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Way too much baggage

A new book tracks the complicated journey of Indian art from 1857 to 2007. Renuka Narayanan elaborates.

books Updated: Jul 18, 2009 21:58 IST
Renuka Narayanan

When Marg talks, you listen, though you may not always agree. First a gleam in writer Mulk Raj Anand’s eye, each issue of India’s first glossy art quarterly, with its excellent visuals and printing, has been a collector’s item since Marg first set up shop in Mumbai 60 years ago.

Marg has steadily documented Indian arts and crafts in their many and dazzling forms, from heavy-duty classical dances to delectable round Ganjifa playing cards. Now here comes a new book from Marg that takes you on a visual journey of 150 years through 19 essays and many illustrations. Edited by critic-curator-scholar Gayatri Sinha, Art and Visual Culture in India 1857-2007 features the views of a number of frequent fliers in contemporary art history such as Partha Mitter, Kavita Singh, Jyotindra Jain, Deeksha Nath, Nancy Adajania and Sumathy Ramaswamy.

They tell India’s story through the silent, potent witness of the images she produced in these 15 decades. All the essays offer interesting information. Here’s a rough portion of the story they sketch.

The Age of Empire, where the book begins, is witness to a crushed country. After 1857, John Company makes way for Queen-Empress Victoria. India is officially the jewel in the crown, both an uncontested source of endless raw material and a captive market for British goods. The Industrial Revolution, that keeps British factories spinning and belching, clouds the captive country.

Since conquest means colonising the mind, British art academies set up school in India, deeply affecting the Indian atelier and karkhanas of craft. British museums establish ‘the look of the Look’, if we may call it that. They teach the Indian to see the world through the colonially crafted lens — Western is Superior; QED, Indian is Inferior. This permeates Indian thought pathologically. With the Freedom Movement comes the Great Nationalist Image, a hysterical but natural over-correction, whose icons of Mother India tragically foment communal trouble as the visual language of ‘hindutva’.

Influential themes that work their own spells en route are Rabindranath Tagore — and artists’ collectives, on which Shukla Sawant’s essay called ‘The Age of Anxiety, 1940-1950’, is most informative. In particular, the great Bengal Famine of 1943 and its emaciated figures make realism replace the plump patriarchal image of ‘Annapurna’.

The Progressive Artists come into being. The Bengal School is dismissed as sentimental and European modern art movements are upheld as the ‘marg darshan’ or path to take.

In this context, it’s worth recalling art eminence Kapila Vatsyayan’s brutal honesty. I asked her once, on our way to an international dance camp up in Rishikesh, “Ma’am, why did your generation do what it did (package their Indian-ness for Western approval)?”

“Because we were still slaves in our heads,” she said.

This works more subliminally than we suspect, even in the present and especially in contemporary Indian art.

It could be the reason why, for instance, Sawant feels impelled to write that these realistic images of the 1940s were “very different from the cloying images of domestic goddesses that had preoccupied the minds of an earlier generation of artists”.

No prizes for guessing that it’s Raja Ravi Varma being discussed.

A lay reader may well ask, “But why can’t we have both? Are the majority of Indians idiots for liking Ravi Varma? In fact, there was a photo recreation of his paintings by Rohit Chawla recently and a whole feature film is happening on the raja. Besides, isn’t Indian art, despite its fabulous energy, still weighed down by plenty of Western baggage, both in its self-image and in the way it’s referenced and written about?”

The complexity and counter-pulls, the emotional dilemma of being an Indian artist are poignantly evoked in the last essay by Sumathy Ramaswamy, ‘The Mahatma as Muse’. Bapu was no beauty and hated being sketched, yet “artists have been moved to paint him on their canvases, cast him as a bust or statue, engrave his silhouette or just plain draw him on paper”. Indeed, he adorns the cover of this very book in Surendran Nair’s painting, his back pierced by pinheads of salt.

Ravi Varma’s spirit must be smiling in empathy.