A Century of Indian Art: A Visually Rich Account

The growing interest and value of Indian art is evident from the estimated revenue of Rs 880.9 crore that sales of art in the public domain generated in 2021, according to the State of Art Market Report 2021 published by art intelligence and consultancy firm Artery India.

But in a decade that has seen multiple record awards and international museum exhibitions devoted to Indian art and artists, what may not have kept pace with the monetary benefits of art is an investment in cultivating a better understanding of the subject. So while the collector base has grown, the opportunities for people to learn more about Indian art are still limited.

In-depth studies are mostly limited to academic texts, and many more are scattered in publications that focus on particular aspects. Traditional critical writing on art, too, remains superficial, with little contextualization.

With 20th Century Indian Art: Modern, Post-Independence, Contemporary, Partha Mitter, Parul Dave Mukherji and Rakhee Balaram (eds.) attempt to fill this void. The three scholars each support a section in a mammoth publication broadly divided into four parts, beginning with “Colonial Modernity, Art, and National Identity.”

“Our story begins with the transformation of Indian taste by Victorian academic art: a transformation which was later challenged by nationalist artists,” writes Mitter, as he introduces readers to modernism as an avant-garde phenomenon. guard arrived in India in the 1920s. It discusses the many facets of modernity, in relation to British imperial education as well as the revolution in visual culture brought about by mechanical reproduction, the role played by Indian rulers as patrons, and the Bengal school of painting as the “first nationalist art movement in India”. From the outset, the publication endeavored to give voice to artists across genres and mediums.

While the essays are dedicated to individual artists, the book also contains interviews with mainstays. In between is a record of the trajectory of Indian art, through expert essays, in which the evolution of aesthetics is discussed from several angles.

By giving it the attention it deserves, the boundaries between art and craft, folk and modern-contemporary are also addressed.

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In an essay on Dalit art, Professor Emeritus Gary Michael Tartakov notes that it remains “a distinct and underrepresented aesthetic category in India”. Calling the diaspora disjointed, Balaram analyzes the complexities of works also influenced by place. Nor are the shared histories of the sub-continent forgotten – with each nation looking West for inspiration, their art has developed along parallel paths, often intertwining, including on the world stage.

The publication accomplishes the arduous task of bringing together over a century of Indian art and presenting its diverse influences to readers through a visually rich narrative. To expect it to present a detailed examination of its multi-layered history and contemporary complexities would probably be unrealistic. As its publishers announce from the outset, “It would be audacious, to say the least, to present 20th-century Indian art as a coherent and autonomous subject. Could this even be possible, given that the subcontinent represents so many different elements, while the definition of Indian art itself suffers from the competing claims of a myriad of its stakeholders?

(Books Explained appears every Saturday. It summarizes the basic content of an important work of non-fiction.)

Christopher S. Washington