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Tuesday, June 15, 2021

How a New York exhibition maps the shift in Indian landscape painting over two centuries

DAG's “New Found Lands: The Indian Landscape from Empire to Freedom 1780-1980” examines the evolution from the colonial gaze and Western imitations to 'free' landscapes

Written by Benita Fernando |
June 6, 2021 6:24:37 am
A Ruined Temple paintingPaint My Land: A Ruined Hindu Temple on a Rocky Outcrop, by Thomas Daniell (Photo courtesy: DAG)

Temple towers and banyan trees, ruined forts and tombs — Indian landscape painting has come a long way since the idea of the picturesque. The hybrid exhibition, “New Found Lands: The Indian Landscape from Empire to Freedom 1780-1980”, of more than 100 works, at DAG gallery, New York, and on, till June 30, examines the shifts in Indian landscapes over two centuries.

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Gurugram-based Giles Tillotson, 60, head of museum exhibitions at DAG (formerly Delhi Art Gallery), has curated “New Found Lands” in three sections. It starts with picturesque landscapes by 18th-century British artists such as William Hodges and Thomas Daniell. From these paintings of India’s fading glory and ruins, the exhibition moves to naturalistic paintings of the late 19th-early 20th centuries. These were done largely by Indian artists associated with the Bombay School, who were practising Western academic realism. With rural landscapes, beaches and mountains, these were the earliest examples of “pure” landscapes by Indian artists, with no religious or literary purpose. The show culminates in a breakaway from the colonial gaze and Western imitations to assert a new identity — “free” landscapes, as Tillotson describes. This section features artists born between 1900 and 1947, who abandoned the naturalistic landscape for patterns, fragmentation and abstraction.

Fishermen at Dawn Fishermen at Dawn on Madras Beach, 1928, by SG Thakur Singh (Photo courtesy: DAG)

The sections demonstrate how complex the landscape genre is, providing a narrative that runs parallel to India’s freedom struggle, with artists reacting to sociopolitical events of their times. The curation sheds light on the evolution of the “Indian” landscape. Excerpts:

The British landscape painters seemed keen on conveying a certain idea of India. Did their works actively further colonial efforts?

I think what they are doing is that they are trying to report on India to European audiences. In 18th-century England, they had no idea what India looked like — no cameras, no way of knowing until an artist went there and painted. So, they thought they were doing straightforward reportage.

But the picturesque aesthetic tends to focus on certain things — dramatic landscape and ruins in particular. So, the result is that it adds up to a certain idea of India as ancient, unchanging, backward and the mirror opposite of Britain — a young country, emerging, energetic and industrialised. That places Britain in a position of strength with respect to India.

The painters were not trying to further colonial efforts or present ‘a certain idea of India’ but their vision coincides with emerging (British) colonial perspectives — evidence of great empires is all around you, so India had greatness, but it’s all in the past. They were not totally consistent: Hodges and the Daniells (Thomas and nephew William) thought of the Mughal Empire as magnificent and still extant, if in decline. So, India comes across as this open-air museum of dead cultures.

Giles Tillotson Giles Tillotson (Photo courtesy: DAG)

Ruins and idling Indians are prominent in the British picturesque paintings. Were the painters drawn towards particular ruins and were these invented or heavily edited?

The landscape certainly contained ruins. They didn’t invent them. It was more a matter of selecting ruins, especially among the many subjects that they depicted.

I wouldn’t say they were ‘heavily edited’ so much as applying an established, formulaic aesthetic. The picturesque mostly likes rough, irregular forms, like ruins, rather than smooth ones which were seen as the epitome of the classical ideal. Richard Payne Knight (18th-century scholar) said, architecture is ‘a mere component of what you see.’

If you say that a building is a mere part of a landscape, you are not thinking about what the building is for — if it’s a hospital or a school — it’s just a shape in a landscape. You see how defunctionalising that is. When you look at the Daniells’ works, they edited out people. Hodges complained in a journal about pilgrims getting in the way and he is not polite about them. But you look at the pictures and they are not there. You have a few small figures, sitting around heaps of ruins, as if they are contemplating or discussing the extinction of their religion or their state. Thomas Daniell’s A Ruined Hindu Temple on a Rocky Outcrop, for instance, shows a ruined temple with a tree growing outside it and a solitary pilgrim. There is a temple very much like this in Deoghar, Jharkhand, not on a hill, but which is an active place of worship.

Tell us about the battle between the Bengal and Bombay Schools in their attitudes towards Western academic realism?

Central to the curriculum (in the subcontinent’s art schools) was the idea of drawing. Students are needed to draw — fruits or vases — naturalistically. There is a sharp divide in attitudes towards this, particularly around the 1890s. What we know is the Bengal School’s attitude was based on the rejection of Western ideas of realism. What they were saying is that the naturalistic approach is materialistic and not what Indian art is about. The rejection was part of the ideology of Abanindranath Tagore. At the Bombay School, they never did that. There was a very pugnacious principal of Sir JJ School of Art called WE Gladstone Solomon (appointed in 1916), who said he didn’t understand why people criticise Westernisation of art when they don’t criticise Westernisation of the railways (Mural Paintings of the Bombay School, 1930). The Bombay School, up until the 1940s, thought, drawing was modernist, part of an international trend and produced pure landscapes. They are completely immune to the Calcutta way of thinking, which they saw as regressive and nostalgic. The reaction in Bombay comes much later from the Progressive Artists’ Group (formed in 1947), who said they were going to reject academic realism because (Pablo) Picasso is rejecting it, because the West itself is rejecting it.

Did urban landscapes make a marked entry into Indian art only in the 20th century?

I’ve tried to tread carefully here, as enthusiasts of ancient Indian art will no doubt object loudly. There are depictions of cities at the Sanchi Stupa, but these are scenes from the Jataka tales or Buddha’s life, some of which happen to be urban. The point I make is, Indian art, until the 19th century, is usually either sacred or courtly, and serves to present a narrative. It’s a subtle distinction. The idea of depicting the city just for itself is very much early 20th century.

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