Visual Trajectories, A Retrospective of 150 Years of Modern Indian Art from the National Gallery in New Delhi, could well be mistaken for a tour through the different periods of modern Western art. The academic naturalism of MF Pithwala; the social realism of Sudhir Patwardhan’s Riot; the abstract expressionism of Rajendra Dhawan’s Untitled that recalls American-Jewish immigrant artist Mark Rothko; and the photo-realism in Subodh Gupta’s Three Cows.
From as early as 1867, there were 22 government art colleges in India based on the British model. Satyabrata Pal, Indian high commissioner to South Africa, attributes this to the period after the first Indian war of independence in 1857, when “the Raj tried very hard to wean Indians away from their past, hoping that the introduction of British values would weaken the forces of nationalism”.
Raja Ravi Varma, mainly self-taught, is one of the first Indian artists to master the imported aesthetic criteria of perspective, composition and naturalism in oil on canvas. Pioneer photographer Raja Lala Deen Dayal also leaves a unique record of British India during the time of the Raj.
New Delhi-based art critic and curator Gayatri Sinha argues that 19th-century India is also an important time of archaeological discoveries. All this contributed to celebrating India’s rich cultural past and its assertion of independence from the Greco-Roman canon. The discovery of the paintings contained within the 29 Buddhist rock cut sanctuaries in the Ajanta Caves, in 1817, provided some of the earliest surviving examples of Indian painting dating from the second century BC to the seventh century AD.
While some Indian artists seem to be obsessed with imitating their British counterparts, others return to the richness of Indian roots and achievements. The struggle of “aspiring to modernity from the margins” is in conflict with retaining an essence of Indian culture that continued to preoccupy the Indian artist throughout much of the 20th century. The transnational connections of Indian artists are also evident, with many links to Italy, England, France, Germany, Mexico and Portugal. Indian art critic Ella Datta has described the rich mosaic that emerged as encompassing “both figurative and abstract images, Europe inspired expressionist and realist styles along with the use of Indian motifs and symbols”.
Different schools of thought also emerged. Shantineketan, an art school founded by Rabindrinath Tagore—winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1917—took inspiration from Ajanta, Indian miniature paintings and themes from Indian mythology. The Progressive Artists Group formed in Mumbai in 1947 embraced the modern influences coming from the West. Centuries of tradition were challenged and the “tribal”, “folk”, “naive” descriptions of the art of the Other subjected these cultures to the anxiety of catching up with times so as to merit recognition from the West.
The Baroda Group of artists in Gujarat that came to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s, led by KG Subramanian, negotiated a new language that “juxtaposed contemporary art with popular culture and folk art with urban trends”.
If the exhibition is meant to reflect modern Indian art since 1850, then the works of some seminal artists would have further enriched the show. Nandalal Bose (1883 to 1966), who from his very earliest works was committed to the exploration of form as well as engaging with social issues, is sorely missed. So, too, are the works of Rabindranath Tagore, Jamini Roy and Amrita Sher-Gil, considered to be the leading woman artist of her time. Sher-Gil returned to India from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1937 and painted scenes of abject poverty that challenged the idealised spiritual paintings of many others at the time. Vivan Sundaram’s inclusion—one who has pushed the boundaries of Indian art further than most in recent times—might have hinted at the new direction of contemporary Indian art and brought the exhibition full circle.
The political and historical links between South Africa and India are well known. The birth of the Satayagraha movement that celebrates its centennial this year was born at the Empire Theatre in Johannesburg. As Minister of Arts and Culture Pallo Jordan has noted, the two countries have shared histories of British colonialism and imperialism. This is symbolised in two of the 20th century’s most recognised names of freedom in Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.
The exhibition is part of a cultural exchange agreement between the two countries that is intended to encourage dialogue and deeper understanding of each other’s histories and cultures.
Visual Trajectories has already toured the South African National Gallery and the Durban Art Gallery. A reciprocal exhibition of South African art from the National Gallery in Cape Town will be showcased in three cities in India in 2007.
Visual Trajectories ends its run at the National Cultural History Museum (The African Window) in Visagie Street, Pretoria, on September 30. The Museum is open daily from 8am to 4pm. For more information Tel: (012) 324 6082