The plurality of styles and of uneven dogmas that confront the beholder in the world of contemporary art must certainly confuse him. Yet a little serious contemplation on the historic development of art in the world following the Industrial Revolution will reveal that it is not so absurd or illogical a progression. The influences of diverse countries, of remote ages and of antiquated and primitive civilisations have been deeply felt and readily imbibed, say, within the period of the past hundred years with such amazing rapidity and eclectic fervour as never before. The inner intelligibility that is manifest in art-forms of the world has established itself. “Reduced to its simplest expression,” says Etienne Gilson, “the function of modern art has been to restore painting to its primitive and true function, which is to continue through man the creative activity of nature. In doing so, modern painting has destroyed nothing and condemned nothing that belongs to any one of the legitimate activities of man; it has simply regained the clear awareness of its own nature and recovered its own place among the creative activities of man.” And those who, either through disdain, or bedimmed eyes, or through sheer obstinacy deride contemporary forms of painting and sculpture are not justified in their relegation of all modern artists to the hell-pit. ”It is the common task of the intellectual and the artist,” says Rene Huyghe, “to make manifest the fundamental soul that determines the face of an age, but whereas the intellectual transforms it into a concept, the artist supplies us with a vision of it. Both have the same essential meaning, and history is full of cases in point to show how each confirms and illumines the other.”
And now coming to the contemporary Indian artist, a plea is made here for the need of sympathy and understanding especially in the light of the uneasy relationship between him and society: and it is to be stressed that he is essentially a serious individual trying in his own manner to contribute something of consequence to his community. Should his efforts prove un-fructuous, it shouldn’t at least concern us here. For behind the crisscross variety of styles, the seeming sophistication, the simplicity, the timidity, the piquancy, the hesitation, the revelry, the rebelliousness that he exhibits, we are witnessing the bankruptcy not so much of artist tenets or values themselves, but of those antiquated and dust-covered conceptions of what should be the nature of artistic reality. To denounce the apparent audacities of the present day is possibly to under-estimate their symptomatic significance; and in all probability may not we take this as a token, a preliminary sign of the emergence of a new vision, a new feeling, of a genuine unrest in the artist’s very soul in the act of his trying to discover for himself the fundamentals of his very being and attempting to find a satisfying meaning to the overpowering crisis of his age and social climate? This paper is a modest effort at understanding the psychology and the initial experiences of the younger generation of the painters and sculptors in India, of those, who may be called, or will be called, at some future date, the practitioners of the Third epoch, painters and sculptors who came into eminence or emerged after India’s independence. And let us digress here to state even at the risk of repeating of cliché: that newer epochs will be overtaken by still newer ones, new visions by newer and still newer visions, for it is in the very nature of art is to constantly revitalize and renew itself: and yet, in essence, art is one, always an addition to reality. Art, like religion, necessarily differs in modality and emphasis from age to age.
The First Epoch in modern Indian art belongs to what is now called the Bengal School led by Abanindranath Tagore; the Second to independent and stylistically divergent painters like Jamini Roy and Amrita Sher-Gil; and the Third to those many painters, too numerous to be named individually, too varied in their outlook, those artists who emerged round about the fifties of this century turning for inspiration not only to their own primitive, pre historic and the more archaic and early miniature traditions, but also to the makers of the new patrimony - Klee, Mondrian, Miro, Vilon, Brancusi, Moore, Orozco, Marini, Giacometti, and the host of these eclectic masters of the post-impressionist period. This shift in accepting contemporaneous modes of expression from Europe, is because of modality and emphasis of modern western art has greater affinities with their own bearing it is more kindered to them than to the preceding generation that was brought up on Victorian academism, on Impressionism and on a general romantic amateurism, “projected far from reality into the dream world of an idealised Indian past.” The significant painters after 1947 are men like Hebbar, Husain, Bendre, Souza, Padamsee, Gade, Subramanian, Ram Kumar, Sankho Chowdhury, Davierwalla, Raman Patel, Chavda, Raza, Gaitonde, Ara, Samant, P.T. Reddy, K.S. Kulkarni, Satish Gujral, Chintamoni Kar; this is by no means an exhaustive list, there are more indeed. “Expressionism” says Herman Goetz, “with its simplified forms, strong colours and exaggerated emphasis, corresponded to an Indian technique of painting, especially the Rajput style. The musicality of many modern Western artists, as for example Hodler, Gauguin, Matisse, Modigliani, Laurencin, Picasso, corresponded to the basic principle of Hindu art which derives all figurative art from dancing and this from music…the symbolism of unconscious exploited by the Surrealists corresponded to an impulse which goes right through Indian religion and art, which found its expression above all tantricism.”
Soon after Independence, the modern spirit has asserted itself with incredible speed. Young painters and sculptors, thanks to improved methods of art education and practical training have had their aesthetic perception quickened. And we may also mention here facts of significance: Bendre, Sankho Chowdhuri and Subramanian teach at the Faculty of Fine Arts, Baroda University, while Dr Mulk Raj Anand, the novelist and critic of repute, has been appointed Tagore Professor of fine Arts and Literature at the University of Panjab. The emerging younger painters and sculptors are on the average, more literate than their predecessors; and literacy kindles a greater zest for artistic and critical knowledge, and in the decade following independence, the artist’s introspective tendencies have helped to revise and review many accustomed concepts in a fresh and revealing manner. Also Indian artists are making greater contacts with all modes of contemporaneous artistic products in the world through traveling and reading. Geography, and history too, have shed their boundaries. As J.P. Hodin observes “how far would we get if a critique drew a geographical boundary round each country? There isnospecial English, Swiss or American criticism beside that universally valid. If an assessment of value disregarded both the greater masters of the past and the truly creative artists of the present, the results obtained would inevitably give false perspectives. The national features in art must certainly be observed, but they are on another plane (what is Spanish in Goya and French in Renoir, for example; when we come to El Greco or Chagall this narrow approach meets with difficulties) - the plane of national tradition, determinative environment, psychological and geographical idiosyncrasy. They do not touch the question of genius and quality.” The Indian artist’s literacy, growing as it is, is responsible for his increasing verbal and visual articulation; though it should not be taken to mean that the lack of literacy is immediate, and in all cases relevant, to the creating of fine works of art. What I have to emphasise is that the definite increase in artistic theorising, however misapplied they may seem, the introspective self-induced states, the loud discussions, the declaration of ideologies and manifestoes at one-man shows, and the resorting to the system of grouping together in a bond of shared ideals and common aims, are all symptomatic of the artists of Third Epoch. It cannot be otherwise: the upsurge of contemplative and philosophic tendencies results in complex mental attitudes, which cannot be helped, but must be allowed to follow their own logical, or, for that matter, illogical conclusions. “It is true”, says Edgar Wind, “that peoples without an alphabet have produced great art, although it would be wrong to assume that they were uninstructed; they learned orally from magicians, bards or priests. It so happens, however, that our own art is for peoples who do not have an alphabet; and it is known from historical evidence that great art has been produced for them by artists of the highest degree of literacy. Having eaten from the tree of knowledge, we cannot slip backwards into paradise; the gate is locked and the angel behind us, but the garden may be open at the opposite end.”
The precursors of the Third Epoch are the promoters, anyway, of the new intellectual adventure which will surely influence future decades. And when we turn and look behind us at the mainstreams of the Indian tradition, stretching over so many millennia, it reveals its distinctive virtue of possessing great resilience and adaptability to changing periods and influences. The Aryans, the Dravidians, the Greeks, the Huns, the Parthians, the Sakas, the Kushanas, the Turks, the Mongols, have in essence, contributed to the enrichment of our many-faceted cultural inheritance. And should we not, therefore, in a spirit of optimism, expect contemporary Indian painters and sculptors who draw inspiration from the nurseries of modern Western art movements and retain their intrinsic powers of assimilation or absorption? Undoubtedly, the art of this age will be more radically different from what preceded it, for when was there before an age of hopes and despair such as this, when was the glory and anarchy so brilliantly manifest as in this mechanical civilisation. “if the growth of meta physics, or ritual and iconography never succeeded wholly in owning the voice of humanism in Indian art”, the surge of the new visions in the field of aesthetic speculation and artistic doctrines cannot so easily endanger it. Artistic ferment goes on throughout the world and “India too has not been able to escape this fate. Her art was of course never so rigidly fixed as we are often prone to imagine it. It is true that Indian Middle Ages championed the thesis that the luxurious art of their massive cathedrals had been established from eternity by the gods. But this canon had only been valid for about a thousand years (i.e. for about as long as Greco-Roman art), had arisen with the feudal system and collapsed with it. On the whole India in the course of the centuries, in spite of many basic common themes determined by the milieu, has known more fundamentally different styles of art than Europe.”
A period of transition like ours is also the period of intellectual and creative preparation: the period of pioneers. It is a time of personal credos and of seeking for more fruitful means of expression, the effects of which may be controversial and alternate between exultation and condemnation; but it demonstrates that artists are no longer in a dispassionate state about themselves or their work and in reacting to what seems to them sterile and irrelevant emerge with protests and innovations. In its seething excitement, in its very turbulence, lays it significance.
Published in Lalit Kala Contemporary, 1965