When Was Modernism

"When Was Modernism" - a topic that is always up for debate and can be debated ad nauseam - therefore I will keep this post very succinct .

It is generally acknowledged that modernism in European art begins with Cezanne/Picasso . The contribution of the United States to this modern art movement is considered to be Abstraction / Abstract Expressionism - viz Pollock, Rothko, etc.

When was Modernism in India ? While there is general consensus about modernism in Europe or the contribution of the abstract expressionists in the United States - in India there is a huge gap between the academics/historians and those in the trade. While not indulging in a debate regarding which argument or who is correct, I simply wish to highlight the contribution of three artists to Indian Modern art.

Bengal School ?

Firstly some definitional issues. I am not sure if I am in agreement with the label 'Bombay' in Bombay Progressives or for that matter 'Bengal School'. I do think that applying regional qualifications to art in India seems to be somehow limiting. And certainly with a broad brush stroke many of the artists from Bengal are clubbed under Bengal school with little relevance to their styles. In response to this the term 'Santiniketan modernists' (or contextual modernism as per Siva Kumar) is a more recent attempt to classify some artists more appropriately.

Regarding the word "Bengal" - it should be noted that British Empire (the beginnings of modern India) started / gained its first foothold in Bengal. The first medical schools (Government Medical College) , the first schools of art (Government College of Art) all happened in Bengal and including universities like Presidency college which became a hotbed of nationalism. Therefore it is not surprising that the renaissance in art first came from the region where the first of modern art schools and other higher learning institutes were established.

Modernism in India was an attempt at nationalism, an attempt to discover an indigenous modernism and this is very different from the evolution of cubism in Europe. Thus these early artists from Bengal are as "national" (or international when it comes to their recognition) as artists from any other region in India. I do believe that any attempt made to regionalize their importance and to reduce their standing in the context of history of modern art in India is incorrect.

Another classification that I find troubling is that of "Pre-Independence Modernists" and "Post-Independence Modernists" . Interestingly, it would seem that the pre-independence modernists were more inclined towards indigenous modernism whereas post-independence modernists seem to exactly do the opposite and be heavily inspired by cubism and abstraction as seen in the west. [1]

Moving on to highlight three artists :

Abanindranath Tagore

Please refer to : India's Indigenous Modernism

Jamini Roy

Please refer to : India's Indigenous Modernism

Rabindranath Tagore

Nobel Laureate poet, started his art as doodles on his manuscripts (also referred to as erasures) and developed a style that was completely his own. Interestingly Jamini Roy was one of the earliest who openly recognized Rabindranath as an artist in his own right.

Rabindranath Tagore Erasure
rabindranath tagore landscape

The issue of course is that these artists are not easily available for purchase / trade. Even early Jamini Roys (c 1920s, 1930s) are exceptionally difficult to obtain. But the lack of availability should not diminish their importance and contribution to Indian Modern art. I do believe that these three artists play an important role in the beginnings of modernism in India.

Reference Credits & Sources
Triumph of Modernism : Partha Mitter
The Making of Modern Indian Art: The Progressives - Yashodhara Dalmia
The Disordered Origins of Things: The Art Collection as Pre-canonical Space - Ranjit Hoskote
When Was Modernism: Essays on Contemporary Cultural Practice in India : Geeta Kapur
[1] : Discussion with A. Ramachandran
Moving Focus : K G Subramanyam