Shifting modernism


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THE story begins in 1905 and is a little over hundred years old. We need to remember that the onset of all major socio-cultural change demands certain optimal conditions. In Bengal the changes started from the beginning of the nineteenth century with perhaps the first modern Indian, Raja Ram Mohan Roy. Through his path-breaking reform of abolition of sati and the religious reforms through Brahmoism, Ram Mohan changed the mindset of Bengal and thereafter, the entire Indian subcontinent. He paved the way for further social, political, educational, cultural and scientific development which resulted in India’s own brand of renaissance and cleared the path for Indian modernism.

In Bengal, Prince Dwarkanath Tagore, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Upendrakishore Raychaudhuri (discovered half tone printing worldwide, was an author, artist, publisher and incidentally happened to be Satyajit Ray’s grandfather as well), Swami Vivekananda, Jagadish Chandra Bose and many hundreds like them spearheaded the movement. Mahatma Gandhi and many socio-political leaders of his time are products of that modernist upsurge.

The change in Bengal was holistic and by the end of the nineteenth century the ground was ripe for the entry of Abanindranath who may be safely considered the father of modern Indian art. Calcutta played a crucial role in that process.

In the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Calcutta evolved as a vital centre economically, politically and culturally emerging as the nucleus of the Bengali Renaissance. It was only natural that the city that gave birth to the finest of creative ideas in literature, politics, fashion and social reforms should also be the seat of a revolution in visual arts. The famous Tagore family played a significant role in this process. Calcutta also attracted the finest creative minds of the time who provided a further cultural impetus to the city.


At the turn of the nineteenth century, we find the emergence of Abanindranath Tagore (nephew of the poet Rabindranath Tagore) who played a pivotal role in the process of shaping the art language of twentieth century India. Abanindranath had his initial art training with western artists. He grew up in a family that was at once at the intellectual forefront of Bengal, and also one of the most affluent. From early childhood he had been surrounded by Victorian art in the mansion of Jorasanko, which is now the home of the Rabindra Bharati University. This mansion had been built by Prince Dwarkanath, Rabindranath Tagore’s grandfather.

The Tagores were involved in playwriting and producing amateur theatricals. Young Abanindranath was often engaged in painting the sets with Harish Chandra Haldar. After his father’s death, Abanindranath decided to take up art. His early training was under Oriento Ghilardi, an Italian art teacher attached to the Calcutta Art School. Later, he also tutored with Charles Palmer, an English artist.

Abanindranath Tagore: Untitled: water colour on paper:Undated

Abanindranath Tagore soon worked on a series of paintings on the Gitagovinda. These paintings clearly opened the door to his future pursuits. The Krishna Lila series was his first trial towards developing an alternate modern expression inspired by traditional Vaishnava poetry. The style was influenced greatly by Indian miniatures complete with application of gold. Abanindranath’s language was idyllic, symbolic, mystical, and spiritual. Thus the young artist at once parted ways from Ravi Varma’s voluptuous and opulent rendering of Indian women.


While Abanindranath was already experimenting towards a new idealistic vision, Ernest Binfield Havell took over the headship of Calcutta Art School (opened in 1854). Havell’s wife was an artist trained in Italy and was largely responsible for imparting European artistic ideas to her husband, who was otherwise a Kensington product. Before coming to Calcutta, Havell became influenced by the Theosophic movement then sweeping Europe. Thus, upon assuming his position at the Calcutta Art School (following three years in Madras) he was determined to introduce sweeping changes in the overtly western art training practised at the time. He lived in Calcutta from 1896 to 1906, which provided him with ample opportunity to change the curriculum.


Havell was accused of taking retrogressive steps, and was feared to have hurt the progress of art in India. The Englishman, on the other hand, vehemently believed that a blatant western training would only ruin true Indian sensibilities, talent and thought. The cosmopolitan, liberal Tagore family along with Sister Nivedita and the art historian Coomaraswamy joined Havell to take up the task of protecting the ‘cultural uniqueness’ of the Indian people.

It was against this simmering backdrop that Abanindranath and Havell met in 1896. Let us not forget that young Abanindranath was already resolutely bent on creating his new art expression. The chance meeting at Satyendranath Tagore’s (Rabindranath’s elder brother) house sparked off a new relationship. Havell found his answer in Abanindranath’s art. In turn, he showed Abanindranath some of the Mughal miniatures by the famous artist Mansur that he had collected for the art school. An ideal partnership was struck. Abanindranath started acknowledging Havell as his spiritual guru. Though he did not learn under him, Abanindranath enrolled in the art school and the school report of 1902-3 described Abanindranath as ‘a student of great original talent’. During his art school days Abanindranath closely studied the Mughul Indian miniatures, and gradually developed his very own style.


It is interesting that though we find the word ‘revivalism’ being repeatedly chanted by Havell and the champions of the swadeshi art, Abanindranath himself found the term worrying. ‘Something that is over can never be recreated,’ he is believed to have said. Though he was immensely impressed by Mughal art, the absence of emotion and feeling in the works of Mughal artists worried him. Let us not forget that Abanindranath was not only extremely sensitive, he was a talented writer, besides being highly erudite. He needed something more profound and lasting to make his art meaningful. This in fact is the first time that we encounter a twentieth century modernist concern. Thought, feelings, technique and form have to fuse seamlessly to create a lasting visual rendering – this was essentially the artistic underpinning of twentieth century modern art.

Shakila: Crows: collage on canvas: 1999

Abanindranath soon met Okakura, a renowned artist and cultural figure of Japanese aristocracy, at an American Consulate reception in 1903. Count Okakura became close to the Tagore family and later taught Abanindranath simple compositional tricks stressing on the need for ‘organic unity’ in art. ‘A weak composition was like a severed snake,’ he said, ‘while a firm composition was like a taut human body which vibrates at a pinprick.’ Abanindranath was inspired by Okakura’s Pan-Asianism. He embraced nihonga, a Japanese tradition of painting that provided an ‘idealist’ vision based on ‘tradition, nature and originality’.

Okakura sent two Japanese artists, Hishido Shunso and Yokoyama Taikan, to India and they worked in Abanindranath’s studio in Calcutta. From them Abanindranath learnt to address to detail in order to enhance and beautify an image. Through their work Abanindranath learnt the need of bhav or sentiment in art. Under their guidance he mastered the Japanese wash technique. The evenly moist paper provided Abanindranath’s works with an overall melancholic overtone.


With the arrival of these two artists, Abanindranath’s learning process reached completion. In 1905 he used all the techniques he had mastered to create the famous ‘Bharatmata’, which virtually launched the Bengal School Movement. The same year on 16 October 1905, Bengal was partitioned. With the Swadeshi upsurge a series of developments followed at the Art School, and Havell seized this opportunity to bring in Abanindranath as Deputy Principal. On 15 August 1905, Abanindranath joined the Art School and Havell gave him complete freedom ‘to pursue his own ideas’.


Sister Nivedita, a Calcuttan by then, had emerged at this stage as an art critic and commented enthusiastically on Abanindranath’s Bharatmata: ‘This is the first masterpiece in which the Indian artist has actually succeeded in disengaging, as it were the spirit of the motherland… If nationality, and the civic ideal are to be distinguishing marks of the new era, then it is clear that we must have definite symbols under which to think of them… Bharatmata was personified as a Bengali woman holding four symbolic objects… symbolizing the four aspirations of the Bengalis – food, clothing, spiritual knowledge and learning.’

Abanindranath’s art won instant recognition purely because it was based on genuine aspirations of the times. Modern India for the first time, found an expression which was at once profound and fully based on Indian experiences and sensibilities. This marked the first and maybe the only successful art movement of the twentieth century and which immediately caught the imagination of the entire Indian subcontinent. The Bengal school influenced the whole nation, and even to this day haunts contemporary artists across the country.

As Siva Kumar (art historian at Kala Bhavan, Santiniketan) sums up aptly, ‘Abanindranath’s attempt to restore the lost world of his imagination went hand in hand with a consciousness of the forces of change all around and thus was a part of a modernist project.’

Through the 1920s and 1930s, the political and socio-cultural climate of India changed rapidly. Gandhi’s satyagraha and non-cooperation movement gained impetus while British political oppression had by then almost culminated. In spite of the political upheavals, India was thriving culturally. The first major western exhibition of the Bauhaus artists travelled to India and opened in Calcutta in 1922. This was a landmark exhibition and it had a major impact on the Bengali intelligentsia. Closer to this period Amrita Sher-Gil returned to India from Paris with pronounced post-impressionist ideas. Contemporary European trends were systematically influencing the Indian cultural milieu.


By the end 1930s and early 1940s the political upsurge increased, culminating in Gandhi’s final call of Quit India in 1942. Soon after followed the tragic famine of Bengal in 1943. The Leftist propensities by this time also gained momentum. The sum total of these developments resulted in an outcry by the cultural community of Calcutta. Artists, actors, writers, poets and cinema makers were in uproar, thus giving birth to the Calcutta Group of artists in 1943 with Prodosh Dasgupta, Paritosh Sen, Gopal Ghosh, Rathin Moitra and many others in the forefront. The subtle esoteric language of the Bengal School seemed no longer of much relevance. Artists searched for a more forceful expression which could express the profound angst of the period.

In 1947, following the Partition and the independence of India, a second group of artists emerged in Bombay. They called themselves the Progressive group. Husain, Ara, Gaitonde, Raza, Souza and others, with Ram Kumar and Tyeb also joining in later, gave Indian modernism a significant thrust. Not to overlook though, Satish Gujral and Sailoz Mukherjea also contributed significantly to the art of that period. Together, between 1943-47 one witnessed a major modernist assertion which in essence was Eurocentric in inspiration. Consequently, the language of visual art changed radically after the ’40s paving the way for the post independence generation of artists who worked through the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Together, they created a new vocabulary based on indigenous sensibilities and concerns.

Subodh Gupta: High Life-II: iron, stainless steel milk pots: 2001

K.G. Subramanyan, Somnath Hore, Ganesh Pyne, Jogen Chowdhury, Bikash Bhattacharjee, Gulammohammed Sheikh, Bhupen Khakhar, Arpita Singh and many others belonged to the period. Young and experienced artists alike, by then accustomed to freedom and democratic ideals, created a new identity for themselves. They imbibed the spirit of optimism and boldness around them and moved towards a freer form of self-expression.

Post the 1990s, we notice a paradigm shift in creative concerns coinciding with a period of economic reforms and an opening up of mass communication. Confident, less inhibited and bracing to meet the speed and magic of mass communication, contemporary artists reached out bravely to the world. Articulate, well travelled and familiar with international curatorial practices, they emerged as the new breed of jet-setting participants of biennales, art fairs and international exhibitions. Atul Dodiya, Jitish Kallat, Nalini Malani, Pushpamala, Sheila Gawda, A. Balasubramaniam, Subodh Gupta are just a few among many.


I will elaborate on two artists from this generation who need special mention. Subodh Gupta hails from the village of Khagaul in Bihar and Shakila’s life started on the pavements of Calcutta. Today both of them are rated amongst the best in their respective modes of expression.

Subodh Gupta qualified from the Patna College of Art and now lives and works from New Delhi. Last year, one of his magnificent stainless steel conveyor belts sold at the Basel Art Fair for half a million dollars (US). His colossal head of the ‘Hungry God’ stands on the steps of Palazzo Grassi facing the Grand Canal in Venice. Besides Anish Kapoor, his are the only works to enter serious collections of US, Europe and the Far East. The magic of Subodh’s work provides an answer to the repeated question posed to us abroad – ‘How Indian is Indian art?’

Subodh belongs to the rural middle class of India and is aware of the aspirations, trials and tribulations of his lot. This is the source of his magnificent works – stainless steel vessels, his favourite medium, becoming the leitmotif and metaphor for middle class Indian aspirations. Subodh captures the indigenous spirit, boldly and brilliantly, and gives it an universal twist. The world is mesmerized! His vision captures the essence of India and gives it a perfect, contemporary vision. The ‘Hungry God’ made of stainless steel vessels reminds the world of Buddha from India. His admirers abroad haven’t seen anything so magical – bold, sensitive and replete with the Indianness that they so crave for from our land. Subodh becomes an instant success and one of the most exciting Indian artists to have conquered the world in recent times.

Shakila on the other hand, is introspective, reticent and yet with all the fire needed to express passionately. She comes from the villages of West Bengal and is self-taught. She started her creative life at the age of sixteen. Married at the age of twelve, Shakila is now in her mid-thirties and already a mother of three grown up children. She practiced her art late at night, after her family retired to bed in their mud hut. Today, she is the recipient of all the major awards in India and is rated as one of the finest collage artists of the country. Having been invited to create a pavilion for Hanover Fair, Shakila has also been exhibited in Paris, US and across India.


While living in a tiny village about two hours drive from Kolkata, Shakila’s work is astoundingly contemporary and has a profound universal quality. Like Malgudi Days, her reality merges with that of the world.

Given the optimum conditions, Indian contemporary art is bound to encounter exciting times. As I have recorded in an earlier essay, nowhere have the changes and developments been more clearly recorded than in the artistic expressions of our people. Our art through the decades of the twentieth century caught the angst and glory of a nation seeking its individual identity. It has captured the psychic dislocations and adjustments which are inherent to this search. It recalls the nationalistic fervour of the early twentieth century, the tortuous pain of the Partition, rootlessness of the refugees, the violent anger of the Naxalbari movement of the 1970s and the social maladroitness brought on by communalism and casteism. The chronicling of these events is a visual testimony of the real and unique experiences of a post-colonial society. Freedom here meant not just a political reality, it also meant the psychological liberation from imbibing foreign experiences and realities.


Independent India also meant freedom from the creative confines and prescriptions of foreign methodology. Twenty-first century marks the beginning of a new phase of freedom for Indian art which is geared to look and discover within; to rekindle the memory of an older past and create an authentic actuality which is the sum total of one’s native experiences. Subodh and Shakila and many others like them mark the beginning of that fascinating emergence in a new century which belongs to the world.

The baton of twentieth century modernism has passed from the hands of various torchbearers to the present generation of artists – from the hands of an aristocratic urban intellectual to the post modern phenomenon like Subodh and Shakila, emerging from the heart of indigenous India. Their bold journey, in itself reveals a rejuvenated soul embodied in a brilliant new avatar. The present century will be all about such magnificent stories emerging from many such unchartered corners of our world.