• Shadows without Bodies: How was Modernism in Indian Art?

    Pithamber R. Polsani

    November 21, 2017

    Art is a recent innovation[1]. The idea and the concept of art emerged only in the eighteenth century when some objects, images, and practices, whose creative and judgemental process are predominantly through sensorial perception, came to be designated as artistic. Art became the new reality of these objects and an independent domain of activity. Similarly, aesthetics emerged as the discourse about art. In the philosophical context of the Enlightenment wherein the noetic processes of cognition and concept formation were being delineated, Alexander Baumgarten undertook the project—which till today remains an unfulfilled dream—of establishing, analogue to reason, a sensorial mode of perception, understanding, and judgement. Baumgarten called the sensorial perception of world episteme aisthetike or aesthetics. Subsequently, aesthetics morphed into something else—experience of beauty, of the sublime; disinterested or distanced contemplation; and, above all, a general theory of art.

    There are three important moments, material as well as conceptual, that occasion art as a new reality of some objects and images, and aesthetics as a discourse about this new reality. The first of these moments is the de-contextualisation of objects and images.

    Those objects that came to be named as works of art were extracted from their material as well as semiotic contexts and relocated under a different institutional and conceptual frame, which French philosopher Jacques Rancière calls the aesthetic regime of images(Aesthetics and Its Discontents 19)[2]. The images and objects that were intended primarily for decoration, representing the heroism and dignity of the aristocratic patrons, great historical events, mythological scenes, mysteries of Christianity, and miracles and ecstasies of saints, were extracted from the palaces, churches and convents to be relocated to the newly built museums. In most cases, the physical dislocation from the context of their appearance and existence was a necessary condition for them to be designated as objects of art. With the colonial expansion, similar operations were undertaken in the new societies that the European powers began to dominate.

    The second moment that had to necessarily follow the first was the interpretation of the de-contextualised images and objects. What were once meant for the private enjoyment of the royalty and aristocracy and the glorification of saints and Christian narratives, were brought before a viewing public. It would make sense for aristocrats to hang their deceased ancestors’ images in their palaces, but what is the meaning of these portraits to plebeians wandering the corridors of a museum? How can an anonymous and amorphous public make sense of the portraits of aristocrats, royal princesses and mythical heroes that were so far removed from their own experience of life? The masses were made to relate to these de-territorialised images and objects through an interpretation that included, firstly, the positing of all this “art” as the common patrimony of the people that would be woven into larger narratives of nations and cultures; and secondly, inscription of the signification on the surface of these images and objects. It’s not the context and conditions of its creation and existence that accord the meaning to the work, but the meaning that was already written into the forms and colours traced on the surface of the canvas, or shaped from a block of stone. Purposeful objects were turned into purposeless art.

    The third moment that brings forth art and aesthetics is the extension of the idea of autonomy to art. One of the core foundations of the modernity is the interpretation of human subjectivity as a self-giving autonomous entity whose contours are defined by itself, for itself. This notion of autonomy, whose rules of governance and conduct are defined by itself, underpins, theoretically, the first and the second moment. For a decontextualised object or an image to stand on its own on the walls of a museum or for it to be brimming with signification, it necessarily has to be an autonomous entity that contains in itself the meaning of its existence (That is the difference between a urinal on the road and in a museum). The moment an object is designated as “art”, it is infused with meaning and, conversely, the object is expected to reveal its hidden meanings in interpretation. The identity of images and objects derivate of the context of their existence and ownership, and the patronage that enabled them to come into being, is now self-given like the human subjectivity. The notion that the identity of an artistic object resides in itself found its logical conclusion in Horst Bredekamp’s attribution of agency and responsibility to inanimate objects (Wood 526). The history of modernity is the extension of the idea of autonomy and conferring a new reality to populations, groups and entities otherwise excluded in the beginning.

    The emergence of the concept of art and aesthetics was also a retrospective reclaiming of objects and images for art. This great sweep of reclassification included everything from the scribbling on the cave walls at the genesis of humanity to contemporary visual expressions. All that was possible was brought under the name of art or its various derivatives—fine arts, folk arts, decorative arts, and industrial arts. Still today, artists, as well as the critics, actively pursue the same operation—the ever-expanding inventory of art objects, practices and images. The conquered and colonised also had to submit to this process of renaming the objects and claiming them for art. Archaeological excavations within Europe and elsewhere, encounters with new people and societies, etc, brought more and more objects under the rubric of art. However, the great mobilisation for the art did not imply that all the objects, images, structures, processes of creation, and the people who made them were equal. The early art history, which would define the framework for subsequent art histories, accorded the Greek sculpture prime position. They were considered to be at the apex of artistic achievement. For example, it was asserted by Winckelmann, arguably the first art historian, that although both Greek and Oriental art started as simple and rudimentary around the same historical time, Greek art triumphantly progressed ahead while Egyptian and Persian art stagnated (Mitter 202). What is more interesting in Winckelann’s The History of Ancient Art, and which will come to form the core theoretical framework for subsequent art historiography, is the idea of style. The concept of style in Winckelmann captures, according to Rancière, “the co-belonging of an artist’s art and the principles that govern the life of his people and his time” (Aesthesis 14). Artistic style, though individually expressed by an artist, represents the collective life of people. Through the concept of style in art, Winckelmann attempts to resolve the contradiction between an autonomous subject and the human collective to which that subject, out of necessity, belongs. However, the style is deployed as an epistemological category for classification, to arrange objects and images in their new reality. Moreover, art becomes a de facto category which is then used to classify people who made this “art” in an evolutionary scale of primitive to advanced – that is to say, “art” reflects the level of development of the people who produced it. With the new discoveries and archeological evidence, especially in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, the method of application of this frame was continuously refined while firmly holding the view that the Greek art and architecture represented the highest achievement, as they were simple and grand at the same time (Mitter 201). As a result, excessive ornamentation replaced simplicity as a marker of primitivity, as suggested by Winckelmann; and therefore, highly ornamented Indian and Egyptian structureswere considered the examples of “barbarism of the arts, incapable either of beauty or proportion” (Mitter 201). This notion of style is the key concept for Hegel and John Ruskin as well, to differentiate between arts of different eras and people. Hence, it was argued that the non-European “art” was not only an expression of irrationality, savagery, and the racial inferiority of its people, but these people, as the creators of mediocre art, stood outside the history of Spirit (Mitter 218). 

    The point here is not that the early European explanation of non-European “art” is Eurocentric, Orientalist, or that it is steeped in the racial and colonialist beliefs and ideology of the nineteenth century Europe, but that a new reality called the “art” was foisted on the colonised as a universal category. As the contours of this new reality were already defined, based on Western European experience and as the epistemological frames predetermined, anyone who accepted this reality, willingly or otherwise, was obligated to operate within its limits, employing the given mechanisms of operation. Therefore, what we consider distortions in understanding, evaluating, and the classifying of objects and images of non-Western origin, are not born out of misguided notions of art and inconsequential theoretical formations, instead it is “art” as a new reality that “renders them visible.” Moreover, sculpture, painting, illustration, installation, Greek, Roman, Italian, Persian, Egyptian, Indian, Western, non-western, are not simply names of different arts, but “a system of presentation of art’s visibility” (Rancière Aesthetics and Its Discontents 23). Once “art” is accepted as a universal category—an autonomous domain of activity and mobilisations of hitherto unclassified objects and images under the rubric of art as legitimate—all debates are mute. The disagreements regarding the superiority or the inferiority of Gandhara style vis-à-vis that of Sarnath or Amaravati is immaterial since both are forms of making them visible under the general regime of art. Consequently, the nineteenth century European characterisation of Indian “art” as barbaric, savage, and irrational was contested in early twentieth century with categories of spiritual, transcendental and mystical. However, they are two sides of the same coin because art is a way of knowing and its modalities are classification, hierarchisation, and value-attribution to objects. Accordingly, the acceptance of art as a universal reality of particular images and objects and practices of creation associated with them would necessarily subject one to its protocols. As a result, one is invariably led to choose between three conditions as categories to designate these objects: “being there” (it is art), “not yet” (it is yet to be art) or “a variant” (it is a different art). While the European art in general fell within the category of “it is art”, the others were either confined to “it is yet to be art” or, “it is a different art.” It was immaterial if the advocates of these arguments were either champions of non-European art or not. Nowhere are these formulations more evident than in discussions related to modernity/ modernism in India.


    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 twentiethh 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 twentiethcentury, 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,

    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, 2010

    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,



    [1]This paper brings together some ideas from a talk I gave as part of “RE-LOOK: Lectures on Indian Art” at 1 Shanti Road Galleries, Bangalore.I want to thank eminent artist N. Pushpamala, the curator of RE-LOOK, for inviting me to share my ideas.

    [2]Jacques Rancière is perhaps the only philosopher in the last three decades to undertake a serious thinking on art and aesthetics. His radical re-evaluation of notions of art and aesthetics is cited very often, but has had limited impact on the practice of art and the discourse of aesthetics.










    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.

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