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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Rise of Modernity in South Asia

The beginning of the twentieth century was a transitional period for the Indian subcontinent. At this time, Indian nationalist leaders increasingly demanded independence from the British colonizers. They implored their fellow Indians to rely on indigenous products instead of those imported by the colonial government. This movement of self-reliance, known as swadeshi, was based on social, political, cultural, and economic reforms that revived and invented Indian traditions. The sanctioned clothing for Indian nationalists, for example, was made with locally produced raw cotton. Ancient histories of India written at this time relied only on Indian narratives like the Mahabharata, a Hindu epic legend, rather than foreign accounts.

The anticolonial fervor of swadeshi was particularly strong in the eastern province of Bengal. In the capital Calcutta, a group of artists known as the Bengal School, led by Abanindranath Tagore (1871-1951), believed they could develop a modern art that was uniquely Indian and not European through the use of Hindu themes and the recovery of older art forms such as the ancient paintings at the Ajanta caves and crafts like Hindu pat paintings. The Orientalist writers who influenced the Bengal School came out of the Arts and Crafts movement in England. Its doctrines called for a return to traditional artistic practices and spirituality in order to counter the growing materialism of the West. The new Bengal School of painting was a deliberate turn away from the type of art popularly practiced by Indian artists such as Ravi Varma (1848-1906).

In the southern princely state of Travancore at the end of the nineteenth century, Raja Ravi Varma made prints and paintings of Indian life and Hindu divinity using oil paint and lithography. His mass-circulated representations are probably still what most Indians think about when they picture Hindu mythological figures. Before Varma made these images, the preferred depictions of the gods and goddesses were stylized and unnatural. Varma introduced the Hindu pantheon as corporeal, earthly personalities. He painted in a classically Western, naturalistic way; but his themes were always Indian, reflecting his desire to develop an internationally respected art style for the subcontinent. Orientalist writers, however, did not approve of his work. Although Varma painted the same figures as the Bengal School, they felt that his depictions were un-Indian and impious because they were sensual and too dramatic. While many consider Varma to be the first modern Indian artist, these writers believed that the Bengal School held the key to making a truly Indian modern art in their updates of local art forms. Ironically, the Bengal School, even as it claimed to be pure, did incorporate ideas and styles developed in the West.

On the other side of the subcontinent from Calcutta, the artist Abdur Rahman Chughtai (1894-1975) was influenced by the Orientalist style of the Bengal School. He created romantic paintings that came out of various traditions, including Persian miniatures and Art Nouveau, both of which were popular at the Mayo School of Arts in Lahore, founded by the British in the nineteenth century.