While I was in Southern India, I thought it would be useful to visit some galleries of modern art to see some alternative histories to the British artistic canon. As I was in Bangalore, I had the chance to visit the National Gallery of Modern Art, Bengaluru, which is housed in the Manikyavelu Mansion, the former property of the Mysore Royal family.
National Gallery of Modern Art, Bengaluru
The 500 works which make up the permanent collection of the gallery were borrowed from the repository in New Delhi, and have been identified as signifying important changes in the history of Indian modernism. The galleries were laid out in a timeline of events, stretching from the 14th century to the present day, and, as expected, were strongly linked to the history of colonialism and independence in India.
The first rooms recalled previous artistic movements, specialising in the miniature paintings which developed from Mughal influences. These paintings were originally painted on palm leaves, but artists slowly converted to to using paper after it was introduced. The images generally depicted portraits, court scenes, flora and fauna, and were intended to communicate bhava (emotion). These images were often accompanied by text from religious manuscripts and myths. Artisans producing these images worked together in karkhanas (workshops), specialising as illustrators or colourists.
India & Art during Independence: Creation of a National Identity
The colonisation of India by the British in the 17th and 18th Centuries brought a number of European artists to the country who practiced the Western technique of academic realism with its emphasis on linear perspective. These ‘traveller-artists’ worked in oils on canvas and recorded monuments, landscapes and people, which were filtered through an ‘orientalist’ lens, to show a romantic vision of the colonies to their patrons back in England.
The British had hoped to continue a workshop style of working, similar to the karkhanas, and set up art schools based on the School of Industrial Art at South Kensington. In 1854, they set up schools in Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras to train artists in the decorative arts for British industry. However, these new Indian artists were not interested in industrial design, and instead excelled in portraiture and life studies after the academic realism tradition. Artists from this period included Antonio Xavier Trindade, and Mahadev Vishvanath Dhurandhar.
The turn of the 20th Century saw a turn away from European tradition and colonialism. Artists began to consider reviving traditional techniques and materials, resulting in the development of the Bengal School. This ‘Indian’ painting style was produced through revisiting Mughal miniatures, Ajanta murals and Japanese art traditions of wash painting and subtle graduations of colour. The Bengal School was particularly associated with artist Abanindranath Tagore, and showed the connections between art and the Independence movement (swadeshi) in the early 1900s.
The Tagore family, (Rabindranath, Abanindranath, and Gaganendranath), were deeply active in forging new political, social, cultural identities through art, and were keen to resist colonial influences. Therefore, in 1919, when artists began to turn away from the Bengal School as an overly-romantic or sentimental movement, Rabindranath Tagore set up a new movement in Santiniketan in 1901 and the Kala Bhavan art school in 1919, which later became part of Visva-bharati University in 1921. This art school was the first to deliver an alternative method of art training, that of observing and living in nature instead of studio based practice, and facilitated the emergence of the modernist trait of the artist as an individual personality.
From the late 1940s, in the aftermath of independence, India began to develop a news set of canons linked to modernist styles such as Abstraction, Expressionism, and Minimalism. Regional artist groups also began to form including the Calcutta Group, the Bombay Progressives, and the Madras Group. The 1960s saw the first artist commune, ‘Cholamandal Artist Village’, open in Chennai, and in 1963 a group known as ‘Group 1890’, began to move away from establishing an ‘Indian’ style of art, and instead focused on the modernist task to “question, understand and formulate their own theory regarding art creation.”