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The Space That Art and its Market Occupy in Indian Society – Part 1


Setting The Stage

We grow up in a time where stories of survival, sacrifice, and blood-painted borders are told in quiet living rooms, in opulent halls built up from the remains of golden nightingales. Once a proud empire, the Indian subcontinent was a breadcrumb of its former glory when the British finally departed from our shores in 1947. Yet, their colonisation did not end there. In the advent of their Western Civilisation, our cultural heritage was pillaged and reduced to a commercial world, with our art having decidedly no meaning in the eyes of the Redcoat conquerors.In the wake of the freedom movement, the visual arts in the Indian subcontinent witnessed revolutions of style, identity, and rebellion. With the likes of Rabindranath Tagore and Amrita Sher-Gil at its forefront, Indian Art of the 20th century was seen as ‘derivative’ when embracing our historical heritage and ‘hypocritical’ when making space for Western influences. Historians and critics held this double-edged sword against our artists for decades, refusing to acknowledge the meaning behind great works, reducing our contemporaries to mere decoration, inhibiting the birth of a new world of art.

While the Indian art industry is worth Rs 1460 crores today, the path was far from easy.

Art in Pre-Independence India (1900-1947)

The suppression of cultural identity, a facet of British colonial policy, faced significant opposition from the artists who belonged to the Bengal School of Painting. They rejected the romantic, artistic renditions of a colonised India, the western-influenced works of Ravi Verma, and all Western schools of art. Instead, they drew inspiration from mythologies and religion – focusing on the techniques of painting which can be seen in temples and sculptures pan-India. The Bengal School went so far as to adopt other techniques such as water-colour, tempera and ink, and the Japanese wash technique. 

Self Portrait (1930) Amrita Sher-Gill

Rabindranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose, D.P. Roy Choudhury, A.K. Haldar, Kshitindranath Mazumdar, Sarada Ukil, and M.A.R. Chugtai were among the artists who focused on varied aspects of the Bengal School of Painting. This movement was taken further by the post-impressionistic works of Amrita Sher-Gil and the Calcutta group, the latter of who incorporated foreign elements to create socially responsive and international pieces, and by Damyanti Chawla, student of Bhabesh Chandra Sanyal. While Calcutta and Bombay were already established as cultural capitals of India, Delhi had only the All India Fine Arts and Crafts Society (AIFACS) to show its appreciation of the fine arts. This changed with the founding of the Delhi Silpi Chakra. Founded by Bhabesh Chandra Sanyal, Kanwal Krishna, Dhanraj Bhagat, K. S. Kulkarni, and Pran Nath Mago in January 1948 in the Jantar Mantar Lawn. The idea of the formation of a group came as a rebel against the AIFACS and provided the needed space for many young artists of that time to exhibit, for discourse and to have a sense of belonging to a creative society. 

Art in Post-Independence India (1947-1985)

Post independence artists began to focus on the trivial aspects of day-to-day living, exploring life through the creation of simple forms and sprightly colours. The Progressive Artists Group of Bombay, founded in 1947, was comprised of renowned artists such as F.N. Souza, S.H. Raza, K.H. Ara, M.F. Husain, H.A. Gade and S. Bakre.. They strived to create art that was a perfect mix of Indian and modern – a style achieved through Post-Impressionism and Parisian Abstract Expressionism. The abandonment of colonial art and naturalism was followed in suit by sculptors as well. Many sculptors – Sankho Chaudhuri, Dhanraj Bhagat, Pillo Pochkhanwalla, Adi Davierwalla, and Meera Mukherjee – experimented with various media and techniques to inculcate their personality and identity into their art. Printmakers Jyoti Bhatt and Krishna Reddy were at the forefront of revolutionary methods of artistic expression: stencils made of old prints, reusing used canvases for new collages, discovering the simultaneous colour printing method with  Stanley William Hayter. They, in turn, gave artists new avenues to explore.

Head in a Landscape (1958) , Francis Newton Souza

The fifties saw the shift of Artistic endeavour to Baroda, the result of the creation of the Fine Arts Department in M.S. University. There, artists such as Sankho Chaudhuri, N.S. Bendre, K.G. Subramanyan and later Bhupen Khakhar, Haku Shah, Jeram Patel and Nasreen Mohamedi furthered India’s delve into modernism with their works in Pop Art, Abstraction, and Neo-Dadaism. 

Death in the Family (1977), Bhupen Khakhar.

Amidst the political turbulence of the 1970s, artists such as Tyeb Mehta, Rameshwar Broota, Gieve Patel, Somnath Hore, Ganesh Pyne, K.K. Hebbar, Krishan Khanna. and Bikash Bhattacharjee used their art to speak out against the injustices and horrors they witnessed. By turning towards the social and political through figuration, they questioned an artist’s role in an infant democracy. These times also witnessed the recognition of women artists such as Nalini Malani, Arpita Singh, Madhvi Parekh, and Navjyot among others, who took a more socially conscious stance with their work. 

Contemporary Indian Art (1985-present)

Turning over a new leaf, the artists of the eighties gave less importance to the events of the preceding decades. In an ever-increasing global economy, postmodernism became their preferred style. The genres of hyperrealism, photo, and installation art permeated the Indian artistic and public consciousness. With the advent of Jagdish Swaminathan’s “hybrid mannerisms”, such styles seemed to become regular features of artistic expression. With the 1990s, the nation witnessed a rise in pluralist moods in the production of contemporary art. The age of information and instant gratification provided a diverse range of stimuli for artists such as Shibu Natesan, Surendran Nair, Jayashree Chakravarty, Rekha Rodwittiya, and G. Ravinder Reddy to respond to.  The country became cognizant of the subtle themes and emotive contexts of artists such as Atul Dodiya, Baiju Parthan, and Anju Dodiya. However, the contemporary art market focused primarily on mainstream art following similar styles not tribal art. One of the best artists of tribal art, Jangarh Singh Shyam belonged to the Pardhan Gond clan and pioneered his own unique style of art, which came to be known as the ‘Jangarh Kalam’. Prominent artists of today include Nilima Sheikh, Shilpa Gupta, Reena Kallat, Jitish Kallat, Mithu Sen, and Bharti Kher. 

Portrait of a Barasingha (Mid-1980s) Jangarh Singh Shyam

With these shifts in style and perspective, contemporary sculptors looked beyond the traditional restrictions placed upon sculpting media and techniques. This new concurrent evolution of sculpture with paintings saw the popularisation of kinetic sculptures and site-specific installations, along with new techniques used to treat stone and metal among other materials. Furthermore, with the hybridisation of sculpting and painting by artists such as Anandajit Ray, Sudarshan Shetty, G.R. Iranna, and Jagannath Panda the boundaries of the two disciplines fell. 

Despite these revolutions of style and identity in 20th century Indian art, it was for the greater part of the century ignored due the double-edged sword held by art historians and critics of the time.

The second half of this piece will explore the delayed fruition of the commercial world of art.

Credit to Keshav Mahendru & Shaleen Wadhwana for their help in conceptualising the piece.

Experience Further

Indian Ocean’s ‘Gar Ho Sake‘ perfectly encapsulates the rage and passion that accompanied the Indian artistic revolution of the 20th Century. The need for change and to throw off the yoke of colonisation was a sentiment that struck a chord with artists pan-India: resistance is always led by poets, artists, and singers.

About Us

Anant Shah

Anant Shah- Founder

Anant Shah (just as his Instagram bio says) has always been interested in connecting people though their different cultures. He is drawn to this goal, given his background of a family of artists, as well as his work at several different organisations such as the People Tree with Orijit Sen, The Conflictorium in Ahmedabad and The UN (AIDS) Communications and Global Advocacy Team in Geneva. As a graduate of History and International relations at Ashoka University, he co-founded and set up the Ashoka Literature festival in 2019. Longing to increase this critical discourse on contemporary and traditional Indian Cultures he finally decided to start InCulture.

Kartik Sundar- Founder

Kartik Sundar loves nothing more than opining on cultural content. An avid writer for many publications, the decision to start one of his own came from recognizing a substantive lack of critical discourse around Indian culture today. He graduated Ashoka University with a degree in History & International Relations and wishes to complete further education with a focus on media and cultural studies.

Who We Are

We at inCulture are looking to shed light on what we see as an emerging new Indian culture as well as paying dues to the traditions that have been integral in shaping the current space. We want to try and create a space where critical reflection on cultural events, individuals, works of art, or practices can be fostered. Rather than exist as a cultural news outlet that merely serves as a bulletin board for the latest releases, inCulture will look to curate multi-medium pieces that seek to inform readers about aspects of our culture that make you think beyond an immediate reaction. In particular, we strive to look critically at Indian culture by investigating it under four distinct categories – film & theatre, music, spaces, and society.


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