an ironic variant of Tantric meditational anatomy, depicts the human body as a passive site of emblematic inscriptions or punctures effected by political and consumerist interests. Anandajit Ray splices science fiction, manga, anime and action movie images to create pop nightmare fictions of contemporary Indian life.

Other contemporary subversions of painterliness include emulation of and interplay with virtual reality and the hyper-modern. The canvases of Baiju Parthan (b. 1956) and Jitish Kallat (b. 1974), for example, are loaded with icons and hypertext depicting the human as a post-structural indefinable under the constructional impulses of new sciences and technologies and their political or commercial deployment as well as futuristic transtechnological scenarios. In the case of Parthan, the metaphor of cyberspace goes one step further through the exploration of the painted image alongside web-based virtual versions of the same. Nalini Malani, a senior woman artist, whose works transit between painting, performance, installation and collaboration, makes creative use of video projections in much of her work. Her themes focus on the inequalities and violences of gender, religion and class.

As with painting, the stand-alone aesthetic of traditional sculpture has also come to be questioned and replaced by a number of alternate or reconfigured objects. N. N. Rimzon (1957), for example, installs his sculptures within larger contexts often made of mass-produced objects to explore the dialectic between the spiritual and the socially unjust. A well-known work of his is The Inner Voice, where a nude male Tīrthānkara-like figure, symbolizing austerity and spiritual purity is placed iconically within a circle of swords, making a powerful, if ambiguous, visual statement on austerity and power, nonviolence and violence.

The decentering of the art gallery or museum as a viewing space and of patronage from the possessive intents of collectors has also led in the direction of site-specific installations and performance art. Site-specificity populates public spaces with objects which reference both the site and the viewer (user of the site) to create reflexive environments which bring submerged meanings of collective lived experience to light. These installations are often treated as events or performances which are durationally limited and thus cannot be bought or sold. Patronage here usually takes the form of sponsorship, often by the corporate sector. The Mumbai-based Kala Ghoda Association's Artfest 2000, for example, featured a number of installations scattered through public buildings in the precinct of Kala Ghoda, between 1 February and 14 February 2000. Titled "Making an Entrance," the project was conceptualized by art critic Ranjit Hoskote and included works by Jahangir Jani, Sudarshan Shetty, Kaushik Mukhopadhyay, Baiju Parthan, and Bharati Kapadia. According to the Kala Ghoda Association's web site, "The concept of 'Making an Entrance' has evolved from the perceived need to construct a new venue for art, an exhibition site that is neither gallery nor museum . . . [but] an unbound public space. Indeed, new viewing habits and practices may arise from such new viewing situations." Similarly, Vivan Sundaram used the lobby of the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata to present his 1998 installation Journeys towards Freedom. Here, the Victoria Memorial, a cultural and political landmark, is chosen for its sedimented memory of colonialism and nationalism and made the site for Sundaram's interpretations of political bondage and liberation.

Debashish Banerji

See alsoMiniatures ; Mughal Painting


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