A (Not Quite) New Indian Art I by Dhani Muniz

I’ve heard the phrase “I have no country” quite a bit… In a place like Auroville, it’s an inescapable sentiment. Built right into “Imagine”… I got a shirt with part of the line about dreamers written on it from one of the Visitor Center shops when I was 6, and refused to stop wearing it until it was weatherbeaten beyond recognition. They had to force it off me… Good times.

That kind of basic fraternal spirit is built right into the whole idea of Auroville. And the idea is what really comes through when you see this kind of place on vacation as a six-year old. But how does it pan out in day-to-day life? More often than not, we tend to retain our boundaries- with people, thoughts, language- simply out of comfort. Which makes this place a remarkable exhibit of the role art must come to play in any society, and especially in an international one- more than ever, it must be relied upon to communicate those things which are too important, vague or unwieldy for verbal description. 

There’s a touch of the Indian in basically all the art that comes out of this place- how could there not be, after all? A fascination with the East and all it seems to stand for is almost a prerequisite for discovering Auroville in the first place. But then what is “Indian-ness” in say, painting? At first glance, it’s a concoction; M.F. Hussain’s Cubist deconstruction, Jamini Roy’s bold decorative patterns, Abindranath Tagore’s Japanese-style wash-painting, F.N. Souza’s oft-tormented expressionism, Satish Gujral’s intensely personal symbolism, Ram Kumar’s all-out impasto abstractions- all these figurehead creators, no matter the sometimes radical differences in their styles, share a deep connection. They were/are the product of the common reliance among Indian artists on outside source materials in trying to depict a modern view of their own country. 

The artistic symbols that we associate with India are real, tangible things; tigers, clay pots, courtesans, depictions of rural life, classical musicians, etcetera. Even the more abstract works of Biren De and Om Prakash are still quite culture-specific, in that their choices of form, colour and line clearly reflect a holistic worldview with a philosophical center that has remained relatively unchanged in the modern world. But are these still the images that fulfill the role of art in contemporary India?

Traditionally, art in India has carried a specific role/function, and one that is becoming less and less functional as the combination of secularization and (especially) the growing affiliation between religion and politics continues to undermine the deeper significance of many cultural symbols. This makes much of Indian art difficult to grasp, not only for cultural ‘outsiders’, but for many Indians themselves. The class boundaries that set artists apart here was once a primary issue for the first wave of ‘moderns’ to tackle- painters like A.N. Tagore and B. Sen were among the first to reach into the earth  and sky of their homeland to come up with a distinctly Indian art that had little to do with any sense of nobility. The boundaries that still separate so much of the country from each other have since become more of a talking point in art, a central theme rather than an issue to be solved. The postmodern reliance on irony and juxtaposition has merely created its own sub-genres, without resolving any of the problems inherent in the domestic arts establishment. 

There are many factors contributing to this strange state of affairs, many of which I’d like to talk about separately, but one stands out as being perhaps the hardest to overcome. Perhaps because of the upper-class history of much traditional art, great artists themselves are not afforded anywhere near the same kind of public respect as they are elsewhere. The Indian government does not bother itself with promotion of the arts, especially as it attempts to modernize the nation while keeping the culture ‘intact’ (the ultimate fool’s gold of post-colonialism). The ultimate realization of this strange mixture of disinterest and ineptitude took place more than thirty years ago, yet still casts a long shadow. It had to do with two of the greatest figures in Indian art, years after they were both dead and their work was thought to be beyond routine question. The first of these two men had once offered this plea to his fellow countrymen, against an ethnocentric, overly polemical approach to the arts:

“When in the name of Indian art, we cultivate with deliberate aggressiveness a certain bigotry born of habit of a past generation, we smother our soul under idiosyncrasies unearthed from buried centuries. These are like masks with exaggerated grimaces that fail to respond to the ever-changing play of life… I strongly urge our artists to vehemently deny their obligation… to produce something that can be labeled as ‘Indian art’ by conforming to old-world mannerisms. Let them proudly refuse to be herded into a pen like branded animals that are treated as cattle and not as cows.”

It’s remarkable that such strong words uttered almost a century ago have not diminished in their instructive value. The speaker was the subject of my next article, Rabindranath Tagore himself an astonishing late-bloomer of a visual artist whose lack of formal training was if anything a boon, granting him a textural and chromatic sensitivity that was riveting in its perfectly integrated, seemingly casual balance of calm and violence. This overwhelming sense of will manifested through medium also imbues the work of Tagore’s colleague at Shantiniketan, the great sculptor and painter Ramkinkar Vaij. Neither men were interested in classical notions of what art ‘should be’, in the Indian nor Western consciousness, instead aiming to create a unique new form- one that reflected its origins without being focused on them. 

In 1984, a bronze bust of Tagore, made by Vaij, was installed on a promenade along Lake Balaton in the town of Balatonfure, Hungary, where Tagore had received medical treatments in 1926. When West Bengal’s Cultural Minister, Jatin Chakraborty, unveiled the bust in a special ceremony, he remarked that it didn’t really “look like” Tagore, and that it would probably have to be replaced. Eventually, enough outcry from figures such as Satyajit Ray meant the upset was forgotten. The bust has since been replicated by the Indian government and gifted to countries such as Israel and Finland.

What is there to say to an arts establishment like that? Not much that Tagore didn’t already sum up so succinctly- that it is, sadly but finally, up to our contemporary artists to “refuse to be herded into a pen like branded animals that are treated as cattle and not as cows.”