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Triumph of modernism avant garde indian art

  1. 1. The Triumph of Modernism India’s artists and the avant-garde 1922–1947 Partha Mitter
  2. 2. the triumph of modernism
  3. 3. The Triumph of Modernism India’s artists and the avant-garde, 1922–1947 Partha Mitter REAKTION BOOKS
  4. 4. To my parents, true cosmopolitans Published by Reaktion Books Ltd 33 Great Sutton Street London ec1v 0dx First published 2007 Copyright © Partha Mitter 2007 All rights reserved No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publishers. Published with the assistance of The Getty Foundation Printed and bound in China British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data Mitter, Partha The triumph of modernism : India's artists and the avante-garde, 1922–1947 1. Art, Indic – 20th century 2. Art, Indic – European influences 3. Modernism (Art) – India 4. Nationalism and art – India – History – 20th century 5. Avant-garde (Aesthetics) – India – History – 20th century I. Title 709.5'4'0904 isbn–13: 978 1 86189 318 5 isbn–10: 1 86189 318 3
  5. 5. Contents Prologue 7 one The Formalist Prelude 15 two The Indian Discourse of Primitivism 29 i Two Pioneering Women Artists 36 ii Rabindranath Tagore’s Vision of Art and the Community 65 iii Jamini Roy and Art for the Community 100 three Naturalists in the Age of Modernism 123 i The Regional Expressions of Academic Naturalism 125 ii From Orientalism to a New Naturalism: K. Venkatappa and Deviprosad Roy Chowdhury 163 four Contested Nationalism: The New Delhi and India House Murals 177 Epilogue 226 References 228 Bibliography 256 Acknowledgements 261 Photo Acknowledgements 263 Index 264
  6. 6. Prologue the picasso manqué syndrome Gaganendranath Tagore, A Cubist Scene, c. 1923, watercolour on postcard. Gaganendranath and his circle often sent postcards they painted themselves to students and friends. The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once stated that Surrealism was stolen from the Europeans by ‘a Black [the poet Aimé Césaire] who used it brilliantly as a tool of Universal Revolution.’1 Sartre’s admiring and yet enigmatic comment encapsulates the problematic relationship between non-Western artists and the international avant-garde, which is enmeshed in a complex discourse of authority, hierarchy and power. Even cultural subversion, as suggested above, prompts the common perception of nonWestern modernism as a derivative one, a phenomenon that I would like to christen the ‘Picasso manqué’ syndrome. Let me elaborate with an example. The English art historian W. G. Archer wrote an influential account of Indian modernism. His analysis of the painting of Gaganendranath Tagore, one of the first Indian modernists, consisted almost entirely of tracing Picasso’s putative influence on him. Unsurprisingly, Archer drew the conclusion that Gaganendranath was un cubiste manqué; in other words, his derivative works, based on a cultural misunderstanding, were simply bad imitations of Picasso (see p. 18). Behind this seemingly innocent conclusion rests the whole weight of Western art history. We need to unpack its ramifications here.2 Stylistic influence, as we are all aware, has been the cornerstone of art historical discourse since the Renaissance. Nineteenth-century art history, in the age of Western domination, extended it to world art, ranking it according to the notion of progress, with Western art at its apex. Influence acquired an added resonance in colonial art history. For Archer, the use of the syntax of Cubism, a product of the West, by an Indian artist, immediately locked him into a dependent relationship, the colonized mimicking the superior art of the colonizer. Indeed influence has been the key epistemic tool in studying the reception of Western art in the nonWestern world: if the product is too close to its original source, it reflects slavish mentality; if on the other hand, the imitation is imperfect, it represents a failure. In terms of power relations, borrowing by artists from the peripheries becomes a badge of inferiority. In contrast, the borrowings 7
  7. 7. of European artists are described approvingly either as ‘affinities’ or dismissed as inconsequential, as evident in the primitivism exhibition held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1985. The very subtitle of the exhibition, ‘affinity of the tribal and the modern’, characterizes Picasso’s emulation of African sculpture as no more than a mere formal ‘affinity’ with the primitive.3 In short, Picasso’s integrity was in no way compromised by the borrowing, in contrast to the colonial artist Gaganendranath. Here, in the context of affinity versus emulation, we need to explore whether influence as an analytical tool has outlived its usefulness. I can do no better than invoke Michael Baxandall’s magisterial interrogation of this obsession among art historians, or the ‘anxiety of influence’, to use Harold Bloom’s celebrated phrase. As Baxandall puts it succinctly, the artist responds to circumstance, making an intentional selection from a range of sources.4 This is a purposeful rather than passive activity, which involves making conscious choices. There have been other art historians who have proposed a more agonistic relationship between the artists and their sources than allowed for in more standard art histories. Recently, the artist as an active conscious agent and the sovereignty of the art object have been reiterated by Thomas Crow in his penetrating discourse on The Intelligence of Art.5 One of the problems besetting the discourse of modernism has been its Vasarian art historical foundations, which pursue a linear trajectory according to the dictates of a relentless teleology that does not allow for dissidence, difference and competition. John Clark has called Western modernism a ‘closed’ system of discourse, which cannot accommodate new discourses that modernisms outside the West give rise to.6 And yet, what is most exhilarating about modernisms across the globe is their plurality, heterogeneity and difference, what one may describe as a ‘messy’ quality lacking symmetry which makes them all the more exciting and rich with possibilities. No one can deny that the flexible revolutionary syntax of Cubism became synonymous with the global avant-garde. Nor would one disagree with Adrian Stokes that Cézanne’s Bathers, which inspired Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon, and turned the European artist’s attention to African sculpture in repudiation of classical taste, opened up a new space for cosmopolitanism. Nor can one ignore the achievements of the critics of modernism from Walter Benjamin and Carl Einstein through Clement Greenberg to post-war scholars of social history of art, postmodernists and proponents of visual culture. Here I am simply concerned with the art historical representations of non-metropolitan forms of modernism.7 Set against the originary discourse of the avant-garde, emanating from metropolitan centres such as Paris, other modernisms are dismissed as peripheral to its triumphal progress. Yet, the centre–periphery relationship is not one of geography but of power and authority that affects not 8
  8. 8. only race and gender but also regions. We notice the operation of this paradigm even in the field of Renaissance art. The Vasarian master narrative of artistic progress defines cities, such as Florence, Rome and Venice, as centres of innovation, presenting peripheries as sites of delayed growth and derivation. This has affected the reputation of an artist such as Correggio. Hailing from Parma, considered to be peripheral compared with Rome, Venice and Florence, Correggio’s innovative work has until now been assessed in the light of Raphael or Michelangelo’s achievement, rather than as an independent achievement.8 In our post-colonial environment, scholars have proposed ways of empowering non-Western modernism that seek to restore the artists’ choice and to view them as active rather than passive agents of transmission.9 Let me offer a flavour of their arguments: Keith Moxey suggests the flexible and inclusive concept of ‘visual culture’ that goes beyond the Renaissance hierarchy of art, which has been responsible for reinforcing global inequality in power relations. Néstor García Canclini’s ‘multitemporal heterogeneities’, Geeta Kapur’s ‘restructuring’ the international avant-garde and Bourdieu’s reminder that modes of representations are expressions of political conflicts, are some of the emerging possibilities. Gerardo Mosquera argues that the periphery is ceasing to be a reservoir of traditions, creating at once multiple sites of international culture as well as strengthening local developments in constant hybridization of cultures.10 Hybridity, originally a concept in biology, has been vigorously theorized with a view to empowering the colonized which has given rise to intense debates.11 Such a plethora of persuasive arguments indicates the positive direction art history is taking in the twenty-first century, leading to some ‘loosening’ of the canon.12 It is however possible to examine these issues from a different perspective in order to formulate concepts that will address complex interactions between global modernity and regional art productions and practices. This book engages precisely this issue of artistic production and the construction of national identity in late colonial India. First of all, instead of using ‘influence’ as a convenient tool to describe the introduction of modernism in the non-Western societies, we may turn to the concept of ‘paradigm change’ postulated by Thomas Kuhn in the history of science. The adoption of the new language of modernism by Indian artists was necessitated by the changes in artistic imperatives in a rapidly globalizing world, which prompted them to discard the previous artistic paradigm centring on representational art.13 Second, influence as an art historical category misses out more significant aspects of cultural encounters, as for instance, the enriching value of cultural mixtures that have nourished societies since time immemorial. The claimed purity of cultures is simply a nationalist myth fabricated in the nineteenth century. Arguably, the strongest cultures have often developed through constant cross-fertilizations and crossing of cultural frontiers, though the original 9
  9. 9. forms and ideas necessarily acquire a new meaning in the new environment. But what one must remember is that these exchanges of ideas and forms need not necessarily be a question of domination and dependence nor do they represent a loss of self.14 Colonial mentality asserts cultural transmissions to be a one-way process flowing from the Occident. Yet one could offer one documented instance of cross-fertilization in which the West has been an enthusiastic recipient. This is the persistent fascination with Eastern thought that has periodically surfaced in the West in different guises. Raymond Schwab, who named the impact of Indian thought on nineteenth-century Romanticism the Oriental Renaissance, considered this challenge to the West to be as radical as the ‘first’ Renaissance.15 This critical tradition continued in the Transcendental Idealism of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche down to Heidegger and the twentieth-century Existentialists.16 In the field of modernist art we find three influential figures, the philosopher Henri Bergson, the art historian Wilhelm Worringer and the novelist Leo Tolstoy, all of them intellectually engaging with the alternative tradition represented by Indian philosophy.17 narratives of the local and the global This preamble leads us to the topic of the book: the rise of modernist art in India. An ambitious exhibition of the works of Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky and other Bauhaus artists held in Calcutta in 1922 marks the beginning of the avant-garde in India.18 This first phase of modernism, which was an artistic expression of resistance to colonial rule, came to an end around 1947, the year of Indian independence. Before we proceed, let us remind ourselves of the useful distinction between modernity as a global phenomenon with wide political, economic and social implications, and the more specific aesthetic movement known as modernism, which has engaged fruitfully and critically with the predicament of modernity. Global modernity as such arrived in India with the consolidation of the British Empire in the nineteenth century. Introduction of art schools, art exhibitions, the processes of mechanical reproduction and other modern institutions in India was part of Westernization, which transformed artists’ status and outlook as well as art patronage.19 In the 1920s, during a further paradigm shift, the radical formalist language of modernism offered Indian artists such as Rabindranath Tagore and Jamini Roy a new weapon of anti-colonial resistance. In their intellectual battle with colonialism, they readily found allies among the Western avant-garde critics of urban industrial capitalism, leading them to engage for the first time with global aesthetic issues.20 The modernists idolized rural India as the true site of the nation, evolving artistic primitivism as an antithesis to colonial urban values. For the artists Sunayani Devi and Amrita Sher-Gil, village India became a 10
  10. 10. surrogate for their own predicament as women within the wider nationalist struggle. In parallel with the primitivists, artists belonging to a ‘naturalist’ counter-stream, engaged with quotidian life, some of them expressing deep sympathies for the underclass. Where both these streams that emerged in the 1920s and ’30s were in tacit agreement was in their common distaste for history painting and the master narrative of nationalism that had obsessed the previous generation.21 Yet strange to say, historicism continued to flourish, partly because of Raj espousal of Indian cultural nationalism as a safe alternative to active and violent resistance. Its final flowering took place in the decoration of the new imperial capital in Delhi and the India House in London. Finally, as a coda, I touch upon the changing nature of modernism in the closing decade of the empire which anticipated developments in post-colonial India. War, famine, peasant rebellions and widespread political unrest radicalized artists who looked beyond personal validation towards active participation in communist and other popular movements as they swore allegiance to the formalist vanguard of Paris. In this pioneering phase of Indian modernism, the interactions between the global and the local were played out in the urban space of colonial culture, hosted by the intelligentsia who acted as a surrogate for the nation. Western expansion gave rise to a series of ‘hybrid’ cosmopolises around the globe: Calcutta, Bombay, Shanghai, Singapore, São Paulo, Mexico City, Hanoi, Cairo and Beirut, to name the best known.22 The two cosmopolitan cities in India, Bombay and Calcutta, which acted as the locus of colonial encounters, were beneficiaries as well as interlocutors of colonial culture. I have chosen to explore Calcutta as a hybrid cosmopolis here because of its pioneering role in Indian modernism. In the city, the nineteenth-century intellectual movement known as the Bengal Renaissance represented a hybrid intellectual enterprise underpinned by a dialogic relationship between the colonial language, English, and the modernized vernacular, Bengali.23 The Bengali elite, the Bhadralok, who took to the new colonial learning with alacrity, had less commitment to traditional Hindu culture on account of its ambiguous status in the caste hierarchy. Its role as a marginal group in traditional Hindu society had telling parallels with the post-emancipation Jewish intellectuals of Vienna, who became major players in twentieth-century modernism.24 The Bengali intelligentsia negotiated cosmopolitan modernity largely through the printed medium, since few of them had any direct physical contact with Europeans.25 Yet they were deeply imbued with Western literature and Enlightenment values. Modernity created a globally ‘imagined community’ based upon print culture, whose members may never have known one another personally, and yet shared a corpus of ideas on modernity.26 To explain this community’s critical engagement with modern ideas, I propose here the concept of the ‘virtual cosmopolis’. The hybrid city of the imagination engendered elective affinities between the 11
  11. 11. elites of the centre and the periphery on the level of intellect and creativity.27 Their shared outlook was possible not only through the printed media but also through hegemonic languages such as English and Spanish spread by colonial rule. In sum, the encounters of the colonial intelligentsia with modernity were inflected through virtual cosmopolitanism. One of the products of such encounters was global primitivism and the common front made against urban industrial capitalism and the ideology of progress. As I argue later, primitivism was not anti-modern; it was a critical form of modernity that affected the peripheries no less than the West. Primitivists did not deny the importance of technology in contemporary life; they simply refused to accept the teleological certainty of modernity.28 The Western primitivists were chiefly concerned with the predicament of urban existence, whereas Indian artists used primitivism as an effective weapon against colonial culture.29 The interest of the Cubists in African art as an aspect of primitivism has been thoroughly explored. Though radical in its formal innovations, early Cubism was less radical politically than, let us say, certain expressions of non-objective art. In their development of flat non-figurative art, Kandinsky and others sought affinities with the ‘decorative’ art of the ‘primitive’ and non-Western peoples untouched by Renaissance naturalism. However, to my mind even more important was their radical quest for an alternative to materialism. That is when they turned to Eastern, particularly Indian Buddhist and Hindu philosophy, which is described by David Pan as ‘the intellectual context of the abstract method’.30 Their quest, they felt, was met less by institutional Christianity than by a form of syncretism that offered fresh existential and epistemological possibilities. It would of course be an oversimplification to consider these painters as merely reproducing Eastern spiritual concepts in their works. They engaged with Eastern philosophy critically, their interpretations of Eastern thought were in the light of their own sense of crisis in the West and deeply felt creative needs that went beyond mere fashion.31 I intend to show how in very many diverse and interesting ways such ‘primitivism’ had its counterpart in the colonial world of India where artists saw parallels between their own resistance to Western rationality and urban modernity, and that of the Western modernists. Global ‘critical modernity’ has multilateral and multi-axial origins and reasons; its global impact forces us to revise a simple notion of cultural influence as a one-way flow of ideas from the West to other cultures. Finally, a personal note: why did I decide to write this book? One urgent reason was to understand what modernism has meant in the culture of my origins. The other reason, as someone who has lived most of his life in the West, is to make a wider transnational audience aware of this little-known story of Indian modernism. Contrary to colonial representations of the non-West as the recipient in a long one-way ‘civilizing’ process, global modernity has been a two-way dialogic transaction in which 12
  12. 12. the enriching role of the peripheries remains imperfectly understood. Acknowledgement of the ‘cosmopolitan’ and heterogeneous character of the avant-garde may help us to break down the West’s ‘parthenogenic’ self-image, enabling it to gain a deeper understanding of its own self in relation to its ‘significant others’. This may well be a celebration of plurality rather than the reinscription of a monolithic canon.32 13
  13. 13. one The Formalist Prelude bauhaus artists in calcutta Gaganendranath Tagore, Poet on the Island of the Birds, c. 1925, watercolour on paper. To many of us Cubism’s revolutionary mode of representation is synonymous with modernism. It was the first Western movement to attract Indian artists, although it failed to leave any lasting mark until its resurgence in the 1940s. We may take December 1922 as a convenient entry point for modernism in India. An exhibition of works of the Bauhaus artists in Calcutta in that year symbolized the graduation of Indian taste from Victorian naturalism to non-representational art. We first hear of the Western avant-garde in 1914 in the Bengali journal Prabasi, which described Brancusi’s Mlle Pogany as unacceptably bizarre. Its author Sukumar Roy, a fervent believer in naturalism, had previously been a critic of orientalist distortions of reality. (I use orientalism, orientalist artists and oriental art in lower case to refer to the first nationalist art movement in India known as the Bengal School and use capitals for European Orientalists in the Saidian sense.) In his essay, ‘Exaggerations [distortions] in Art’, Roy acknowledged Cubism’s revolutionary objective of challenging academic naturalism, but he rejected its extreme distortions of reality, while he condemned outright Futurist glorifications of war, the machine age and other odious trappings of progress.1 Others were more welcoming of modernism. In 1917, the widely read Modern Review carried an anonymous piece on ‘automatic drawing’, which dealt with Freud’s impact on avant-garde art.2 The poet Rabindranath Tagore, who had increasing misgivings about the nationalist Bengal School of art, was intent on broadening the artistic horizon of his university at Santiniketan. In 1919, during a visit to Oxford, he hired Stella Kramrisch (1898–1993) to teach art history at the fledgling art department (Kala Bhavan). Of Austrian-Jewish descent, Kramrisch had received a thorough grounding in art history at the University of Vienna, becoming a renowned authority on Indian art in later life. She became one of the foremost figures in the dissemination of Indian modernist art. At Santiniketan her personal knowledge of the avant-garde made it a living reality for the students.3 15
  14. 14. In January 1922, the globe-trotting polymath and fervent nationalist Benoy Sarkar (1887–1949) decided on a ‘much-needed infusion of modernism’ into the art of Bengal. His controversial article ‘Aesthetics of Young India’, sent from Paris to the orientalist journal Rupam in 1922, prompted a heated debate.4 Dismissing the Bengal School’s much vaunted ‘spirituality’ of Indian art as a species of myth making, Sarkar made a passionate plea on behalf of the avant-garde ‘aesthetics of autonomy’, comparing it with the nationalist demand for self rule or autonomy from the Raj. Finally, he demanded the emancipation of Indian art from the tyranny of literary critics, historical analysts, nationalists and Bolsheviks. A ‘dyed-in-the-wool’ formalist, who extolled the objectivity of the ‘artistic eye’, Sarkar considered modernism to be a truly international style that overcame all cultural barriers.5 Sarkar was in Berlin in the 1920s, where he came under the spell of modernism. His rousing manifesto welcoming formalism and the immediacy of art appreciation however recalls Clive Bell’s notion of ‘significant form’ that distinguished art from ‘descriptive painting’. In 1914, Bell asserted that in order to appreciate a work of art we need bring with us nothing ‘but a sense of form and colour . . . Significant form stands charged with the power to provoke aesthetic emotion in anyone capable of feeling it.’6 The nationalists felt impelled to respond to Sarkar. Barindranath Ghosh, an intellectual and a former political prisoner, rejected Sarkar’s ideas as inimical to Indian culture. Ordhendra Gangoly, editor of Rupam and the leading ideologue of the Bengal school, mocked Sarkar’s presumption that Indians were unaware of recent developments in Western art: ‘I have a secret sympathy for the latest Parisian craze over Negro sculpture. I can recall my own feeling of ecstasy at seeing Polynesian images when I first set foot in Java . . . I can therefore understand Picasso, Matisse and Derain’s first thrills on viewing the Tami masks from New Guinea.’7 Kramrisch exposed the flaws in Sarkar’s formalist canon. A relativist, she rejected the primacy of Western art, arguing that ‘significant form’ in each individual artistic tradition was a product of a complex interaction of form, content and wider cultural values which suggests her familiarity with Alois Riegl.8 Referring to the Bengali painter Gaganendranath Tagore’s recent experiments in Cubism, she contended that even if an Indian artist used a ‘foreign’ form such as Cubism, he would still remain Indian since he had internalized the peculiar cultural experience of India.9 This engaging dialogue in Rupam set the scene for the key date of December 1922, the year that introduced the works of Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky and other Bauhaus artists to Calcutta, an Asian city far removed from the metropolitan West. The German school of design (later architecture) in Weimar, the Bauhaus, had attracted radical artists, theoreticians and pedagogues to the institution. In 1921, the Indian Nobel Laureate, Rabindranath Tagore (best known in the West as Tagore), undertook one 16
  15. 15. of his periodic trips to Europe. On 7 May he celebrated his sixtieth birthday in Weimar with readings from his poetry and a recital of his songs at the German National Theatre. Visiting the Bauhaus in Weimar, Tagore quickly sensed the affinities between its teaching methods, imparted by Walter Gropius, Johannes Itten and Georg Muche, and his own holistic experiments at Santiniketan (q.v.). As Oskar Schlemmer, also then at the Bauhaus, noted, there were two elements at the school, a penchant for mysticism and a commitment to the machine, the latter ultimately taking over. Muche and the mystically oriented Itten were deeply involved with Eastern philosophy. At Tagore’s suggestion, Muche arranged for a selection of Bauhaus works to be shipped to Calcutta for an exhibition there.10 The 14th annual exhibition of the Indian Society of Oriental Art, which opened in Calcutta on 23 December, showcased the Bauhaus works. Among the 250 items shown at the exhibition, the most important were Kandinsky’s two watercolours dated 1915 and 1921, and Paul Klee’s nine watercolours.11 There were also works by Lyonel Feininger, Johannes Itten, George Muche, Gerhardt Marcks, Lothar Schreyer, Margit Tery-Adler, Sophie Körner and 49 ‘practice work[s] in the course of instruction’. The show also included an original work by the English Vorticist Wyndham Lewis and reproductions of other European modern artists. The Bauhaus artists were interested in selling their works and priced them modestly but, with the exception of one of Sophie Körner’s works, they remained unsold.12 The reverential press previews reaffirmed Kandinsky’s international reputation, The Statesman of 15 December making it clear that he was the most important figure in the show. The Englishman congratulated the society for showing original works by the European avant-garde never before seen in India, paying homage to ‘the great Russian’, whose Art of the Spiritual had discovered ‘emancipation in new forms of art undreamed of in its previous history’.13 Kramrisch, who wrote the introduction to the catalogue, praised Kandinsky as the first artist to paint pictures without any subject matter and infusing his works with his inner experience. She exhorted the Indian public to study this exhibition, ‘for then they may learn that European art does not mean naturalism and that the transformation of the forms of nature in the work of an artist is common to ancient and modern India’.14 This was to remind not only the public but also critics such as Sukumar Roy that the Bengal School’s antinaturalist credo was akin to Kandinsky’s rejection of a materialist conception of art. Her comment highlights the fact that while the artistic objectives of the Western abstract artists and the orientalists were different, they were making a common front against academic art.15 The exhibition offered a tantalizing glimpse of an art hitherto known mainly through publications to a milieu that had until now feasted on AlmaTademas and Lord Leightons. The immediate impact of this show was not obvious but it sounded the death knell not only for academic art in 17
  16. 16. India but also for orientalism, and its engagement with the past. Even Abanindranath, the archpriest of orientalism, quoted Kandinsky a few years later to repudiate his own historicism as an anachronism because, he confessed, it was impossible to live and feel like the ancients.16 This was in the 1920s when the ‘here and now’ would seriously challenge historicism, which was administered the final coup de grâce by Abanindranath’s own brother Gaganendranath. Once sympathetic to oriental art, Gaganendranath had gone down the path of modernism even before the Bauhaus show, and indeed made his ‘Cubist’ début at the very same show.17 gaganendranath tagore, a poetic cubist Gaganendranath Tagore (1867–1938) was the only Indian painter before the 1940s who made use of the language and syntax of Cubism in his painting. Older than Abanindranath by a few years, Gaganendranath was an individualist, who impressed people with his intellect and personal charm. The English painter William Rothenstein met him in 1910 and was much taken with the breadth of his culture and reading. The former Governor of Bengal, the Marquess of Zetland, was a particular admirer of his, commenting on his dynamism tempered by an inner serenity and refinement.18 Always keen to experiment, Gaganendranath began in the 1880s with ‘phrenological’ portraits inspired by his uncle’s work, followed by delicate pen-and-brush paintings, learned from the visiting Japanese Nihon-ga painter, Taikan.19 These black and white works, notably of rain-soaked Gaganendranath Tagore, Crow, c. 1905, watercolour wash on paper. 18
  17. 17. Gaganendranath Tagore, The Fake Brahmin Dispensing Blessing for Lucre, c. 1918, hand-coloured lithograph. crows, a familiar sight in Calcutta, prepared him for his later monochrome Cubist interiors. In 1908 he joined the oriental art movement, acquiring a major collection of Mughal and Rajput miniatures in the process. Until the 1920s, Gagenendranath was best known for his brilliantly savage lithographs caricaturing the social mores of colonial Bengal.20 In early 1922, he seized the ‘modernist moment’ to realize his artistic vision through Cubism. Evaluating Gaganendranath’s Cubism in an essay 19
  18. 18. published that year, Kramrisch asserted, somewhat provocatively, that even though Cubism was a European discovery, its formalist simplicity was neither unique nor significantly different from the objectives of other forms of non-illusionist art. The Indian artist’s ‘musical’ paintings, she argued, avoided the danger of becoming a sterile form of abstraction by their blend of the allegorical and the formal. His cubes did not build up a systematic structure, but rather externalized the turbulent forces of inner experience, transforming the static geometry of Analytical Cubism into an expressive device. However, she cautioned that Gaganendranath’s dynamic diagonal compositions tended to set up a contradiction between the flowing life of Indian art and the geometric rationality of Cubism.21 Gaganendranath’s Cubist fantasies, including his well-known House of Mystery, had their first public exposure alongside the Bauhaus artists at the exhibition of 1922.22 Two years later, he held an ambitious one-man show, mainly consisting of his Cubist works including Aladdin and His Lamp, Duryadhana at Maidanab’s Palace, The City of Dwarka, Symphony and other well-known pieces. Kramrisch once again engaged in establishing his essential difference with the European Cubists. While not glossing over his failed experiments, she brought out his strength as a storyteller through 20 Gaganendranath Tagore, A Cubist Scene, c. 1922, watercolour on paper.
  19. 19. Gaganendranath Tagore, A Cubist City, c. 1922, watercolour on paper. his own brand of Cubism, as also his ability to soften Cubism’s formal geometry with ‘a seductive profile, shadow or outline of human form’.23 The paintings were well received in the daily papers, though the reviews dwelled more on his poetic qualities than on the new language of Cubism. The Englishman, which had been following his artistic career closely, described his Cubism as a new phase of oriental art, complimenting the artist on his beautiful colours.24 While the Statesman admitted the difficulty of appreciating Cubism’s revolutionary language, it praised the painting Symphony for successfully blending ‘rigid telling cubist lines with mysterious lighting effects reminiscent of Rembrandt’.25 Forward found 21
  20. 20. Gaganendranath Tagore, Cubist Subject, c. 1922, watercolour on paper. him to be one of the finest painters of light, confessing that the appeal of his works lay in their beautiful colours, not to mention their intelligibility.26 By 1925, the Englishman acknowledged the power of Gaganendranath’s personal treatment of Cubism though it was less certain about Cubism as such.27 Benoy Sarkar, the avowed modernist, gave Gaganendranath’s exhibition at the Indian Society of Oriental Art his unqualified endorsement as ‘object lessons in pure art’. ‘In such compositions’, he wrote, ‘we begin to appreciate without the scaffolding of legends, stories, messages and moralizings, the foundations of a genuine artistic sense’.28 In 1928 Gaganendranath held his last major retrospective at the Indian Society of Oriental Art. The Englishman, once again reviewing the show, crowned him the ‘master of modern art in Bengal’.29 The Welfare gave an indication of its awareness of Roger Fry in describing the artist’s synthesis of the Bengal School and Cubism as a quest for ‘significant form’. 22
  21. 21. Gaganendranath Tagore, Interior, c. 1922, watercolour on paper. Interestingly, the reviewer seemed uncertain about the worth of avant-garde formalism, suggesting that despite his eclectic sources, the Bengali artist had ‘shown himself a great painter in the originality and the intenseness of his vision’.30 In 1930, at 63, a cerebral stroke left the painter paralysed and speechless. He died eight years later.31 Around 1915, as Gaganendranath began quietly to withdraw from his brother’s nationalist preoccupations, he moved into a poetic fairytale world drawing upon the Bengali stage and literature. While literature nourished his imagination, unlike the orientalists, he was not interested in painterly historicism. It was at this juncture that he discovered Cubism’s possibilities. As he later confessed to the journalist Kanhaiyalal Vakil, ‘the new technique is really wonderful as a stimulant’.32 The multiple viewpoints and jagged edges of Cubism offered him the means to create compositions with many-faceted shapes evoking a remote mysterious world, for instance in his imaginary cities, such as the mythical Dwarka, the god Krishna’s legendary abode, or Swarnapuri (The Golden City). Mountain ranges also gave him scope for the interplay of diamond-shaped planes and prismatic colours, resulting in fragmented luminosity. What held these zigzagging planes together was a tight formal structure. His other preoccupation was what he called the House of Mystery, inspired by his involvement with his uncle Tagore’s plays staged in their home, for which he designed the sets. His growing preoccupation with imaginary interiors mysteriously illuminated by artificial lights hidden from view shows this involvement with the theatre. The painter conjures up a magic world of dazzling patterns, crisscrossing lights and shadows and light-refracting many-faceted forms. His paintings from the 1920s make constant references to stage props, partition screens, overlapping planes and artificial stage lighting. Their endless corridors, pillars, halls, half-open doors, screens, illuminated windows, staircases and vaults remind us a little of Piranesi’s Carceri prints or Alain Resnais’ film L’année dernier à Marienbad. The obsession with ‘prismatic luminosity’ led Gaganendranath to look for mechanical devices for intensifying colour patterns. He is known to have often held up a crystal against the light to capture the rainbow colours 23
  22. 22. Gaganendranath Tagore, Sat Bhai Champa, 1920s, watercolour on paper, inspired by a popular Bengali tale for children. on the paper placed below. He eventually possessed a kaleidoscope, a device that broke up objects into a fascinating variety of bright hues and geometric shapes. E. H. Gombrich suggests that the inventor of the kaleidoscope had vainly expected it to create ‘a new art of colour music’. However, it is precisely this quality that enabled Gaganendranath to compose paintings described by critics as ‘less pictures indeed, than visible music and pulsating light’.33 As his pictorial language evolved, the Indian artist found the dynamic forms of the Futurists more suitable than the more static Analytical Cubism. Yet Gaganendranath’s visual conventions remained within the bounds of oriental art. Despite the criticism of the nationalists, the artist insisted that Cubism had simply ‘enabled me to [express] better with my new technique…than I used to do with my old methods’.34 William Rothenstein was convinced that he remained an ‘oriental miniaturist with his eye for exquisite lapidary details’.35 In the brief seven years (1922 to 1929) that Gaganendranath was engaged in his modernist excursions, he created a fairytale world with the ‘language’ of Cubism, but without ever spelling out the actual tales 24
  23. 23. themselves. On the surface, his watercolours purported to tell stories, but the stories themselves were hidden behind a mysterious twilight world of artificial lights and deep shadows that could not be easily deciphered. The very ambiguities of his poetic imagery prevented the paintings from becoming illustrative, the whole effect heightened by his use of evocative titles, such as The Poet on the Island of the Birds, The Seven Brothers Champa or the House of Mystery. The Englishman aptly called these a ‘new phase of oriental art’ with their exquisite colours and miniature format. Gaganendranath’s Cubism raises questions about the reception of modernism in India in the 1920s. Revelations of the Bauhaus show notwithstanding, his Cubist excursions threw into sharp relief the problem of reading the avant-garde visual language in a culture that had not yet fully confronted modernism. Today we perhaps take for granted modernism as the natural style of the twentieth century. However, in the 1920s, even in Britain modernism was still a minority affair, let alone in colonial India. At the same time, the initial unease about the new syntax began to give way to its gradual acceptance.36 modernism and colonial art history How are we to read these works – are they Cubist or are they oriental? It was this no-man’s-land between Cubist formalism and a poetic narrative that infuriated the colonial art historian W. G. Archer, reared on Clive Bell and Roger Fry’s separation of formalist purity from the ‘sentimental clutter’ and literary associations of narrative art. Fry’s aesthetic polarity simply does not make allowances for works that do not fall into either of these categories.37 Let me take a striking passage in Archer: ‘apart from their very evident lack of power – a power which in some mysterious way was present in the work of Braque and Picasso – Gogonendranath’s [sic] pictures were actually no more than stylized illustrations . . . weak as art, but what was more important, they were un-Indian. Not only had Gogonendranath’s style no vital affinities with other forms of Indian expression but its prevailing tone seemed frigidly indifferent to Indian feelings, interests or sensibility. As a result, his pictures, despite their modernistic manner, had an air of trivial irrelevance.’38 Archer’s assessment of Gaganendranath’s painting – illustrative quality, lack of power, un-Indian, modernistic ‘manner’ rather than substance – tells us a great deal about his art historical discourse. He accepted the Western modernist canon, as did his contemporaries, including Indians, as the standard against which all modernist art must be judged. The ideology of ‘purity’, with its moral connotation, was integral to modernism. Its critique of representational art was inspired by the Platonic distinction between truth and appearance. Its extreme form was the notion of the absolute values of abstract art.39 His linked expressions, ‘stylized illustration’ and ‘lack of power’ were an essential foil to the ‘pure’ and robust formalism, the very antithesis of meretricious and fussy narrative art. The 25
  24. 24. word ‘power’ also suggests obvious gender connotations. Archer’s primitivist longing found the ‘power’, absent in Gaganendranath’s painting, in abundance in India’s tribal sculptures. In The Vertical Man, he expressed admiration for the ‘masculine’ vigour and abstract geometry of Indian tribal art, as he did for the ‘peasant art’ of medieval Britain. Primitivism had bestowed on modernist art criticism the notion of virility as standing for bold simplicity, as opposed to the weakness of complicated ‘feminine’ anecdotal painting.40 Archer’s modernism found both the high sculptures of English cathedrals and Indian temples to be less ‘authentic’ than their respective examples of primitive art. Yet the English art historian’s preference for Indian tribal art in comparison with Indian modernist art did not rest solely on his allegiance to the avant-garde. Notions of virility have been a compelling metaphor of power relations in colonial history, a metaphor derived from anthropology and its myth of the timeless ‘primitive’ tribes nestling in British protection.41 Archer’s idealization of tribal sculptures as the authentic art of India highlights his ambivalence about Indian nationalism, which he had to confront as a colonial civil servant. One of the persistent assertions of the Raj was that the nationalist movement was unrepresentative. Hostile to the Bengal School, Archer dismissed Gaganendranath’s paintings as déraciné efforts that lacked the national mandate.42 There are of course parallels between the new nationalist discourse of primitivism and Archer’s idealization of tribal India. However, in contrast to the anticolonial primitivism of Mahatma Gandhi, for instance, Archer’s primitivism was grist to his colonialist mill. Archer’s final objection to Gaganendranath’s work was its failed modernism. Let us read on: ‘His picture, Light and Shadow . . . is made up of blacks, whites and greys and is a simple illustration of geometric architecture. . . There is no attempt to break the shapes into their fundamental structure or to link them into a single cohering rhythm…The artist merely selected a scene that looked Cubistic and set it down with academic care.’43 I have already discussed Archer’s conclusion that Gaganendranath’s works were simply bad imitations of Picasso, and need not repeat the arguments here. By what criteria can we judge Gaganendranath today? The artist named his paintings ‘Cubist’, even though he was perfectly aware that he was not seeking to reproduce Picasso. His Cubism makes sense in a global context and against the reception of Cubism in countries other than France. Analytical Cubism or the Braque/Picasso revolution of 1909–10, the great achievement of modernism, finally laid to rest the 500-year-old history of illusionism. Painters since Giotto had related different objects within a picture by means of consistent, directional lighting. Cubists set out to destroy illusionism by arranging objects within a picture formally, and by creating conflicting relationships of light and shadow. Thereby they restored the internal cohesion of a picture so that it was no longer a window to the external world. The implications of its revolutionary form 26
  25. 25. did not affect other artists, Western and non-Western, so much as its flexible non-figurative syntax which could be put to different uses. The driving force behind the Expressionists, Franz Marc, Lyonel Feininger and Georg Grosz, behind the visual poetry of Marc Chagall and behind the orientalist Gaganendranath was the same: objects could be distorted and fragmented at will to create dazzling patterns. But their specific cultural contexts were as different as their artistic aims, not to mention their different artistic agendas. We now know that Eastern European artists created their own versions of Cubism that did not reproduce the Braque-Picasso experiment.44 The flexible language of Cubism, with its broken surfaces, released a new energy in Gaganendranath, enabling him to conjure up a painterly fairytale world. The German avant-garde critic Max Osborn, reviewing the exhibition of modern Indian art in Berlin in 1923, singled out Gaganendranath’s Poet on the Island of the Birds as having affinities with Feininger in its indifference to Analytical Cubism’s formal implications.45 The Indian artist represents the decontextualizing tendency of our age – a tendency shared as much by artists in the centre as in the peripheries, a tendency we come across again and again: styles past and present can be taken out of their original contexts for entirely new modernist projects. In short, Cubism served as a point of departure for Gaganendranath, the particular Western ‘device’ yielding a rich new crop in the Indian context. Although its revolutionary language released a new energy in the Bengali artist, Cubism was merely a passing phase in India. It was primitivism that would dominate the decades of the 1920s and ’30s, a story I take up next. 27
  26. 26. two The Indian Discourse of Primitivism inventing the indian peasant Kshitindranath Majumdar, Jamuna, c. 1915, watercolour on paper. In the late nineteenth century, Lal Behari Dey’s classic treatise on the condition of rural Bengal had offered its readers an ‘unvarnished tale of a plain peasant’.1 Two of the greatest Indian novelists, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay (1876–1938) and Prem Chand (1880–1936), made it their life’s mission to champion the weak, the deprived and the oppressed, ‘who gave all to the world but received nothing in return’.2 If sympathy for the poor was nothing new, the elite discovery of the peasant in the 1920s as the ‘authentic’ voice of the nation was altogether novel. Part of the reason for the rise of a form of political primitivism in India was the transformation of elite nationalism into a popular movement led by Mahatma Gandhi. It added a new urgency to the age-old debate: was nationalism to revolve around the city or the countryside? As early as 1895, the leading nationalist environmentalist, Rabindranath Tagore, had rejected the trappings of colonial urban civilization in favour of the ‘primitive’ simplicity of the proverbial hermitage set at the edge of the forest.3 In 1909 he expanded this idea in his seminal essay, ‘The Hermitage’, describing a rural site where man and nature joined in a mystical communion in renunciation of Western materialism.4 By 1915, the locus of the nation was clearly shifting from the historic past to the countryside as anti-colonial environmentalism joined forces with a new commitment to ‘the wretched of India’. Under its impact, the Bengali historian Dinesh Chandra Sen started painstakingly documenting the oral literature of rural Bengal. This is also the era when the nationalists came to admire the hunting and gathering communities of India for their robust innocence uncorrupted by colonial culture. To the Bengali elite the ‘sexualized’ image of the Santal women became inextricably linked with the myth of their innocent ‘vitality’, serving as a foil to the trope that blamed the ‘loss’ of the Bengali vigour on colonial domination.5 Bengali literature celebrated the natural, healthy Santal way of living, the black lissome Santal women providing a counterpoint to the pale cloistered ladies of urban Calcutta. An erotic undercurrent of romantic 29
  27. 27. Deviprosad Roy Chowdhury, Lotus Pond (Santal Mother and Children), c. 1923, watercolour on paper. Sunil Janah, Santal Girl, Bihar, 1940s, black and white photograph.
  28. 28. primitivism flowed even stronger in paintings, such as Kshitindranath Majumdar’s allegorical work Jamuna, featuring the dark sister of the pale river goddess, Ganga (Ganges); Deviprosad Roy Chowdhury’s painting of a Santal mother and her children, shown at the Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1924, and the early works of Jamini Roy. This erotic romanticization culminated in the 1940s in the candid photographs of Sunil Janah.6 It is worth remembering that the ‘primitivizing’ process had commenced with colonial expansion. Colonial anthropology created the myth of the timeless ‘noble savage’, even as the imperial regime was suppressing the Santals through brutal counter-insurgency measures.7 Nowhere did primitivism have a more powerful impact than in art. Since the mid-nineteenth century, the revival of ‘lowbrow’ or practical arts of India had formed the central plank of government policy, a policy that was later adopted by the nationalists. Kalighat pat or scroll painting, a popular ‘lowbrow’ art of urban Calcutta, was the first such to receive prominence, at an exhibition in London in 1871.8 However, the primitivism that identified folk, popular and tribal art – in short, all forms of ‘low’ art – as an ‘authentic’ expression of the Indian soul was something Kalighat brush drawing, Jashoda and Krishna, c. 1900, brush drawing on paper. 31
  29. 29. entirely new. In addition to its nationalist implications, it embodied the modernist aesthetics that preferred bold simplification to Victorian overornamentation and the simplicity of village life to the ‘decadence’ of urban existence. Because Kalighat painting emanated from a familiar and easily accessible Kolkata suburb, the urban primitivists seized upon it as an ideal ‘folk art’, although strictly speaking the Kalighat artists no longer had any link with their village background. In 1915, the orientalist Nandalal Bose recorded for posterity the likeness of the last Kalighat painter, Nibaran Ghosh; he also had ambitions to produce pats after Kalighat to beautify poor households.9 Abanindranath, who wrote a booklet on Bengali women’s ritual art in 1919, sought to capture the rugged quality of Bengali folk art in his paintings based on the religious texts Kabikankan Chandi and Krishnamangal.10 When the sculptor Deviprosad Roy Chowdhury met Abanindranath with a view to train under him, the master advised the young artist to study Kalighat. Stella Kramrisch drew the attention of the European avant-garde to the bold simplifications of Kalighat in 1925.11 The following year, Ajit Ghosh’s influential article alerted the reading public to the importance of this ‘folk art’, comparing its formal boldness to that of Cubism.12 It was left to a colonial official, Gurusaday Dutt, to document the vigorous rhythm and ‘colour music’ of the ‘unlettered men and women’ of rural Bengal. Imbued with nationalist 32 Abanindranath Tagore, ‘Krishna Kills Kamsa’, 1938, tempera on paper, from the Krishnamangal series.
  30. 30. sentiment, he lamented that the urban elite had lost all the aesthetic sense that survived only in rural Bengal, though he was slightly encouraged that the intelligentsia had at last begun to take pride in the humble peasant.13 Dutt too sought affinities between Bengali village painting and Western modernist art.14 india and global primitivism The new ‘ruralism’ was the particular Indian expression of a global response to modernity – the romantic longing of a complex society for the simplicity of pre-modern existence. The crisis of the industrial age, which was traced back to Enlightenment rationality, made nineteenth-century utopians embrace primitivism with fervour. If modernity was the hallmark of the colonial-industrial age in the West, primitivism acted as its conscience and alter ego, tempering the rampant progressivism coursing through its veins. Yet one cannot ignore the inner tensions and contradictions within the concept of primitivism. Edward Said describes primitivism, ‘the age-old antetype of Europe’, as ‘a fecund night out of which European rationality developed’.15 Primitivism has come under the intense scrutiny of the post-colonial microscope, which exposes its hegemonic representations of the non-West as the West’s primitive Other, making us conscious of Western consumption of primitive art.16 Yet as Hal Foster has pointed out, the avant-garde’s identification with the primitive, ‘however imaged as dark, feminine, and profligate, remained a disidentification with white, patriarchal, bourgeois society’.17 What cannot be denied is that the word primitivism is replete with ambiguities and contradictions. It is these ambiguities that are open to a rich variety of possibilities, offering the colonized certain modes of empowerment. In effect, what the colonized did was to turn the outward ‘gaze’ of the West towards itself, deploying the very same device of cultural criticism used since Greco-Roman antiquity, to interrogate the ‘urbanindustrial’ values of the colonial empires.18 In this sense, Mahatma Gandhi was the most profound ‘primitivist’ critic of the West in the twentieth century. In 1909, his revolutionary booklet, Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule, set out his anti-colonial resistance based on a critique of Western civilization as a slave to the machine.19 He advocated a self-sufficient village India with a rural industrial base as an alternative to industrial capitalism, symbolized by the humble spinning wheel. In 1918–19, Gandhi brought the peasants into the orbit of the Indian National Congress, which had hitherto been confined to the urban Western-educated, giving a voice to the people. As he put it, ‘I have believed and repeated times without number that India is to be found not in its few cities but in its 7,000,000 villages.’20 It is perhaps no exaggeration to say that Gandhi ‘invented’ the Indian peasant. Primitivist challenges to Enlightenment rationality lent a certain community of outlook to Eastern and Western critics of industrial capitalism. 33
  31. 31. In the West, the very flexibility of primitivism offered endless possibilities, ranging from ‘going native’, to a radical questioning of Western positivism.21 For the avant-garde, the artistic discourse of primitivism opened up the possibility of aesthetic globalization as part of art historical consciousness.22 For instance, the simplicity of African art was pitted against academic naturalism by a series of artists. Even though the simplicity of African art is a myth, since it is governed by strict aesthetic conventions, it proved to be an effective weapon against the nineteenth-century salon. The excitement generated by primitive art in Picasso, Matisse, Amedeo Modigliani, Constantin Brancusi, Emil Nolde, Max Pechstein, Karl Schmidt-Rotluff and E. L. Kirchner, to name some of the most important, is common knowledge. But however important, I am not concerned with the formal or stylistic aspects of primitivism here. It is the vision of primitivism as an alternative to Western ‘rationality’ promised by non-Western thought that formed the crucial bridge between Western and Indian primitivists. Kandinsky, Mondrian, Malevich and other abstract painters invested in the primitive a spiritual dimension of human culture they found absent in urban modernity. They viewed the distinction between the primitive and the modern as the difference between spiritual and material dimensions of human existence. The Expressionists, who saw primitivism as a universal phenomenon, sought to bring out the primitive dimension of European culture, in their critique of rationality. One finds interesting parallels here with Rabindranath Tagore’s own quest for spirituality as an alternative to colonial materialism.23 The issue of the abstract artists’ precise debt to Eastern thought remains contentious. It has not been helped by the fact that Eastern doctrines were often filtered through the often questionable tenets and practices of Theosophy. Sixten Ringbom and others have systematically documented Kandinsky and several other abstract painters’ debt to Eastern thought, foregrounding the importance of Indian Upanishadic philosophy in abstract art.24 Most recently, the distinguished art historian John Golding has questioned this view, reiterating what he considers the essentially Western foundations of abstract art.25 Yet there is considerable evidence that Kandinsky’s spiritual progress from the mystical Russian faith to Eastern philosophy, including yogic meditation, paralleled the dissolution of corporeal form in his art. Indeed, the evolution of spirituality in his art as an integral part of his artistic makeup has recently been convincingly demonstrated.26 Fearing positivist ridicule, Kandinsky tended to be reticent about his debt to Eastern thought, unless he was assured of a sympathetic audience. However, Michael Sadler, a champion of modernist art in Britain, who visited Kandinsky in Germany in 1912 with his son, was ‘so fascinated by [his] mystical outlook that they missed the last train…’27 Malevich was deeply moved by Swami Vivekananda’s Chicago lectures. His definition of Suprematism as ‘objectlessness’ rather than abstraction is strongly reminiscent of Vedantic notions of consciousness and the self.28 34
  32. 32. Mondrian admired the Bhagvad Gita and the Upanishads and treasured the Indian mystic Krishnamurti’s ‘little book’ until his death.29 Theo van Doesburg justified his non-representational art by quoting a purported statement by the Buddha.30 These are only a few examples among many. What the abstract artists represented here was the anxiety about the crisis of Western materialism, from which the world, they felt, could be rescued by the spirituality of non-representational art, a spirituality owed to nonChristian Eastern thought, mediated partly, though not entirely, through Theosophy. The abstract painters were not unaware of the dubious aspects of Theosophy, but for them it served as a useful entry point for Indian thought. Their response to these non-Western ideas was not a simple one of influence but rather a complex dialectical process that reconfigured these new ideas in the light of their creative needs and cultural experience. It was precisely the questioning of the teleological certainty of modernity articulated by primitivism that gave Indian artists the leverage to fashion their own identity. This was less easy with academic naturalism, the art most unequivocally identified with the triumphalist Western empires.31 Because of the radical alternative to Western materialist rationalism proposed by Western artists such as Kandinsky, colonial artists felt an instinctive kinship with them. This questioning of ‘Western’ rationality across the world for diverse reasons prompts us to probe more deeply the global issues of cultural crossovers in our time. The particular formal aspects of the art of Kandinsky, Mondrian, Doesburg or Malevich had little impact on the Indian primitivists. Their artistic priorities were very different. Yet, as Kramrisch pointed out in the Bauhaus exhibition catalogue, the Bengali artists saw themselves making a common cause with them as anti-naturalists against academic art, as much as they shared their questioning of Western industrial capitalism. Kandinsky’s treatise, On the Spiritual in Art, is quite telling in this respect. He speaks of the inner, spiritual-moral strivings that unite modernists and ‘primitives’, those pure artists who want to capture the inner essence of things. The wisdom of those ‘primitives’, who are held in condescension by the West, he explains, are now being studied by the Theosophists. Strikingly, he declares that ‘the “crudely” carved column from an Indian temple is animated by the same soul as any living, “modern” work’.32 Because of its protean nature, with shifting meanings and significance, primitivism as a form of critical modernity offered rich and different possibilities to Indian artists. Rabindranath’s primitivism was a playful exploration of the Unconscious. Amrita Sher-Gil projected a tragic vision of rural India that acted as a surrogate for her divided identity. In some respects the most complex artistic responses were the environmental primitivism at Tagore’s university in Santiniketan and Jamini Roy’s synthesis of art and politics in an alternative vision of Indian identity. Profoundly influential in the works of early Indian modernists, primitivism assigned a new status to marginal culture hitherto ignored in Indian national life, produc35
  33. 33. ing memorable artistic expressions. To be sure, this elite perception of the worth of the subalterns was necessarily from the perspective of otherness, but no less genuine for that. The most intense period of this complex motif in art was from the 1920s to the early ’40s, but the tendency continued beyond 1947 and even today its powerful message inspires artists. i Two Pioneering Women Artists The first two women painters in India to gain public recognition were Sunayani Devi (1875–1962) and Amrita Sher-Gil (1913–1941), who also happened to represent two different facets of the primitivism spectrum. Sunayani was essentially a housewife in an affluent household whose enlightened husband was partly responsible for her brief fame; after his death, she lost her inspiration, entering a period of decline and lassitude. Trained in Paris, Amrita competed with men as a professional painter, gaining fame and notoriety in equal measure, though her early promise was cut short by her sudden death. The two of them – one a housewife and the other a professional – exemplify women’s changing social position in India as well as the predicaments of women artists of the time. Before Sunayani, we know only of the leading painter Ravi Varma’s sister, Mangalabai Tampuratti, who reached professional standards and helped her brother with his ambitious history paintings. Mangalabai remains unknown apart from her one portrait of her brother.1 Women amateurs participated in art exhibitions in Calcutta from as early as the 1880s. The best-known early woman painter at the Bombay Art Society was an Englishwoman, Lucy Sultan Ahmed, married to an Indian. From the late 1930s women began exhibiting at the Society in growing numbers.2 Girls generally did not attend art schools, except those who were from Eurasian or Parsi communities in Bombay. On the other hand, elite families hired private tutors to teach painting to girls at home as part of their accomplishments.3 Not until the 1920s do we find girls going to art schools, the earliest possibly at Tagore’s Visva Bharati university at Santiniketan. sunayani devi and naïve art A housewife artist in the limelight The first Indian ‘primitivist’, Sunayani Devi, was born to a family of talented writers and painters. Her uncle was Rabindranath Tagore and her two older brothers were Abanindranath and Gaganendranath. As with her older brother’s Cubism, it was the ‘modernist moment’ that brought 36
  34. 34. Sunayani Devi, Milkmaids, 1920s, gouache on paper. Sunayani’s ‘primitivist’ art to public attention in 1920–21. The Englishman commented on the bold originality of her paintings, which resembled ancient Jain paintings in their hieratic quality. Sunayani found a place in the important 14th exhibition of the Society, in which the Bauhaus artists took part. In 1925 the Statesman wrote approvingly that although she was a woman, she showed vigour and originality.4 In 1927, she was included in the exhibition held by the Women’s International Art Club in London. The Austrian painter Nora Pursar Wuttenbrach, who contributed the catalogue essay on her, was as charmed by the lotus-eyed women and enchanting colours as she was impressed by the monumental fresco-like quality of these small paintings. ‘A breath of life from a distant past seemed to pervade them’, she wrote.5 The Austrian painter had met Sunayani during her visit to Calcutta to produce murals for a local Art Deco movie theatre. A member of the Tagore family in Calcutta, Sunayani was witness to the cultural ferment that was the Bengal Renaissance. At the same time, 37
  35. 35. being brought up in the women’s quarters, which remained more traditional and secluded in these families, she shared these intellectual excitements only indirectly. Her uncle, Rabindranath mentions in his autobiography that men lived in the outer quarters while women occupied the inner ones.6 Amina Kar, a woman sculptor from the post-independence period, explains that it ‘was unknown and unheard of for women to do anything, even “Art”, on a professional basis, and they remained very much in the background’.7 The men embodied a dual consciousness, using English as a language of modern discourse for professional purposes, while keeping Bengali as an intimate language for domesticity. Most women on the other hand, educated at home in the vernacular, were expected to look after the household and uphold Hindu values. Kramrisch contended that the strength of Sunayani’s naïve art lay in her cultural integrity for, unlike men who had succumbed to colonial culture, Indian women continued to perform the domestic rituals that had once played a central role in Indian life.8 Sunayani mentioned that as a child she was fascinated by the devotional pictures that hung in her aunt’s room, the Ravi Varma prints making the strongest impression on her.9 As a young woman, Sunayani took art and music lessons as part of her feminine accomplishments. Spying on her two older brothers’ experiments in Japanese wash techniques, she secretly longed to pick up the brush and paint.10 However, it was not until in her thirties that she actually summoned up the courage to take up painting, and then only with her husband’s encouragement. From 1915 onwards, she and Pratima Devi, Rabindranath’s daughter-in-law, took part in exhibitions at the Indian Society of Oriental Art run by the Tagores.11 During her fifteen active years (between the ages of 30 to 45) she maintained a strict painting regimen, working every day from eight in the morning until midday, and from three until four-thirty in the afternoon. Her grandson offers us a vivid account of her work method. ‘Matriarch’ in a large well-to-do household, she was expected to oversee its daily routine: she would sit on a taktaposh (divan), propped up with bolsters, painting and occasionally dipping her painting in the water bowl that had been used for washing vegetables, all the while supervising her daughters-in-law who made preparations for the cooking.12 Her routine suggests a remarkable degree of tolerance from her husband not often granted to women in this period. The idyllic arrangement came to an end with his death in 1934, when Sunayani lost all impetus to paint.13 Yet as early as 1927 the young critic Govindaraj Venkatachalam noticed that she no longer painted in the enthusiastic manner of her earlier years, attributing it to the pressures of family life. Sunayani ultimately failed to serve two mistresses, art and family, especially in a society that discouraged selfexpression.14 In 1935 her loyal admirers arranged a showing of her works at her home, which was to be her last public exposure. In the 1940s, her family suffered a series of misfortunes, causing her deep despondency and her departure from the world of art.15 38
  36. 36. Sunayani Devi, Two Women, c. 1920s, watercolour on paper. Feminists have focused on Sunayani’s ‘double bind’: she balanced a career and a home, unlike the professional painter Amrita Sher-Gil. There is a hint of melancholy in Sunayani’s confession to her granddaughter that she was always short of time to paint in her busy household, often being obliged to hide her paintings from being damaged by her unruly children.16 Again, however much she was encouraged by her husband, marriage was her career as a woman. Arguably, the duality of her existence as a housewife and an artist ultimately took a toll on her creative work.17 As a woman sculptor of the 1950s put it, ‘Sunayani’s sorrow was of a different kind. Only we who are professional artists can feel it. She may not have starved on the streets to produce art. She may not have felt the pangs of poverty, she may not have been socially or politically aware, but her sorrow was of another kind, so private that she could not express it. I felt it that morning as she asked me to comment on her paintings.’18 39
  37. 37. Naïve art and Indian nationalism Sunayani’s dilemma as a woman painter helps us to understand the pressures that inhibit women from gaining recognition and professional success. But there is another side to Sunayani’s naïve paintings that I think is equally significant. Although she herself did not consciously produce ‘nationalist’ art, her work came to epitomize Indian primitivism as an expression of anti-colonial resistance. In 1921, as modernism slowly impinged on the consciousness of the intelligentsia, critics spoke enthusiastically about Sunayani’s simplicity and ‘artlessness’, her naïve work as a validation of the formal values of Bengali village art. Stella Kramrisch became Sunayani’s powerful champion, providing the first serious study of the artist, and discovering in Sunayani, much more than in Gaganendranath, an Indian modernist after her own heart. The Austrian art historian was responsible for giving publicity to her work in serious German journals as a rare example of genuine naïve art no longer found in the West. In 1922 she waxed eloquent about the simplicity and spontaneity of her untutored talent, her lack of any preconceived ideal, and an inner confidence in her best works. Sunayani’s confident, unbroken flowing lines, she wrote poetically, contained a variety of expressions: serenity, swiftness, languidity, assertiveness and restraint. Although Kramrisch did not gloss over her occasional weakness for sentimental and descriptive subjects, she found Sunayani’s best works to be expressive of two kinds of rhythm: a measured tranquillity and dignity that gave the works their unity and truthfulness; and the very opposite, a light touch full of high spirits and movement.19 Kramrisch’s second essay on Sunayani in Der Cicerone, published in 1925, remains the foundational study of the artist, valuable because of the critic’s personal knowledge of her evolution. Kramrisch described her painting process, which was influenced by Abanindranath’s wash painting. Sunayani first drew a red or black outline with brush on paper, which was then filled in with watercolours prepared by herself and applied with a thin paintbrush. She then dipped the sheet into a circular drum of water allowing the colours to be absorbed by the paper. The wash was used as a continuous process through which the form emerged without taking recourse to drawing. She firmed up the outline with the brush once the hazy shapes started emerging out of the washes, the washes themselves investing her works with a delicate hue. Her avoidance of drawing prompted Kramrisch to declare that her pictures had no design but grew organically, gushing ‘out of her very nature’.20 This unselfconscious quality was emphasized by Kramrisch who disclosed that she would often paint on the front and the back of the paper with no concern for its worth: painting for her was simply a form of relief from her creative urges.21 But when she tried to paint consciously, she would lose her delicate touch, thus betraying her limitations. To Kramrisch, her limited skill 40 Sunayani Devi, Viraha, c. 1920s, watercolour on paper.
  38. 38. and narrow horizon were a strength rather than weakness, a form of naïve grandeur.22 The subject matter of Sunayani’s art belonged to a private inner world. ‘Most of my paintings’, she once confessed to her grandson, ‘I have seen in dreams – after seeing them I have put them down.’23 Her artistic sources were quite eclectic and she had no hesitation about turning to images that appealed to her, often choosing the pictures that were in her household, as respectable women seldom ventured out. We know that Ravi Varma’s prints thrilled her, and later she saw Rajput miniatures and Abanindranath’s watercolours. However, in line with the growing cult of folk art, Kramrisch identified only two main inspirations: village clay dolls that often adorned urban homes and Kalighat pats.24 Kalighat, which came into vogue around 1915, made a strong impression on the artist.25 Kramrisch is conspicuously silent about the Bengal School influence on Sunayani, even though one of the illustrations in her article makes this abundantly clear. Nor does she acknowledge Ravi Varma, insisting only on the folk elements in her work.26 Her naïve work was singled out as a continuation of the ‘simple’ art of the Indian village, a contemporary expression of authentic India. The modernist discourse of primitive sim- Sunayani Devi, Ardhdnarisvara, c. 1920s, watercolour on paper. 42
  39. 39. Sunayani Devi, Radha Krishna, c. 1920s, watercolour on paper. plicity and the nationalist discourse of cultural authenticity come together in the image of Sunayani Devi as a nationalist artist. Much later in 1927 she was to speak of her deep attachment to the simplicity of folk and popular art, and indeed there was a strong ‘folk’ element in her art. Her attachment was part of the elite valorization of ‘low’ art as the cultural site of the nation. Hence we need to probe Sunayani’s place in the nationalist mythology as a ‘folk artist’. Kramrisch presented a complex set of arguments in which she identified Sunayani’s naïve self-taught art as representing in its simplicity the best of modern, primitive and traditional Indian art. In this global fellowship of primitivism, child art, naïve art and primitive art were embraced as the Other, whose formal simplicity and clarity was the very antithesis of the anecdotal naturalism of academic art.27 In the West, Kramrisch contended, the Indian artist’s unschooled 43
  40. 40. images would have been considered ‘an aberration, but in India it belonged to a time-honoured tradition, the tradition of an agricultural people’.28 In the same vein Kramrisch found Sunayani’s naïve paintings continuing the humble doll-carver’s craft and village women’s art. According to the Austrian scholar, her figures retained the same uninterrupted flow of round, modelled lines, while the colours that filled the outlines were reduced to flat surfaces.29 The modernist also found her ‘naïveté’ prefigured in the primitive simplicity of the Sienese painters, thus weaving for the Indian painter a seamless fabric of universal modernism, primitivism and artistic nationalism. Although there is no evidence that the ancient Buddhist painters at Ajanta foreswore any preliminary sketches for their frescoes, Kramrisch claimed that Sunayani’s innocence of drawing attested to her heritage from ‘a people whose race had long ago coated houses, temples, and rock grottoes with pictures’.30 Though she was an ally of the orientalists, Kramrisch was painfully aware that they had been unable to eliminate naturalism entirely. With Sunayani, she was on a firmer ground, and could happily construct the continuum of Indian art from ancient Ajanta to contemporary village art. Temporarily disrupted by colonialism, the thread was once again restored by this naïve modernist painter, an authentic child of the soil, untouched by colonial pedagogy. The myth of Sunayani’s roots in the Indian soil became even more pronounced in writers that followed the art historian. The modernist critic Venkatachalam followed her footsteps in viewing Sunayani’s paintings, Ajanta frescoes, medieval European painting and Bengali folk art as reflecting the same artistic spirit. Lamenting the degeneration of national life in the colonial era, he declared that Indian civilization was, ‘and still is, to a large extent a rural civilization and not urban and Indian art, therefore, was and still is the art of the people. Its exponents could not be produced in the academies or be turned out of art schools as so many ready-made goods.’31 Of course Venkatachalam was correct to identify her as the first modern artist to turn to village scroll painting (pat), holding her art as ‘the joyous expression of the natural impulses of an unsophisticated heart and mind’. But was he correct to equate her naïveté with that of folk art? Sunayani Devi was a genuinely untutored painter, an artist of simplicity, lacking hubris, often generously giving away her works to her admirers. Her untrained simplicity and directness were part of the Romantic topos of the authenticity of personal vision, which Kramrisch extolled.32 But the fact is, Sunayani belonged to the urban intelligentsia and had a privileged upbringing. On the other hand, the unlettered village scroll-painter (patua), while lacking urbanity, was the product of a long artistic tradition governed by strict conventions. Therefore, rather than describing her as a folk painter, we should view her as a genuine naïve painter who used folk motifs with immense charm and feeling. 44
  41. 41. Sunayani Devi, Self-Portrait, c. 1920s, watercolour on paper. amrita sher-gil and the fragmented self The making of a legend Maie Casey, who was in Calcutta in the 1940s with her husband, the Lieutenant Governor of Bengal, was fully aware of the Amrita Sher-Gil phenomenon: ‘An Indian with a measure of European blood, she returned to India to shed her acquired skin . . . She saw her country with new vision and has left a legacy of pictures, simple and grand . . . as a tribute to the Indian countryside and its people.’33 Sher-Gil attained an iconic status in India because of her legendary beauty, her precocious talent, her outrageous behaviour, her revered position in Indian modernist art, 45
  42. 42. and finally her brief turbulent life and tragic death at the age of twenty-eight.34 Her pre-eminence as an Indian artist, even though her mother tongue was Hungarian, was underlined in the standard biography written three years after her death by her friend and confidant, Karl Khandalavala. He insisted on her nationalist credentials by judging her Indian paintings to be of greater significance than those produced in either Paris or Hungary.35 How can we recover the real Amrita underneath layers of myths, legends and claims?36 There were two Amritas, the brash, opinionated controversialist, who enjoyed ‘épater les bourgeois’, created scandals, made outrageous statements, enjoying the freedom of spirit granted only to the truly young. The acerbic English journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, who had a brief all-consuming affair with her, described her as ‘rose water and raw spirit’.37 The other Amrita was introverted, melancholic, riven by unresolved personal relationships, traumatized by sexual infections and abortions, the Amrita who longed for her father’s approval, the Amrita who remained a virgin emotionally in the midst of her numerous sexual adventures. There were also a Hungarian and an Indian Amrita, the Amrita who belonged nowhere, desperately seeking her identity in India. She was far too young when she died, long before achieving her full potential. If by modernism we mean radical non-illusionist art, she was less radical, except in the late works, than either Rabindranath Tagore or Jamini Roy. Her modernism straddled the cusp of representation and abstraction. And yet paradoxically, as a modern woman, she was at least half a century ahead of her times. We who live in a globalized world today, where modernity embraces cultural diaspora, dislocation, and the intellectual as an outsider, understand better the tragic contradictions of her existence. These contradictions make the study of her life and work complicated. Her self-fashioning as an artist and a cosmopolitan informs her vision of ‘authentic’ India. Of mixed Sikh-Hungarian parentage, she did not enjoy the secure sense of Indian identity that Tagore and Roy took for granted. Thus her self-invention became all the more compelling. Her nephew Vivan Sundaram’s photomontage, which juxtaposes her Western persona elegant in wool and fur with her Indian persona resplendent in silk saris and brocade blouses, underscores her dual Sikh-Hungarian consciousness.38 Muggeridge described her as the ‘weird amalgam of the bearded Tolstoyan star-gazer and the red-haired pianist pounding away at her keyboard’.39 Questions about identity and ‘hybridity’ have figured prominently in post-colonial writings.40 The whole notion of ‘hybridity’ posits a 46 Amrita Sher-Gil, 1930s, photograph.
  43. 43. Amrita Sher-Gil, Untitled, c. 1930, charcoal sketch. mythical ‘authenticity’ in the construction of nationhood. However, if one allows, as one must, that nationhood does not consist in a fixed ‘authentic’ heritage, then her tragic vision of India becomes all the more compelling, for it lays bare the contradictions of modern existence: what it is to be a woman, an artist, a cosmopolitan and, above all, an Indian. All these different scenarios were played out in her short turbulent life. Umrao Singh Sher-Gil Majithia, Sikh nobleman, philosopher, Sanskrit scholar and amateur photographer, married Marie Antoinette Gottesmann, an opera singer from a cultivated Hungarian-JewishGerman Catholic family in Budapest. Their first daughter, Amrita, was born in the city on 30 January 1913, and spent her first eight years there, the next eight in India. Her early drawings bring out her melancholy temperament, a sense of insecurity heightened by her parents’ turbulent marriage. They took her to Europe to enrol her at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris at the age of sixteen. Later she trained under the Post-Impressionist painter Lucien Simon at the École des Beaux-Arts.41 Her early charcoal drawings of the human figure show a precocious gift for reducing details to masses and volumes. At nineteen she won the top prize at the Grand Salon, becoming one of its youngest Associates. While in Paris, she plunged headlong into its Bohemian pleasures as the exotic ‘little Indian princess’.42 Amrita spent summers in Budapest in the company of leading nationalist writers and artists. Towards the end of 1933, she longed to return to India, drawn to the desolate vision of an Indian village in winter, with its sad villagers huddled together, so different, she felt, from the exotic India of tourist posters.43 Her French teachers welcomed her decision, conceding that she was temperamentally better suited to India than the West. Immediately upon her arrival in India, she decided to court controversy, determined to make her mark in what she considered a ‘provincial artistic milieu’, grandly informing a journalist that she was trying to introduce a new ‘living’ element in Indian art. In 1935, the Simla Fine Arts Society awarded her a prize for one of her paintings, but turned down some of her works. Shocked, perhaps with some justification, that any of her works could be rejected, she declined the prize, writing to the Society in an injured tone that the prize should go to someone who was more in tune with the hidebound conventionality fostered by the Society. ‘I shall in future be obliged to resign myself to exhibiting them merely at the Grand Salon Paris, of which I happen to be an Associate, and the 47
  44. 44. Amrita Sher-Gil, Hill Men and Woman, 1935, oil on canvas. Salon des Tuileries known all over the world as the representative exhibition of Modern Art . . . where I can, at least, be sure of receiving some measure of impartiality,’ she added with considerable pique.44 The Society, the most venerable in colonial India, exacted its revenge by excluding her work from a show several years later. In 1939 she became convinced of the general hostility of the Indian art world: the Bombay Art Society rejected some of the works submitted; the Fine Arts Exhibition held in Delhi failed to make any special commendation of her work. For her part, lacking all diplomacy, she lost a lucrative sale of her works in Hyderabad because she ridiculed the art collector’s taste for Victorian painting. By the end of 1939, she felt demoralized by what she interpreted as indifference to her work. Amrita wrote ruefully, ‘Funny that I, who can accept a present without the least pang of conscience, should not be able to say that a bad picture is good even if it is in my interest to do so.’45 Her behaviour reflects the romantic topos of artists placing themselves above ‘philistine criticism’, even at the cost of their livelihood. It is of course true that society was prepared to tolerate such behaviour in men, forcing us to admire her courage when she wrote that the ‘artist has every right to reject or accept public estimates of her work. When the public makes a mistake regarding a picture, it is the business of the artist by some gesture to show that the public is un-informed and dull.’46 Nonetheless she craved for recognition. Let us also not forget that despite her pessimism, her energy and originality had begun to have an impact in India quite early on. In fact in 1937, the Bombay Art Society, with her champion Khandalavala on the jury, had awarded her a gold medal for her painting Three Women. She was deeply moved because she felt she did not have to compromise her artistic integrity to receive this recognition. Sher-Gil held her first solo exhibition at the fashionable Faletti’s Hotel in Lahore in November 1937. Charles Fabri, the Hungarian art critic of the Civil and Military Gazette in Lahore, expressed his admiration for the kind of modernism he could relate to, modern but not ugly or incomprehensible. Another critic, Rabindranath Deb, spoke of the ‘masculine strength [of her work], which shows the immense intellectual quality of the artist . . . a rare quality in [a] woman’.47 The English artist and son of the composer John Foulds, Patrick Foulds, remarked that she had been acclaimed all over India as an artist of exceptional talents, the author of a new Indian art form ‘more vital – more closely connected with the soil’.48 R. C. Tandon, a professor at the Allahabad University, organized an exhibition on the campus in February 1937. He was smitten by her beauty and fascinated by her unconventional personality, but was unsure about her cultural credentials for interpreting India. Other critics felt that her brutally realistic works were more typical of modern French art than Indian. The public however flocked to her show, drawn by stories of her unconventional life and ‘immoral’ subjects. Response to Sher-Gil ranged from bewilderment 49
  45. 45. Amrita Sher-Gil, Three Women, 1937, oil on canvas. This work won the gold medal of the Bombay Art Society. and grudging respect for her Paris training to the deeper appreciation of a discerning minority.49 In the action-filled seven years 1934–41, Sher-Gil pursued a vigorous painting career, crossed swords with the art establishment, met prominent Indians, including Jawaharlal Nehru, and made trips to ancient monuments to learn her heritage.50 In 1938 she paid a brief visit to Hungary to marry her doctor cousin Victor Egan, returning to India with him to settle on the family estate in Saraya. She died on 5 December 1941 at the age of 28, when the brief illness treated by her husband turned fatal. By the time she died, her fame had spread all over India. Condolences poured in from political leaders, including Gandhi and Nehru. The latter found her 50
  46. 46. work to show ‘strength and perception . . . different . . . from the pastyfaced lifeless efforts that one sees so frequently in India’.51 Her former teacher at the Grande Chaumière, Pierre Vaillant, sent a photograph of a portrait he had done of her as ‘hommage d’admiration pour sa talent, pour sa beauté’. She died as she was preparing for her second solo exhibition at the Punjab Literary League in Lahore, which was held posthumously. The coda to Amrita’s story is the suicide of her grieving mother, Marie Antoinette, a few years following her death. Modern woman as a professional Amrita Sher-Gil was the first professional woman artist in India whose life and career were very different from many other women artists of the twentieth century.52 Women artists in the West seem destined to be a mirror image of, or a muse to men, struggling to scoop out a niche for themselves, such as the tragic Camille Claudel or more successful Natalia Gontcharova and Liubov Sergeevna Popova.53 Laura Prieto attributes the paucity of great women artists to the exclusion of women from the credentials and institutions that would qualify them for greatness, in addition to their ‘double bind’ as a woman and an artist.54 Feminist art historians have rightly exposed the power structure that has erased women artists from the art historical discourse.55 Sher-Gil too had her share of being stereotyped in a male-dominated profession. In France she was ‘a mysterious little Hindu princess’; her work was never praised without a mention of her beauty, a situation she also faced in India. The All India Fine Arts and Crafts Exhibition at Delhi awarded her the prize for the best work by a lady artist, which she, with justification, resented because ‘it rather smacks of concession due to the feebler sex’.56 But the most striking thing about Sher-Gil was that she was nobody’s muse, a free spirit who amused herself when she pleased, taking in tow a gaggle of infatuated males, led by the ‘spineless’ Sarada Ukil, whom she considered in private as her doormat.57 The Mexican artist Frida Kahlo is perhaps closest to Sher-Gil in her erotic tortured life. The child of a mixed marriage, the bisexual Kahlo was a strong individualist who projected a Mexican identity that became entwined with her own self-image.58 In the 1920s, women with unconventional lifestyles were making their mark in Paris, the bohemian cosmopolis. The most famous was Colette, who may have provided a role model for Sher-Gil.59 Highly sexed, Sher-Gil led a wild life in Paris with multiple lovers, showing off her voluptuous body without inhibition in sensuous nude self-portraits, notably Torso, dated 1931, an accomplished study of masses and textures.60 There was a rush of nude self-portraits by women in the early twentieth century, which aimed at blurring the distinction between the artist and the model, thus challenging the boundaries between femininity and professionalism in an assertion of women’s independence.61 In these images of innocent narcissism, Sher-Gil turned the gaze upon herself, taking sen51
  47. 47. Amrita Sher-Gil, Torso, 1931, oil on canvas. suous pleasure in her own body as she did of her sister Indira in a nude study of her.62 Sher-Gil was conscious of the effect she had on people, especially men, not simply for her physical beauty but for her unbridled nature. Typically, her French art teacher Pierre Vaillant, who did a portrait of her, wrote: ‘You must give me a chance to keep your sweet memory alive and to be able to look on the familiar, noble features and those beautiful eyes that seem to see beyond.’63 She shared with many gifted people a voracious sexual appetite as an outlet for her abundant energy, and an ‘amoral’ outlook on life, a hedonist who believed in the healing power of pleasure. She once confessed, ‘I am always in love, but fortunately for me and unfortunately for the party concerned, I fall out of love or rather fall in love with someone else before any 52
  48. 48. damage can be done! You know the type of alcoholic who stops drinking at the merry stage?’64 This was eroticism free of commitment or procreation. She married her cousin because she needed someone to take care of her. He knew of her affairs, but promised her freedom after marriage. Her behaviour seems to have been an inversion of the accepted male attitude. One of the heroic myths of male artists, such as Modigliani or Picasso, was their highly charged sex life, considered unacceptable in women. Sher-Gil refused to suppress her instincts, though admittedly her privileged background helped her to ignore opprobrium in India. Strikingly, Sher-Gil accepted the subjective nature of gender identity, disavowing the idea of socially constructed sexual desire as exclusively masculine or feminine. Having won professional kudos, she felt no need to identify with women, claiming that they could not paint because they were sentimentalists who lacked passion.65 Today we may understand Sher-Gil’s bisexuality as a feminist trope and an integral aspect of gender identity. Hélène Cixous views female bisexuality as a feminist response to ‘phallic monosexuality’, suggesting ‘the possibility of the humankind to expand in energy, creativity, and jouissance – a word often used by her to denote total sexual and aesthetic pleasure’.66 Sher-Gil pursued women with transparent honesty. She was attracted to the daughter of the poet Sarojini Naidu and had an affair with Edith Lang, a Hungarian prizewinning pianist. With the Frenchwoman, Marie-Louise Chassany, she had a more complicated relationship. Though it had strong homoerotic overtones it was not consummated. Explaining to her mother the risks of casual relationships with men, Amrita stated with candour: ‘I need someone to physically meet my sexual needs because I believe that it is impossible to fully transform one’s sexual desires into art . . . I thought I would have something with a female when the opportunity arises.’67 Sher-Gil successfully asserted her independence in a male world, carving out a central position in Indian modernism. She refused to let her emotional life compromise her art, a separation between life and art generally admired in a male artist, whose profession always took precedence. Her friend Rashid Ahmad noted that while she was not overburdened with social taboos, the strong balancing factor was her self-discipline, indulging in sensuality but ‘not a slave to it’.68 Sher-Gil admired Dostoyevsky precisely because she considered him a free soul who remained an artist to the very end.69 Muggeridge often watched ‘with fascination the animal intensity of her concentration, making her short of breath, with beads of sweat appearing on the faint moustache on her upper lip’.70 Art was a question of life and death to her, an intense period of work usually followed by considerable exhaustion. Feminist art historians have rightly cautioned us against using culturally charged terms such as genius, since these in effect excluded women artists from mainstream art histories.71 And yet SherGil’s self-presentation successfully inverted the dominant power relations. She never faltered in her faith in her own ‘genius’ – a free agent who 53
  49. 49. placed herself beyond the norms of ordinary behaviour. This was indeed a modern professional woman much ahead of her time. Primitivism, melancholy and the alienated self A key player in the evolution of Indian modernism, Sher-Gil’s primitivism was tied up with her self-definition as a modernist and her agonistic relationship to the historicism of the Bengal School. Ferociously committed to her art, she constantly displayed utter condescension towards fellow artists. This may have been a trait acquired in Paris, where it was common practice to offer ruthless criticisms of student work to toughen them up. Even Karl Khandalavala, her friend and admirer, regretted her lack of charm in discussing art.72 Sher-Gil was particularly ambivalent towards the two other key modernists. She was unaware of Tagore’s exhibition at the Pigalle in Paris in 1930, even though she was a member of the Students Circle there. Later on, she came to like his works. But her impetuosity very often degenerated into abuse. Disagreeing with Khandalavala’s comparison of Tagore with Soutine, she added: ‘As for Tagore’s piddling little poetry, I have [a] profound contempt . . . the only thing that Tagore can do is paint.’73 In 1937, she thought well of a Jamini Roy portrait at the Travancore Art Gallery.74 But later she told Khandalavala, ‘while admitting that Jamini Roy has a certain talent . . . I feel that you are doing a vast injustice to the age-old fresco-painters [Ajanta] by comparing [his work] with theirs?’75 Her most devastating criticisms were reserved for the Bengal School because even in decline its historicism defined artistic nationalism, which she needed to demolish in order to establish her own artistic ‘authenticity’. Forced to acknowledge Nandalal’s pre-eminence, privately she dismissed his ‘uninspired cleverness’, which was ‘capable of producing good work only under the inspiration of a particular school’.76 Far from fulfilling its vast ambitions, she declared, the renaissance in Indian painting led by the Bengal School was responsible for the stagnation of Indian art. Its only raison d’être was to have made at least ‘a certain layer of people’ in India aware of the great art of the past.77 Her radio broadcast of 19 August 1941, months before her death, publicly denouncing the Bengal School, has earned justified notoriety. But she was even less sparing of the academic artists of Bombay led by Gladstone Solomon.78 She offered a double repudiation: against clinging to the past that had become an empty formula and against a slavish imitation of inferior Western art. Instead, ‘I should like to see the art of India . . . produce something vital connected with the soil, yet essentially Indian.’79 It is this rejection of historicism for an art connected with the soil that forms the cornerstone of her ‘artistic authenticity’. She discovered village India after shuttling between India and Hungary in the early years of her life.80 As she explained in a crucial passage, as soon as she set foot on the Indian soil, 54