• How was Modernism in Indian Art?

    An extract from the lecture "Shadows without Bodies..."

    Pithamber R. Polsani

    November 21, 2017

    Abstract: Twenty-five years back Geeta Kapur asked the question “When was Modernism in India?” and in response, located the Indian modernism in disjunction with the West, in a fractured temporality.  Perhaps it’s time to revisit this question again not with the view of positioning it accurately in time and space, but instead to critically examine the very notion of modern and by extension the idea of contemporary within the context of art in India.  In an age of “post” of everything—post-modernism, post-history, post-capital, post-labour and even post-human—it may seem anachronistic to ask the question of modernism and modernity.  However, the question remains relevant because we are yet to overcome the metaphysics of modernity. Therefore, my contention is that as long as we have one ear to the West and operate in its shadow we will miss the call to genuinely think other possibilities that were opened in the past and that may unravel in the future.


    S. H. Raza, 'Narmada I' (Le Fleuve) [The River], oil on canvas, 116 x 73 cm, 1966/ Image courtesy the Raza Foundation


    Modernism, Modernity, Modern, and Modernisation are inalienably connected with the West. Hence, to be modern or modernist for the non-western people and societies, since the nineteenth century onwards, meant to imitate the West, following a path of social, economic, political and cultural transformation that is similar to what the West has undergone. Despite five decades of deconstruction, modernity and its modalities continue to be a hegemonic vision for humanity. This mimetic relation to the West is not confined to modernism alone; it also appears in equal measure to postmodernism and to what is today called in arts, the Contemporary. However, as has been analysed before, in this common modern destiny shared by humanity, all societies are not equal. Even though “we are all headed in the same direction, but some people arrive earlier than others” (Chakrabarty 8), and those who are behind have to wait for their turn in, what Dipesh Chakrabarty artfully calls, the “waiting room of history.” This is a view not only held by the West, but also accepted by the people aspiring to modernity. One response offered to this, potentially perpetual and lingering in “the waiting room of history” is the notion of alternative modernities or regional modernities. This idea of regional modernist variation is dominant among the arts, especially referring to the art created after the encounter with the West in the late nineteenth and twentieth century. The common nomenclature adopted in this regard is to prefix the name of a country or region to “modernism,” resulting in such labels as Indian Modernism, Mexican Modernism, African Modernism, and others. In some instances, there are arguments made in favor of even sub-regional modernisms. One case in point is the conference held in Bangalore in 2016 on Mysore Modernism.

    Subscribing, as a conceptual frame, to the first—the waiting room of history—means accepting the notion of common historical time with varying degrees of separation. This would inevitably lead to the question of when, i.e. “when was modernism in India?” Choosing the regional variant argument will necessarily result in positing the regional as a derivative of the center. In either case, we will be operating in the shadow of Western modernism. Perhaps, it is time for us to abandon these frameworks entirely, not because of ideological reasons—that is, rejecting the West as hegemonic and imperialist or subscribing to the mission of destroying the Western metaphysics—but simply because these conceptual frameworks may not adequately capture the rich and varied experiences of the cultures on the Indian subcontinent. But, before we embark on that trajectory, we need to have a relook at Indian artists’ experience from the nineteenth century onwards as the how of modernism, that is to say, how different ways of making images at different points of time came to be designated as modernist. Such an articulation requires a much larger space than this article; hence, I would only draw broad contours of three moments that are considered to be a part of Indian modernism in visual arts—academic realism, nationalist idiom, and the Bombay Progressives.

    Widespread introduction of academic realism in the later part of nineteenth century—whose leading practitioners were Raja Ravi Varma, followed by M.V. Dhurandar, J.P. Gangooly, G.K. Mhatre and others—is characterised as the first phase of modernism in visual arts. These are not the first Indian encounters with Western art. It had happened much earlier in the seventeenth century during the reign of Emperor Akbar through the embassies of European powers. The miniaturists in the Mughal court made some excellent paintings in the Western style and their technical virtuosity received high praise from the European travelers as court painters could make copies of Western paintings indistinguishable from the originals (Goswamy 161). Later, Indian artists commissioned by the East Indian Company rendered “Company” paintings in the Western style in composition, perspective, and colour, notable among them was Amir of Karraya. What had changed by late nineteenth century was, firstly, the introduction of Western discourse on art that positioned Greco-Roman art at the apex of artistic achievement; secondly, the emergence of Indian “gentleman” professional artists who were mostly trained by the art schools which subscribed to this discourse; and thirdly, the wealthy Indians who began patronising Western sculpture and paintings, and Indian mythological themes rendered in Western idiom. The Indian art discourse, too, strongly advocated the superiority of the Western art over the Indian. According to the art journals Parabasi, and later The Modern Review, the Indian painting never attained the level of excellence that the Western did and that the Indians’ preference for cheap Kalighat and Bat-tala almanacs was attributed to lack of taste and the Hindu faith (Guha-Thakurta 139). What was achieved by the end of the nineteenth century was firmly establishing the West as the point of reference to evaluate one’s own achievements and as something to aspire towards. Another important aspect of the Indian modernism of the academic realism is the temporal disjunction with the West, which is a characteristic of the other two we will discuss below. The Western artists were rejecting as old and outmoded what was being hailed by the Indian art discourse as the new and modern, namely the academic realism, in order to chart a new course. Indian modernisms seem to be perpetually catching up to the Western; a condition of “not yet” and a permanent waiting as the destiny.

    The second strand of Indian modernism, at the beginning of the twentieth century, that was closely aligned with Indian identity in the context of Swadeshi Movement, was born out of nostalgia, a sense of loss, mourning, and a melancholic longing for the glorious past of Indian antiquity. Ironically, nostalgic longing for an idealised past did not arise out of self-realisation, but through the British Orientalists interpretation of Indian past whohad created an image of the “Indian art tradition as integrally linked with antiquity, religion, mystical philosophy [which] conditioned the wider image of India as an abstracted essentialist entity encapsulated within an idealised past” (Guha-Thakurta 148). Abanindranath Tagore and his student Nandalal Bose looked back to ancient temple sculptures and Ajanta frescos as a source of inspiration to create a new Indian and modern pictorial language that at once evoked the religiosity, antiquity, and mysticism. This new Indian art largely consisted of historical or mythological themes that, technically and stylistically,combined a certain level of realism with Mughal miniature style and Japanese wash technique to add an atmosphere of spirituality and a sense of mystery. The works of Tagore and Bose are beautiful, aesthetically appealing, and executed with a great deal of technical virtuosity.However, in their “search for true Indianness”, they brought in “ an inverse orientalism where, by merely establishing the antithesis, they strengthened the original argument” (Dalmia 25). They subscribed wholeheartedly to the British orientalist argument that India once possessed a great civilisation that lies in ruins today and which, with right guidance, could be revived. As a consequence, they failed to even notice the vibrant practices of image making in Indian society at the time of British conquest. Their new vision of India, largely imagined and located in the remote past, had little resonance with the realities of early twentieth century India. But what they achieved was to firmly embed in the Indian imagination the notion of a“glorious past” which, as an imaginary, continues to be evoked even today. As in the case of academic realism of Ravi Varma, the Bengal School too was temporally disjointed with the Western modernism. In the first two decades of the twentieth century, European modernists had already declared war on their tradition and were labouring consciously to breakfrom it so as to embark on a completely new trajectory. What the two moments of modernity—academic realism and the national style—achieved was to install in the Indian conceptual framework two incompatible elements that continue to have currency even today. One, the Western art as a point of reference to evaluate the Indian artists and their work, and the other, a centralised vision of Indianness as an imagined, bygone past of great material triumphs and spirituality.

    The third moment of Indian modernism is with the Bombay Progressives group, who rightly felt that being modern meant to reject the tradition and take a completely new path with the consciousness of being new. Reminiscent of Spanish avant-garde painter Joan Miro’s declaration, “I want to assassinate painting,” artist F.N Souza, a leading member of the group, declared that the Progressives wanted to “lynch the kind of art inculcated by J.J School of Art and exhibited in the Bombay Art Society” (Dalmia 42). The tradition that they were rejecting was that of academic realism and Bengal revivalism, represented by Ravi Varma, and Tagore and Bose, because other than that there wasn’t any Indian pictorial legacy that impinged upon them to be dismantled. However, their main program was to embrace the Western modernism in its totality and become a part of international modernism. They were soon to leave the country and establish themselves in European capitals only to return a decade later after discovering that the Western institutions of art are far less accepting of international artists, and that the Western modernist fraternity was a closed entity (Kumar 19). The Bombay Progressives were incompatible with Western artists not because of lack of talent. But the legacies,both conscious and unconscious, of the artists in the West and India, were incommensurable. The isms in the West from Impressionism onwards were not simply technical innovations or styles of painting. Instead, the artists were consciously and deliberatelyworking through the problematic inherited from thepast, dating back to the Renaissance, right to the issues that arose in the milieu of modernity, industrialisation, two world wars, and the existential threats of the cold war. The problems of pictorial representation—space, form and composition—that Picasso was dealing with, however profound and exciting they may be for others,were uniquelyproducts of the European legacy of representation. Moreover, the solution that Picasso found, for his deeply troubling questions,in African artifacts—dislocated and decontextualised from their place and origin to the space ofMuséed’Ethnographie du Trocadéro—reinforces the fact that neither art nor representation were problems for the Africans who made those masks, images and statues. The “internationalism” of modernist art does not lie in the experiences that the artists encountered and the artistic questions that they were grappling with were universally shared by all cultures, butdue to their hegemonic position. Therefore, the Bombay Progressives’disappointment was born out of the belief that theinternational modernism that was firmly rooted in the West was a neutral and objective artistic resource that anyone who aspired to modernity can partake of in order to develop an individual artistic vision that belongs to the fraternity of international modernism. However, these artists’ experience has shown it to be otherwise. Almost five decades later, same fallacies were entertained with postmodernism only to be disenchanted again.

    Since the invention of art and aesthetics in the eighteenth century up until now, the Western discourse on art framed the terms of engagement with what is called art, irrespective of its origin and the context of its production. Acceptance of this discourse or its key terms—art, realism, modernism, and others—in order to understand and evaluate the varied visual expressions of both past and present in India would invariably create insurmountable theoretical chasms. Our response to this disjuncture cannot be deconstructive with the belief that Indian art stands as the Other in an unequal relationship to the Western and therefore laying bare the dissonance would gain Indian art just representation in this discourse. Such a possibility is closed, because the problem is deeper. The inability of these concepts to adequately capture the Indian cultural experiences resides in fundamentally divergent metaphysics. As Heidegger observed, along with the concept comes the entire metaphysics and, as a result,deploying these conceptions will invariably throw up new obstacles that must be accounted for in a labyrinth without Ariadne’s braid. A more fruitful venture would be to theorise our own experiences and a conceptual framework that can articulate them akin to the efforts of Latin American philosophers and theorists who are engaging in epistemic disobedience,which means “de-linking from themagic of the Western idea of modernity” and “no longer claiming recognition by or inclusion in, the humanitas” (Mignolo 3, emphasis in the original). Such an undertaking need not start with the art and artists of the Indian past, it can think about the immediacy called the Contemporary that is so much in vogue today.

    Works Cited

    Chakrabarty, Dipesh. Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton UP, 2008.

    Dalmia, Yashodhara. The Making of Modern Indian Art: The Progressives.Oxford UP, 2001.

    Goswamy, B.N. The Spirit of Indian Painting.Allen Lane, 2014.

    Guha-Thakurta, Tapati.The Making of New ‘Indian’ Art: Artists, aesthetics and nationalism in Bengal 1850-1920. Cambridge UP, 1992.

    Kumar, R. Siva. “Modern Indian Art: A Brief Overview.” Art Journal, vol. 58, no. 3, 1999, pp. 14–21. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/777856.

    Mignolo, Walter D.“Epistemic Disobedience, Independent Thought and De-colonial Freedom.” Theory, Culture & Society,vol 26, Issue 7-8, pp. 159 – 181. First Published February 15, 2010https://doi.org/10.1177/0263276409349275.

    Mitter, Partha.Much Maligned Monsters: A History of European Reactions to Indian Art. U of Chicago Press, 1992.

    Rancière, Jacques. Aesthetics and Its Discontents. Translated by Steven Corcoran, Polity Press, 2009.

    —. Aesthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art. Translated by Zakir Paul, Verso, 2013.

    Wood, Christopher S. “Iconoclasts and Iconophiles: Horst Bredekamp in Conversation with Christopher S. Wood.” The Art Bulletin, vol. 94, no. 4, 2012, pp. 515–527. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43188775.


    Read the full text of the lecture here

    Pithamber R. Polsani received his PhD (1997) from Purdue University, West Lafayette and MPhil & MA from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Some of Pithamber’s publications include, “The Image in a Fatal Kiss: Dalí, Lacan and the Paranoiac Representation”, Bucknell Review, 2001; “Like A Lizard That Junks its Tail in Distress: Homer Simpson is no Antigone”, The Symptom, 2003; “Use and Abuse of Learning Objects”, Journal of Digital Information, 2003; “Riding the Satellite to the Millennium”, C-Theory, 1998.

    Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the writer's own, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Indian Writers' Forum.

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