Critical commentary on art as a self-reflexive discipline within the modernist context has a relatively long history in India. Largely the preserve of artists commenting on their contemporaries, or else elaborations on art by literary figures, criticism as a publically shared opinion is closely tied to the emergence of print journalism and its explosion in the late nineteenth century. Yet poor archiving of periodicals and newspapers has meant that a lot of early contemporary art criticism is now lost. Moreover, given the diversity of cultural and linguistic strands that exist in this vast subcontinent, the debates on art are also difficult to map or enumerate in the form of a bibliography of key readings, for a number of animated discussions on art and aesthetics have been carried out in the regional language press, rather than in the preferred language of communication in the urban centers of India: English. By way of introductory texts, scholarly analysis by art historians such as Partha Mitter (1994, 2007) and Tapati Guha Thakurta (1992), whose writings are based on detailed archival work citing regional language sources as well as the English language press are particularly rewarding. They provide a substantial historical introduction in the form of short biographical sketches of artists, their social milieus, details about their oeuvres, and critical insights into the emerging world of modernism from the late nineteenth century onwards. Their meaningful investigation of the interface and overlap between art worlds across the globe and the mapping of processes of cultural exchange through intercultural dialogues between influential figures of the time is a good initiation point for anyone interested in understanding the networked nature of modernism. Perhaps the most cited book is W G Archer’s (1959) conception of modernism as a history of canonical individual figures, who contributed to the establishment of modern art—passing from a proto-modern sensibility to a fully articulated, individualised autonomy of the artist. Two other useful overviews edited by Gayatri Sinha (2003, 2009) are a compilation of essays by a number of different scholars, of which the latter broadly addresses the emerging concerns of ‘new art history’, by bringing on broad analytical essays on popular culture and photography, besides other key discussions on modernism. The former book carries chronologically ordered and medium specific essays by a number of different writers giving an overview of painting, printmaking, sculpture, and installation. A recent, critically well-theorised overview by Rebecca Brown (2009) examines in detail the subtle undercurrents that shaped modernism after 1947. However for an overarching theoretical frame, Geeta Kapur’s seminal essay ‘When was modernism’, which is also the title of her book of essays (2000); in which she places modernism in a double discourse with nationalism and asserts that the trajectory of modernism in India is therefore ‘alternately conservative and progressive’, is essential reading for anyone engaging with contemporary art in India.
The second section of the guide lists publications that engage with institutional history and the formation of collectives. A number of them are commemorative in nature, brought out in conjunction with centenary celebrations of educational establishments and art societies. Historical accounts by N M Kelkar (n. d.), J C Bagal (1966) and B Sadwalkar (1989) offer interesting insights into the workings of these early institutions. On the other hand, a decade later, we see a more significant, tightly focused form of critical writing and the recovery of history that focuses on the social history of art and its institutional location. R Shivakumar’s curatorial catalogue essay for an exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi on Santiniketan (1997) provides an insightful account of this utopian experiment in art education. G Sheikh’s edited volume on the history of Contemporary Art in Baroda (1997) is based on detailed archival work and includes perceptive essays by leading scholars of the Baroda school. Owing much to the individual will of visionary educators these two institutes, namely the Kala Bhavan in Santiniketan, the rural retreat set up by the poet laureate Rabindranath Tagore and the Art Department of Maharaja Sayajirao University which owes its existence to the educator Hansa Mehta, are celebrated centers for the dissemination of modernism and for shaping the discipline of art history itself.
The tendency to collectivise however was largely a family affair in early modernism in India and Parimoo’s seminal study of the creative output of the Tagore family (1973), foregrounds the role of cohort circles that formed around charismatic individuals within such formations and the pan Indian influence that they came to exert. Subsequent breakaway formations, largely group efforts by artists in the 1940s such as the acclaimed Bombay Progressives and their attempts to circumvent institutional control, have been the subject of close scrutiny for several years, with a mass of material being produced on individuals within the group and their brief life as a collective. Y Dalmia’s publication (2001) gives an historical perspective of its early years, while C Sambrani’s essay (2003) gives a critical perspective on the notion of ‘progressivism.’ Two other formations, the contemporary to the progressives – The Calcutta Group and the Delhi Silpi Chakra – have only recently been subjected to close scrutiny and theorisation by P Mago (1997) and S Mallik (2004) respectively. One significant formation of the 1960s, the Cholamandalam artists’ village, arising from the efforts of the artist educator K C S Paniker, and premised on the construction of an indigenous identity aimed at problematising the universalising concepts of high modernism, has been discussed at length by Joseph James (2004). The recently published selection of writings from their journal Artrends (2011), throws additional light on this group.
The third section of the guide, lists specific texts such as opinion pieces and manifestos that have impacted art-making in many different ways. From the early twentieth century theoretical elaborations of A K Coomaraswamy, E B Havel, and O C Gangoly, to the more recent significant contributions by F N Souza, Geeta Kapur, J Swaminathan, and Anita Dube among others, textual critical interventions have played a significant role in shaping decisive shifts in art making. Some essays do not necessarily reflect individual views but rather are collective opinions penned by the most articulate members of group formations and coterie circuits. By way of an entry point, the epistolary exchanges of opinion published in the journal Rupam by Benoy Kumar Sarkar after the publication of his manifesto ‘The Aesthetics of Young India’ (1922) and rejoinders from his critical challengers — Gangoly O C (1922) and Kramrisch S (1922), offer contemporary scholars an interesting insight into the public culture of debate that began to emerge in the early 20th century. Perhaps the most widely read texts of the period are the writings on art by Abanindranath and Rabindranath Tagore. Possibly the most impactful writings by an artist in India are the often acerbic, programmatic writings by F N Souza whose early socialist preoccupations were soon to shift to more formal concerns. Subsequently, the novelist and critic Mulk Raj Anand’s contributions; primarily to the art journal MARG which he founded in 1946 and Richard Bartholomew’s critical opinions, penned for the Lalit Kala Contemporary (1976) and the numerous articles he contributed to Thought (1958) led to the development of a critical language, indispensable for the establishment of a more complex understanding of art practice; its most nuanced practitioner being the artist pedagogue K G Subramanyan. In sharp contrast, the argumentative voice of J Swaminathan channeled through his journal Contra (which had a very brief life), and subsequently the writings of Anita Dube (1985, 1987) in support of the Kerala Radicals, an artists’ collective of the 1980s, are polemical interludes which were clearly penned with an awareness of the manifesto as a modernist proclamatory form, given the fact that Swaminathan was involved with left-wing confrontational politics and Dube had trained as an art critic.
The role of ideological operations in representation has in recent years been highlighted by several writers who have dismantled the claims of modernism as a universal utopian project. Focusing instead on the fault-lines of gender, caste, and regional identity to demonstrate that the rhetoric of universalism, upon which modernism is purportedly based, is an imperfect project, difference and otherness mark the writing of critics concerned with highlighting minority positions.
Since the 1990s for example, Jyotrindra Jain has made a concerted attempt to bring visibility to the work of ‘other masters’ by questioning art historical systems that negate categories of the ritual, and the craft object, which in fact, since the project of the museumisation of objects began, forms the core of all such art historical collections. His efforts to bring into the ambit of art historical discourse contemporary ‘folkloric’ practices by artists from on institutional backgrounds and his engagement with popular culture have led to the publication of several volumes of which the most notable contribution is his book on Kalighat paintings. One witnesses a further interrogation of art history’ s biases in the feminist critique mounted by Gayatri Sinha and Geeta Kapur. Sinha’s concerted efforts to focus on women’s work has resulted in several publications (1996, 2006) and Kapur’s recent contribution to the catalogue of the widely discussed exhibition ‘Global Feminisms’, is of immense significance.
The question of caste dynamics, an issue which has largely been marginalised by mainstream art historians, has gained significant weight in recent years. G M Tartakov and Kajari Jain in their writings highlight the visual culture of Dalits (outcasts who use this term as an act of assertion and to draw attention to their condition) focusing primarily on the politics of public monuments and print culture. On the other hand Y S Alone has concentrated on the exclusionary politics of pedagogy and art writing, along with throwing light on contemporary Dalit artists who contest mainstream representational conventions by bringing into view their own erased histories.
In the increasingly complex network of exhibitions outside India, anchored to the figure of the curator as mediator, catalogue essays and curatorial polemics have come to mirror the broader developments within the globalisation of the art world. The year 1989 which saw the staging of the exhibition ‘Les Magicienne de la terre’ at the Centre Pompidou in Paris is considered to be significant in this context. A number of exhibitions such as the ‘Festival of India’ series of international shows programmed by the Indian government in the 1980s had to a great extent already blurred the center-periphery model with Geeta Kapur emerging as the singular curatorial authority for these exhibitions. A number of international exhibitions thereafter, curated by Ranjit Hoskote, Gayatri Sinha, Nancy Adajania, Sunil Gupta, and Raqs Media Collective have since then dismantled the biographical approach to exhibition-making (primarily connected to state sponsored nationalism) with the latter in particular making art a vehicle of the state’s internationalist concerns.
The second last section gives a list of medium specific essays, in keeping with modernism’s key tenet of exploring the internal formal properties of each technique. This is followed by a selected bibliography of catalogue essays on individual artists and motivated by the fact that a large body of writing on art in recent years has taken this particular form. While such essays are rarely ’critical‘, they do offer documentation of thought processes and working methods of artists.
General Bibliography and Directory
Art Historical Overviews
|J. Appasamy, 25 Years of Indian Art: Painting, Sculpture & Graphics in the Post-Independence Era, Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi, 1972. [not yet available] |
Institutional Focus/ Artists’ Groups
|J. C. Bagal, Centenary: Government College of Art and Craft Calcutta, 1864-1964, Government College of Art and Craft, Calcutta, 1966. [not yet available] |
|N. M. Kelkar, The Story of the Sir J.J. School of Art: 1857-1957, Government of Maharashtra and Sir J.J. School of Art, Bombay, n.d. [not yet available] |
|B. Sadwelkar, ‘Bombay Art Society: Story of a Hundred Years’, Story of a Hundred Years: Bombay Art Society 1888-1988, Bombay Art Society, Bombay, 1989. [not yet available] |
|P. N. Mago, ‘Delhi Silpi Chakra: The Early Years’, National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi,1998. [not yet available] |
Critical Opinion Pieces and Manifestoes
|A. K. Coomaraswamy, ''The Aim of Indian Art'', Modern Review, 1908, vol. 3, no. 1. [not yet available] |
Feminist and Minority Positions
|Parama Roy, ‘Women, Hunger, and Famine: Bengal, 1350/1943’, Women of India: Colonial and Post-Colonial Periods, Bharati Ray, ed., Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2005, pp 392-423.|
|Y. S. Alone, ‘Tradition and Practices: Cultural Confronts’, Nirukta: The Journal of Art History and Aesthetics, Baroda, 2006, vol. 3. [not yet available] |
|Y. S. Alone, ‘Visual Tradition and Art Pedagogy: Perception of Exclusions’, The Journal of Interdisciplinary Policy Research and Action (IPRA), 2008, vol. 2, issue 4, pp 34-43. [not yet available] |
Popular Culture and Contemporary Folk Art
|Gayatri Sinha, Watching Me Watching India: Contemporary Photography in India, Fotographie Forum, Frankfurt, 2006. [not yet available] |
Photography and Printmaking
|Kirsty Ogg, ed., Where Three Dreams Cross: 150 Years of Photography from India, Pakistan & Bangladesh, Steidl, Goettingen, Whitechapel Gallery, London, Fotomuseum Winterthur, Winterthur, 2010.|
|G. Thomas, History of Photography: India 1840 – 1980, Andhra Pradesh State Akademi of Photography. Hyderabad, 1981. [not yet available] |
New Media Art
|Shuddhabrata Sengupta, ‘The Fickleness of Novelty – Notes towards a Speculative History of New Media in South Asia’, Visual Arts - The India Habitat Centre’s Art Journal,, India Habitat Centre, New Delhi, 2009. [not yet available] |
Monographs/ Catalogues on Artists
|Shilpa Gupta, There is no Border Here, Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai, Appejay Media Gallery, New Delhi, 2007. [not yet available] |
|Parul Dave Mukherji, Eyes Re-Cast: An Exhibition by Savi Savarkar, University of Michigan, 2009. [not yet available] |
|Rupika Chawla, Ramachandran, Art of the Muralist, A Kala Yatra /Sista''s Publication, 1994. [not yet available] |