Updated: Jul 19, 2021
Imagine you’re a European artist in the mid 1800s. The advent of mass production after the industrial revolution has made art supplies far more easily available, so you no longer need to pay an arm and a leg, or rely on patronage to buy materials. You can also afford to be relatively more carefree with how you use those easily accessible materials, which gives you the liberty to experiment with what you want to do as an artist. No longer are you limited to what you think will sell or what you were commissioned to do. The world is your oyster.
Thus far, movements in the art world had spanned decades; for example, the Renaissance lasted for a hundred and fifty years. Around the 1900s though, art movements started to get smaller and smaller (though arguably they pack just as big a punch as their predecessors). Cubism lasted only for seven years, Pop Art only ten, and the transitions between them were not the slow evolution that had been the norm, but were much more sudden. If so far art had been a merrily growing tree, the 20th century was when that tree was suddenly given steroids and told to go completely feral. The very definition of art was up for debate, and the question being asked was that, well, if what we’ve been doing so far isn’t art anymore, then what is? And then artists of all kinds from literally everywhere individually got up and said, ‘I’m glad you asked, here is my fifty-page presentation on the topic, allow me to elaborate’.
This was a global phenomenon. And though India may have been under colonial rule for the first half of the 20th century, we had just as much to contribute as anyone. So lets find out how the art scene is India took shape over the last 100 years, shall we?
1907 to 1930 - Bengal School of Art
The Bengal School of Art is usually associated with Shantiniketan – yes, that Shantiniketan – and Kolkata. It was started and expanded by the illustrious Tagore family, and became associated with the Swadesi movement, given the time period and its benefactors. The idea was to subvert the effects of colonisation and westernisation on Indian art forms, and to take back some of what had been lost.
When looking at these works, you might notice that they have a variety of styles, unique to each artist. What unifies them is their colour palette and the intention behind them. These paintings were representative of the first art ‘movement’ in India. In fact, thanks to the Industrial Revolution, this was the first time art could be dependent solely on the choice of the artist, and not their patron. (Now we’re getting into the territory of what people think of when they hear, ‘I’m an Artist’).
Not all artists from this era are from the Bengal School however, Amrita Sher-gill being prominent amongst them. Tensions were high and the freedom struggle was reaching its pinnacle, and while the general goal for Indian artists was the same – a reclamation of lost culture – there were many different approaches that sometimes clashed. The Bengal School’s approach is characterised by their study of historical Indian art, using techniques from Mughal miniatures and Eastern ‘wash’ techniques to create elegant works with patriotic themes. Nandlal Bose, Abanindranath Tagore, and Gaganendranath Tagore are prominent artists of the Bengal School. Gaganendranath in particular took inspiration from eastern cultures, and eventually became one of the founders of the Indian Society of Oriental Art in 1907. Interestingly, he was also one of the first people to experiment with cubism in India.
1943 to 1953 - Calcutta Group of Artists
Like most things at the time, the Calcutta Group of Artists was formed in response to the horrors of World War 2. It began with a group of six artists in Bengal, and their goal was to represent the true state of the people as a whole, and not a whimsical façade (the views of the artists do not necessarily reflect the views of the author of this article) as had been the norm thus far. Bengal had been a hotbed of nationalist activity and was still recovering from the partition, although technically the war was won. But the fight was of a different kind now; nationalism was all well and good when there was a single enemy to unite against, but now the nation was facing problems like drought, and famine. There was no longer a nebulous ideal to be achieved, but the harsh reality of the aftermath of that achievement, which is exactly what these artists wanted to convey.
The term ‘Modernism’ comes to mind when looking at these artworks, and it absolutely applies. As Saffron Art1 quotes of the art critic Rudy Von Leyden, “They have sought to imbibe a far more vital feeling from contemporary Far Eastern and European Art than their elders did. But this is not to suggest that they are in any sense imitative, for their love of the people and the old folk culture of Bengal roots them in the long Bengal tradition.”
1947 - Progressive Artists’ Group; Madras Artist Collective, Bombay Progressives, Delhi Shilpi Chakra
Another aspect to keep in mind while looking at these paintings is the deviation of subject from religious elements. They were formed just after the religiously motivated partition in 1947, and we all know how that ended. The term ‘communism’ was probably thrown around a bit at the beginning of this movement, as with the Calcutta Group, because some of the artists involved were sympathetic to the Communist Party, and all of them were disillusioned with the concept of religion as a whole.
The Progressive Group of Artists was created at almost the same time as the Calcutta group, and they are often more prominently associated with the modernist art movement in India than their contemporaries. This is probably the context in which you’ve heard of M. F. Husain or F. N. Souza, both of whom were founding members of the group, and were vanguards of the Modernist movement. They were documented to have been inspired by the Calcutta Group’s exhibition in 1944 and 1945 in Bombay. They did not have a particular style, as such, but they did identify with the Calcutta Group’s goal to break away from traditional influences on Indian art practice, and leave themselves free to explore style and technique as a tool of expression, in addition to the content of a work. Moreover, while this was definitely influenced by the increasingly avant-garde styles becoming popular in the west, it was categorically not a pro-westernisation bid, but rather a pro-modernisation bid. In their eyes, there was a clear distinction between the two although on the surface they might look similar, and they were quite well received, so it would seem that the general population agreed. Their philosophy was to be guided by ‘one or two sound elemental and eternal laws’2 of colour, composition, and aesthetics, and nothing else.
Late 50s to 80s - Regional Modernism; Madras Art Movement (1960s to 1980s), Baroda Group of Artists (1957)
Starting in present day Chennai, the Regional Modernist movement, spearheaded by Devi Prasad Roy Chowdhry and KCS Panikar of the Madras School of Arts and Crafts, was the beginning of Indian Modernism. This is the style of art we are used to seeing today, which is a testament to how powerful the movement was.
Thus far, all third world countries had been working towards reasserting their autonomy and individuality. A task easier said than done, as the majority of their cultural identities had been suppressed beyond living memory. The intricacies of that struggle aside, what this reclamation looked like for a lot of countries was an imitation of what was familiar to them, which ended up being pretty western. By the late 50s and 60s, ‘progress’ had started to subliminally become similar to ‘western’. And when this was pointed out to artists of the time, it prompted them to reassess their approach. And so Regional Modernism was born; a movement combining the visuals of abstract modernist art while taking inspiration from indigenous roots. It was a visual style specific to South India, drawing from its intense and varied cultural history.
The story of the modern Indian art scene doesn’t end there! Stay tuned for more articles from us, and check out our post here to learn more about the greatest Indian painters of all time.
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Written by Sambhavi Sinha, Content Writer at Skyshot Media