A century of Indian art: a visually rich narrative

The growing interest and value of Indian art is evident from the estimated turnover of Rs 880.9 crore that art sales in the public domain generated in 2021, according to the State of Art Market Report 2021 published by the art intelligence and advisory firm Artery India.

But in a decade that has seen multiple record prices and international museum exhibitions dedicated to Indian art and artists, what hasn’t perhaps kept pace with the monetary benefits in art is an investment to cultivate a better understanding of the subject. So, while the collector base has broadened, avenues for people who want to learn about Indian art are still restricted.

In-depth studies are primarily limited to academic texts, and much else is scattered across publications that focus on particular aspects. Mainstream critical writing on art, too, remains superficial, with little contextualisation.

With 20th Century Indian Art: Modern, Post-Independence, Contemporary, Partha Mitter, Parul Dave Mukherji, and Rakhee Balaram (eds.) attempt to fill that void. The three academics take charge of one section each in a mammoth publication broadly divided into four parts, beginning with “Colonial Modernity, Art and National Identity”.

“Our  story begins with the transformation of Indian taste by Victorian academic art: a transformation that was subsequently challenged by nationalist artists,” writes Mitter, as he introduces readers to modernism as an avant garde phenomenon that arrived in India in the 1920s. He discusses the numerous facets of modernity, in relation to British imperial education as well as the revolution of visual culture brought by mechanical reproduction, the role played by Indian rulers as patrons, and the Bengal school of painting as the “first nationalist art movement in India”. From early on, the publication makes an effort to give voice to artists across genres and mediums.

While essays are dedicated to individual artists, the book also has interviews with stalwarts. In between is a recording of the trajectory of Indian art, through essays by experts, in which the changing aesthetics are discussed from multiple vantage points.

By giving it the focus it deserves, the boundaries between art and craft, folk and modern-contemporary, are also addressed.

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In an essay on Dalit art, emeritus professor Gary Michael Tartakov notes that it remains “a distinctive and underrepresented category of aesthetics in India”. Calling the diaspora desultory, Balaram analyses the complexities of the works also influenced by the location. The shared histories of the subcontinent are not forgotten either — with each nation looking Westward for inspiration, their art developed on parallel paths, intertwining often, including on the global stage.

The publication accomplishes the daunting task of putting together over a century of Indian art and introducing its varied influences to readers through a visually rich narrative. To expect it to present a detailed scrutiny of its layered history and contemporary complexities would probably be unrealistic. As its editors announce at the outset, “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 the definition of Indian art itself suffers from the competing claims of a myriad of its stakeholders?”

(Explained Books appears every Saturday. It summarises the core content of an important work of non-fiction.)

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