Modern Indian Art: A Brief Overview

Article excerpt

In the West the history of modernism is primarily conceived as the history of the avant-garde. Such a conflation of the modern and the avant-garde, however, will not help us to understand the historical logic or dynamics of non-Western modernisms such as India's. For this we must develop an alternate perspective that does not see it as a linear, monolithic, and fundamentally Western phenomenon but as several distinct mutations occasioned and nurtured by a common set of cross-cultural encounters experienced differently from the two sides of the colonial divide.

While the development of a new artistic language was for Western artists a means for undermining the post-Renaissance Western realist tradition, for Indian artists who were heir to several nonrealist traditions, the assimilation of Western modernism was double-edged. On the one hand, it presented Indian artists with a way for claiming a modernist identity for themselves and, on the other, encouraged them to reconsider their own traditional antecedents. At first colonialism, and later the survival of traditional arts and their support systems alongside industrialization in the postcolonial period, gave these artists an ideological and experiential basis for telescoping the values and languages of traditional and modern arts into each other as a part of their modernist project. The traditional/modernist divide being not as sharp or total as in the West, Indian artists did not feel compelled to commit themselves to a linear model of progress and fight their way to the front-line of history. Thus, eclecticism rather than aggressive originality became their strategy for modernism. They interpreted modernism as a mandate for change through the assimilation of the Other, rather than through the rejection of the immediate past. Individuality meant for them reconciling both Western modernism and traditional antecedents with their contemporary reality. The changes in modern Indian art are related to their changing perceptions of these and the new realignments it called for.

Modern Indian art has a history of over one hundred years, during which time eclecticism was used as a strategy with varying degrees of effectiveness. The first impulse to rethink the conceptual basis and the expressive means of traditional art practice came from its encounter with Western academic art under colonialism. This, however, was not the first Indian encounter with post-Renaissance European art. This tradition was brought to India in the sixteenth century by European traders and missionaries and was admired by Akbar, the Mughal emperor. In the hands of his court painters, it became one of the contributing traditions to the emergent Mughal style. The Mughal painters borrowed individual motifs and certain naturalistic effects from Renaissance and Mannerist painting, but their structuring principle was derived from Indian and Persian traditions. A progressive shift toward realism may also be noticed in some of the later schools of miniature painting, but this, too, did not amount to an acceptance of the constructive rationale of Western realism. However, in the nineteenth century, colonialism transformed what was until then a nonhierarchical interaction between Indian and Western traditions of painting into a hegemonic relation.

As enlightened Indians in the nineteenth century began to accept the cultural hegemony of the West and view it as a means for self-improvement, Indian patrons began to lose faith in the value of their own culture and precipitated the decline of traditional Indian arts.

The work of itinerant Western academic artists who visited India in large numbers between the 176os and the 186os provided the model for what came to be considered a more scientific and therefore more advanced art in nineteenth-century India. Itinerant European artists, who contributed immensely to the change in Indian taste, however, unlike the British artists in civil service, contributed little toward the training of Indian artists. …