Indian Art

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Tapati Guha-Thakurta. The Making of a New "Indian" Art. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992. 352 pp.; 96 b/w ills. $85.00

Partha Mitter. Art and Nationalism in Colonial India 18501922. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994. 475 pp.; 30 color ills., 190 b/w. $89.95 The study of Indian art history is predominately archaeological in approach. Rarely does imagery from the colonial period onward receive serious critical inquiry. With colonial and modern/contemporary arts largely ignored, we neglect the India of today, preferring to look to the glories of past traditions. Unwittingly, perhaps, art historians perpetuate the colonial myth of an unchanging India. Its art is defined usually in association with religion or kingly power. Preoccupation with the past, a time of greatness before European corruption, also engrossed Indian intellectuals and nationalists during the time of the British Raj. For the nationalists, regaining the past (even an imagined one) was a tool they needed as they struggled to combat British arrogance and control.

Tapati Guha-Thakurta is a fellow in history at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. Her book is based on her 1988 doctoral thesis from St. Antony's College, Oxford. Partha Mitter, lecturer in modern South Asian history at the University of Sussex, is best known for his Much Maligned Monsters (1977), a historical look at the reception and contorted representations of India and her arts in Europe.

The new "Indian" art referred to in GuhaThakurta's book is the Bengali school of art whose artistic leader was Abanindranath Tagore. Propagated by a host of nationalists and Orientalists, the Bengali school sought to regain from the colonial (art) establishment an indigenous voice and artistic mode. Though Mitter's title suggests a more comprehensive pan-Indian coverage, his book turns out to be overwhelmingly Bengali-centric and he focuses on the Tagores. Both Guha-Thakurta and Mitter examine how and why the Raj instituted art education, and the shifting role of artists/artisans. During the colonial period the art imposed was academic naturalism. However, the appropriateness of teaching fine art rather than industrial or decorative art was questioned among the colonialists, reflecting policies at home and the debate between those people of color. Hence, there is a territorial passion over the few cultural icons marginalized peoples still possess, for example, Native Americans' "ownership" of their own spirituality and art in the wake of the New Age that claims it.

Fusco explains why many artists of color feel that they have more legitimate reasons for stressing the interracial, the intercultural, the multicultural, border crossing, and hybridity in their art. She explains that artists of color mix Western and non-Western influences, art and ritual, high art, and popular culture because they are genuine reflections of their experiences between two or more worlds. Theirs is a lived cultural experience-not a postmodern, poststructural, postcolonial theory.

This complex issue is addresssed by hooks throughout her book, especially in the chapters "The Poetics of Soul: Art for Everyone" and "Talking Art with Alison Saar," in which hooks and Saar address the controversies surrounding Saar's alleged appropriation of black folk art. These chapters are especially illuminating because Saar, a fair-skinned, middle class African American, has been accused of cultural appropriation by other black artists/critics for what appear to be superficial reasons beyond her control, namely her fair complexion, Despite cultural criticism extolling border crossing, hooks argues, most people still embrace fixed notions of essentialist traits in regard to their own heritage, as well as in regard to someone else's heritage. In this case the word "essentialism" may be defined as a philosophical position that gives objects a pure essence (a material or social makeup that can't be transcended)inscribing it with an immutable identity (unchangeable in time or etched in stone). …