Monday, 4 June 2012

Indian Painting: Modern Indian Painting

Roughly, many consider that the modern period in Indian art began around 1857 or so. This is a historical premise. When we talk of modern Indian Art, we generally start with the Bengal School of Painting.

Towards the close of the nineteenth century, Indian painting, as an extension of the Indian miniature painting, snapped and fell on the decline. This lacuna  was not filled until the early years of the twentieth century, and even then not truly. There was only some minor artistic expression in the intervening period by way of the 'Bazar' and 'Company' styles of painting, apart from the more substantial folk forms which were alive in many parts of the country. 

The eighteenth and nineteenth century India witnessed a new genre of painting popularly known as ‘Company School’. It was so named because it emerged primarily under the patronage of the British East India Company. The officials of the Company were interested in paintings that could capture the “picturesque” and the “exotic” aspect of the land, besides recording the variety in the Indian way of life which they encountered. Indian artists of that time, with declining traditional patronage, fulfilled the growing demand for paintings of flora and fauna, landscapes, historical monuments, durbar scenes, images of native rulers, trades and occupations, festivals, ceremonies, dance, music as well as portraits. 
The artists of this School modified their technique to cater to the British taste for academic realism which required the incorporation of Western academic principles of art such as a close representation of visual reality, perspective, volume and shading. The artists also changed their medium and now began to paint with watercolour and also used pencil or sepia wash on European paper. 
‘Company Paintings’ were first produced in Madras Presidency in South India. This new style of painting soon disseminated to other parts of India such as Calcutta, Murshidabad, Patna, Benares, Lucknow, Agra, Delhi Punjab and centres in Western India. The introduction of photography in 1840, however, brought about a new dimension to painting. Now the emphasis came on producing works which could capture “objective reality”.

Fig 1: Portrait of William Fullerton of Rosemont,  1760-1763. Fullerton joined the East India Company's service in 1744. 5

Indian art practice underwent a remarkable transformation from the 1870s onwards. Several factors contributed to this shift. One was a swing in public taste, which veered towards naturalism following increased exposure to European aesthetics. The founding of British art schools in India greatly accelerated this process. 

Fig 2: Damayanti and Swan, Raja Ravi Verma                        

Fig 3: Girl with Vase, A.X.  Trinidade

Begun in mid-19th century with the aim of training craftsmen, art schools found themselves increasingly admitting students from more educated and more well to do backgrounds. They focused their attention towards fine arts rather than the industrial arts that the British rulers wanted Indians to learn. And they ingested the lessons of perpetual – representation of the object as they appear- leading to a naturalistic mode rather than conceptual art of Indian tradition, where an idea, or an idea is sought to be represented. Academic expression of realism is sought to be represented. Academic expressions of realism became the new mantra for a whole generation of artists trained in the art schools of Bombay and Calcutta. These artists were not only trained in naturalistic representation of figures and objects, but also in the skillful use of a relatively new medium – oil.  Amongst the foremost of academic realists was Raja Ravi Verma . 6                                                                            

An attempt to stem this cultural morass (confused situation) was made by Abanindranath Tagore (nephew of Rabindranath Tagore)under whose inspired leadership came into being a new school of painting which was distinctly nostalgic and romantic to start with. It held its way for well over three decades as the Bengal School of Painting, also called the Renaissance School or the Revivalist School - it was both. In this nationalistic project of art Abanindranath Tagore was joined by EB Havell (the principal of the Government School of Art in Calcutta from 1896), and Sister Nivedita (an associate of Swami Vivekananda). 
Abanindranath looked to ancient murals and medieval Indian miniatures for inspiration both for subject matter as well as indigenous material such as tempera. They sought to develop an indigenous yet modern style in art as a response to the call for ‘swadeshi’ to express Indian themes in a pictorial language that deliberately turned away from western styles such as those practiced by Raja Ravi Varma. 
In his rejection of the colonial aesthetic, Abanindranath turned to Asia, most notably Japan in an effort to imbibe and propose a pan-Asian aesthetic that stood independent of the western one. Japanese stalwarts like Okakura Kakuzo left a lasting impression.
The themes most often seen in the Bengal School include misty and romantic visions of the Indian landscape, historical scenes and portraits as well anecdotes and incidents from daily life in the countryside. Many artists charted individual paths even though they used the techniques and material popularised by the Bengal School. Notable artists of the Bengal School include Asit Haldar, M.A.R Chughtai, Sunayani Devi and Kshitindranath Majumdar.

The importance of the School declined by the 'forties'. Also the Bengal School had little consequence even as a 'take off' ground for the subsequent modern movement in art. The origins of modern Indian art lie elsewhere.

Fig 4: Bharat Mata by Abanindranath Tagore. 3

In 1943, erstwhile Calcutta bore the brunt of a terrible famine that ravaged Bengal, said to have been triggered by the wrong policies of the ruling British Government. This unprecedented devastation steered several artists into looking a new at their visual language. 
A group of young artists decided to reject the lyricism and the romanticism seen in the work of earlier Bengali artists. Six among them formed the Calcutta Group. This group of artists expressed the need for a visual language that could reflect the crisis of urban society. For the first time in modern Indian art, artists began to paint images that evoked anguish and trauma and reflected the urban situation. Rural scenes were no longer purely idyllic, and the formal treatment of the paintings began to reflect the influence of European modernism.

Painters of the Calcutta Group included Gopal Ghosh, Nirode Majumdar, Paritosh Sen and Subho Tagore. Others like Pran Krishna Pal, Govardhan Ash and Bansi Chandragupta joined later.

By 1947, restless stirrings among the artists in Bombay led to the formation of the Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG). The members who joined the group were Francis Newton Souza, Maqbool Fida Husain, Syed Haider Raza, Akbar Padamsee, Tyeb Mehta, Vasudeo S Gaitonde, Ram Kumar and Krishna Khanna. 

Fig 5: Siesta, Paritosh Sen                                                

Fig 6: Saraswati, M F Hussain

By the middle of 1980s, contemporary Indian art began to chart a new direction. The younger generation of artists engaged themselves with new concerns. Themes involving gender, environment and urban crisis began to surface in images. The vibrancy of popular culture worked as a major trigger in image-making. 
Popular artists of this genre are Anjolie Ela Menon, Manjit Bawa, Vivan Sundaram, Arpana Caur, Sudhir Patwardhan, Jatin Das, 

Fig 7: In Vrindavan, Arpana Caur
Fig 8: Lion with Fire Ring, Manjit Bawa.

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