Like all categories Indian and artistic, the one of Indian art is characteristically, if somewhat necessarily, quixotic: if there is, first, something like art, then what is Indian easily occupies volumes. But more than that, what complicates any consideration on Indian art is the inherent, underlying danger of an easy and subtle orientation of critical thoughts and practices to the rhetoric of progressive teleology. Art, if there is art, never simply evolves as a reaction to socio-economic impulses and though of course there are influences, art cannot be comfortably conceived as a distinct domain exterior to the currents of culture and economics.
Having said that, it is imperative, however, to qualify that even as no art form comes into being as exterior to cultural impetus the influences of some forces on existing art forms do drastically alter their basis of production and the ways in which they are conceived and consumed. In thinking of Indian art – specifically painting – during the Raj, one cannot but come to this conclusion despite the above mentioned considerations. The influence of European modes of painting and perception may, therefore, be likened to the influence of gunpowder on warfare: devastating in many ways, yes, but generative nonetheless of unimaginably myriad, hybrid forms and techniques of production, dissemination and consumption.
Of course, when we talk of the influence of European modes we do not simply imply an Anglicisation of Indian painting. The conflux of European realism with subcontinental modes of the same have occurred steadily from the seventeenth century onwards as trade and then colonialism brought arts and craft to the courts of Hindustan. Be that as it may, what interests us here is, in those very terms, the Anglicisation of Indian painting in the latter half of the nineteenth century and the reactions against that in the decades that followed.
By Anglicisation we refer to the full fledged adoption of the then dominant modes of European Realism by Indian painters and to the internalisation of its paraphernalia by Indian consumers. By reactions against these we refer to the aesthetics of dissent conceived and developed by the next – or, as we regard them now, Modernist and avant-garde – generation of Indian painters and commentators. We must remember, however, that even as the adoption of European Realism privileged certain forms and techniques, it brought not a negation but a synthesis of mores and motifs with existing ones. Indeed, what Meenakshi Mukherjee opines on the Indian novel would be worth considering at this juncture.
It is a critical platitude to say the Indian novel is a derivative form, imitated from the West. This is only superficially true. A form cannot be superimposed on a culture where there is no appropriate ethos to sustain its content.
The reactions, therefore, to Indian Victorian painting must be thought of in this light, both as radical in their departures yet a bit – only a bit – exaggerated in their sense of change and rupture. In many ways that was the underlying condition of much of Modernism throughout the globe and so, in focussing on Modernist Indian painting, we wish to generate discourse on not just its trajectories and its linkages with Modernist movements internationally but also the ruptures it creates and evades. These ruptures we understand as realisations of dissents and locate in their particular contexts as manifestations of anti-colonial, nationalistic politics. We are, of course, aware that Indian art, unlike Indian party politics, did not have any comprehensive manifesto and through this issue we hope to engender more nuanced appreciations of the diversely un-unified ethos of Modernist Indian aesthetics. We remain acutely conscious of our shortcomings both as form and medium, but we hope that we will not fail entirely in revitalising discourse on these remarkable, and somewhat forgotten, facets of Indian painting.
Editor (Issue 1, Volume 5)