Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Early Modernists and Indian Traditions

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During the 1930s and '40s, India was on the brink of independence from British rule. All Indians prepared to become citizens of a free country; however, as the years progressed toward the 1947 handover of power from the colonial British government, it became clear that India would become two nations, not one. Pakistan was increasingly discussed as a homeland for Muslims in South Asia. Some believed that Muslims had always been a distinct community in India, while others felt that the British had exploited a system of "divide and rule" to cause strife between Hindus and Muslims. More recently, scholars suggest that the communal tension resulted from contemporary politics rather than any longstanding divisions between religious communities. Whatever the cause, the formation of Pakistan appeared as the only option to address the demands of the political groups, the All-India Muslim League and the Indian National Congress.

Early modernist artists used a variety of approaches to negotiate between the need to create a national style and a desire to develop personal modes of expression.


Cited Works of Art or Images (2)

  • Amrita Sher-Gil: Woman with Vina
  • Jamini Roy, Gopi


Against the backdrop of this political struggle, early modernist artists used a variety of approaches to negotiate between the need to create a national style and a desire to develop personal modes of expression.

Mixed Traditions
Although most of the artists working in the Indian subcontinent at this time mixed several artistic traditions, some consciously brought together what might be considered antithetical practices. One such artist is Amrita Sher-Gil (1913–1941), who combined a Post-Impressionist style of painting that she learned at the art academy in France with approaches used in Indian miniatures. Within this format, she depicted ordinary Indians and village life. Another artist melding diverse artistic practices was Jamini Roy (1887–1972), who made images based on traditional Indian pat paintings and European modern art. In Calcutta, where artists revived handicrafts yet shunned commercial art, Roy was a pioneer in using styles of painting developed by artisans in bazaars.

The Western Style
Like Ravi Varma (1848–1906), who preceded them, several artists chose a painting style developed in the West. They made works with oil paints and used a naturalistic approach to the human form and landscape. Allah Buksh (1895–1978), for example, painted indigenous subjects in this mode with a romantic and often dramatic flair; even though he adapted an academic style, Buksh never attended art school. Fyzee Rahamin (1886–1964), later in life, took on a traditional Indian miniature style, yet his earlier work is marked by the European academic approach to painting. Many others throughout the twentieth century followed in the use of Western-style painting. However, as was the case with Varma, they often depicted Indian subjects.

Indigenous Indian Painting
Over the centuries, painting in South Asia developed through a process of copying. A new generation of painters paid respect to the ones who came before them by making copies of older works. Yet they frequently updated the previous style with contemporary trends reflected in fashion and jewelry. Or they used newer art materials. These changes affected the appearance of the paintings, even if slightly. Some artists in the twentieth century continued in this tradition of copying older works. In this way, Hajji Muhammad Sharif (1889–1978) kept the craft of miniature painting alive at the Mayo School of Arts in Lahore, where it continues to be practiced today.

Atteqa Ali
Independent Curator

Woman with Vina
Amrita Sher-Gil (Indian, born Hungary, 1913–1941)
Oil on canvas
Lahore Museum

Both Pakistanis and Indians embrace Sher-Gil. She was the daughter of a Punjabi father and Hungarian mother. Born in Budapest, she eventually settled and died in India before it partitioned. But along the way she received artistic training in Italy and France. The French painter Paul Gauguin influenced Sher-Gil in his representation of Tahitian women. But she was also interested in miniature painting's flattened perspective and intense colors. Sher-Gil depicted the lives of ordinary people in her paintings, something unusual for art in South Asia at the time.

Gopi, ca. 1940
Jamini Roy (Indian, 1887–1972)
Opaque watercolor on board
Harn Museum of Art Collection, University of Florida; Gift of Taylor Hardwick [p-81-37]
Samuel P. Harn Museum

Roy trained at the Government Art School in Calcutta, where he learned about academic Western painting. But it was also in Calcutta that he saw Kalighat paintings, so named for the neighborhood in which artisans sat outside of the Kali temple and made quick images to be sold as souvenirs. In his paintings, Roy incorporated the style of Kalighat and other folk paintings to depict everyday scenes or mythological stories. Interestingly, his use of primitive art resulted in modern paintings like Gopi. The loose brushstrokes and simplification of form in this work are reminiscent of the work of European modernists as well as Kalighats.