Eight Decades Of Indian Contemporary Art – A Snapshot

by Ruchira Paul

India's art heritage dates back several thousand years. Through the ages Indian art was for the most part figurative and highly stylized. Think of the Tanjore bronzes, the Buddhist cave paintings, the stylish Mughal and Rajput miniatures. Regional folk art, murals and fabric designs too bore distinctive distortions and motifs that identified geographic locations and specific traditions. It was not until the Victorian era that decorative realistic art (I think of it as calendar art) became popular among the art aficionados of India. In the early part of the 20th century, a group of artists in Santiniketan (the university founded by Tagore) and Calcutta began to break away from that developing trend of photographic realism. Trained in western methods, they looked eastward to draw inspiration from Buddhist, Mughal and Japanese paintings. The European style that influenced them most was that of the 19th century impressionists. The movement, loosely known as the “Bengal School,” ushered in the era of Indian contemporary art of the last century. The focus was on rural and urban scenes, mythology and politics. The result was a vibrant homegrown art movement which continues to thrive.

Shown here are ten modern Indian artists whose works span the decades from the 1930s to the present. Some of them are widely known, others not so much. This is a visual tour and not a conventional blog post. My commentary and analysis are sparse (not that I know very much more). Readers can follow the link to an artist's biography from his or her name. The choice of artists and art work is my own. Except for one, I have had the privilege of seeing the original work of all of the artists featured.

(Be sure to click on a photo to see its pop up image)

Abani Sen - Chess Players1. As a personal tribute, Abani Sen is my first pick in the line up of artists. He was my art teacher who taught me to draw and to look at light and shadow with a discerning eye. He belonged to the Bengal School and used ink, water color and oil with equal facility. A very fine artist and a dedicated popular teacher, he was well reputed within the informed art circle of Delhi and Calcutta but not so much in the art market.

Abani Sen - 3Abani Sen - Farmers

Abani Sen - 1

2. Brilliant, energetic and possessing a colorful private and public persona, Amrita Sher-Gil made an impressive debut in India in the 1930s at a young age when there were very few women among the contemporary artists. Her early training was in Paris and later in Italy where she painted mostly European subjects in the European style. Sher-Gil decided to return to India (her father was an Indian Sikh and mother a Hungarian opera singer) where she traveled extensively and produced some of her best works. Dead at the age of 28, Sher-Gil left behind a significant body of work. Some of her best known paintings are in the permanent collection at the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi.

Amrita Sher-Gil Turmeric GrindersAmrita Sher-gil Three WomenAmrita_Sher-Gil_-_Self Portrait with EaselAmrita_Sher-Gil_-_Young_Girls (1)

3. An “all over the board” prolific painter, Francis Newton Souza was born in Goa. He was a member of the Bombay Progressive Artists group. I have only seen his work in books and prints. Very talented and known for his volatile temperament, Souza's subject matter ranges from the sacred to the profane. He also happens to be one of the best selling Indian artists at home and abroad. (the Bombay Progressive Group was far more energetic in garnering publicity and sales in the domestic and international art circles than the more reticent Bengal School.)

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4. One of the pioneering Indian artists of the 20th century, Jamini Roy began his art education in the classical European tradition at the Government College of Art in Calcutta. A skillful painter who gained early renown for his portraits, he later radically changed his style, drawing inspiration from the Bengali folk art of the “Patuas” (many of them temple artists) – a flat, stylized way of painting with vivid colors. Born in rural Bengal, Roy also moved away from “modern” subjects and chose to depict ordinary village life and scenes from Indian mythology using his signature technique, making occasional forays into Christian motifs as well. Well known and influential during his life time, his works adorn leading Indian museums and art galleries.

Jamini Roy- 1Jamini Roy -5Jamini Roy -2Jamini Roy-4

5. Belonging to the generation of younger progressive artists who came of age in the 1960s and onward, Arpana Caur's work includes numerous oil paintings, murals and installations. A student of English lit, she is self taught. Her solo exhibitions have been held all over the world. Caur has been commissioned by major cities like Hamburg, Bangalore and Hiroshima to create murals in the cities' public places. I am fascinated by the fluid and melancholic dream like quality of her work – all those stoic seeming women with threads and scissors, sewing and weaving, sometimes with water, and figures who don't look each other in the eye even in close proximity.

Caur’s younger sister died in a house fire in Paris at an early age. Their mother, Punjabi writer Ajeet Caur, never got over the death of her daughter. I wonder how much this family tragedy suffused Caur’s artistic output.

Arpana_Caur.2jpgArpana caur- yoginiArpana Caur - jugglerArpana Caur-1 Arpana_Caur.3jpg

6. Manjit Bawa had trained with several famous art teachers at the Delhi College of Arts but credited Abani Sen with pointing him in the direction he would eventually take in his successful artistic career. Said Bawa of Sen, “I gained an identity under Abani Sen. Sen would ask me to do 50 sketches every day, only to reject most of them. As a result I inculcated the habit of working continuously. He taught me to revere the figurative at a time when the entire scene was leaning in favor of the abstract. Without that initial training I could never have been able to distort forms and create the stylization you see in my work today.”

(Posting about Manjit Bawa is a long walk down the memory lane for me. I first met Manjit at the studio of artist Abani Sen (see above) where both of us were students. It will be an exaggeration to say that I “knew” him or ever had any meaningful conversation with him. I was eleven years old (I attended classes until I was fifteen) and he in his twenties and like everyone else in the class, he was kind to a nervous child in the midst of skillful artists. None of us knew at the time that he would go on to become one of the most famous and commercially successful artists in India. Unfortunately, he died at a relatively young age from a stroke which left him in a protracted coma.)

Manjit Bawa - 1Manjit Bawa - 2. jpgManjit Bawa - 3Manjit Bawa - 5Manjit Bawa - 4

7. Ramkinkar Baij probably knew “modern” well before anyone told him to look for it. Unschooled, poor and from a village in Bengal, he walked into Santiniketan's art institute, Kala Bhavan, at the age of nineteen endowed with abundant cheer, energy and raw talent. Tutored by many of the leading artists of India's modern art movement, Ramkinkar went on to become one of India's most admired and influential sculptors. Casting both in bronze and cement, he was also a master stone cutter. His sculptures occupy many public places but most of them are to be found on the grounds of his alma mater, Santiniketan. He was a fine painter who left behind a large cache of drawings and paintings – oil, water color, gouache, charcoal and ink. Some of the paintings served as the two dimensional template for an eventual three dimensional work. Others are stand alone pieces and unlike his robust towering sculptures, many of the paintings are surprisingly gentle, small and playful.

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8. Often referred to as the Barefoot Picasso, M.F. Husain began his career as a sign painter. He later joined the Bombay Progressive Group and went on to become perhaps the most recognizable Indian contemporary artist. Seen in museums, art galleries, bank and hotel lobbies, his gargantuan canvases covered in repetitive motifs – rearing horses, mythical figures on chariots, Mother Teresa – in his distinctive style, are familiar to most Indians. Riding on the wave of immense popularity, Husain probably never imagined that he would one day be hounded out of India, suspected of religious insensitivity. A Muslim, he painted Hindu gods and goddesses with loving abandon. Some of his naked goddesses raised the ire of Hindu fundamentalists who threatened him with law suits and physical destruction of his work. No matter that Hindu goddesses have been portrayed in various degrees of undress for centuries, the same depicted by a Muslim man violated the misplaced sense of modesty of religious fanatics. Fearful of persecution, Husain opted for self imposed exile from his beloved homeland at the age of 90. Dead at 95, he never set foot in India again.

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9. Rameshwar Broota, another member of the second generation of the contemporary art scene, is an active artist and teacher who heads the department of art at the Triveni Kala Sangam, a gallery and art institute in New Delhi. A skilled and disciplined artist, Broota now increasingly paints in gray scale that lends a photographic quality to his paintings.

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10. I am ending the series with an artist who is also a friend. Mimi Radhakrishnan studied at Santiniketan and trained in print making.

In her paintings, Mimi wears the additional hats of print maker and story teller. Many of her paintings are framed by a “border” – like a sari or an embroidered shawl. The backgrounds are textured with print like motifs – fish scales, floral, water marks. Characters appear and reappear on several panels like an unfolding story. In her series representing Muslim women of India, she chose titles like Dr. Jahanara Begum, Professor Nusrat Rizvi and Miss Niloufer, B.Sc. III Yr. The subjects of the portraits are imaginary. Mimi gives them names and educational credentials that evoke a real life. The Istanbul pieces illustrate the artist's knack for mural like compositions, juxtaposing related human figures, artifacts and edifices as parts of a larger commentary.

Mimi-2Mimi-4Mimi - Kek Chand Munda and Dalia RaniMimi - 1Mimi -  Weaving Memory Excerpts from Istanbul

(Thanks to Elatia Harris and Bill Hooker for urging me to put this post together.)