For art’s sake

The tome covers the entire sweep of Indian art, extending to the sub-continent and South Asia

Published: 17th April 2022 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 16th April 2022 07:58 PM   |  A+A-

Express News Service

What may one call a project that took a decade and a half to conclude? I call it a labour of love. Writing of 20th Century Indian Art, a book recently launched, began in 2007. The volume is presented as a landmark initiative to cover the entire sweep of Indian art, extending to the sub-continent and South Asia. It successfully integrates art from the turn of the 20th century to current times, an uphill task for the sheer variety in practices and historic events like the Independence and partition of the country.

Divided into three key parts–– modern, post-Independence, and contemporary––each section is edited by an individual editor. Partha Mitter handles part of ‘Early Modernism’––art from 1900 to 1947. He investigates ideas of modernity in the Indian context. Colonial cultures prevailed with significant influences from the west and Victorian academic art.

Creative practitioners were engaged with questions of identity of the nation. Mitter covers the art collections of princely states and the contribution of Raja Ravi Varma in transition from traditions to modernity. There are chapters on Bauhaus’ presence in India and the alternate voices that explored the concepts of expressionist nationalist art.

“The modernism and the new generation academic artists of the 1920s were at loggerheads. But was there anything that they shared? We know that modernisms rejected both academic art and the Bengal School of Painting. Yet, as one examines the new naturalists who emerged in the twenties, one notices the significant difference between them and the previous generations...,” writes Mitter. 

Legacy of the Tagores and the Shantiniketan school, Amrita Sher-Gil’s self-portraits, and the advent of photography in visual art have also been addressed. Historian Naman Ahuja examines modern reinvocations through the crafts movement.

Edited by Parul Dave Mukherji, part two of the book is dedicated to post Independence up until 1990. 
Artists grappled with defining the idea of India. The Progressive Artists Group was formed by six key members who vowed to dedicate their art to a modern and secular India.

Rejecting traditional forms and colonial styles, they embraced a language that was futuristic. Art historian Yashodhara Dalmia writes in her essay, “As SH Raza recalls, ‘What we had in common besides our youth and lack of means was that we hoped for a better understanding of art. We had a sense of searching and we fought the material world... there was a great fraternal feeling, certain warmth and lively exchange of ideas.’” Mukherji goes on to include the event of exodus westwards of (Akbar) Padamsee, (SH) Raza, and (FN) Souza.

Distinct and yet parallel movements throughout the country defined this period. Various schools and institutions were established under the vision of Nehruvian socialist ideologies. The Delhi Shilpi Chakra, the Baroda School, and a host of regional movements from Madras to Assam make for a remarkable overview of art of the period. The section ends with an essay by critic Geeta Kapur on the exile of MF Husain.

With the sheer length and breadth to cover, the 1990s and 2000s would probably be the most complicated period to integrate from the standpoint of visual arts of the country. Rakhee Balaram attempts to compile this last section of the book with investigations of cultural politics and influences of a newly integrated country to a global ecosystem. The opening chapter focuses on the impact on the arts of the post-Emergency economic crises of the 1980s, deepening communal politics, and technological breakthroughs. Newer formats to present art and experimental approaches proved to be at the core of what may be called ‘contemporary art’ in India. 

Installation art, performance art, video art, sensorial experiences are just a few forms of new media practices that emerged and gained acceptance. Other significant areas covered in this section are activism through art, minimal abstraction, and contemporary practices rooted in the tradition of miniature and folk styles.

Jyotindra Jain writes on contemporary tribal arts. The section concludes with pieces on major institutional interventions like the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, the India Art Fair, and a survey of international shows of Indian art, including the India pavilion at the Venice Art Biennale, 2019.
The last part of the book touches upon regional modernism in South Asia. A regional lens cannot be ignored with the shared histories and intertwined cultural roots of the countries of the Indian sub-continent. 

The book fills a major gap by documenting the significant period of Indian visual art. While the publishers and the editors provide a disclaimer to not call the tome an ‘encyclopaedia’, it most definitely provides a comprehensive lay of the land with no stone left unturned.

The book successfully integrates art from the turn of the 20th century to current times, an uphill task for the sheer variety in practices and historic events like the independence and partition of the country

20th Century Indian Art
Co-edited by: Prof. Partha Mitter, Parul Dave Mukherji, Rakhee Balram 
Publisher: Thames and Hudson in 
association with the Art Alive Foundation
Pages: 744
Price: Rs 8,995


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