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Book Review : ‘Art and Visual Culture in India - 1857-2007’
‘Art and Visual Culture in India - 1857-2007’ is a new in-depth documentation that collates the views of several noteworthy art historians and scholars.

The book has been brought out by Marg, an institution founded by philosopher social activist and litterateur Mulk Raj Anand on the eve of India’s independence. Launched as a print platform to initiate public debates about art education, museums, monuments, and question of heritage, it undertook the task of identifying, cataloguing, and documenting the nation's rich heritage in the built, visual as well as performing arts.

Their new release is another painstaking documentation of Indian arts and craft traditions in their dazzling forms and the influences that have greatly shaped them. It stays true to the exploratory spirit of the renowned publishing house. ‘Art and Visual Culture in India - 1857-2007’ (Edited by Gayatri Sinha, Marg Publications Rs 3,500, pages 300) serves as a valuable resource to trace the development of Indian art – pre and post Independence.

A comprehensive compilation of essays encompasses 150 year long journey of Indian art covered in 19 insightful essays. The enriching essays are edited by Gayatri Sinha, a leading independent curator and renowned art critic. She has penned columns on contemporary art and visual culture for various leading national newspapers. The New Delhi based art expert has edited major volumes such as ‘Indian Art: An Overview’ and ‘Expressions and Evocations: Contemporary Women Artists in India’.

The latest documentation amply reflects her meticulous approach towards art appreciation and research. According to her, it tries to create, or at least propose to an extent, ‘archaeology of the modern’. Modern visual art practices and post-modern trends are vested in the dual shift of emerging bourgeoisie societies and increasing urbanism both of which occurred in tandem with the advent of mechanical reproduction and the dissemination of ‘knowledge’.

This point is elaborated in a chapter by writer Christopher Pinney. There are more insights provided by essayists Partha Mitter, Jyotindra Jain, Kavita Singh, Deeksha Nath, Sumathy Ramaswamy and Nancy Adajania. Even as it undertakes a vibrant visual journey, the document raises some very basic questions about the emergence of modernism in Indian art and the contradictions inherent in the British agenda of art education and indigenous responses to it.

It examines different genres of art making and attached methodological agendas of art - from experimentations with material, site and scale (Deeksha Nath, Shukla Sawant) and the development of new media practices (Nancy Adajania) to modernist concerns in sculpture and painting (Partha Mitter, R. Siva Kumar and Tapati Guha-Thakurta) and the colonial project in photography (Gayatri Sinha, Sophie Gordon).

‘Art and Visual Culture in India - 1857-2007’starts with ‘The Age of Empire’, which captures a crushed country after 1857, with John Company making way for Queen-Empress Victoria. The captive country reeled under the Industrial Revolution that drains local units and benefits British factories. Since conquest at a broader level also essentially meant colonizing the mind, British art academies went about deeply influencing the Indian atelier and makers of craft. British museums tried to teach the Indian populace to view the world through the colonially crafted lens. This happened to permeate Indian thought pathologically.

The Great Nationalist Image and Identity only arrived with the Freedom Movement. Influential themes that worked their own spells en route were Rabindranath Tagore and artists’ collectives, traced in an essay ‘The Age of Anxiety, 1940-1950’ by Shukla Sawant. The author informs about the cataclysmic events, which shaped Indian art movement during this phase, including the Bengal Famine of 1943. The deep complexity and different counter-pulls, the acute emotional dilemma and conflict of being an Indian artist are further evoked in an essay ‘The Mahatma as Muse’ by Sumathy Ramaswamy.

Crucial backdrops of politics and social ferment are discussed (Sanjoy Mallik, Ashrafi Bhagat) and gender is re-located in art practice by Geeta Kapur. Other than a chapter tantalizingly titled ‘A house for modernism: art in its institutional aspects, 1950’s and 60’s’ (Anshuman Das Gupta), Jyotindra Jain’s essay ‘Curating Culture, Curating Territory: Religio-Political mobility in India’ offers brilliant insights into how geographies are usurped and transformed using new media technologies in order to re-cast religion through the rubric of art, culture and tradition in present day Gujarat with its neo-Hindu nationalist agenda.

They tell India’s story through the silent, potent witness of the images she produced in these 15 decades. All the essays offer interesting information. Refreshingly, most of the book is free from the anxiety of post-colonial discourse that characterizes much of the writing about Indian art. The text is accompanied by some beautiful illustrations. This thoroughly researched book present a kaleidoscopic view of Indian art and serve as the seminal study of its passage through modernism into post- modernism, and other prominent phases.