Modernity and Modern Indian art is an epic discourse that still needs to be appropriately defined. First, we must encounter the diverse nature of Indian artists, their belonging culture, and the taste and aesthetics that merge with them. Most artists follow a unique tone and physique as an identity. One artist created a particular visual format through time and space, expressed as a lustrous reflection of encircling life, situations, socio-political stigmas, ironical monologues, absurdities and realities.
Modern Indian art is an extensive area for study or comprehension. What we understand from a show titled ‘Modern Indian Art’ presented by Crayon Art Gallery in Bikaner House is that it brings a couple of artists from different times and spaces and tells us about ‘Modern India’. The artist listed in that show exposed the exhibition’s title, and the audience can engage with the visual expressions of Modern Indian Art in a single display.
Crayon Art Gallery brings the nature of Modern Indian Art in a single show that fetches the diverse ideologies and perceptions of the ‘Indian mind’ in a period. Participating artists are from different periods in India, which will bring refreshed ideas and ideologies about Indian history and socio-political narratives from the past.
In an essay, ‘Modern Indian Art: A Brief Overview (1999), art historian R. Siva Kumar writes about the nature of Modern Indian Art and how it differentiates the language of Indian artists from European artists. Indian Modernity is not similar to Western Modernity, and Indian artists claim ‘Modernist identity’ which ‘encouraged them to reconsider their traditional antecedents’. “Colonialism, and later the survival of traditional arts and their support systems alongside industrialisation in the postcolonial period, gave these artists an ideological and experiential basis for telescoping the values and languages of traditional and Modern Arts into each other as part of their modernist project” (p14), writes R Siva Kumar. Western Modernism carries the classic and folk styles that may differ, and Indian artists play a critical role in maintaining the traditionality in a Modern representation. We can visually experience Siva Kumar’s notes on Modern Indian Art from this show.
Indian Modernity is diverse from J. Swaminathan to M. F. Husain, Amrita Sher-Gil to F. N. Souza, and K. G. Subramanian to S. H. Raza. What we can find out from this show is an epilogue to Modern Indian thinking and notions based on that thought. In this show, we see a benchmark of nationalist cultural counter stance, the ‘step of political resistance toward colonial rule,’ and the aftermath of cultural hegemony, as Siva Kumar writes in his essay (p15).
The Pre and Post-Independence artists’ works are displayed in this show. We can get an apparent perspective change from nation to individual and ‘progressive’ to locality and presence. ‘Indian artist was to assimilate the language of Modern Art and become a part of international Modernism. As representatives of a newly independent country committed to Industrialisation and Modernisation, they saw this as the historical need of the hour’, writes Siva Kumar (p18).
The major attraction of this show is that F. N. Souza’s works are displayed in Bikaner’s house with other legends of Modern Indian Art. F. N. Souza’s Odalisque (1984), Lady with the Landscape (1989), The Goddess Artemis Sets Actaeon’s Own Hounds to Devour Him (1984), Head, Head of a Man (1961), Untitled (1984), Untitled (1848) and other drawings and sketches from different times are exhibited. According to Siva Kumar, Souza presents its individualist position at its aggressive best’ and ‘combining elements from Medieval Christian Art which, due to Portuguese colonialism, had become a part of his local Goan experience’ (p18).
Souza’s reorienting of the symmetrical elements of the human body with Indian landscapes brings new visual idioms and meaning to Modern thought and actions. Souza’s work Odalisque (1984) brings the Turkish-born French word and hierarchy through a richly narrated female body. Odalisque was a chambermaid in the Turkish Ottoman Sultan’s chamber. In the Western world, a concubine is a proper word to represent Odalisque, a finely eroticised artistic genre. A female is mostly or completely nude in a reclining position, often in the setting of a harem. Souza’s work narrates an unethical and inappropriate category created by the male for their pleasure of looking at women’s nudity. Souza’s Odalisque is a nude woman with oversized breasts and an uncovered affair, bringing the Modern thinking of humanitarian notions of equality. Odalisque is a reclining position maintained by Western artists. Still, Souza brings her in a stand-up gesture, and the woman is not an object of gaze but looking into the audience with powerful eyesight. Souza’s other major untitled work (1948) narrates two women in a native dress and an indigenous representation of women’s life.
In The Goddess Artemis Sets Actaeon’s Own Hounds to Devour Him, Souza portrays a Greek myth in an Indian artistic style. In Greek mythology, Artemis and Actaeon are the characters and hunting pairs. Both of them wander into the deep forest, and one day the hunting is the terrifying end. When Actaeon ventures into a sacred spring and sees a goddess bathing naked, he attempts to force himself on her. That time, Artemis transforms Actaeon into a stage, allowing his dogs to devour him. Souza visually retells this Greek story from an Indian perspective.
In his essay, Siva Kumar writes about M. F. Husain, ‘he was the only influential artist associated with the Bombay group who decided to remain in India. He intuitively interpreted the Western modernist vocabulary in light of his understanding of folk and popular idioms. This gave his version of Cubist expressionism an earthy voluptuousness. He deftly used it to carve out a space for Modern Indian artists in the new social project of nation-building’ (p18-19). Some of the M. F. Husain works are part of this exhibition and show how nationalism and artworks are integrated and represented. M. F. Husain’s Raj Series Princes Nisha Raje Afternoon Tea with Lady Mcbull (1997), Untitled (1990), Toy Ox Cart, and Lady With Lamp (1979) works depict the ‘Modern’ Indian thought and style uniquely.
J.Swaminathan’s one painting (Tribal series) is a part of this show; the painting is an abstract expression of a living body. According to Siva Kumar, J. Swaminathan took a more extreme and distinct stand. Distancing himself from revivalism, old and new, he argued that contact with Western art has been inhibiting Indian artists from finding themselves (p19). In Swaminathan’s artwork, tribal is an abstract experience, an experience that carries many naturally notional things together. Swaminathan uses tiny plant roots for imprinting, creating an abstract. Tribal life is not an ornamental human body but nature, visible in Swaminathan’s work.
There are works of Amrita Sher-Gil, Akbar Padamsee, Anjolie Ela Menon, Gulam Mohammed Sheikh, K G Subramanian, Ram Kumar, S H Raza, Satish Gujral, Somnath Hore, V S Gaitonde are displaying in this show. This exhibition brings back Indian Modernism to the discussion. How do we receive Modern Indian Art now? What is Modernity now?
The artists do not bring Modernity, but the artist’s community expresses the surrounding Modernity differently. The sensations of Modern thoughts are visually narrated, giving us a visually appealing experience of our Modernity. This show presents artists from the last decades of the 19th century and the beginning decades of the 20th century. That means we can get an understanding of the imaginative people who worked behind the Indian art scene from the beginning of Modern Art, and historically, narrates of our essence are retold and rebuilt.
What Amrita Sher-Gil and J Swaminathan tried to convey is an entirely different idea of painting; they are looking into the self and surrounding differently. That difference makes their works unique, and the entire artwork displayed in this show tells us about the life of people and how this life evolved.
Indian historian Saurabh Dube writes about the conflict between the coloniser and colonised in his essay ‘Modern Subjects: An Epilogue (2017)’. According to Dube, a shifting layer was seen by the beginning of the twentieth century, and ‘the suppression of dynamic yet contentious processes turning on indigenous authority and political economy’ (p139). The exhibited works of artists represent these times and conflicts. They created their style and form to depict the narratives of the people who wished to be free from British rule after the artist’s community continued.
Kumar, R. Siva. “Modern Indian Art: A Brief Overview.” Art Journal 58, no. 3 (1999): 14–21. https://doi.org/10.2307/777856.
DUBE, SAURABH. “MODERN SUBJECTS: AN EPILOGUE.” In Subjects of Modernity: Time-Space, Disciplines, Margins, 1st ed., 139–52. African Sun Media, 2017. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv1nzfxbd.11.