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A new book shines the lens on overlooked narratives in art

A new book on 20th century Indian art eschews the macro for the micro to provide a comprehensive look at varied aspects of the journey

Detail from Gulammohammed Sheikh's ‘Gandhi And Gama’ (2014), triptych, from the collection of Christiane Leister, Switzerland. Photographs: courtesy Thames and Hudson, Art Alive

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A new book, nearly 14 years in the making, looks at different facets of Indian art’s journey, from the modern to the post-colonial and the contemporary, in microscopic detail rather than through the norm of generalised essays. “It would be audacious, to say the least, to present 20th century Indian art as a coherent and self-contained subject. Would it even be possible, given that the subcontinent represents so many different elements, while computing claims of a myriad of its stakeholders?” ask the book’s editors, Partha Mitter, Parul Dave Mukherji and Rakhee Balaram, in 20th Century Indian Art.

Published by Thames and Hudson in association with the Delhi-based Art Alive gallery, the book’s 744 pages offer a glimpse of art from the subcontinent too. It has essays on colonial art schools, Bauhaus in India, the Calcutta group and the Bengal famine, the making of the Baroda school, the impact of cultural studies on the writing of art, women artists, art and activism, Dalit art and imagery, by writers and critics like William Dalrymple, R. Siva Kumar, Sandhini Poddar, Naman P. Ahuja and Ashrafi Bhagat.

The book is in three parts, each handled by an individual editor. Mitter has worked on the first section, spanning 1900-47, examining the interface between colonialism and nationalism. The second part, edited by Dave Mukherji, focuses on the post-colonial and regional modernity within the national modern. There are essays on Group 1890 and the politics of representation as seen through the lens of the Baroda Narrative Group and the Kerala Radicals. The third segment, handled by Balaram, centres around art from the 1990s-2000s. 

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You find mention of identity politics in the wake of the Emergency and the Mandal Commission, the receding importance of state art institutions, the growing art market fervour, and artists using technology to respond to social issues like gender, caste and communal politics. The third segment is particularly significant. So far, there exists hardly any proper history of contemporary art. But Balaram makes it possible for us to step back and see contemporary art in the Indian context and in relation to global art history. A fourth section looks at South Asian versions of Modernism in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal and Myanmar.

Pushpamala N. in collaboration with Clare Arni, ‘Lady In Moonlight’ (after 1889 Raja Ravi Varma oil painting), 2004.
Pushpamala N. in collaboration with Clare Arni, ‘Lady In Moonlight’ (after 1889 Raja Ravi Varma oil painting), 2004.

20th Century Indian Art is a must-read for art students, scholars, collectors and enthusiasts alike. Some of the most interesting chapters are on figures who have slipped out of the pages of mainstream art history. Like women artists from the Madras Art Movement, spearheaded by K.C.S. Paniker, in the 1950s-60s. The most prominent of these were Arnawaz Vasudev, T.K. Padmini, Rani Nanjappa and Premlatha Hanumanthiah Seshadhri. While they had to work against the male appropriation of cultural and creative practices that were once their domain, the women artists from Andhra Pradesh challenged the ideas of “femininity” popularised by male regional artists during the 1980s-90s. One of the strongest voices seems to be Kusum Vishwanath, who focused on the issue of “beauty” through her work, Beauty Pageant Series, a commentary on the emergence of beauty queens in the country at the time.

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Another fascinating figure is Savi Sawarkar, whose art about Dalit identity and liberation is iconic and relevant. In his Untouchable With Dead Cow, “the subject of the a Dalit with the carcass of a dead cow is a peculiarly iconic portrayal of the Dalit within the caste system”, writes Gary Michael Tartakov in his essay, Dalit Art And Imagery: Expanding The Indian Contemporary.It is heartening to come across a rare essay on the rise of Modernism in the North-East, featuring work by artists such as Suren Bordoloi, Asu Dev and Noni Borpujari.

The idea for 20th Century Indian Art came in 2008, when Art Alive was promoting its monograph on S.H. Raza. “At that time, we could not find anything comprehensive on the history of Indian art. The way art movement and outreach was growing at the time, it was critical to have a study such as this,” says gallerist Sunaina Anand. She discussed the idea with Mitter and Dave Mukherji. The project has grown over time, to include folk, sculpture and photography. “We didn’t just want to speak from the point of view of art historians but from artists as well. The book features some invaluable interviews, such as the last one by K.G. Subramanyan,” says Anand.

Sudharak Olwe, ‘Kamathipura 11th Lane’ (1995), from the chapter on ‘Dalit Art And Imagery: Expanding The Indian Contemporary’.
Sudharak Olwe, ‘Kamathipura 11th Lane’ (1995), from the chapter on ‘Dalit Art And Imagery: Expanding The Indian Contemporary’.

As a reader, “you can pick and choose, moving between the different ideas of primitivism or the varied depictions of Yaksha and Yakshi by Ramkinkar Baij and those by the Raqs Media Collective. “The editors were not happy with the current historiography of Indian art.... One of the biggest lacuna lies in regional modernism in areas away from the metros...we came across instances of double marginalisation,” says Dave Mukherji. Women were nowhere on the map. “That’s when we thought of bringing the two elements of region and gender together through essays by the likes of Rohini Iyengar.”

The editors themselves abandoned the idea of a linear narrative, instead weaving together past and present. “Even when you tell a story of a particular moment, it has connections with the past. There is a constant movement backwards and forward to create a wider context,” says Dave Mukherji.

20th Century Indian Art will be launched at the Jaipur Literature Festival on 13 March, with panel discussions happening as collateral events to the India Art Fair in April. The book is available at CMYK stores

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