South Asia and the Himalayan Region, 1900 A.D.–present

  • South Asia and the Himalayan Region, 1900 A.D.–present



India struggles for independence from colonial British rule through the early twentieth century, finally gaining its freedom in 1947. At this time, it is decided that a separate Muslim nation will be formed in the areas with the greatest Muslim populations. Thus the country of Pakistan is created in two parts to the northwest and northeast of the Indian subcontinent, separated by more than a thousand miles. East Pakistan, formed out of a portion of the Bengal province, gains its independence after a war in 1971, and is renamed Bangladesh.

At the beginning of the century, as the Indian nationalist movement grows, artists contribute visually to the struggle for independence. The naturalistic paintings of Raja Ravi Varma (1848–1906) lose their popularity. Once hailed for bringing Indian history and Hindu mythology vividly to life, Ravi Varma is now criticized for his European classicism: his style is not Indian. Artists attempt instead to develop a uniquely Indian modern art that differs from European styles of painting. A greater knowledge of India’s traditional court, religious, and folk arts leads many to turn to the past for inspiration. In Bengal, the Calcutta Art School replaces its collection of European art with examples of indigenous traditions. The art department at Santiniketan (West Bengal) looks to European modernism and Japanese aesthetics to develop a new Indian art. And artists and cultural leaders from India and Japan attempt to forge a pan-Asian aesthetic. The Bengal School of painting is a leader in artistic developments. Led by Abanindranath Tagore (1871–1951), it turns for inspiration to older Indian art forms such as Mughal miniatures and the ancient paintings at the Ajanta caves. Its painters tend to emphasize line and color over volume and chiaroscuro.

Through much of the twentieth century, South Asian artists continue to respond creatively to developments in European art while attempting to make work that is rooted in Indian aesthetics and experiences. In 1947, the Progressive Artists’ Group in Bombay is established. A diverse group of Bombay’s best artists of the period, it includes Francis Newton Souza (1924–2002), Maqbool Fida Husain (1915-2011), Sayed Haider Raza (1922-2016), and Tyeb Mehta (1925-2009). The group’s inspirations are varied, from Matisse, Picasso, Cubism, and abstraction to everyday life, religious symbolism, and traditional Indian painting. In contrast to trends in the West, figuration remains popular in South Asia throughout the century.

Similar trends are found in Pakistan. Still working at mid-century, Abdur Rahman Chughtai’s (1894–1975) paintings, which draw heavily on the styles of Ajanta and the Mughal court, owe a great deal to the ideals of the Bengal School. Artists like Sadequain (1930–1987), who reaches his peak in the 1950s and ’60s, fuse Islamic calligraphy with elements of European modernism. Politically, most of South Asia’s artists in the twentieth century are secular nationalists, striving for images that will bind, not divide, their nations, particularly in the face of continued communal tension.

During the 1950s and ’60s, more artists travel to the West and study there. The discourse on contemporary Indian art focuses—with some anxiety—on dichotomies of past and present, tradition and modernity, India and the West. The best artists resolve these dichotomies and move beyond them. However, as the Indian and Pakistani diaspora grows, and as more South Asian artists live and create art abroad, these anxieties begin to dissipate. Postmodern hybridity encourages artists to juxtapose diverse sources, often playfully, and with a sense of easy, global proprietorship. By the end of the century, it is difficult to speak monolithically of “Indian” or “Pakistani” art. There are as many methods of making art as there are artists. An increasingly popular approach, however, is to bring together local techniques and materials with global modes within the same artwork.

The situation in Tibet is very different from what prevails in the rest of South Asia. Instead of independence, Tibet faces occupation for most of the twentieth century. After remaining largely closed to outsiders, Tibet signs a treaty with the British in the early twentieth century, making it a de facto British protectorate. The country falls into Chinese hands shortly thereafter, but the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911 gives Tibet its independence. Though China invades Tibet in 1950, the country retains authority over its internal affairs until the late ’50s. At this time, Chinese rule becomes more oppressive, with Beijing challenging the Dalai Lama and attempting to establish rural communes. The Tibetans riot; the Chinese send in their military; and the Dalai Lama flees the country. Tibetan independence ends in 1959. Under the Chinese, the territory that had been Tibet is called the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), though it retains little or no autonomy. The struggle for an independent Tibet continues through the Dalai Lama, who heads a Tibetan government in exile in Dharamsala (northern India).

The loss of Tibet’s independence in 1959 brings about a dramatic change in the course of Tibetan art. For centuries, monastic patronage has been the primary support for the arts in Tibet, and devotional practices have prescribed strict artistic canons. In the first half of the twentieth century, artists begin to experiment with realism, modernism, and photography, though they continue to produce predominantly religious art. These developments are halted after 1959 when styles become invested with tremendous political significance.

After 1959, two Tibetan cultures develop in isolation from one another: the culture of the exiles in Dharamsala and the culture of the TAR under Chinese communism. The Dalai Lama’s government in Dharamsala patronizes painting masters who have trained in Tibet in the Menri style, a conservative idiom that returns Tibetan art to its past, reifying it as something old, untouched, and unchanging. In architecture, the exiles seek an idiom that all Tibetan sects can embrace: the Dalai Lama’s temple, called the Namgyal temple, is built in a spare modernist idiom, while the neo-Norbulingka mingle modernist simplicity with postmodern citations from traditional Tibetan architecture.

In the TAR, meanwhile, religion is suppressed, Socialist Realism prevails, and art has to espouse the politics of Beijing. For several decades, it is virtually impossible for Tibetan artists to work in traditional styles, to express dissident points of view, or to reveal any sense of a regional, ethnic identity. This situation eases in the 1980s. As the Tibetan population begins to question Chinese rule more openly, many Tibetan artists turn away from Socialist Realism. Traditional idioms and religious imagery become vital new sources of inspiration, but so does modernism, particularly Cubism and abstraction. Modernism allows for messages of dissent too subtle to invite government censorship. In addition, modernist takes on Buddhism and the regional landscape promise the birth of a distinct Tibetan idiom, albeit quite different from the “authentic” Tibetan art cultivated in Dharamsala.


“South Asia and the Himalayan Region, 1900 A.D.–present.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2004)