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The Evolution of Modern Indian Art
By Anandita Bhardwaj
13 Dec 2021
While the history of Indian art stretches back to the ancient era, the first shift towards progression in India’s visual history was witnessed during the latter half of the 19th century with the revolution of Company Style paintings. This was a time when under British rule, India was witnessing a cultural hegemony of western artistic expression. This foundation to impart the western visual tradition in the idiom of Indian art was solidified by the establishment of Sir J J School of Art in 1857. Named after Sir Jamsetjee Jeejebhoy, a businessman and philanthropist who donated Rs. 100,000 for its endowment, the institute since its inception has been one of the most important centres of Indian art. It has produced a host of famous Indian artists who started their careers with training in academic realism taught at the famed art school. Most prominent artists from the discourse of modern Indian art attended the institute.
One of the first artists to find magnanimous fame was Raja Ravi Varma. A largely self-taught painter, Varma built a truly pan Indian art practice by fusing his traditional western art training with the elements of Indian religious iconography. This synthesis of the Indian and the western by the artist came to be the platform to catapult the rise of Indian Modernism. He was also the first artist to start using oil paint to capture Indian scenes. He also set up his own press in 1894 and mass-produced religious lithographs that were circulated widely.
As the 19th century inched towards the end, the political scenario in India has changed a lot and a nationalistic fervour had gripped the country. The rejection of British rule and the traditions they imparted had a significant impact on the course of modern Indian art. One milestone development in the history of modern Indian art was the founding of Vishwa Bharti University. During this period, the Tagores became the forerunner of this change as they perpetuated a return to Indian roots and value in art practices. Often dubbed as the nationalist-revivalist and proponent of ‘Swadeshi’ value in Indian art, Abanindranath Tagore founded the famous ‘Bengal School of Art,’ which will become a milestone in the further development of modern Indian art. To counter the western modern, he championed the modernisation of traditional Indian court style painting such as Mughal miniatures and Rajput styles. The work that he created with this synthesis became so powerful that it eventually led British schools to inculcate a national Indian style in their courses. Brother of Abanindranath, Gaganendranath Tagore was also an important artist of the time who pioneered experimentation in Indian art and eventually developed a complex cubist style of work. In his book ‘Triumph of Modernism,’ art critic Partha Mitter describes him as "the only Indian painter before the 1940s who made use of the language and syntax of Cubism in his painting". Poet and artist Rabindranath Tagore also contributed greatly to reshaping the narrative of Indian art by introducing contextual modernism. “Santiniketan artists did not believe that to be indigenous one has to be historicist either in theme or in style, and similarly to be modern one has to adopt a particular trans-national formal language or technique. Modernism was to them neither a style nor a form of internationalism. It was critical re-engagement with the foundational aspects of art necessitated by changes in one’s unique historical position," says art critic R Siva Kumar in an interview with ‘Humanities Underground.’ Some of the greatest artists of the time such as Nandlal Bose, Jamini Roy, Mukul Dey, Ramkinkar Baij, Benode Behari Mukherjee, K.G. Subramanyan among others were trained at Santiniketan.
Standing parallelly on the same stature as these Bengal masters were artist Amrita She-Gil whose name is forever etched as one of the greatest modern artists of India. Starting from an early age with western style, Sher-Gil created a large body of work that was influenced by different places and people of her own life. She gained recognition at the age of 19 when her painting Young Girls won a gold medal at the Grand Salon in Paris in 1933. In 1937, her travel to India became a significant juncture for Sher-Gil. Inspired by her travels through India and especially to the Ajanta Caves altered her approach towards the art and thereon she started to depict the lives of people residing in India’s rural countryside.
India ushered in the 20th century with a clamouring for liberation from British oppression and by the 1930s the call for Indian freedom was at an apogee. The newer generation of artists that had been born during these tumultuous years grew up with a sense of rebellion that would greatly influence their art. Inspired by the globalisation of arts and various art movements that had sprung in Europe, the young artists did not want to be bound by the definition of art set by their old school predecessors. They wanted to break away from these traditional practices to explore the individuality of expression through their art.
Rejecting the academic art styles of British schools in the same year India got its independence, famous artist F N Souza founded the Bombay Progressive Artists Group that would break away from the prevalent vocabulary of art. Joined by other eminent modern artists of the time including S H Raza, M F Husain, K H Ara, H A Gade, and S A Bakre, the group became India’s representation of post-independence modern art.
While each of the members had their distinct style, the group embraced the idiom of avant-garde movements such as Cubism, Expressionism, Surrealism, and Fauvism to name a few.
“We were bold and full of fire… We were forging modern Indian art with a blast,” said the artist in a 1989 Times of India article that he wrote.
“We were out to paint the town of Bombay not only red but with rainbow colours,” wrote the artist in another article for the patriot magazine.
While the group was short-lived and disbanded a few years later, it created a playground for the artists of the newer generation to explore and experiment. Since then, there have been milestones developments in the history of Indian art including the founding of other artists' collectives and the development of spaces to promote Indian art. Through these years, numerous modern artists have come to be known and appreciated with their works showcased on numerous platforms in India and abroad.