Many paths to modernity

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, March/April 2013 |

A 1947 newsreel shows throngs of men filling Delhi's open spaces and government compounds while a voiceover in a clipped British cadence reports that "everyone ran wild with joy."1 After almost ninety years of colonial rule, the Indian subcontinent was free-albeit split. Twenty-four hours earlier, Pakistan had been carved out as an independent Muslim state, and within days violence erupted as millions of Hindus and Muslims left the land of their birth for a nation of their faith. The euphoria of independence coupled with the horrors of Partition added a new layer of complexity to a society already wrestling with the effects of colonialism and modernization.

It is at this fraught point in history that curator Susan S. Bean picks up the story of modern art in India. Midnight to the Boom: Painting in India after Independence, her show at the Peabody Essex Museum, brings to life the distinctive dynamics of India's modern art scene from the country's birth at midnight on August 15, 1947, to the art-market boom of the mid-1990s. Bean presents the story of artists simultaneously looking inward and outward, contributing their visions to the in­ternational art world in ways that have only recently begun to be appreciated.

The show draws on twelve hundred modern works that Chester and Davida Herwitz collected between the early 1970s and Chester Herwitz's death in 1999. Every year, the couple traveled to India, getting to know artists and building the first major collection of modern art from India outside that country. They are also widely credited with jumpstarting the boom that bookends the PEM show by selling part of their collection through Sotheby's in 1995 and 1996. Coincidentally, this was also the time when painting ceased being the dominant medium in India, giving way to installation, video, and other new art forms.2 

The PEM's acquisition of the Herwitz collection in 2001 launched Bean on a decade of research, during which she interviewed almost every living artist in the collection along with gallerists, critics, fellow scholars, and other artists. The exhibition is the culmination of this research, and it celebrates Bean's retirement from PEM after twenty-eight years as curator of South Asian and Korean art.

While the collection does not include some key artists, it amply reflects the range of modern art in India, which was shaped in part by colonialism. "While the colonial experience was in many ways oppressive and repressive," Bean says, "it also gave intellectu­als an in-depth connection with British and, more broadly, western culture." By contrast, she observes, western modernists for the most part had a more superficial encounter with the African, Asian, and other cultures that they looked to.

Indeed, the first modernists in India had at­tended colonial art schools, where they steeped themselves in European art history and mastered such techniques as oil painting. They were also fully aware of modernist trends elsewhere. Poet and painter Rabindranath Tagore, for instance, maintained strong ties with Japan through art historian Okakura Tenshin, and he brought to his center of Santiniketan a Bauhaus show that in­cluded works by Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and Johannes Itten.

At the same time, art had become a focus for nationalists, who argued that throughout the centuries India's art had expressed an enduring "Indianness" that qualified Indians as a "nation" deserving of a state.3 Contemporary art, some believed, had to express this same Indianness. By 1947 some artists in Calcutta were already striving to create works that were at once in tune with modernist trends and recognizably Indian. Aban­indranath Tagore (Rabinandranath's nephew) pointedly rejected academic oil painting in favor of watercolors and looked to Indian court painting for inspiration (Fig. 4). Other Calcutta-based art­ists, such as Jamini Roy, Nandalal Bose, and Amrita Sher-Gil turned to, respectively, the folk arts of Bengal, the fifth- and sixth-century Buddhist murals of Ajanta, and miniature painting.

Independence marked a watershed. Though painting remained the dominant form, artists no longer hailed solely from the elite classes. Men and, in time, women from a wide range of back­grounds picked up brush and pencil and headed to the burgeoning art centers of Calcutta, Madras, Delhi, Bombay, and Baroda. While artists main­tained a keen interest in India as a source of both visual language and subject matter, their connec­tions with art worlds outside India expanded. More opportunities opened up to study in Europe and the United States, while expatriates in Bom­bay and Delhi supported the arts through ex­changes, patronage, and informal salons that introduced such movements as German expres­sionism. And as India navigated the shoals of Cold War rivalries, artists forged ties with coun­terparts in Latin America, Africa, and Australia as well as in other parts of Asia, and in the 1980s many traveled worldwide through government-sponsored Festivals of India.4 

This dual focus, as Bean demonstrates, shaped their art. M. F. Husain, for example, was galvanized by Chinese artist Xu Beihong's ink paintings of horses and incorporated this vigor into his own work (see Fig. 3). But it was in sketching Indian temple carvings and bronzes that Husain developed one of his distinctive approaches, in which, as Bean describes it, he excavates forms from color then outlines them (Fig. 2). For his part, Tyeb Mehta saw in American Barnett Newman's Onement series "a revelation"5 that prompted him to express the violence of Partition with powerful, often jagged diagonal lines. And while Tantric imagery pro­vided a path to abstraction for G. R. Santosh (see Fig. 5), Biren De, and a handful of others, it was a combination of Cézanne, abstract expressionism, and Rajput miniatures that shaped S. H. Raza's abstract compositions (Fig. 8).

Though artists sometimes formed associations and regularly shared ideas through events, exhibi­tions, and a small but growing number of art publications, their aim was to pursue individual aesthetic and artistic quests, not to develop schools or styles. As a result, the art scene was wildly eclec­tic, a characteristic Bean attributes to the fact that, unlike Europe or the United States, India had no established network of gallerists, critics, curators, and art historians raising issues of marketability and originality.6 

Manjit Bawa therefore felt free to reinter­pret religious themes in Hinduism by developing fluid, rounded figures float­ing against flat monochromatic grounds (Fig. 7). His contemporary Jogen Chowdhury expressed an equally idiosyncratic approach to the figure. Drawing on his studies of etching in Paris, the unbroken line of Bengal folk paintings, and terra-cottas popular in Calcutta, Chowdhury developed what might be called a stippled fleshiness ideally suited to irony, as in his 1974 send-up of a babu politician (Fig. 9).

Such works illustrate another trend. "From in­dependence to the 1990s, the human presence was much more important in India than in Europe," Bean says. "The figure lurks or is there explicitly in the work of most of these artists." For some, such as Rameshwar Broota, the body became the central site of investigation for a time (see Fig. 11). For others, many of whom were associated with the art school in Baroda, the figurative narrative became a hallmark. A famous proponent was Gulam­mohammed Sheikh, who, learning from sources as diverse as fifteenth-century Sienese painting and Indian court miniatures, created compositions with multiple viewpoints and sight lines that invite endless exploration of a world bathed in rich jewel tones. His triptych Passing Angel, A Life, Summer Diary (Figs. 1, 1a) creates a magical, open-ended journey by interconnecting vignettes from the Baroda art school and private moments of love and fury with reminiscences from child­hood, flying angels, and a firing squad lifted from Edouard Manet's Execution of the Emperor Maximil­ian which, itself, quotes Goya's Third of May 1808.7

By contrast, Nasreen Mohamedi, who taught in Baroda alongside Sheikh, K.G. Subramanyam, Bhupen Khakhar, and other figurative artists, cre­ated purely geometric drawings (Fig. 6) to explore patterns in nature, perspective, optics, and the connection between the delicate tracings of her pencil and universal truths gleaned from Buddhism and Hinduism.8

The show highlights another shift that began in the 1980s, when many younger artists turned political. Painted in 1993 in the wake of a hor­rendous wave of sectarian violence, Atul Dodiya's 2nd October (Fig. 12) features a statue of Gandhi about to be garlanded, a palm tree and a sun­flower, symbols of environmental politics, and a revolving Bombay restaurant, an icon of middle class aspirations.9 Simulated patches give the paint­ing a damaged look-a clear invitation to ponder the fate of India's early promise and ideals.

Not all artists' political art, however, delivers such an explicit message. Typical of Sud­hir Patwardhan's work is his 1984 Cere­mony (Fig. 10), which portrays residents in a Bombay shantytown as they prepare for a ritual funerary meal. There are no slogans or scenes of oppression. Instead, Patwardhan's New Left com­mitment to the marginalized comes through in his straightforward and respectful treatment of an often neglected segment of Indian society.

For just about every generalization about Indian modernism, then, there are exceptions. The only ruling principle between 1947 and the mid-1990s seemed to be the eclecticism mentioned by Bean or what prominent art critic Geeta Kapur calls an "anarchy of differential practices."10 As artists lived in what Bean terms the contradictions between the ideals of their newborn country-justice, secularism, economic opportunity-and its reali­ties of communal violence, deep-seated poverty, caste divisions, and jockeying for profit,11 as they journeyed inward or ventured outward, nothing felt off limits or out of reach. 

Indian modernists borrowed and adapted, cited and quoted, experimented and transformed in what scholar Homi Bhabha describes as a dialogi­cal modernism.12 As he puts it, Indian artists "understood something very profound, which is that if you want a dialogue, you have to take somebody else's words, or, in this case, other ap­proaches to painting, and use them to some degree, in the conversation, as if they were your own."13 Seen this way, the dismissive notion of "derivative" falls away, and a meaningful engagement with this exuberant manifestation of modernism begins.

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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