A hybrid legacy


back to issue

EVEN as Indian art mutates from the early academic and modern to the postmodern, its course is marked by debates about identity and the incorporation of the ‘other’. At the same time, there is a constant negotiation with international idioms and the devolution of tradition as a means of expressing the evolving self. Historically, the impetus for seeking a continuum in Indian art is the cognitive mode that galvanizes the order between several cultural cross-currents. The emergent is a palimpsest of images with a dense insinuation of referential notes.

The two artists in the early part of the twentieth century, whose efforts were unilaterally directed towards formulating a sense of national self, though by diametrically opposite means, were Ravi Varma (1848-1906) and Abanindranath Tagore (1871-1951). Ravi Varma’s sensuous, tactile rendering of his own people, mainly women, dressed in their native Kerala attire, appropriated the academic mode of oil painting and harnessed it to introduce subjects from the artist’s own environment. Varma was a self-taught painter, whose theatrical settings and mythological themes made his work nationally popular. The gods, until then delineated in symbolic terms, acquired individualistic features in his paintings, allowing the viewer to partake of their passions and their struggles. These works became even more accessible once Varma started his printing press in Bombay in 1894, which churned out copies of his paintings in great numbers, in order to meet the growing demand for them. If, in ‘stealing the fire for his own people’, Varma distributed it among royal courts and the rich, he did not realize that his legacy would be passed on to every home in the country in the form of bazaar prints and calendar art. The ubiquitous images of gods and goddesses that we see with the average householder to this day have their origins in Ravi Varma’s lustrous forms.

The growing needs of the nationalist struggle, along with a greater demand for indigenization, led Abanindranath Tagore to revive traditional aesthetics – particularly in the miniature form – and use these to express his painterly vision. In paintings such as The Final Moments of Shah Jahan, where the ailing monarch, framed in an ornamental arch, gazes wistfully at the distant Taj Mahal, which is sheathed in mist, a sense of literalism crept into works that isolated it from experience. His wispy forms posited an eternal transcendentalism against the so-called ‘materialism’ of the West. If this in itself was a grave simplification of ‘Oriental thought’ – spiritual yet robustly material – it was also far too divorced from the surrounding reality. Where was the trouble and tumult of the nationalist struggle, or of city life, or the impoverishment of the countryside? In those fervid times, these works, in their assignation with a ‘golden past’, were rarefied indeed.


It was only in the mid-twenties that Tagore, in a series of works such as the Arabian Nights began to incorporate street and shop signs and other aspects of contemporary life. Nonetheless, the artists of the Bengal School, as Abanindranath and his followers such as Abdur Rahman Chughtai (1894-1975) came to be called, employed tempera and wash techniques to create images that idealized a new nationhood and were beautifully crafted gems in themselves.

It was with Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), however, that modern art in India came into its own. While he critiqued the Bengal School for being too rarefied, he also remained equidistant from the ‘modernity’ of the West. As he stated: ‘Modernism is not in the dress of the Europeans, in the hideous structures, where their children are interned when they take their lessons; or in the square houses with flat, straight wall surfaces, pierced with parallel lines of windows, where these people are caged in their lifetimes; certainly modernism is not in their ladies’ bonnets, carrying on them loads of incongruities. These are not modern but merely European. True modernism is freedom of mind, not slavery of taste. It is independence of thought and action, not tutelage under European schoolmasters.’


For Tagore and art practitioners at Santiniketan, modernity and its cultural expression had to have a vital link with the social environment. There was an adherence to the laws of nature, a delving into traditional and craft practices to evolve new methods, and an attempt to integrate art and architecture with the environment. These aims were actively given shape by a former pupil of Abanindranath, Nandalal Bose (1882-1966), who was invited to head the art department at Santiniketan. Together with his students, and later colleagues, Benodebehari Mukherjee and Ram Kinkar Baij, he initiated a comprehensive move towards a contextual modernist practice in art. This attempted to find expression in works which reflected the local environment and the aims and aspirations of the people. Benodebehari’s seminal mural on the Bhakti saints in the Hindi Bhavan, made in 1946-7, has various saints woven into a grand pageant, which also meticulously depicts the humblest of workers. Saints such as Kabir, while being towering figures, are still a part of the common folk, at once attentive to an inner call as to the magnetic force of life. Ram Kinkar’s monumental sculpture of a Santhal tribal family is a rugged depiction of their forms, organically joined together and yet distinct from one other. It is a sign of the innate vitality of these works that they were to have a far-reaching influence on successive generations.

Tagore’s own artistic endeavours were to find expression in the mid-twenties, when his random doodling led to artistic forms. These were works which were eminently modernist, sometimes whimsical and fantastical, and at other times had a brooding, mysterious aura, which seemed to emanate from within. His works were exhibited for the first time, after being shown in Europe, at the Town Hall in Calcutta in 1931.


Jamini Roy (1887-1972) and Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-1941) were also searching for a means of representing actual life in India. Their work dealt with the countryside, the difficulties faced by and the dignity of the humble village folk, and the lyrical grace of their women. Jamini Roy was influenced by the robust pata tradition of his native Bengal, and evolved an astonishing simplicity of the abbreviated form. Meanwhile, Amrita Sher-Gil, daughter of a Sikh father and a Hungarian mother, returned from her training in Paris to find her roots in India. Sher-Gil set out to ‘interpret India and, principally, the life of the Indian poor on the plane that transcends the plane of mere sentimental interest.’ Bridging the gap between international and national aesthetics, her poignant studies in oil, of hill men and women, or a bride dressing for her wedding, or young brahmacharis, were redolent with Indian textures, while their language could be accessed the world over.

While Rabindranath Tagore, Jamini Roy, and Amrita Sher-Gil could be considered the progenitors, modernism came into full force in India during the 1940s. If the British had established art colleges in principal cities such as Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras in the 1850s, a century later, from the late 1940s through the 1950s, there was an attempt to break away from the shackles of academism.


The growing awareness of the individual – which was the result of the struggle for independence, a higher level of education, and the post-war sense of disillusionment with the West – created a need for greater self-expression, culturally and historically. The Progressive Artists’ Group was formed in 1947, the very year India gained Independence and made a forceful bid for modernism. The Group declared a break from the effete efforts of the Bengal School and the anaesthetic art taught at the colleges. As the rebellious founder of the Group, F.N. Souza put it: ‘Our art has evolved over the years of its own volition, out of our own balls and brains.’ Along with Souza, the Group comprised M.F. Husain, S.H. Raza, K.H. Ara, S.K. Bakre, and H.A. Gade. Inadvertently, the Progressives represented different religions and castes, which constitutes the India of the present.

The painter F.N. Souza (1924-2002), who was based in New York, defied the norms of his strict Catholic upbringing to expose the hypocrisy in the clergy and the corruption inherent in the rich and powerful. His inventive use of human physiognomy revealed the underbelly of existence and had a powerful, gnawing impact. The figures of M.F. Husain (b.1915) were distinctive in that the artist drew from the rich resources of the past and yet made them eminently contemporary. As he explained: ‘In the East, the human form is an entirely different structure… the way a woman walks in the village, there are three breaks… from the feet, the hips and shoulder… they move in rhythm… the walk of a European is erect and archaic.’ As the pungent flavours of the street entered his work to construe the modern, his art was like a barometer of changing social reality. Whether in painting, or installations, or in a film like Gaj Gamini, Husain’s crystallizing forms have the graceful posture of classical Indian sculpture, with axial bends to denote movement.

S.H. Raza (b.1922), based in Paris, created strong non-representational works, which were reminiscent of the rich, textured spaces of Rajasthani and Pahari miniatures. His primal colours, flat surfaces, and geometrical motifs were allied with Tantra and Abstract Expressionism, but he retained his own distinctive idiom, which spoke of universal themes. Raza’s characteristic motif, the Bindu, the dark circle which denotes the still centre, generates immense movement through forms and colour harmonies.


Two major artists associated with the Progressives were abstractionists. V.S. Gaitonde (1924-2001) created compositions, which, with their refracting lights and translucent colours, led to a meditative clam. Ram Kumar (b. 1924) was equally inventive with his sweeping strokes of colour, which were redolent with the ebb and flow of riverine cultures. Of late, his work has become tempered with violent earth colours and shards of roof beams that speak of human tragedies.

Tyeb Mehta (b.1925), also a participant in the activities of the Progressives, has conveyed both dislocation and despair with his disjointed figures, which seem to be torn asunder and rejoined by a searing diagonal. His later Mahishasurmardini series depicts the bull and the man (the mythical raksha disguised as a bull), emerging as aspects of the same energy, yet interlocked in an epic struggle between good and evil. Akbar Padamsee (b. 1928) has also availed himself of international modernism and introduced lush, textured figures, which convey pain and struggle within the Indian context. Krishen Khanna’s (b. 1925) creations in thick impasto retained form while having overflowing boundaries, where his works spoke of a country with the remnants of its British legacy, or of dark huddled bundles behind trucks, which represented labourers. Mohan Samant (1926-2004), who settled in New York, and Ball Chhabda (b. 1923), associates of the Progressives, created epiphanies which juxtaposed planes of colour in intimate and public spaces. At this stage, there were very few women artists who participated in the excitement of modernism. The rare exception was Nasreen Mohemmadi (1937-1990), who in her minimal works, which conjoined with a consciousness of Zen philosophy as well as Indian music, introduced a late modernist edge to emerging formulations. While the Progressives lasted as an organized group for barely a few years, the artists set the parameters for Indian art for ensuing generations. Indeed, Husain, Raza, Tyeb Mehta, Ram Kumar, and Akbar Padamsee reign paramount within the Indian artistic mainstream today.


Modernism in India, a contentious issue, cannot be considered a mere implant of the West, since it was considerably homogenized within the country. In any case modernism does not exist in a pivotal form and reinvents itself everywhere.

Throughout the 1950s and the 1960s, forms of modernism surfaced in varying shades in different parts of the country. These were also the decades where the Nehruvian policy of state patronage of the arts was implemented: the National Gallery of Modern Art and the Lalit Kala Akademi were established in New Delhi in 1954. In the absence of any vision of the arts, however, these functioned as adjuncts of government departments and followed the policy of least resistance of anything controversial. A curious dichotomy was created, where the institutions set up to promote an enlightened form of modernism in fact abhorred it and decried anything that was other than conventional. Hostility to modernism also came from other quarters.


Perhaps it was a widespread aversion to modernism which led the art critic Rudolf von Leyden to write: ‘A third group of contemporary Indian artists goes usually by the name of "the Moderns" with a capital "M". Although they have derived many of their ideas from the various styles of modern art that have stirred the art world of Europe for the last 50 years or so, they are, really speaking, individualists who try in every manner or style to come to terms with the world that surrounds them. They believe that great emotional power and significance is contained in the very elements of painting, namely colour and form, and that they can be used almost in the pure or abstract state to convey the feelings or ideas of the artists. They have therefore discarded to a very large extent the appearance of things and use, what the layman calls, distorted and ‘unnatural forms’. As they follow their own individual visions and inventions, it is not always easy for the average friend of painting and art to understand their work. But that should be no reason to call them bad artists. On the contrary, among them are found some of the most original and even most truly Indian painters of today.’

On the one hand, there were artists who were heavily influenced by developments in the West, but with a deep accent on India. Paritosh Sen (b. 1918) and Jehangir Sabavala (b. 1922) created modernist interpretations of their surroundings; N.S. Bendre (1910-1992) and K.K. Hebbar (1911-1996) produced serene and apocalyptic visions of the country; and the brilliant printmaker Somnath Hore (b. 1920) modulated the plasticity of forms to create haunting spectres of famine. Satish Gujral (b. 1925), drawn to the Mexican muralists and particularly to Siqueiros and Rivera, reflected in broad, whirling strokes the cataclysmic effects of the Partition in India.


As a foil to westernization, several artists brilliantly reinterpreted Indian aesthetic traditions to create a text for contemporaneity. Of these, the most inventive were J. Swaminathan (1928-1994) and K.G. Subramanyan (b. 1924) in their ability to imbibe the meaningful aspects of tradition. Thus, Swaminathan’s delicate inversions of the sky, trees and birds created a breathtaking pluralistic vision which contravened notions of industrial solidities. Subramanyan drew from folk art, miniatures and glass paintings, and melded these to make a pastiche for modernity. Ganesh Pyne (b. 1937), influenced by the Bengal wash technique, created hallucinatory figures which emerge from shadowy depths to speak of death, decay, and the cycle of life. The sculptor Meera Mukherjee (1923-1998) used the lost wax method (circ perdu), traditionally used by the Bastar tribals of central India to recreate witty, pungent tableaux of everyday life, particularly of labouring women.

In the south of India, K.C.S. Paniker (1911-1977) developed the neo-Tantric mode with its cosmograms and meditative abstractions, along with calligraphic texts which conjoined these, creating astonishing surface variations. Others who followed Paniker’s lead, however, reverted to actual yogic and Tantric intent in their work, for example, G.R. Santosh (1929-1996) and Biren De (b. 1926). Their use of colour and diagrams, as symbolic of actual reverberations of yogic power, was innately contradictory, since cultic art could not be imported wholesale to the present.


From the early 1970s, the mystique surrounding both art and life began to lift as artists described life around them. With painters like Bhupen Khakhar (1934-2003), Gulammohammed Sheikh (b. 1937), Arpita Singh (b. 1937), and Sudhir Patwardhan (b. 1949), there is an assured participative delight in life and an easy interplay between the self and the other. Once the human figure could be within its own setting, it opened out to a multiple world in constant flux. We get a reflection of ordinary people with their vulnerabilities and strengths, their doggedness and will to survive, and the sheer cunning with which they overcome great odds.

It might be remembered that all this time, Bikash Bhattacharjee (b. 1940) had ploughed his lonely furrow, using that forbidden form, naturalism, to depict the lives of people from his own milieu. With a surrealist’s ingenuity, he showed, for example, an apparently normal congregation of people at a party, with a glamorous socialite acting as a conduit for an underground cynicism. Sunil Das (b. 1939) also devised a means of satirizing the realistic tradition. From such efforts emerged no less than a new image in Indian art: the middle-class man, who lived in small-town India, manufacturing his mega dreams; and the artist who revelled, with a tender, witty, and pungent irony, in his daily adventures was Bhupen Khakhar.

In the 1960s, Khakhar used the miniature tradition to reveal the oddities and eccentricities of families. People at Dharamsala, for instance, presents a flat space in which Krishna images are seen in a temple. At the top is perched the dharamsala (a rest house at a pilgrim centre), in front of which stand fifteen men who are posing stiffly for the camera; at the bottom is an archaic car which has brought the pilgrims to the spot. The self importance with which the pilgrims wait to be photographed becomes at once a matter of humour and compassion. Khakhar’s oeuvre also included the culture of the streets – the watch repairer and the paanwala – who reveal their strange idiosyncrasies while carrying on with their mundane chores. Khakhar’s own persona as a homosexual did not escape his pungent vision. In works like An Old Man from Vasad had Five Penises and Suffered from a Runny Nose, the man’s five penises match the five petals of the banana he is eating in a humorous act with sexual undertones. By engaging with his own life as a homosexual, Khakhar also subverted middle-class morality with its punitive norms, its cloistered vision, and its subterranean flow of loose practices.


The lens turned upon itself as commentary on everyday life in India became central to the work of many artists. Gulammohammed Sheikh created palimpsests of virtual townscapes, based on the miniature style, which highlighted the nefarious activities taking place in small towns, in street corners, and under the shade of trees. In Arpita Singh’s apparently magical world, where flora, fauna and humans have an existence of their own, the undercurrents of sinister family and city life become slowly apparent. Jogen Chowdhury’s (b. 1939) forms derive from the witty irony of Kalighat paintings, made near the temple of Kali in Calcutta at the turn of the century, which caricatured with great dexterity the hypocritical double lives of the westernized middle class. Chowdhury’s couples, babus and politicians, floating in a miasmic haze as if inhabiting a nightmare, seem to be bursting at the seams with an invisible tension.


An engagement with the human form suggested a postmodern return to the figure as a reaction to the abstract universalization of the earlier generation. Yet, in a sense, the artists had never relinquished the figure, nor had they obliterated past traditions that continued to facilitate communication. The crisis of modernism, then, did not lead artists to radical alterations in their approach, but to a sharper scrutiny of the environment and themselves.

The artists spared no one; with great dexterity of visual language, they critiqued their surroundings, the corruption in the social system, and the decadence of politicians. Gieve Patel (b. 1940), poet, playwright, doctor and artist painted politicians, bureaucrats and socialites from newspaper photographs, which would be carefully constructed in paint to show the grim unreality of the rituals, which asserted their power. Their bland gestures contrasted starkly with their animated surroundings to reveal the vacuum within the glittering exterior. The satirical edge in Patel’s work was achieved with a sobriety of means, providing a cool, calm reflection of the sinews of power. Patel portrayed middle class and working class people in specific urban settings, conveying with precision the grittiness of their existence. Sudhir Patwardhan, a radiologist and a painter, also focused on the working-class man in an urban environment, providing a political perspective on the daily grind of his life. Often placed within entire townscapes, set against its haphazard development, the ordinary man seemed suffused with a strength and determination, and attained an almost heroic position. A specifically ideological stance is adopted by both Nalini Malani (b. 1946) and Vivan Sundaram (b. 1943), who portray feudalism and its repressive forces in consistent conflict with the liberating quality of modernism. Thus, in Malani’s early series, His Life, the narrative of an Indian household – with its patriarchal figurehead, the woman as the upholder of tradition, and the associated family members who have acquired various shades of ‘westernization’ seem to be suspended in transition. Vivan Sundaram’s work often suggests the radical politicization of the protagonists as a means of redemption from the present.


The burgeoning forms of contemporary Indian art seem to take on a life of their own as they create their own theatre of shadows and gestures. Eroticism, a distinctive trend of ancient Indian art, takes on new connotations as the harbinger and arbiter of life. The boneless figures in Manjit Bawa’s (b. 1941) vivid paintings can take flight in space, perform acrobatic feats, or play Krishna to the cows – all with an effortless grace. Rameshwar Broota’s (b. 1941) forms, though firmly rooted to the ground, can soar upwards and outwards, appropriating space and consciousness. The eroticism which creeps into the works of such artists is both playful and confident, as colours, textures, and forms interweave to create a great expansiveness. In the print-maker Laxma Goud’s (b. 1940) settings of his native Andhra village, the woman is an equal erotic participant, desired and desiring, with unspoken tensions heightening sexuality. A. Ramachandran (b. 1935) came to eroticism late but with a passionate fervour, introducing the lustrous tribal women of Rajasthan. He interweaves strands of their daily life with classical myths such as Yayati, providing an alternative iconographic experience. The sensuous atmosphere is charged, in part, by the interplay between the artist and his creations as Ramachandran sometimes appears as an elfin protagonist in his paintings. Subtle nuances of erotic life, evoked by limnal shapes, characterize Manu Parekh’s (b. 1942) elegant paintings.


If the earlier decades had been marked by the absence of women artists, by the 1970s, there occurred a remarkable upsurge in their production and visibility as they came into their own and began to assert their voices. In critically surveying their environment, their daily encounter with poverty and corruption, the political morass of the country, explosive communal tensions, a burgeoning population, and urban stresses began to have a telling effect on their work. As the art historian Mary-Ann Milford-Lutzker observed: ‘Perhaps, in this recent rise of women’s visibility, we may be witnessing the spirit of Durga manifesting herself in the late twentieth century guise in every woman.’ From Hemendranath Mazumdar (1849-1948), with his scantily clad women, to Souza with his blatantly sexualized female figures, artists had displayed women as mere objects for the satisfaction of the male gaze. Initially, women artists like B. Prabha (1933-2001) both orientalized and beautified the proposition that Indian women, with their languorous gait, were meant to provide aesthetic delight. Anjolie Ela Menon’s (b. 1940) women have a classical strain, which diffuses their submission to the male gaze. But a whole slew of later artists, like Nalini Malani, Nilima Sheikh (b. 1945), Arpita Singh, Madhvi Parekh (b. 1942), and Anupam Sud (b. 1944) began reclaiming the woman’s body as her own. She now existed in her own right – even the unbeautiful middle-aged woman, her body flawed and wrinkled, whose strength lay in being herself. As Arpita Singh showed, the middle-aged woman was capable of experiencing the tensions of the city torn by violence, and could discard the broom for the weapon. In Nilima Sheikh’s superb series on the medieval Bhakti poet Mahadevi Akka, who wandered naked in the forest in search of her lord Shiva, we see reverberations of the present. The middle-aged and unlovely woman, flouting all patriarchal norms, is poignantly recreated in the authenticity of her passions. A younger group of women artists, for example, Arpana Caur (b. 1954), Vasundhara Tewari (b. 1955), Rekha Rodwittiya (b. 1958), Anju Dodiya (b. 1964), Vasudha Thozhur (b. 1956), and Pushpamala N. (b. 1956), have depicted the woman as an active protagonist in transforming the world.


With its uneven course of development and frequent incursions of other cultures, Indian art is characterized by hybridity and coexistence with the ‘other’. This process is further accelerated by globalization; multiculturalism allows for a constant transgression of borders. For young artists, India’s strong figurative tradition positions the body as the site for an investigation of political and personal meaning. In the works of the painter Surendran Nair (b. 1956) or the sculptor Ravinder Reddy (b. 1956), the iconic is reinterpreted, overlaid as it is with metaphors of the global man. The artist Atul Dodiya (b. 1959) draws from a plethora of art historical and mythological sources, to make ingenious paintings, which reveal a metaphor for the country’s new realities. Often, these are multi-layered and cutting edge about the violence and political manipulations that have beset Indian society. Antia Dube’s (b. 1958) sculptures are like small, intimate ornaments, which closely scan the fascist tendencies that are becoming increasingly predominant in the country. Chittrovanu Majumdar’s (b. 1956) dismembered realities are presented as a form of the theatre of the absurd in the present. For the artist Jitish Kallat (b. 1974), self-portraits in printer’s ink are like wall posters, occupying the porous border between the public and the private. Subodh Gupta (b. 1964) decontextualizes indigenized material like cow dung or kitchen utensils, and creates a new associative inventory for them, often including objects of violence, such as pistols. Many works of these artists map out journeys over a minefield of memories and metaphors.


Can such miniscule events – the individual pictorial inventions of artists – dissolve boundaries, alter the face of the nation? As new vistas open up, a change can be perceptibly felt – in our consciousness, if not in the wider scheme of things. As young artists are poised on the threshold of this century, their expressions create liturgies of seamless humanity and cultures. Or, as Rabindranath Tagore would have it: ‘India has two aspects – in one she is a householder, in the other a wandering ascetic. The former refuses to budge from the home corner, the latter has no home at all. I find both these within me. I want to roam about and see all the wide world; yet I also yearn for a little sheltered nook, like a bird with its tiny nest for a dwelling, and the vast sky for flight.’


* Extracted with permission from Memory, Metaphor, Mutations: Contemporary Art of India and Pakistan by Yashodhara Dalmia and Salima Hashmi. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2007.

Yashodhara Dalmia is the author of The Making of Modern Indian Art: The Progressives (OUP, 2001) and Amrita Sher-Gil: A Life (2006), among others.