Figures in a global culture: Modern Indian art at Oglethorpe University

Francis Newton Souza, Untitled, 1966, 36 x 34 inches, oil on canvas. Photo by Jon Ciliberto.

Twentieth-century Indian art is inevitably viewed in the framework of North American/European art history. While the four millennia of Indian art stand to speak volumes on the work of any Indian artist, the more immediate effect of colonialism tends to define the relationship of modern Indian artists with regard to well-known contemporaneous Western artists and trends.

Goddess, Lion, Peasant, Priest: Modern and Contemporary Indian Art from the collection of Shelley and Donald Rubin at the Oglethorpe University Museum of Art, a presentation of more than 50 paintings by 28 of the most prominent Indian artists of the past half century, is described by the exhibition’s curator, Rebecca M. Brown, in modernist, colonialist, and post-colonialist terms. Her aims are to liberate modern Indian art from the framework of colonialism, to place it within the general, global project of modernism, and to define it as a significant aspect of contemporary art culture. The wide-ranging, highly personal Rubin collection provides ample material to support these aims.

While art historical contexts are perhaps helpful, it is important for me to stress at the outset that this exhibition is, regardless of one’s interest in such matters, a visual feast, a wide-ranging survey that merits considerable attention. By the standards of art history, the collected artists represent India’s most significant for the modern period. Perhaps that this exhibition finds itself in a quiet university museum located a 25-minute drive from downtown Atlanta describes some of the residual colonialism of modern art. I see this, however, positively as an advantage to local viewers, perhaps overwrought by the hype and crowds attendant upon exhibitions of the greats of Western art. The paintings on display offer a range of idea and sophistication of expression and technique certainly equal to a similar portfolio of paintings from any Western country, regardless of art historical analysis.

Brown points out that India in the 20th century has been viewed as “not modern, not contemporary,” in comparison with the West. For this reason, all “modern” art is easily labeled as derivative of Western modes, which is to say that anything modern must be Western. So, for instance, when a viewer unfamiliar with M.F. Husain’s work first sees one of his paintings, a likely reaction is to place him with the Cubists.

M.F. Husain, Lady With Lamp, 1965, 43 3/4 x 26 inches, oil on canvas. Photo by Jon Ciliberto.

On the one hand, this is reasonable. A key aspect of modernity is a global culture, one admittedly dominated by the West as the locus of money and power, and hence of cultural monetization. Consequently, in order to be successful, artists conform their styles with respect to the dominant art historical trends. Therefore we may look at Husain’s early use of dominant Western tropes as just as much a means of competing in, and entering, the international art market, as a means of participating in modernism.

On the other hand, when one considers more closely the globalized culture of modernity, such a simple source-result relationship becomes problematic. Consider, for example , Francis Newton Souza, who is certainly among the most famous painters in Indian art. (One of his paintings sold for $2.5 million in 2008). The exhibition shows six of Souza’s “face” paintings, a major theme throughout his career. These works are highly energized, rather than carefully refined. Most are abstracted with boldly graphic, strong, direct line-work. Even though there are only six instances on view at Oglethorpe, one can see a significant variation in style. As with many of the artists represented, the combination of the Shelley and Donald Rubins’ passion for collecting with the relatively low cost and ease of attaining Indian works leads to a superb sampling from Souza’s series.

Art historians might see primitivism, a trend pursued by Western artists in the modern period. According to a colonialist perspective, Souza is simply mimicking the trends of Western art. However, the Western artists who defined Primitivism intentionally drew ideas from non-Western countries. “Modern art was not invented in Europe or North America; rather, it has emerged from an engaged, ongoing global dialogue.”1 With this in mind, a more accurate description is that both Western and Indian artists in the 20th century drew from common sources. Put in post-colonial terms, “[i]n reclaiming the primitive Souza was virtually re-inventing his art and that is where his strength lay.”2

The fact that Souza and Husain created works stylistically familiar to Western collectors’ eyes no doubt contributed to their respective attractiveness. Brown writes: “Indian artists engage intimately and directly with modern and contemporary art from around the world,” which certainly placed such artists in the hands of Western collectors more readily than artists who remained isolated from international trends.

Nor is colonial history itself to be viewed wholly as a kind of cultural bondage. Britain brought modern technologies and ideas from India which opened up possibilities for growth.

Seema Kohli, Untitled (detail), 2007, 46 x 70 inches, mixed media on canvas. Photo by Jon Ciliberto.

Many 20th century artists advocated broad social justice, a modern political idea. Like Picasso, Souza became a member of the Communist Party. But, after his paintings were branded “a manifestation of bourgeoisie aesthetics” by top members of the Party, he declared: “I don’t believe that the true artist paints for coteries or for the proletariat. I believe with all my soul that he paints solely for himself.” (Dalmia (2001), 80) A statement like this brings into focus the complex relationship between the individual (the artist) and corporate entities (political parties, museums). The curator’s position, that Indian art “participates in the global conversation about what modernity means in a post-colonial era” shows that the shifting context of Indian art from colonial/colonized to global and modern merely creates another corporate structure, one perhaps more useful to scholars than to artists or viewers of art. The expanded context for Indian art, placing it firmly within the global project of modernism, may hew less to the facts than exist as a useful tool for scholarship.

It is noteworthy that both Souza and Husain spent most of their professional lives outside of India, the former by choice (mostly in London and New York), the latter due to violent reprisals by Hindu nationalists against him. Undoubtedly, had they remained in India their prominence would have been much slower to develop (if at all); indeed, their artwork owes a great deal to the influences presented by the West, as well as to the attentions of very few collectors (as described in the fine exhibition catalog).

While simply revising art history to place such artists within modernism figures well for post-colonial theory, it fails to account completely for what actually happened (and nor does Brown seek to portray it so simply). Nevertheless, “scholars have begun to recognize that India’s art played, and continues to play, a central role in the formation of modern and contemporary art.”3

The exhibition is themed on the people of India and presented in three categories: characters, inhabited spaces, and spiritual bodies. All of the works are post-1947: the year of Indian independence. Many benefit from repeated viewing not only because they are bustling with imagery, life, and design, but also because multiple approaches to these paintings tend to vitiate the strength of embedded, art historical frameworks. As one spends time immersed in India’s modern art, one comes more and more to view them not as contextualized, but rather as a sparkling, vibrant, bustling, intelligent multiplicity of independent voices.

Sakti Burman, Untitled (detail), c. 2000s, 44 1/2 x 34 1/4, oil on canvas. Photo by Jon Ciliberto.

Many of the artists explore texture, making it a primary component of their paintings. Sakti Burman employs marbling not merely as a ground aspect, but in order to create motion and vitality in his characters. Mahjabin Majumdar’s large face portrait reveals on close examination the sort of circular hatching utilized in print-making. Small, dark cells as well as trees and a variety of forms populate a woman’s hair creating shadows.

Drawing also occurs in several mixed media pieces by Seema Kohli. Her untitled painting from 2007 incorporates iconography from Hinduism, including river goddesses, holy figures in dhyanasana posture, plants, fishes, and mythological creatures, all drawn in thin black lines within a larger set of colored forms. The blue of the main figure glows; I mistook it for illuminated glass and that perception was barely corrected by a closer look.

One notices a frequent closed-in or confined sense of space in the paintings, with figures and objects compressed within an enclosed visual environment: Bodies and limbs fold inward, as arms cross with hands clasped together, perhaps reminding viewers of the tight spaces found in Indian cities.

The paintings come from the personal collection of Oglethorpe alumnus Donald Rubin (class of 1956) and his wife, Shelley, who founded the Rubin Museum of Art in New York. The Rubins have also recently allied themselves with the Emory-Tibet Partnership, through grants and planned loans of artwork. Atlanta is extremely fortunate to have such generous friends in Asian art.

The exhibition, Goddess, Lion, Peasant, Priest: Modern and Contemporary Indian Art from the collection of Shelley and Donald Rubin , which continues at the Oglethorpe University Museum of Art through May 15, 2011, will also present many associated educational and cultural events, lectures, and musical performances.

Jonathan Ciliberto is the editor and cofounder of Buddhist Art News, an online journal dedicated to reporting on Buddhist art, architecture, archaeology, music, dance, and academia.

1 Rebecca M. Brown, Goddess, Lion, Peasant, Priest (Oglethorpe Museum of Art, 2010), 17. Remaining quotations from Brown are from the same source.
2 Yasodhara Dalmia, The Making of Modern India: The Progressives (Oxford University Press, 2001), 98.
3 Rebecca M. Brown, 2010, 17.

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    […] the meeting, my friend and I headed down to Oglethorpe University to see an art exhibit: Goddess, Lion, Peasant, Priest: Modern and Contemporary Indian Art from the collection of Shelley […]

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    jon ciliberto
    May 16, 2011 at

    The visual art hosted by Oglethorpe that has most impressed me, and not just owing to the general paucity of viewing available in the city, is Buddhist art from the Rubin Museum of Art. Obviously, there are complications in comparing century’s old religious art with contemporary secular art.

    In any case, I am always glad to see ANY non-European art presented in Atlanta, if only to acknowledge the wider world.

    The Rubins are collectors of the like-what-they-see kind, and this is reflected in this exhibition of their Contemporary and Modern Indian Art. They are not “professional” curators, and thus their collection perhaps doesn’t reflect the most current trends of the artworld.

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    Carolyn Milner
    May 16, 2011 at

    I was a little disappointed by this show – probably in contrast to the incredible works that have been shown at Oglethorpe in the past. This seemed a bit behind and out dated – for the 20th century.

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