Art for a Modern India, 1947-1980

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Following India’s independence in 1947, Indian artists creating modern works of art sought to maintain a local idiom, an “Indianness” representative of their newly independent nation, while connecting to modernism, an aesthetic then understood as both universal and presumptively Western. These artists depicted India’s precolonial past while embracing aspects of modernism’s pursuit of the new, and they challenged the West’s dismissal of non-Western places and cultures as sources of primitivist imagery but not of modernist artworks. In Art for a Modern India, Rebecca M. Brown explores the emergence of a self-conscious Indian modernism—in painting, drawing, sculpture, architecture, film, and photography—in the years between independence and 1980, by which time the Indian art scene had changed significantly and postcolonial discourse had begun to complicate mid-century ideas of nationalism.

Through close analyses of specific objects of art and design, Brown describes how Indian artists engaged with questions of authenticity, iconicity, narrative, urbanization, and science and technology. She explains how the filmmaker Satyajit Ray presented the rural Indian village as a socially complex space rather than as the idealized site of “authentic India” in his acclaimed Apu Trilogy, how the painter Bhupen Khakhar reworked Indian folk idioms and borrowed iconic images from calendar prints in his paintings of urban dwellers, and how Indian architects developed a revivalist style of bold architectural gestures anchored in India’s past as they planned the Ashok Hotel and the Vigyan Bhavan Conference Center, both in New Delhi. Discussing these and other works of art and design, Brown chronicles the mid-twentieth-century trajectory of India’s modern visual culture.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“[R]ecommended for libraries with graduate programs in art history and for others looking to expand their modern and non-Western art history collections.” - Melissa Aho, ARLIS/NA Reviews

“An interesting contribution, this book will be useful in general and undergraduate libraries. Summing Up: Recommended. Lower-level undergraduates through faculty/ researchers; general readers.” - E. Findly, Choice

“Bringing together a range of disparate but linked examples, Brown's text makes for stimulating reading–an essential text for any student of the arts, postcolonialism, and the interaction of science and arts in the postcolonial context.” - Aparna Sharma, Leonardo

“Rebecca Brown’s elegant and conceptually driven account of modernism focuses on the decades following Independence. . . . Brown’s approach is highly satisfying. By cutting across media and juxtaposing artists whose aesthetic commitments and backgrounds are presented as incommensurate within the internal debates of the Indian art world, Brown challenges the specialist. But she also gives the general reader an overarching sense of what conceptual problems faced Indian artists and, just as importantly, why those problems emerged as such. It is a particularly fitting approach for a period of art history that is dominated by studies focusing on single artists, artist groups, and institutions.” - Karin Zitzewitz, Art History

“Rebecca M. Brown weaves a rich and layered narrative of Indian postindependence art, connecting painting with a wide range of references that include the architecture of Charles Correa, the ‘high’ cinema of Satyajit Ray, and the demotic art of Bollywood. All the while she balances theoretical sophistication with penetrating insights into the singular achievements of these artists as they negotiate the predicament of local versus global modernism. In the process, she unravels the indebtedness of modernity to colonialism. There has long been a crying need for such a work, and Brown’s pioneering opus fulfills this admirably.”—Partha Mitter, author of The Triumph of Modernism: India’s Artists and the Avant-Garde, 1922–1947

Melissa Aho

“[R]ecommended for libraries with graduate programs in art history and for others looking to expand their modern and non-Western art history collections.”
E. Findly

“An interesting contribution, this book will be useful in general and undergraduate libraries. Summing Up: Recommended. Lower-level undergraduates through faculty/ researchers; general readers.”
Aparna Sharma

“Bringing together a range of disparate but linked examples, Brown's text makes for stimulating reading–an essential text for any student of the arts, postcolonialism, and the interaction of science and arts in the postcolonial context.”
Karin Zitzewitz

“Rebecca Brown’s elegant and conceptually driven account of modernism focuses on the decades following Independence. . . . Brown’s approach is highly satisfying. By cutting across media and juxtaposing artists whose aesthetic commitments and backgrounds are presented as incommensurate within the internal debates of the Indian art world, Brown challenges the specialist. But she also gives the general reader an overarching sense of what conceptual problems faced Indian artists and, just as importantly, why those problems emerged as such. It is a particularly fitting approach for a period of art history that is dominated by studies focusing on single artists, artist groups, and institutions.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822343752
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 3/17/2009
  • Series: Objects/Histories Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 6.70 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Rebecca M. Brown is a visiting associate professor of art history at Johns Hopkins University.

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Read an Excerpt




Copyright © 2009 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4375-2

Chapter One


In India, the sky has profoundly affected our relationship to builtform, and to open space. For in a warm climate, the best place to be in the late evenings and in the early mornings, is outdoors, under the open sky. Such spaces have an infinite number of variations: one steps out of a room ... into a verandah ... and thence on to a terrace ... from which one proceeds to an open courtyard, perhaps shaded by a tree ... or by a large pergola overhead. At each moment, subtle changes in the quality of light and ambient air generate feelings within us-feelings which are central to our beings. Hence to us in Asia, the symbol of Education has never been the Little Red Schoolhouse of North America, but the guru sitting under the tree. True Enlightenment cannot be achieved within the closed box of a room-one needs must be outdoors, under the open sky.-CHARLES CORREA, Charles Correa

CHARLES CORREA'S ARTICULATION of an Indian relationship to space and sky opens his essay "Blessings of the Sky." In the text, the blessing of the title finds an echo in his reference to enlightenment, one that encompasses both a Western conception of learning and an understanding of moksha, or release, derived from both the Hindu and Buddhist traditions. While religion certainly forms a part of his conception of the spiritual, this open-to-sky rubric so crucial to Correa's understanding of Indian aesthetics relies not on a single religion, as the general reference to enlightenment indicates, but rather on the relationship of humanity to the environment. This is a broad understanding that can encompass many traditions.

Correa's catholic and progressive inclusion of multiple religions as Indian threatens to recapitulate Orientalist ideas of an essential pan-Asian spirituality. His articulation of a uniquely Indian or Asian spatial sensibility, contrasted directly with an equally generalized Western space, exhibits a continuity with a colonial understanding of India. Like Orientalist scholars of the nineteenth century who sought to essentialize India's climate as tropical and its culture as spiritual, Correa valorizes India by pointing to an authenticity that this region has and the West lacks.

Both colonial and nationalist rhetoric have used the trope of the authentic village space to value India's history and culture, claiming a level of purity for India's past glory that served both to justify colonialism and to suggest India's current spiritual superiority to the industrialized West. Mohandas Gandhi, of course, is the most well-known proponent of the idealization of the village as a source for India's strength and heritage (Larson 1995, 198-200; Alter 2000, 83-112). Figures such as Ananda Coomaraswamy and W. G. Archer claimed legitimacy for India's visual culture through arguments valorizing both its spiritual purity and its connection to present-day village life (Coomaraswamy [1943] 1956; Archer 1974). During the early decades of the twentieth century, the battle was still to claim that India had any art at all, and asserting its philosophical and spiritual superiority over the West helped build the case for India's cultural heritage (see Mitter [1977] 1992). As we shall see later in discussions of Le Corbusier's approach to India, this same valorization of spiritual purity found within both religious art and the life of the village also supported modernist appropriations of India as primitive (Kahn 1987, 19).

Nationalist arguments, themselves revisions of colonial approaches to the subcontinent's heritage, were retooled in the postindependence context. Rather than abandoning them altogether-although experiments with turning to pure abstraction, for example, did take place-the decades after independence saw artists sometimes looking to the authentic village space as an essential element of Indianness. This maneuver meant that they participated in the overarching essentialization of India as a place of villages and villagers. Inherited from colonial and nationalist discourse, this sense of authenticity served to construct unity within the diversity of the new India, connecting India's new national image both to an invented ancient past and to more recent preindependence discourses. Yet the adoption of an earlier vision of authentic India occurred alongside a critique of its idealized qualities.

I find this critique to be salient in the three examples chosen for this chapter: a film, a painting, and one of Correa's buildings. These objects share a concern with the authentic and locate that authenticity within the village space. They have been chosen not because they are unique, but because they are representative of the larger struggle to articulate an Indian modern after independence. And they all do so during the 1950s when the turn toward the village was the strongest. After this point, the village fades as a locus for understanding India's identity (although it never disappears). Yet even in its heyday, as these three objects demonstrate, village imagery did not constitute as clear a move toward the authentic as one might expect. A scene from Satyajit Ray's film Pather panchali (Song of the Road, 1957; figure 1) seems to echo Correa's guru-under-the-tree motif while subtly undermining it as well. Correa's own Gandhi Smarak Sangrahalaya, near Ahmedabad, (1958-63; figure 2) embodies his open-to-sky philosophy and does so in a monument to the loudest proponent of village politics, Gandhi. But even here one finds the authentic breaking down. M. F. Husain's painting Under the Tree (1959; plate 1) is representative of his larger body of work focused on the village; it, too, participates in a larger questioning of the authenticity of the village space.

In this chapter I trace the connections among these three works and analyze their position at a particular historical moment in the mid-to-late 1950s. This is the period in which works such as these were both linked to earlier political and art-history concerns and taken to project a new idea of Indianness. Each of these works finds itself tied to nationalist, pre-1947 understandings of the Indian-understandings linked to colonial conceptions of the subcontinent. But each also distinguishes itself from earlier trajectories of India-identification, creating new conceptions of Indianness in the post-1947 context, whether by deconstructing the vision of purity the village ostensibly embodies or by producing a modern Indian understanding of that purity. Thus the three together demonstrate the relationship of 1950s visual culture to pre-1947 approaches to imaging the subcontinent, drawing out continuities across the "break" of independence. At the same time, these three works bespeak a new relation to the authentic in the postindependence period. Despite Correa's focused verbal statement regarding the centrality of open-to-sky spaces and the authenticity of the village, I argue that each of these works challenges the unifying, homogenizing, and stereotyping aspects of the trope of the village. Rather than rejecting the village as theme, however, these works offer an acknowledgment of the postcolonial condition's constant negotiation with the inheritance of colonialism.

Ray and Husain present an image of the village that, rather than embodying a monolithic, pure space, offers a hierarchical space of struggle-a location that represents independent India in all of its positive and negative qualities. Thus communal tensions are not ignored, nor are class and caste distinctions. The ideal's valorization breaks down in these two examples, to be replaced by a messy vision of village India. Correa's building must also somehow reconcile this deconstructed ideal with his idealized vision of unity across the subcontinent. To do so, he turns to the unity within modernism and joins it with the construction of the open-to-sky space he sees as characteristic of India. Correa thus ends up appropriating the authentic from pre-1947 discourse and rearticulating it for a postindependence context, one that has lost the certainty of its own authentic past and, in Correa's hands, looks to modernist purity to reclaim it. Recontextualized as a part of the new nation's endeavor to produce a balanced secular democracy, these turns to the authentic become attempts to solidify an image of India as independent, while ironically never losing their dependence on earlier colonial and nationalist constructions of an "authentic India."


Although one finds some idealization in Ray's image of the village school, the filmmaker is not known for rose-colored views of Bengali country life. Rather, his work, particularly in the Apu Trilogy, reveals the tender moments of family life in small-town Bengal while also painting a picture of social maneuvering and strife. The school scene toward the beginning of Pather panchali illustrates this tension between the idyllic space of "country folk" and the struggles that Apu and his family must negotiate throughout the narrative (see figure 1). Ray's film probes Correa's under-the-tree space to paint an image of "authentic" India that eschews idealism, uncovering the problems that come with essentializing the village as pure.

Apu comes from a Brahmin family; his father dreams of being a writer and attempts to find work performing Sanskrit ceremonies for various clients in the area. Yet Apu's father also works for a landowner, and his family barely gets by, living in the ancestral home but unable to repair its ruinous walls and thin roof. The birth of Apu is a joyous occasion for the family, and Ray gives us a wonderful scene of Apu's first day preparing to go to school-drinking milk (despite the fact that little milk comes from the emaciated cow), getting his hair combed by his sister Durga, and walking down a path through the countryside, hand in hand with his mother, passing a bespectacled, educated Brahmin man who carries an umbrella. With this lead-in to the school scene, viewers warm to the family fussing over Apu as both his sister and his mother look at him with great tenderness. Ray's image of the mother and son walking into the village follows a path that splits the screen vertically: the two walk away from us, upward in the frame, as the Brahmin man walks toward us. The movement of the figures in this scene depicts our hope for Apu as he goes off to learn, someday to return as the grown, educated Brahmin we see coming toward us.

Once we arrive at the school, however, we understand the practice of education to differ somewhat from the vision of the hopeful preamble. If Correa is right that the guru under the tree replaces the little red schoolhouse in India, then we have here a bastardization of that vision, one halfway between the two extremes. Schooling does take place underneath a structure, but it is an open one: a pavilion supported by bamboo pillars and roofed with thatch. The "guru" is the provisioner for the village as well: we watch as he simultaneously makes deals with the young girls that come to purchase food and recites a passage from the Ramayana for the students to copy onto their slates. While we understand the space as a multifaceted one-both a store and a school-we are never allowed to grasp its full spatial extent. That is, we know it is open on all sides except the one where the schoolmaster sits, but we only see his dais, with the provisions laid out in front of him as he scowls at the schoolchildren. Initially, the camera focuses in on his torso, pulling back only slightly to include the hand of a girl on the left purchasing flour. It then swings to the right as another girl asks for rice and gives her money. The camera then moves downward to show us that the boys in the back row are playing tic-tac-toe on a slate, passing it surreptitiously between them.

Our sense of claustrophobia is alleviated somewhat by a shot outside the pavilion, showing us Boidnoyath, one of the elders of the village, who comes in past the fence and immediately comments on a huge hole just inside the compound, asking if it is meant to kill people. Yet our desire for escape from the stifling space of the school is reinforced even in this outdoor shot, where the boundaries of space are reasserted both visually with the fence (and the pit in front of it) and verbally with the elder's somewhat comical question, linking the pit with the ultimate boundary: death.

The entire scene appears to provide a comedic break from the narrative-similar to Shakespearean pendant scenes that insert two minor characters to lighten the mood and simultaneously to give a context for the main story line. The scene also highlights the fallacy of idealizing village learning and the local guru. Once Boidnoyath enters the space and sits next to the teacher/provisioner, we see the two-faced nature of this multitasker more clearly. He laughs and jokes with his guest (but reprimands Apu sternly for smiling as well), all the while keeping one eye on his charges and yelling at them intermittently. Ray films this scene from the left of the pair on the dais, so that we cannot see the students but instead only the teacher's face as it switches, Janus-like, from obsequious nodding and smiling to fierce, demonic yelling. His double-faced personality is underscored both by the in-between nature of the space (as open and not-open to the sky, and as school and shop) and by the way in which Ray films that space. The camera pens us in with frontal shots of the teacher's platform, images of the students from above so that we see only the floor, and restricted, framed views to the outside that show us the bounded nature of the place. The feeling of entrapment is matched by an opposing dream of escape, found in the boys' tic-tac-toe game and in the comedic shot of a villager trying to escape a discussion with Boidnoyath as he leaves the school. First we see the Brahmin (umbrella under his arm) as Boidnoyath calls for him to wait, and then, a second later, we see him walk surreptitiously off out of sight to the left. This moment of humor gives viewers a break from the weight of the school scene, but it also reminds us of our own desire for escape from the space.

Apu echoes this desire a few beats later. On Boidnoyath's departure, the teacher discovers the slate passing back and forth between the boys. He shakes with rage and demands they bring it forward. He then has the culprit dragged to the front of the room by his ear. We see a switch being pulled from the sack of flour and the anger on the teacher's face. Then we hear the switch on the boy's hands while we watch the faces of first the girl (who had come in for rice earlier) before she runs out of the school, and then of Apu. The latter's face is framed the same way it was when he laughed earlier: with trees behind him-the space of freedom and escape. His reaction to the beating is all we see, followed by a quick cut to a figure in the distance, running along a path, free in the countryside. Again, the trope of escape-the Brahmin man escaping Boidnoyath's questions, the girl escaping without completing her errand, and Apu mentally escaping the school-is given to us in this succession of images, each one echoing our own desire to leave behind the scene's claustrophobia. The horizontal perspective of escape (in contrast to the vertical path to approach the school) alleviates both our tension and Apu's, but interestingly it leads nowhere. We do not get Apu's return home in the next scene; he does not burst through the rickety doors of the ancestral home and find his mother. Instead, we cut to a scene of his mother and grandaunt negotiating their power in the home. We are thus left with a sense of escape, but with no confirmation of it. It serves only as a break-a sigh of relief after the school scene, one that leaves us unsure as to whether this is just Apu's dream, our dream, or an actual escape from the suffocating space. The escape's lack of destination (in the narrative and also visually-the figure in this scene moves horizontally, and we do not know where that leads) reinforces the tension between hope and despair found throughout this film and its two sequels.


Excerpted from ART FOR A MODERN INDIA, 1947-1980 by REBECCA M. BROWN Copyright © 2009 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations....................ix
ONE. AUTHENTICITY....................23
TWO. THE ICON....................45
THREE. NARRATIVE AND TIME....................75
FIVE. THE URBAN....................131
EPILOGUE: THE 1980S AND AFTER....................157
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