Parul Kapur Hinzen

The Rebirth of Indian Art

The beginnings of India’s modern art movement are central to the narrative of
Inside the Mirror, set in 1950s Bombay.  Jaya Malhotra, a medical student and passionate young painter, the novel’s heroine, is drawn to modernism for the bold statement it provokes the artist to make about herself and the world. Through Jaya’s pursuit of art, the novel looks at how Indian painting reemerged as a radically new medium in the aftermath of colonialism, led by a contingent of rebel artists inspired by Picasso.

SouzaThe rise of Indian modernism followed two centuries of British domination over the subcontinent that not only disrupted political and economic systems, but uprooted artistic traditions. As Britain usurped power from Indian princes across the northern plains, royal patronage of miniature painting and other arts diminished, casting painters and artisans adrift. The introduction of art academies in the mid-19th century was a process of Westernization that transformed the thinking and practice of Indian artists. British-style art colleges opened in Calcutta, Madras and Bombay to instruct young Indians in European naturalism and history painting. Traditional Indian art, conceptual and symbolic in nature, had little affinity with the perceptual bias of Western art and the Victorian view of drawing as a mechanical act of portrayal akin to a science. The deliberate disregard of Indian aesthetics in colonial art academies reflected a strategy of cultural imperialism meant to demonstrate the superior technical skill and enlightened morality of Western artists. In response to rising Indian nationalism in the 1920s, however, these art schools began to include imagery from Mughal painting and Hindu sculpture. It was hoped, apparently, that allowing students access to their own traditions would thwart the possibility of outright rebellion.

During the war years, a number of talented Bombay painters were mentored in the syntax of Cubism and Expressionism by a few German Jewish art collectors and connoisseurs who had landed in India fleeing Hitler’s Europe. Despite the racial tensions inherent in the relationship between European masters and Indian apprentices, the Germans were an important conduit of firsthand knowledge about modernism. In the symbolic, hybrid art of Picasso, Rouault and other abstract continental artists, the rebellious Bombay painters discovered a stylistic language that came to them more intuitively than the stilted naturalism of the British academy. In 1947, the year of India’s Independence, the most combative of the student rebels from Bombay’s J.J. School of Art, a Goan Catholic named Francis Newton Souza, founded the Progressive Artists Group with five other painters, laying the cornerstone of India’s modern art movement.

Of the original Progressives—Souza along with K.H. Ara, S.K. Bakre, H.A. Gade, S. H. Raza and M.F. Husain—it was the poor, self-taught Muslim cinema billboard painter, M.F. Husain, who grew to become India’s most acclaimed modern artist. The legendary Husain’s star rose in the 1950s and did not diminish until his death in 2011. Sadly, Husain spent his final years in exile in Qatar, driven out of India by Hindu fundamentalists enraged over his controversial nude paintings of goddesses. Despite the brief existence of the Progressive Artists Group, which disbanded by the mid-1950s, when many of its members left for Europe, hoping to win recognition in the West, almost all important artists working in mid-century India were linked to this circle of visionaries. Husain’s career best traces the trajectory of Indian modernism from its origins in rebellion, to its early patronage by a tiny, cosmopolitan elite, to its recent explosion on the international art market.

S. H. RazaThe major auction houses now hold bi-annual sales of modern and contemporary Indian art. A few years ago, the first modern Indian painting to cross the million-dollar mark was Mahishasura by Tyeb Mehta, an associate of the Progressives. S.H. Raza, one of the group’s founding members, now a nonagenarian, broke that record in 2010 when his Saurashtra sold for nearly $3.5 million. For decades India’s best artists saw little financial reward or appreciation. Now a deep-pocketed, proud elite, riding a wave of unprecedented economic success wit the tech boom, has begun investing heavily in the Progressives and their descendants. This late recognition of modern Indian art, the emblem of a confident new identity, may signal the final end of colonialism’s long hold over the Indian psyche.

To learn more about the Indian art world, take a look at the excellent Matters of Art, India’s first online arts magazine.







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