A Passage to India: From Traditional Miniature Paintings to Contemporary Multi-Media Works, Art from India Is Strengthening Its Presence on the American Art Scene

Article excerpt

America's popular culture represents a cross-sectional hybrid of international influence. Never has the influence of India, the second largest nation in the world, been more obvious in today's culture than in Americans' increasing interest in spiritual and holistic persuasions. Yoga, meditation, teas and henna tattoos are skyrocketing in popularity and have become the standard regalia for the American new age. But in addition to our interest in gurus, goddesses and Ayurveda, art from India is surfacing in American culture as well. High-profile auctions, art galleries devoted to Indian art and museum exhibits showcasing art from India are raising awareness and interest in the artistic contributions of our Asian neighbor.

During the last few years, Sotheby's New York has held successful auctions of Indian and Southeast Asian paintings and sculpture. According to Edward Wilkinson, assistant vice president and director of the Indian and Southeast Asian Art Department at Sotheby's New York, a growing number of pieces have sold for above-estimate prices. For example, a fifth-century female figure of a goddess from an English private collection sold for $100,000 in last October's auction (est. $60,000 to $90,000), while a female torso up for auction in March 2000 sold for $350,000 (est. $200,000 to $300,000). "The traditional material is in dwindling supply," said Wilkinson--dwindling and clearly in demand.

On the contemporary side of things, Chester Herwitz's gift of 850 works of contemporary art from India to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., brought heightened visibility to the contemporary art scene in India. According to Greg Liakos, media relations manager, the museum is undergoing a major expansion and renovation and plans to dedicate a gallery solely to Herwitz's collection in May 2003.

In addition to auctions and museum exhibits, several American art galleries devoted solely to Indian and/or South Asian art have opened in the last five years--increasing consumer access to both traditional and contemporary Indian art.

The Traditional

Traditional Indian art--which may include ancient art or art which is created today using traditional techniques from the past--has a place in today's market, according to gallery owners.

Mary Lanius, owner of DAK Ltd.--an international firm specializing in imports and exports from India--and partner in a New Delhi art gallery, imports traditional style paintings created today in India. Lanius, who is also a Professor Emeritus at the University of Denver and teaches the history of India and South Asian art, first became involved with Indian art years ago when she worked with female village painters near Nepal and supported their interest. Today, Lanius believes there will always be a market for traditional Indian style paintings of good quality.

One example of traditional painting is the Indian miniature. According to Lanius, miniatures are paintings on paper (or in the past have been done on palm leaf) that were created to illustrate manuscripts and texts that deal with Hindu subject matter, court life and ancient stories. Miniatures are still created today, and Indian artists continue this revered practice using traditional materials and subject matter.

"The miniatures are very beautiful, and often people are interested in miniatures for their illustration of legends and stories as well as for the quality of the brushstroke," said Lanius. "The brushstroke is often incredibly fine."

Lanius believes Mahaveer Swami, who lives in Bikaner, India, is among the best in his craft of Indian miniature painting because of the quality of his lines and brushstrokes. Said Lanius, "Mahaveer makes his own brushes out of the hair of squirrel's tails. He is special because of his technique and imagination in putting composition together. He uses the old technique and older subject matter" said Lanius. …