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Art & artists

Modernism, postcolonialism and Indian art

— September 2015

Article read level: Academic

Associated media

K.G. Subramanyan, Alligator, ca. 1960s, wood and leather. Collection of the Faculty of Fine Arts, The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda (artwork © the artist; image © Sonal Khullar)

What has modernism meant in India?

Worldly Affiliations: Artistic Practice, National Identity and Modernism in India 1930 – 1990 by Sonal Khullar

Sonal Khullar’s Worldly Affiliations, Artistic Practice, National Identity and Modernism in India 1930 – 1990 is an invaluable and deeply researched account of four major artists in India, in the context of their personal exploration of both theory and practice. The book examines the relationship of modernism and Indian culture. Khullar argues that modernism in India is a concept that has been associated with ‘inchoate utopian’ thinking as she calls it, as well as ways of representing the world that are ‘associated with Europe, elitism and exclusion’.  She asks how modernism, a European art, can be used to look critically at  a postcolonial continent.

Various earlier writers are invoked, including the  Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht as well as left-wing political writer and critic, Raymond Williams, Palestinian intellectual Edward Said and Marxist humanist, Franz Fanon. She shows that in India in 1967 there was a dramatic rejection of  ideas of the ‘universality’ of art as promoted by American art critic Clement Greenberg. From here she looks at the different paths taken by modernist artists. 

Khullar looks at how the idea of ‘national identity’ points to the relationships of Indian artists with India itself, not as nationalists, but rather as artists exploring their heritage and immediate surrounding in different ways.

The book discusses four artists who are well known in India, and have exhibited in the West: Amrita Sher-Gil, Maqbool Fida Husain, K.G. Subramanyan and Bhupen Khakhar.  Each chapter carefully documents the artist’s exploration of artistic theory as well as their distinctly different engagements with Indian culture, ranging from Sher-Gil’s embrace of the paintings of Ajanta caves and Mughal and Sultanate painting, Husain’s appeal to the street, Subramanyan’s use of terracotta and literally ‘earth,’ and Khakhar’s ‘common man’.  

Khullar argues that she is countering ‘existing narratives of modernism committed to national cultural frameworks’ and offers instead a ‘cosmopolitan modernism’. She suggests that modernism offers continuity in the art of the subcontinent before and after 1947, the traditional period break in Indian art history. This was the time of Partition, when Pakistan became a separate country. Arguably, however, the fact of Partition between India and Pakistan is so profound in India, that the omission of any discussion of it contradicts the author’s emphasis on the importance of context in art history. The work of artists such as Nilima Sheikh shows how Indian modernism was profoundly shaped by Partition.

At the beginning and end of the book, Khullar touches on what she calls ‘the persistence of modernism’ in more recent art in a discussion of the first Indian pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2011 and the Kochi-Muziris Biennale of 2012. This digression into the present stretches her argument too far.  While artists Sheela Gowda  and Atul Dodiya   have modernist references and structures in their work, the content of their work is not specifically modernist, being ironic, political, layered, and engaged with the present world.  Likewise the performance artist Nikhil Chopra can more productively be understood in the context of masquerade and other current ideas.

Worldly Affiliations Artistic Practice, National Identity and Modernism in India 1930 – 1990 by Sonal Khullar, is published by University of California Press, 2015. 368 pp., 104 colour illus (hbk).  ISBN 978 0520 2836 71


Susan Platt
Art historian

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