Artists: Notes on Art Making


Realization of the lack of cultural understanding between the East and West was brought into sharp focus in 1954 when the UNESCO conference decided to concentrate its attention on “mutual appreciation of Eastern and Western cultural values”.

Subsequently the U.S Department of State sent two Americans to the Orient on lecture tours and their experiences were an inspiration for this exhibition. The first, Howard Thomas, Artist and Professor at the University of Georgia, felt strongly that throughout the Far East there were many groups of people genuinely interested in learning more about contemporary culture in the United States and that the dissemination of such material was appallingly insignificant. At the same time, these people were desirous of having their won creative works made available to an audience in this country.

The second emissary was Tom (Two Arrows) Dorsey, an Onondaga Indian of the Iroquois Tribe, who appeared before over two million people on his trip through the Orient. Tom Two Arrows, talented artist, musician and dancer, found immediate and friendly acceptance throughout the India-Burma area. This easy rapport was established not only because Tom is an American Indian, an exotic curiosity in the East, but also because he was expressing his message through the performing arts where the basic fundamentals are alike throughout the world. Tom was impressed too with the intense desire of all Asian artists to have their work seen in America, especially those artists working away from the traditional idioms.

Jawaharla Nehru has said “and yet, even though it may be more comfortable to have fixed ideas and be complacent, surely that is not to be commended, and that can only lead to stagnation and decay. The basic fact today is the tremendous pace of change in human life.” The new India today has a robust, increasingly active cultural life. It express itself in a revival of ancient traditions, crafts and art forms but it is also responsive, especially in painting and sculpture, to the universal problems and challenges of twentieth century mankind. Indian artist seeking new idioms for expressing the themes of modern man speak to us in the West from their own physical and social environment but in a language which, true to all great creative impulse, is universally understandable.

It is this movement of “modern Indian Art” - with the emphasis in different degrees on “modern” and “Indian’ - which our exhibition represents; the reaction of ancient culture to universal challenges of our times.

India has known such challenges from abroad throughout her history, as exemplified by Greco-Buddhist art following Alexander the Great, and the Islamic influence derived from Mogul times. In turn, Hindu India has left an indelible mark on culture of all South East Asia. But these contacts were all violent and now, for the first time, India is responding to world influences in a free environment.

To us, in the West, this contemporary cultural renaissance of India is profoundly important for the evolution of our own art. The artist must comprehend and express new relations, and they are abstract between man and his rapidly changing environment. Man’s spiritual life will not be expressed by our traditional symbols but by more contemplative and universal spiritual concepts which are closer to the roots of the East.


It is pleasant for us to think of the various forms of assistance offered by the Western World to South Asia as disinterested and even benevolent; but to the Indian, the historical sequence of impact from the West has stood for invasion and cultural domination. But like ripples in a pond each thrust has slowly faded, and finally become absorbed into the perennial modes of Hindu culture. The relative tolerance with which India entered into relations with each succeeding invader seems, in the perspective of time, to have left the core of her cultural identity more securely defined than before. And what at first seemed waves of loss and destruction became in the end sources of enrichment.

During the past century, in one way or another, this problem of the impact of the West has dominated the consciousness of every important Indian painter. Various stylistic solutions have emerged, all of which remain active to the present day. The first of these, toward the close of the last century, was an adaptation of Victorian realism to the depiction of Indian mythological subject matter. Raja Ravi Varma solved his particular problem so effectively that oleographs of his work became as omnipresent in the Indian home as the Sears Roebuck catalog in the American - and with equal aesthetic benefit.

The next movement to emerge was the self-conscious revival of India's ancient glories in the so-called Bengal School. Abanindranath Tagore was its guru; and it attempted to return to the 'Indianness' of the Buddhist cave paintings at Ajanta in much the same way that the English Pre-Raphaelites, like Rossetti, thought to recover for Christian themes the religious quality of the Italian Primitives. The comparison is even more apt, as, unintentionally, the revivalists felt most stylistic sympathy precisely with the Pre-Raphaelites. Other outstanding artists working in this manner include Nandalal Bose, in India, and Abdur Rahman Chughtai, now Pakistan's leading painter.

In the early '20's, the revivalist attitude divided; one branch turning toward Indian folk art. Jamini Roy, of Calcutta, suddenly became aware of the possible parallels between the flat colour areas, the formal distortions and the linear outlines of the folk tradition, and the similar elements so evident in the manifestations of modern paintings in the West since the turn of the century.

Then, in the '30's, two remarkable painters provided their own individual answers to the encounter between East and West. Amrita Shergil, half-Hungarian and with a Beaux Arts training in Paris, established a personal, synthetic style markedly influenced by the Post-Impressionism of Cezanne and Gauguin, plus the mannerisms of Modigliani. But so successfully did she assimilate her influences, that it was often impossible to determine whether a given device derived more from Gauguin, for example, or from the conventions of Basohli miniature painting. And, in spite of her death at the youthful age of 29 years, she has been generally acclaimed as India's greatest modern painter.

The second great artist at work during the '30's was the Bengali poet, Rabindranath Tagore, who took up painting for the first time when he was already 67 years of age. Although his paintings were little appreciated during his lifetime, they speak perhaps more directly to the present generation of Indian painters than do those of any other Indian pioneers of the modern movement. It is also curious to realize that whereas his poetry was stylized and deliberate, his painting expressed thespontaneous imagery of a world of dreams. Moreover, his methods of working were so rapid that he might well be thought of as foreshadowing a kind of figurative action painting.

During the '40's, the dominant figure in Indian painting was George Keyt, actually of Ceylon. His style is almost as linear as the engravings of S. W. Hayter; but his stylizations one an immense debt to Picasso - whose work Keyt has known only through reproduction. Also coming into prominence during these years were such eclectic artists as N. S. Bendre, Shiavax Chovda and K. K. Hebbar, each of whom has continued to experiment with one stylistic influence after another, but without ever being able to settle upon an individual direction.

With the arrival of national independence, the situation in Indian painting soon shifted into new positions. The more lively elements in both wings of Revivalism tended to come together again into a new 'Indian' style, semi-official in patronage and self-consciously patriotic. Although there are dozens of well-known artists participating in this movement, not one has yet approached the stature of an Abanindranath Tagore or a Jamini Roy. At the same time, there arose a movement of younger Indian painters concerned to bring the traditional values of Indian art into direct contact with the most advanced circles of Western painting. It is this latter movement of younger Indian painters which is represented by the works in the present exhibition.

Their effort to put themselves directly into contact with advanced Western art has meant that most of them have lived and worked in London, Paris or Rome for varying periods during the past decade. Apart from individual quality, two things distinguish their work above all others. The first of these is their work at its best, is in no sense 'synthetic'. Contrary to all previous stylistic solutions evolved in India during the last century in answer to the problem of the encounter between East and West, there is in the work of these few painters no longer any intellectual effort to find a common denominator between two previously existent and disparate styles; no longer the compulsion, to med particular elements into a new synthetic unity. Rather, each of them works in exactly the same way that any other significant modern artist works; each of them follows his own explorations into the possibilities of pictorial statement. The only difference, in this respect, is that they all happen to be Indians, aware of their own national experience, and capable of making use of this distinct experience within the context of the approach and attitude characteristic of all significant painting everywhere in the West during the past fifty years.

The second distinction shared by the painters of this Indian avant-garde is that their distinct national experience provides them with the opportunity to explore an area of painterly expression so for quite overlooked by all other modern painters. For reasons too complex to mention here, the various movements which together make up the general development of modern art in the West have remained quite unaffected by only one great tradition of world art -- that of India. It follows that what these few Indian painters have been doing over the past decade is to define and express one aspect of that multiple encounter between modern art in the West and art elsewhere to which no other group of painters has yet given any pictorial thought. In their own way, these few Indians may well be pioneers in that direct line stemming from the innovations of impressionism in France.

In brief, there has been a continuing dialogue between East and West in the various trends of Indian painting over the past century; but at each stage - until the last - the East has come into contact with a different 'face' of the West - usually at some remove in time. Ravi Varma met the Victorian face. Abanindranath Togore encountered the Pre-Raphaelites. Jamini Roy glanced at Matisse. Rabindranath Tagore consulted Freud. Amrita Shergil looked back to Post-Impressionism. George Keyt looked over Picasso's shoulder. But only in the last decade have a few younger Indian painters at lost been able to meet the West face to face.

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