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The Triumph of Modernism (India’s Artists and The Avant-Garde 1922-1947)

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The Triumph of Modernism (India’s Artists and The Avant-Garde 1922-1947)
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Item Code: NAF882
Author: Partha Mitter
Publisher: Oxford University Press, New Delhi
Language: English
Edition: 2007
ISBN: 9780195693362
Pages: 272 (Throughout Color and B/W Illustrations)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details: 10 inch X 7.5 inch
weight of the book: 1 kg

About the Book

This richly illustrated book explores the contested history of art and nationalism in the tumultuous last decades of British rule in India. Western avantgarde art inspired a powerful weapon of resistance among India artists in their struggle against colonial repression, and it is this complex interplay of Western and modernism and Indian nationalism that forms the core of this book.

The Triumph of Modernism takes the surprisingly unremarked Bauhaus exhibition held in Calcutta in 1922 as marking the arrival of European modernism in India. Partha Mitter examines the decline of oriental art, and the rise of naturalism as well as that of modernism in the 1920s, and the relationship between primitivism and modernism in Indian art: with Mahatma Gandhi inspiring the Indian elite to discover the peasant, the people of the soil began to be portrayed by artists as innocent children of nature A distinct feminine voice also evolved through the rise of female artists. Finally, the author probes the ambivalent relationship between Indian nationalism and Imperial patronage of the arts.

About the Author

Partha Mittar is Emeritius Professor of Art History at the University of Sussex. His books include Much Maligned Monsters: A History of European Reactions to Indian Art (1977), Art and nationalism in colonial India, 18501922 (1994) and Indian Art (2001).



The French philosopher JeanPaul Sartre once stated that Surrealism was stolen from the Europeans by a Black [the poet Airne Cesaire] who used it brilliantly as a tool of Universal Revolution. Sartres admiring and yet enigmatic comment encapsulates the problematic relationship between nonWestern artists and the international avantgarde, which is enmeshed in a complex discourse of authority, hierarchy and power. Even cultural subversion, as suggested above, prompts the common perception of nonWestern modernism as a derivative one, a phenomenon that I would like to christen the Picasso manque syndrome. Let me elaborate with an example. The English art historian W. G. Archer wrote an influential account of Indian modernism. His analysis of the painting of Gaganendranath Tagore, one of the first Indian modernists, consisted almost entirely of tracing Picassos putative influence on him. Un surprisingly, Archer drew the conclusion that Gaganendranath was un cubiste manque; in other words, his derivative works, based on a cultural misunderstanding, were simply bad imitations of Picasso (see p. I8). Behind this seemingly innocent conclusion rests the whole weight of Western art history. We need to unpack its ramifications here.

Stylistic influence, as we are all aware, has been the cornerstone of art historical discourse since the Renaissance. Nineteenthcentury art history, in the age of Western domination, extended it to world art, ranking it according to the notion of progress, with Western art at its apex. Influence acquired an added resonance in colonial art history. For Archer, the use of the syntax of Cubism, a product of the West, by an Indian artist, immediately locked him into a dependent relationship, the colonized mimicking the superior art of the colonizer. Indeed influence has been the key epistemic tool in studying the reception of Western art in the nonWestern world: if the product is too close to its original source, it reflects slavish mentality; if on the other hand, the imitation is imperfect, it represents a failure. In terms of power relations, borrowing by artists from the peripheries becomes a badge of inferiority. In contrast, the borrowings of European artists are described approvingly either as affinities or dismissed as inconsequential, as evident in the primitivism exhibition held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1985. The very subtitle of the exhibition, affinity of the tribal and the modern, characterizes Picassos emulation of African sculpture as no more than a mere formal affinity with the primitive) In short, Picassos integrity was in no way compromised by the borrowing, in contrast to the colonial artist Gaganendranath.

Here, in the context of affinity versus emulation, we need to explore whether influence as an analytical tool has outlived its usefulness. I can do no better than invoke Michael Baxandalls magisterial interrogation of this obsession among art historians, or the anxiety of influence, to use Harold Blooms celebrated phrase. As Baxandall puts it succinctly, the artist responds to circumstance, making an intentional selection from a range of sources. This is a purposeful rather than passive activity, which involves making conscious choices. There have been other art historians who have proposed a more agonistic relationship between the artists and their sources than allowed for in more standard art histories. Recently, the artist as an active conscious agent and the sovereignty of the art object have been reiterated by Thomas Crow in his penetrating discourse on The Intelligence of Arts.

One of the problems besetting the discourse of modernism has been its Vasarian art historical foundations, which pursue a linear trajectory according to the dictates of a relentless teleology that does not allow for dissidence, difference and competition. John Clark has called Western modernism a closed system of discourse, which cannot accommodate new discourses that modernisms outside the West give rise to.6 And yet, what is most exhilarating about modernisms across the globe is their plurality, heterogeneity and difference, what one may describe as a messy quality lacking symmetry which makes them all the more exciting and rich with possibilities.

No one can deny that the flexible revolutionary syntax of Cubism became synonymous with the global avantgarde. Nor would one disagree with Adrian Stokes that Cezannes Bathers, which inspired Picassos Demoiselles dAvignon, and turned the European artists attention to African sculpture in repudiation of classical taste, opened up a new space for cosmopolitanism. Nor can one ignore the achievements of the critics of modernism from Walter Benjamin and Carl Einstein through Clement Greenberg to postwar scholars of social history of art, postmodernists and proponents of visual culture. Here I am simply concerned with the art historical representations of nonmetropolitan forms of modernism.? Set against the originary discourse of the avantgarde, emanating from metropolitan centres such as Paris, other modernisms are dismissed as peripheral to its triumphal progress. Yet, the centreperiphery relationship is not one of geography but of power and authority that affects not forms and ideas necessarily acquire a new meaning in the new environment. But what one must remember is that these exchanges of ideas and forms need not necessarily be a question of domination and dependence nor do they represent a loss of self.

Colonial mentality asserts cultural transmissions to be a oneway process flowing from the Occident. Yet one could offer one documented instance of crossfertilization in which the West has been an enthusiastic recipient. This is the persistent fascination with Eastern thought that has periodically surfaced in the West in different guises. Raymond Schwab, who named the impact of Indian thought on nineteenthcentury Romanticism the Oriental Renaissance, considered this challenge to the West to be as radical as the first Renaissance. IS This critical tradition continued in the Transcendental Idealism of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche down to Heidegger and the twentiethcentury Existentialists.16 In the field of modernist art we find three influential figures, the philosopher Henri Bergson, the art historian Wilhelm Worringer and the novelist Leo Tolstoy, all of them intellectually engaging with the alternative tradition represented by Indian philosophy.?


This preamble leads us to the topic of the book: the rise of modernist art in India. An ambitious exhibition of the works of Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky and other Bauhaus artists held in Calcutta in 1922 marks the beginning of the avantgarde in India.I8 This first phase of modernism, which was an artistic expression of resistance to colonial rule, came to an end around 1947, the year of Indian independence. Before we proceed, let us remind ourselves of the useful distinction between modernity as a global phenomenon with wide political, economic and social implications, and the more specific aesthetic movement known as modernism, which has engaged fruitfully and critically with the predicament of modernity. Global modernity as such arrived in India with the consolidation of the British Empire in the nineteenth century. Introduction of art schools, art exhibitions, the processes of mechanical reproduction and other modern institutions in India was part of Westernization, which transformed artists status and outlook as well as art patronage. 19 In the 1920S, during a further paradigm shift, the radical formalist language of modernism offered Indian artists such as Rabindranath Tagore and Jarmni Roy a new weapon of anticolonial resistance. In their intellectual battle with colonialism, they readily found allies among the Western avantgarde critics of urban industrial capitalism, leading them to engage for the first time with global aesthetic issues.

The modernists idolized rural India as the true site of the nation, evolving artistic primitivism as an antithesis to colonial urban values. For the artists Sunayani Devi and Amrita SherGil, village India became a surrogate for their own predicament as women within the wider nationalist struggle. In parallel with the primitivists, artists belonging to a naturalist counterstream, engaged with quotidian life, some of them expressing deep sympathies for the underclass. Where both these streams that emerged in the 1920S and 30S were in tacit agreement was in their common distaste for history painting and the master narrative of nationalism that had obsessed the previous generation; Yet strange to say, historicism continued to flourish, partly because of Raj espousal of Indian cultural nationalism as a safe alternative to active and violent resistance. Its final flowering took place in the decoration of the new imperial capital in Delhi and the India House in London. Finally, as a coda, I touch upon the changing nature of modernism in the closing decade of the empire which anticipated developments in postcolonial India. War, famine, peasant rebellions and widespread political unrest radicalized artists who looked beyond personal validation towards active participation in communist and other popular movements as they swore allegiance to the formalist vanguard of Paris.

In this pioneering phase of Indian modernism, the interactions between the global and the local were played out in the urban space of colonial culture, hosted by the intelligentsia who acted as a surrogate for the nation. Western expansion gave rise to a series of hybrid cosmopolises around the globe: Calcutta, Bombay, Shanghai, Singapore, Sao Paulo, Mexico City, Hanoi, Cairo and Beirut, to name the best known.: The two cosmopolitan cities in India, Bombay and Calcutta, which acted as the locus of colonial encounters, were beneficiaries as well as interlocutors of colonial culture. I have chosen to explore Calcutta as a hybrid cosmopolis here because of its pioneering role in Indian modernism. In the city, the nineteenthcentury intellectual movement known as the Bengal Renaissance represented a hybrid intellectual enterprise underpinned by a dialogic relationship between the colonial language, English, and the modernized vernacular, Bengali. V The Bengali elite, the Bhadralok, who took to the new colonial learning with alacrity, had less commitment to traditional Hindu culture on account of its ambiguous status in the caste hierarchy. Its role as a marginal group in traditional Hindu society had telling parallels with the postemancipation Jewish intellectuals of Vienna, who became major players in twentiethcentury modernisrn.

The Bengali intelligentsia negotiated cosmopolitan modernity largely through the printed medium, since few of them had any direct physical contact with Europeans. Yet they were deeply imbued with Western literature and Enlightenment values. Modernity created a globally imagined community based upon print culture, whose members may never have known one another personally, and yet shared a corpus of ideas on modernity To explain this communitys critical engagement with modern ideas, I propose here the concept of the virtual cosmopolis. The hybrid city of the imagination engendered elective affinities between the elites of the centre and the periphery on the level of intellect and creativity. Their shared outlook was possible not only through the printed media but also through hegemonic languages such as English and Spanish spread by colonial rule. r n sum, the encounters of the colonial intelligentsia with modernity were in Acted through virtual cosmopolitanism. One of the products of such encounters was global primitivism and the common front made against urban industrial capitalism and the ideology of progress. As r argue later, primitivism was not antimodern; it was a critical form of modernity that affected the peripheries no less than the West. Primitivists did not deny the importance of technology in contemporary life; they simply refused to accept the teleological certainty of modernity.

The Western primitivists were chiefly concerned with the predicament of urban existence, whereas Indian artists used primitivism as an effective weapon against colonial culture.? The interest of the Cubists in African art as an aspect of primitivism has been thoroughly explored. Though radical in its formal innovations, early Cubism was less radical politically than, let us say, certain expressions of nonobjective art in their development of Aat nonfigurative art, Kandinsky and others sought affinities with the decorative art of the primitive and nonWestern peoples untouched by Renaissance naturalism. However, to my mind even more important was their radical quest for an alternative to materialism. That is when they turned to Eastern, particularly Indian Buddhist and Hindu philosophy, which is described by David Pan as the intellectual context of the abstract method Their quest, they felt, was met less by institutional Christianity than by a form of syncretism that offered fresh existential and epistemological possibilities. It would of course be an oversimplification to consider these painters as merely reproducing Eastern spiritual concepts in their works. They engaged with Eastern philosophy critically, their interpretations of Eastern thought were in the light of their own sense of crisis in the West and deeply felt creative needs that went beyond mere fashion) I intend to show how in very many diverse and interesting ways such primitivism had its counterpart in the colonial world of India where artists saw parallels between their own resistance to Western rationality and urban modernity, and that of the Western modernists. Global critical modernity has multilateral and multiaxial origins and reasons; its global impact forces us to revise a simple notion of cultural in Auence as a oneway Aow of ideas from the West to other cultures.

Finally, a personal note: why did r decide to write this book? One urgent reason was to understand what modernism has meant in the culture of my origins. The other reason, as someone who has lived most of his life in the West, is to make a wider transnational audience aware of this littleknown story of Indian modernism. Contrary to colonial representations of the nonWest as the recipient in a long oneway civilizing process, global modernity has been a twoway dialogic transaction in which the enriching role of the peripheries remains imperfectly understood. Acknowledgement of the cosmopolitan and heterogeneous character of the avantgarde may help us to break down the Wests parthenogenic selfimage, enabling it to gain a deeper understanding of its own self in relation to its significant others. This may well be a celebration of plurality rather than the reinscription of a monolithic canon



  Prologue 7
  The Formalist Prelude 15
  The Indian Discourse of Primitivism 29
I Two Pioneering Women Artists 36
II Rabindranath Tagores Vision of Art and the Community 65
III Jamini Roy and Art for the Community 100
  Naturalists in the Age of Modernism 123
I The Regional Expressions of Academic Naturalism 125
II From Orientalism to a New aturalism: K. Venkatappa and Deviprosad Roy Chowdhury 163
  Contested Nationalism: The New Delhi and India House Murals 177
  Epilogue 226
  References 228
  Bibliography 256
  Acknowledgements 261
  Photo Acknowledgements 263
  Index 264

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