First published in Panorama of Indian Painting, 1968.
In the long past, the geographical position of the Indian sub- continent was naturally inducive to cultural isolation and insularity. This brought about a certain inbreeding of artistic idealism. But the gifted Indian people had at the same time cultivated the ability to accept and assimilate experiences other than indigenous in the sphere of visual and plastic arts. They allowed such fusion that did not compromise the artistic identity. Thus Indian art in general has been an expression of a way of life and a unique civilisation. In the long stretch of time, the practice of the arts built up a unity of Indian tradition-tradition of architecture, sculpture, dance, music and painting. The continuity of the tradition had, however, a setback centuries earlier than our times-certainly so in painting.
By the 18th century, India was in the melting pot politically, with diverse forces crossing swords and intriguing against one another for supremacy. The great Mughal empire already on its last legs conceded the Diwani of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa to the English East India Company. Bengal was ravaged by famine and mis-rule of the Company and the Nawabs. The vacuum in Punjab politics paved the way for the rise of the Sikhs. Foreign adventurers-Portuguese, Dane and Dutch, French and English- were marking their time to strike for ultimate political power. The English indeed had entrenched themselves to take the best advantage of the situation and to launch their agonisingly long imperialist regime.
Art cannot flourish when life is unstable. In the foregoing state of instability, Indian painting followed a path of decline and finally degenerated into soulless imitative skill of artisans only. Quite a few talented Indians, however, became adepts in the current style of European painting and in the techniques of oil and water colour. Raja Ravi Varma of Kerala gained much reputation in the period, by his paintings of mythological subjects and portraiture. Patronage of painters of the then popular genre painting was confined to the landed aristocracy and wealthy merchants and to some extent to the bureaucrats of the ruling British. Mention must, however, be made here of the small group of enlightened Englishmen who came to learn and appreciate the aesthetic values of Indian art and save it from decay and oblivion. Best known among them are Cunningham, Fergusson, Cousins, Havell and Percy Brown.
Towards the end of the 19th century, a positive reaction commenced against the staleness of the degenerate school of painting and time was ripe for the rise of truly Indian painting. The pioneers looked back into the heritage for inspiration. Abanindranath, an associate of Havell, conscientiously tried to re-create a national art style in painting. He and his worthy pupils assiduously experimented in techniques of Indian miniature, frescoes, scroll and pata paintings as well as other Oriental styles of painting, like Persian, Japanese and Chinese. For subjects they delved into the Indian classics and mythology and the romantic past.
This new artistic faith spread far and wide in the country. The so called Bengal School of Painting, with centres in Calcutta and Santiniketan, wielded great influence on the art schools in the subcontinent. Naturally enough, the exponents of the School, charged with the newly awakened sense of nationalism, tried to copy and imitate old masterpieces of Indian art, aiming at revival. But no sooner the romantic renaissance phase came to an end than the School readily yielded to stronger modern inspirations, the movement fulfilling the aim of regaining the lost self-respect of the nation in the form of its cultural heritage.
Now came the time for a more critical approach to painting as a craft and painting as an art first and foremost. The emotional impact of the Bengal School settling down and the over-emphasis on the dead past withdrawn, there was room for intellectual manoeuvre and analysis of our experience and understanding. We were actually on the threshold of the modern phase of Indian painting.
For the first time, we began to hear ‘painterly painting’. It is almost impossible to explain what is understood by the term 'painterly', but it is safe to assume that it lays accent on the manner the pigment is handled and on the fact that colour by itself is an important element in modern painting, independent of subject matter, if any. The concepts of easel painting-with stress on narrative themes-ceased to interest the artists of this era. The altered social context must be understood first for an intelligent understanding of modern Indian painting.
It will be correct to say that modern art has made its impact with telling effect in a large way in the post-independence period. The reason is not far to seek. The historic event of attaining freedom after hundreds of years of foreign domination released a mighty force of suppressed creative energy in all directions and no less in the area of plastic and visual arts. The newly awakened Indian mind was not content to contain within the barriers of her frontiers. The temperament of the nation was attuned to internationalism. Indians travelled abroad more widely than ever before. Cultural exchange with friendly foreign countries became the order of the day.
A two-way traffic in the exchange brought painters face to face with modern international trends in the field of painting. The cultural isolation and insularity of the past began crumbling and young Indian painters of talent readily responded to the climate of the jet age and space flight. The gospel of democracy and socialism, preached by our leaders, left the painters free to choose and experiment.
Stale traditionalism was rejected in preference to progressivism. Modern Indian painting is a complete reversal and final break away from the past. It is largely an experience, unlike anything native to the soil.
What is modern painting? It is not easy to explain in words what belongs to shape, colour and form. Seeing is learning in the visual art and one must look at a work of art with eyes and head and heart. Like scientists, inventors and explorers of our time, the great modern artists are pioneers of a new school of adventurous painting. Modern art reflects the complexity of modern life. We may well ask, however, how complex is modern Indian life as compared to life in the West. Life in the West, we must remember, has faced two devastating World Wars and other crucial problems of their civilisation ; the effects of advanced Capitalism, revolutionary Communist and barbaric Fascism; the effects of industrialisation and technological developments ; the discoveries in the realm of the subconscious mind. We in India are just emerging from a state of medievalism. There is a substantial difference, therefore, in the complexity of modern life in the West and here. But the differenceisin the degree of intensity. Modern Indian painters are city dwellersandnotfree from the complexities of modern life. Moreover, intellectually they accept the universality of modern art, as much as they share the experience of modern man.
Painting today is not confined to the traditional application of canvas, colour and brush, due to technological inventions of new media. In fact, it will soon be a misnomer to call a modern artist a painter. He is today something of a technician with a creative vision. Materials like plastics, leather, moulded glass, ceramics and stainless steel are extensively in use in architecture and domestic appliances and are within easy experience of familiarity with the Western artist. He is able to make sensitive use of such material for a creative collage, as a substitute to orthodox painting.
The same, however, in the Indian context appears forced and uninspiring, as the acquaintance and understanding of the Indian artist of the new material is nil. Here then is a question of sensibility and sincerity, which make or mar any creative work. Understandably, the Indian painter does not find his traditional artforms adequate to express the inner tension of modern art. In his striving to find acceptable idiom to present his creation, which is contemporary in spirit, the less gifted among them borrow recognisable phrases from the international vocabulary rather than strike an ingenious note. This tendency takes away much from the originality of modem Indian painting. With few exceptions, facile sophistry substitutes searching inventiveness.
Notwithstanding the uncertain popularity, modern painters are widening Indian awareness of modern art. In its wake, the movement has drawn a sizable coterie and, as they always do, the snobs also have come in. It has become chic and avant-garde to admire modem painting. One comes across at exhibitions dreamy young men and soulful women declaring: "Oh I the painter has a statement to make."
Modern painting in India has its own problems to be resolved. Aesthetically, it has to be weaned from overpowering foreign influence and helped to discover an identifiable, authentic style. There is the question of patronage. The scope of patronage being limited at home, the modern painter is obliged to seek recognition and clientele abroad. This has naturally brought a keen sense of competition and given an edge to the movement. Our artists have held their own successfully in foreign art centres. But it has also meant, perhaps unconsciously, catering to the taste of foreign patrons.
The modern movement has raised the standard of the much neglected graphic art in India. The medium is now well on its way to becoming a powerful means of artistic expression. Modern Indian painters are also exploring the possibilities of application of ceramics in art. The functions of painter, sculptor and graphic artist are progressively merging in order to realise the synthetic experience of creative art.
The emerging situation in modern Indian painting or rather modern Indian art is now static. Further progress will depend, however, on how much intelligent interest the enlightened section of the Indian public will evince in it, for its development as an art-form with a national identity recognisably Indian.
The Lalit Kala Akademi-the National Academy of Art- has an unavoidable responsibility in shaping the destiny of modern Indian painting. As the supreme national organisation for fostering and promoting the visual and plastic arts, it must exercise a healthy influence in the development of contemporary Indian painting.