The difficulties of defining and exhibiting Indian Modernism
The difficulties of defining and exhibiting Indian Modernism
The first decade of the 21st century bore witness to an unprecedented number of exhibitions of Indian contemporary art at American and European institutions. Each was a minor variation of every other, offering up similar lists of artists, and focused almost exclusively on ‘the contemporary’. India’s newly established place within a global capital order seemed sufficient to drive these blockbusters — they made scant attempt to look beyond the current time, never questioning how national exhibitions might be reconfigured or whether the format had reached its limit.
However, in 2008 — at a time when Indian contemporary art was propelled to its highest and most over-inflated value (to be quickly followed by a crash) — two exhibitions opened in Europe that distinguished themselves: ‘India Moderna’, curated by Juan Guardiola at the Institut Valencià d’Art Modern, Spain; and ‘Santhal Family: Positions around an Indian Sculpture’, curated by Grant Watson at m_hka in Antwerp, Belgium. Both shows were driven by a dedicated engagement with historical knowledge, and orientated around Indian Modernism, yet their modes of address differed: Guardiola’s show was chronological and authoritative, while Watson assumed a more speculative approach. Each of the curators received intellectual support and guidance from Indian critics, art historians and scholars: Watson collaborated with Anshuman Dasgupta and Suman Gopinath, while Guardiola took direction from Geeta Kapur.
In recent years, critical discourse has unbound Modernism from being exclusively the domain of the West, emphasizing the presence of a multitude of modernities from across the world. In fact, the earliest use of the term ‘modernismo’ was in 1888 by the Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío. The activity and agencies of non-Western Modernisms have been clearly recognized. In the words of art historian Partha Mitter: ‘What is most exciting about Modernisms across the globe is their plurality, heterogeneity and difference, what one may describe as a “messy” quality lacking symmetry which makes them all the more exciting and rich with possibilities.’1
Tackling the question of periodicity has been important. In this respect, a decisive role has been played by Kapur. With great urgency (and taking her cue from Raymond Williams’s 1989 essay ‘When Was Modernism?’) she has asked: when was Modernism in India? By posing such a seemingly simple question, Kapur suggests that the modern should not be seen ‘as a form of determinism to be followed, in the manner of the stations of the cross, to a logical end’.2 She calls for a re-periodization, one that locates the modern in terms of India’s own historical and social experience. It is this accounting of differing sets of conditions and circumstances, which intersect but do not align with the Western mainstream, that allows for a re-imagining of the international. What emerges from Kapur is an account of Indian Modernism that can ‘also be told as a series of experimental moves where ideology and practice are often at odds and force unexpected manoeuvres. Indian artists still go riding on the backs of paradoxes [...] turning this into an original act of self-definition.’3
Guardiola and Watson both took note of this discrepancy and of how temporal difference characterized Indian Modernism. They were keenly observant of Kapur’s counsel that modern art from India was not simply involved in synthesizing elements from two bases — combining the West with Indian ideas — but involved a dialogue between numerous competing and contradictory forces. This attentiveness translated into large exhibitions, with incredible range and a diversity of unexpected materials that rose above earlier presentations of India as either a static and ahistorical, or wholly globalized, entity.
‘India Moderna’ opened with a group of colonial photographic representations of India. Divided into five sections, the show traversed the 19th and 20th centuries before arriving at the present. It brought together an unprecedented amount of work, all of which was structured according to a timeline that offered a narrative of a distinctive modernity specific to the nation. In Guardiola’s own words: ‘Modern India wants to tell the story of a Modernism rooted in a solid, rich artistic tradition which goes back to a cultural exchange and mutual influence between Europeans and Indian society. The main theory behind this exhibition is that Modernism was not only a Western art practice, but an international one, and we can therefore talk about several simultaneous Modernisms, which together contribute to and build a global Modernism.’4 It was the key inclusion of art works and documents by Western artists in or about India that made palpable the confluential back and forth in ideology and practice, which underscores the uncommon paradoxes that embody Indian Modernism.
On the other hand, ‘Santhal Family’ did not assume the scale or scope of ‘India Moderna’, but rather focused its attention on a singular work of art: Ramkinkar Baij’s gravel and cement sculpture Santhal Family from 1938, which depicts a family of Santhali tribe members on the move with their possessions. This work has the odd distinction of being hailed as India’s first outdoor Modernist sculpture. Watson believes that imbricated within it are a number of concerns, which were all teased out through research and commissioned projects by Indian and Western artists. He ‘hoped to provide a glimpse of what preceded the contemporary Indian art that was becoming increasingly familiar to European audiences, and by highlighting the importance of Santhal Family in terms of Indian Modernism help to recalibrate in a small way people’s understanding of the history of Modernism.’5
In 2013, we can add ‘Bauhaus in Calcutta: An Encounter of Cosmopolitan Avant-Gardes’ held at the Bauhaus campus in Dessau, Germany, to this rare pairing of exhibitions.6 In terms of its methodology and approach, this recent show is the most empirical of the three; its focus is an exhibition by the Indian Society of Oriental Art that took place in 1922 at Samavaya Mansions in Calcutta. The show included work by Paul Klee, Lyonel Feininger and Johannes Itten alongside Indian artists such as Nandalal Bose, Sunayani Devi and Gaganendranath Tagore. Unfortunately, little evidence of the exhibition remains: the building in which it was held was torn down in the 1940s; there are no photographs of the exhibition; and the only original catalogue is in Lahore, Pakistan. Through dedicated research, the curators of the exhibition at the Bauhaus Dessau attempted to reconstruct the original show.
‘Bauhaus in Calcutta’ included no contemporary works of art. Its first section was heavily archival and expository, featuring seven video interviews with various Indian and German historians, a rare snippet of archival footage that shows Rabindranath Tagore visiting Albert Kahn in Paris in 1927, and scores of documents, letters and photographs laid out on tables, which brought to life the transnational networks of the late 19th and early 20th century that made the show possible. The founding ideologies of the schools of Kala Bhavana in Santiniketan, Bengal, and the Bauhaus in Germany — both coincidentally founded in 1919 — are sketched out, alongside the prevalence of Indic thought that influenced members of the Bauhaus faculty. certain important protagonists come into view, including, of course, Tagore — whose creation of Kala Bhavana was borne out of his commitment to national culture, education and modernity — but also Stella Kramrisch, the art critic who studied at the Institute of Art History in Vienna, before arriving in India in the early 1920s. The second section of the show, entitled ‘Picture of an Exhibition’, was a reconstruction of the 1922 presentation. It included 92 works, some of which were the originals shown in India, others of which were different works by the same artists, as well as reproductions of works from the original exhibition.
The unequivocal desire of such a reconstruction was to indicate how both Indian and European artists, despite working in different milieus, were able to draw similarly on Abstraction, Primitivism and Cubism. While effective in making this evident, the show’s real success lay in a few suggestions that were to be found elsewhere. For one, it would be easy to be enthralled by exploring which Western works of art were brought to India, but it’s more interesting to examine which works from the local Bengali context were shown, and how this selection of Indian art was received by the resident audiences. As was specified in an interview with art historians Tapati Guha-Thakurta and Sanjukta Sunderason, the artists included in the show were those who had rejected the academy. The Cubist paintings of Gaganendranath Tagore warrant special mention, along with the inclusion of women artists such as Pratima Devi and Sunayani Devi. The other significant element was the active role assumed by Kramrisch in making this encounter feasible. Her presence and the lectures she gave in the early 1920s at Kala Bhavana, on subjects ranging from the Gothic to Impressionism, were fundamental in influencing the art criticism of the time. Tagore played a keen role in making these lectures possible. It is even more fascinating to study Kramrisch and her role in relation to the 1922 exhibition, because she soon moved away from Santiniketan to Calcutta and shifted her gaze to the pre-modern. Taken as a whole, ‘Bauhaus in Calcutta’ was less a study of stylistic evolutions — though it did gesture to how certain individual sensibilities were developing — than an important contribution towards mapping a larger contextual story.
Post Indian independence, there are other examples whereby — through the inclusion or marginalization of ‘the modern’ within exhibitions of Indian art — the tenuous nature and complexities associated with establishing any kind of historical narrative around Indian art become apparent. For example, take the ‘Exhibition of Art Chiefly from the Dominions of India and Pakistan, 2400 b.c. to 1947 a.d.’ held between November 1947 and February 1948 at London’s Royal Academy of Arts and at Delhi’s Government House in late 1948. This show mandated itself to present Indian art as part of a continuous historical narrative, and thus symbolically commandeered its own history as a postcolonial entity. Yet, there was one major difference between the two iterations, as art historian Devika Singh has noted: ‘While the London exhibition included paintings by British artists in India, and East India Company textiles and furniture, as well as a large and fairly representative section of [...] modern Indian paintings, including Amrita Sher-Gil’s Mughal-inspired Elephant Promenade (1940), the Delhi exhibition did not include any modern works, whether colonial or Indian.’7
This issue of non-inclusion in the Delhi version was probably due to tensions of Indian cultural policies, where competing interpretations regarding the vision of Indian art were being played out; a tug of war between nationalist and self-orientalizing attitudes versus those with a progressive and more cosmopolitan outlook. Singh elaborates, citing a letter written by the nuclear scientist and patron of the arts Homi J. Bhabha to Abul Kalam Azad, Minister of Education, voicing his disapproval of the exclusion in the modern art section of the Royal Academy show of works by a Russian painter based in India, Magda Nachman Acharya. Singh pointedly quotes the artist: he affirmed that “art like science knows no frontiers and we should not only not put any impediments in the way of foreign artists coming to this country but should rather encourage them to do so provided they are people of eminence and have a contribution to make to our cultural and intellectual life.”’8
Conversely, an occasion of surprising inclusiveness was the exhibition ‘Textiles and Ornamental Arts of India’ that took place at New York’s Museum of Modern Art from April to September 1955. Again, the show collected and presented objects and images from India’s past. It can be viewed as part of a Cold War-era attempt to improve relations between the us and India. The architect and author Edgar Kaufmann Jr., along with architect and textile designer Alexander Girard, lent substantially from their collections. Kaufmann Jr. viewed the show as being encrypted within the political agendas of the time observing: ‘the urgency with which India today, independent and industrially burgeoning, was being courted by both parties in the cold war context’.9
Charles and Ray Eames made a contribution in the form of a film, and Indian support came from the ‘All India Handicrafts Board’ established by Jawaharlal Nehru to study the handloom sector on the subcontinent and plan for its revival, with the particular involvement of Indian social reformer and freedom fighter Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and cultural activist and writer Pupul Jayakar. Nonetheless, attention needs to be diverted from the actual exhibition to the accompanying programme of music, dance and film where ‘the modern’ was to be felt. The sidebar programme culminated with the world premiere of Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road, 1955), which inaugurated his ‘Apu Trilogy’. The art and design historian Saloni Mathur has suggested that ‘it is important to observe the spirited cosmopolitanism [...] when a variety of Modernist forms and expressions [...] shaped by Indian artists and writers, and an international community of curators and scholars empathetic to this emerging vanguard — came together at MoMA, the citadel of Modernism’.10
Placed alongside one another, ‘India Moderna’, ‘Santhal Family’ and ‘Bauhaus in Calcutta’ all go beyond a simple commitment to historical knowledge, especially the varying ways in which they grapple with the criss-crossing of India and the West. Their use of archival documents and documentation, and how it relates to the works of art is noteworthy. There is an active rethinking and, through a series of unexpected moves, an attempt to drive the contemporary to reorientate itself towards the modern. These exhibitions visualize and describe how sets of connections were established, and transformations generated from various encounters. Also, they were not ends in themselves; each of their accompanying catalogues have extended the research, by commissioning not only scholarly essays, but also incorporating contributions by artists.
While nuanced methods can be used to trace chronologies, interactions and personal narratives, ruptures and breaks are inevitable. In one of the interviews included in ‘Bauhaus in Calcutta’, the curators converse with three members of the Royal Society of Indian Art. The film is only about six minutes long, but no-one can identify anyone — besides Kramrisch and perhaps another gentleman — in one of the only photographs dating from that period. The men who surround Kramrisch and their contributions to that exhibition are forever consigned to the unknown. Certain stories will remain untold, but can continue to be imagined and re-imagined in compelling ways.
1 Partha Mitter, ‘Prologue’, in The Triumph of Modernism: India’s Artists and the Avant-garde 1922–1947, Reaktion Books, London, 2007, p. 8
2 Geeta Kapur, ‘When Was Modernism in Indian Art?’, in When Was Modernism: Essays on Contemporary Cultural Practice in India, Tulika Books, New Delhi, 2000, p. 297
3 Ibid., p. 147
4 Juan Guardiola, ‘Modern India: An Introduction’, in ‘India Moderna’ catalogue, Institut Valencià d’Arte Modern, Valencia, 2008, p. 347
5 Grant Watson, ‘Purabi’, in Western Artists and India: Creative Inspirations in Art and Design, ed. Shanay Jhaveri, Thames and Hudson, London, 2013, p. 253
6 The show’s curatorial team comprised Regina Bittner, Kathrin Rhomberg with Sria Chatterjee, Boris Friedewald and Partha Mitter
7 Devika Singh, ‘Indian Nationalist Art History and the Writing and Exhibiting of Mughal Art, 1910–1948’, Art History (forthcoming)
9 Saloni Mathur, ‘Charles and Ray Eames in India’, in Art Journal, vol. 70, no. 1 , Spring 2011, pp. 34–53.