Under my byline

Master of art

Posted in Books, Q&A by Rrishi on 16 December 2007

An interview with art historian Partha Mitter, whose latest book looks at the pioneers of modernism in Indian art

The Triumph of Modernism: India’s Artists and the Avant-Garde 1922-1947
Partha Mitter
pp 271

A writer on art whom one actually wants to read — this is a relief. Partha Mitter is wonderfully lucid, and his arguments both surefooted and agile. This professor emeritus of art history has written extensively on Indian art from the 19th century onwards, and his seminal book Much Maligned Monsters: A History of European Reactions to Indian Art (1977) opened up a field. In his new book, Mitter traces the development of modernism in Indian art from its beginnings in a category-breaking 1922 exhibition of European Impressionist paintings in Calcutta to the time of Indian independence.

Why did India have to wait until 1922 to be faced with these ideas? After all, the Indian elite, who were producers as well as consumers of art, travelled to Europe and were familiar with what was happening there.

Yes, Indians were travelling. The thing is that [causes] didn’t come together. And then Rabindranath Tagore travelled and in 1918 he went to the Bauhaus, where he requested Klee, Kandinsky, all these artists, to send their works to India. Also, I think that in the 1920s there are profound changes in India. Mahatma Gandhi’s entry into Indian politics led to recognition of remote areas, localities, [the peasant]. Before that there was a pan-Indian urban, nationalist… the lawyers, the doctors, the professionals.

Were artists just waiting for a vocabulary in which to put these things?

Indeed, indeed. For the first time there is the consciousness of popular art, the art of the poor. Simple, bold, powerful, you see, folk art — so that vocabulary was being created, as opposed to the over-ornate Victorian art or academic artists. It was a moral question for them: simplicity of village life as opposed to complexity of urban existence.

It’s kind of a tug of two sides. It must have been awful for them.

It never was. I can give you one example. Jamini Roy to me is the greatest artist of that period. It’s a very powerful collective art — art of the community. He was sent to the village during the war, writing letters from there saying “Oh, I’m bored out of my mind — when can I come back to Calcutta?” So this is an interesting contradiction. And he makes this moral contrast between decadence of colonial cities and the village. It’s a romanticisation, but it’s also what the Marxists were saying in Germany, that alienation is caused by capitalist urban modernity. Even Gandhi was saying that.

I found it exciting that there was a sense of global intellectual community.

In the colonial period print culture, print capitalism, newspapers, books are what brings the country together. I’m suggesting that globally, you had a sort of indirect link. I call it “virtual cosmopolis”. Let me take Nirad C Chaudhuri. [He] was brought up in a remote Kishorganj little village, and he was reading back then, incredible wonderful French, Latin books. How did he do it? He never saw a white face until he was in his 20s or 30s. He had a whole world of ideas. That’s because I feel that it was through the virtual cosmopolis he was able to reach out globally and create this link.

In the period you’ve written about, the encounter was among the elite, an educated, sophisticated elite. That’s no longer true.

Indeed. I would say the great change amongst artists was with the coming of the Progressives, I mean [including] Husain, these people were not from the elite. Before that all elite and certainly high elite didn’t have to sell paintings.

Why was Indian modernism so short-lived? Or has it survived in some form?

I’m talking about the ’20s to ’40s, the very first phase. From the ’40s you have a real engagement with modernism, all the way till later when it sort of collapsed. But then it became contemporary.

What happened was at end of empire people like Souza and Husain were coming and then you have the Nehruvian, I call it secular utopia, Stein and Corbusier, also the Lalit Kala. All these were very optimistic developments. Of course, by the ’80s all these things begin to fall apart. [There’s a move] away from pure abstraction and non-figurative art. Narrative was restored in the works of Ghulam Sheikh and Bhupen Khakar, so this is the next phase that modernism grants.

Indian art is not political in the same way any more.

India in the very end of the Nehruvian era faced a crisis of confidence. Then it had to refashion itself. And that refashioning took into account the fact that religion was an important factor. Nehru didn’t understand the importance of religion. By ignoring it or brushing it under the carpet, ultimately it reasserts itself. And that happens a lot. Unresolved issues ’47 and onwards, leading to lots of things. That’s why you see a resurgence of myth, of more traditional ideas which had not been taken into account earlier.

Let’s look at it globally. The Palestinian movement, the experiments of Nkrumah or Nasser, all the change, you might call it fundamentalism, but I think it’s a kind of universal, very extreme religion to fashion modern movements. We talk of terrorism; [which] is basically people using something similar. One is almost afraid this might be late capitalism and its fractures, which is partly true. Again, the postcolonial had not quite resolved the world order. The famous symbol 9-11 challenging the whole Western hegemony…

It’s inverted the whole centre-periphery idea.

Yes, centre-periphery is now undergoing challenge. It’s constantly being eroded. You have multiple centres, but you also have the market as the nature of capitalism changes. One of the great things is the number of cities emerging, Bombay for instance. [A Cuban friend] told me that Bombay’s the city of the future. These things naturally create new situations, so art will obviously change.

Do critics abroad pay any attention to contemporary Indian art?

Not a lot. European major critics hardly.

Why is that? Is it not interesting, or are they not interested?

That’s not the point. The canon, the ideal modernism, is the focus of the centre; the peripheries always come a little later, they don’t have much to say — there is that thinking [among critics], and the market sustains it. I’m afraid this is why. My own work has been trying to erode that, challenge that, try and change it.

What’s next?

I want to look much more closely at the 1940s and ’50s. I haven’t really dealt with the progressives, but I feel they looked towards the future, the next generation. So I’m going to look at not only Bombay Progressives but also Calcutta Progressives, and how they emerged at the time India became independent, and [became] part of the cultural complex.


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