A Tricoloured Historyhttps://indianexpress.com/article/news-archive/web/a-tricoloured-history/

A Tricoloured History

An exhibition in the US traces Indian art’s evolution from Independence,when it struggled to develop an identity of its own,to now,when it occupies a pivotal place on the global art map.

An exhibition in the US traces Indian art’s evolution from Independence,when it struggled to develop an identity of its own,to now,when it occupies a pivotal place on the global art map.

In 1948,a year after Independence,a young SH Raza had a chance meeting with Henri Cartier-Bresson in Kashmir. He received admiration from the French photographer,but also a suggestion — to study Paul Cezanne. “He told me to look at his work for construction,” recalls the modernist. The thought remained with him for long,but it’s influence on his work was to become evident years later,after Raza left India to find his language of art in France. The fine contours of his figures were to gradually soften,giving way to a more abstract picturescape,where colours coalesced into form. Susan Bean,recently retired senior curator of South Asian and Korean art at the Peabody Essex Museum,US,is now revisiting this association between the Progressive artist and the French post-Impressionist.

In an exhibition tracing the evolution of Indian art from Independence to the boom of the ’90s,she juxtaposes the 1964 Raza oil Udho,the Heart is not Ten or Twenty with a Cezanne and an Indian miniature. “In this way,we demonstrate the very cosmopolitan dialogical relationship between India’s modern artists and the larger world (historically and geographically),” says Bean.

Comprising 70 works by 23 artists,the Massachusetts exhibition titled ‘Midnight to the Boom: Painting in India after Independence’ borrows from the Chester and Davida Herwitz Collection to analyse India’s art movement over the decades through the work of three generation of painters. If the section titled ‘Pathbreakers’ comprises artists working around Independence,‘Midnight’s Children’ features the subsequent generation and ‘New Mediators’ includes those who came to the forefront in the ’80s and ’90s. “The generational grouping enables viewers to see shifts in approaches and painterly concerns over nearly five decades,” says Bean.


There has been an attempt to select works of different artists to give viewers an opportunity to get a sense of the individual approaches to art. So,among the earliest works,there is a MF Husain 1950 oil-on-canvas,Peasant Couple. There is also his Lightning Horses,painted years later in 1979. The oil has been juxtaposed with veteran Chinese artist Xu Beihong’s 1943 ink on paper Horse. Bean recalls that Husain first met Beihong in 1951,while travelling to Beijing. Struck by the exquisite grace and vitality of his horses,Husain returned to his study of horses,pushing his work in a new direction. “These juxtapositions reveal the cosmopolitanism of India’s art movement by showing very specific ways that artists connected with art from around the world and across time,” says Bean. The aim led her to draw six such parallels. Apart from comparing Raza with Cezanne and Husain with Beihong,she has also considered Bikash Bhattacharjee’s 1986 The Lady with the Gas Cylinder alongside Andrew Wyeth’s 1937 Charlie Ervine. An avid collector of books on Wyeth,Bhattacharjee explored the American artist’s brush techniques and interplay between light and shade.

However,it isn’t just this correlation between the west and the east that defines the exhibition — what it presents is the story of Indian art through a collection that is among the largest caches of contemporary Indian art,acquired by the US-based couple Chester and Davida Herwitz over a period of three decades,since the 1960s when they first visited India. “They believed the art being produced in India constituted one of the most exciting modern movements in the world,” says Bean. When she was sifting through their collection of 1,200 works of more than 70 Indian artists,she too made an attempt to reflect the reality of an interconnected global art world,and the way non-Western artists have participated in art movements at home,and as part of the world’s art history. She talks of how the jagged diagonals often used by Tyeb Mehta to break the scene on his canvas were not just compositional devices but an outcome of the line drawn between India and Pakistan post-Partition. Nasreen Mohamedi’s drawings represent architectural abstractions and diagonal forms that might describe colonised inhabitants who had become more vigilant. The generation to come was to challenge media — if Atul Dodiya’s The Flood in Dhaka is painted on commercial shutter,Ranbir Kaleka brings together canvas painting and video art. “At one point,there were set notions about Indian art but that perception is changing now,” says Bean.

Curator’s Picks

Susan Bean selects works that represent the evolution of Indian art since Independence

Tyeb Mehta,Untitled (diagonal),1973

These works exemplify,despite their clear individual visions and concerns,a common preoccupation with seeking new approaches to painting that privilege form and colour (which some of them referred to as colour-form) and their consequent emphasis on the language of painting.

Arpita Singh’s Munna Apa,Morning,and a Seated Man,1989

These works of the next generation of artists exemplify a post-Nehruvian turn towards their own lives and the experiences of those around them,and a preoccupation with exploring the narrative potential of the picture space.

New Mediators: Artists who gained stature in the ’80s and ’90s

In the third generation,coming up in the late ’80s and early ’90s,a strong impulse to push beyond the confines of the painting emerges in different ways. For example,Rekha Rodwittiya’s 1986 work How Naked Shall I Stand For You targets the viewer with a strong feminist stance. Atul Dodiya’s The Bombay Buccaneer literally breaks the frame with the film slapstick,making it impossible to put a picture frame on the painting,and foreshadows,for example,his series of shop-shutter paintings. Artists of this generation,including Nalini Malani and Ranbir Kaleka also pioneer forays into lens-based media often blended with painting.