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Understanding the Importance of Eclecticism: K. G. Subramanyan and Twentieth-Century Indian Art

By Richardson, Margaret | Southeast Review of Asian Studies, Annual 2007 | Go to article overview

Understanding the Importance of Eclecticism: K. G. Subramanyan and Twentieth-Century Indian Art


Richardson, Margaret, Southeast Review of Asian Studies


This scholarly note investigates the philosophy of K. G. Subramanyan, a contemporary Indian artist, with respect to how he has navigated modernity and postcolonialism to create artistic identity and meaning through eclecticism. The editor recommends searching the Internet for visual images of the artworks mentioned throughout the discussion.

Eclecticism as an Internal Solution to a Postcolonial Identity Crisis

Indian artist K. G. Subramanyan (b. 1924) is a theoretician and educator who addresses many of the issues of contemporary art practice in India. One of the major topics he identifies is eclecticism, which he defines as "the interaction, and maybe the reconciliation, of different cultural forms." (1) Eschewing the related term hybridity, Subramanyan dismisses the pejorative connotation of eclecticism, explaining that it not only is indicative of the modern multicultural situation but also can be an important tool in the renewal of culture. For Subramanyan, accepting modern culture as eclectic is one of the first steps to finding what he terms "an internal solution" to the "identity crisis" that marks much of postcolonial Indian art. (2)

This essay explores Subramanyan's notion of eclecticism and its importance in twentieth-century Indian art. Subramanyan refers to three influential Indian artists to illuminate his points: Abanindranath Tagore (1871-1951), the "father" of Indian modernism; Nandalal Bose (1883-1966), Abanindranath's student and later Subramanyan's mentor; and Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), Nobel Prize-winning poet and artist. I explore the ways in which all four men have negotiated various cultural forms in their artworks. The ways in which these artists have dealt with and transformed diverse cultural facts can be understood as methods for negotiating Indian identity in a multicultural world.

Art as a Language for Understanding Cultural Facts

Distinguishing between "traditional," pre-industrial societies and "modern," industrial societies, Subramanyan explains that the worldview has drastically changed. He believes that, because traditional societies shared similar physical and cultural environments, interaction between societies was less dramatic. Such societies knew their heritage and had their own sensibilities that "conditioned ... the traditional artist for cross-cultural exposure." (3)

By contrast, industrialization, beginning in the late eighteenth century, led to improvements in communication and transportation. As a result, cultures came into contact with one another like never before. Consequently, the modern artist is exposed to many dissimilar cultural facts; but these facts are usually viewed out of context. Since the contexts cannot be duplicated, and artists cannot fully grasp original intents, artists can understand only diverse cultural facts and forms in fragments. As a result, Subramanyan argues, these cultural facts must be placed in a meaningful framework in order for them to be beneficial.

Subramanyan identifies a possible comprehensive model for understanding diverse cultural facts, one of art as language. In other words, Subramanyan views art as a system of communication, not as a procession of styles. Since all facts potentially have varying impacts on the artist, they form a hierarchy of visual information. In modern society, this information is comprised of forms from all parts of the world and from both "high" and "low" realms of art. Nevertheless, according to Subramanyan, his "model or concept will accommodate all kinds of art activity" and will help to "avoid the basic weakness of the present global art scene which equates diverse objects, or arts ... without any discrimination or reference to a total value system." (4) Using Subramanyan's model, one can begin to look at the underlying rationale of various art forms as well as their differences and capabilities.

However, like any language, this model is subject to constraints.

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