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Documenting and debating visual culture & Modern Art in India
The visual element plays a vital role in the spectrum of South Asian culture, modern and traditional, high and low. Just to illustrate, beholding the image of the revered deity for an extensive periods of time is considered a proven path in the Hindu tradition, to focus the wavering mind and open the restless soul to the unbounded force of the divine. Such images are not mere static representations of another world beyond our comprehension; a meeting point rather, where the divine and the human encounter but never really fully comprehend one another. The image stands as an injunction to submit and also as a perpetual enigma.

Historical evidence suggests that the visual was perceived as a key aspect to the godly realm as it was to humans. Utmost care and meticulous approach marks the crafting and sculpting of sites of worship and temple architecture, in order to please and pacify the divine powers. This is very important, it is believed, to harness their benevolence. Going forward, the proliferation of colonial modern ideologies as well as nationalism imparted the visual regimes of the subcontinent with new layers and altered their representational economy.

In the new nation-states, every sign, expression and image denoted the tradition and values of a community and also acted as signs of the nation, at another level. Modernist art practitioners faced a peculiar dilemma in the postcolonial states of South Asia. They thought themselves to be part of a ‘modernist international’, constantly in conversation with dominant modernist trends elsewhere in the world; simultaneously attached to the idea of the new nation and also the creative powers that it could unleash. They were keen to provide a new set of forms to this new national imagination, which were distinctly Indian.

The contemporary practitioners made an effort to locate the country both in the rich art tradition of the subcontinent, in the historical canon, as well as in the richness of popular culture. As Daniel Herwitz notes in a recent essay on late MF Husain, Indian artists were ‘doubly’ alienated from the past as well as the subaltern masses – omnipresent and undrinkable, like seawater is to the seaman. In the backdrop of this constant push and pull between the past and the present, modern and traditional an elaborate documentation of India’s rich visual culture and myriad forms of modern art becomes pertinent, which forms the core of ‘Making India Visible: Visual Culture and Modern Art in India’.

The broad-based albeit theoretically incisive intellectual exercise looks at vibrant visual-cultural history and art practices in contemporary context. The exercise is in keeping with the stated mission of The Center for South Asia at Stanford to turn the immense depth and diversity of South Asia’s culture & historical experience into integral aspects of more theoretical debates in the social sciences and the humanities. Those elucidating on the subject include the authorities in the field such as leading art historians, philosophers, religious studies’ scholars and anthropologists as well as some known practicing artists.

The underlying idea is to initiate a broad inter-disciplinary conversation on India’s visual culture and modern art. An explanatory note states from the centre mentions: “We expect this to contribute to a broader and more truly global discussion of art, images and aesthetic regimes and conventions. We aim to demonstrate that the historical experience and visual culture in South Asia as a whole, and India more specifically, has a lot to offer the more general debate on aesthetics, visuality and modern art.”

As the South Asian art & visual culture is becoming an integral aspect of the international art market, both ends of this tension accentuated by tradition and modernity are more palpable than ever. The autonomy and power of the images do not any longer primarily index a unique religious-cultural experience in themselves but rather the sophistication and depth of modern South Asian culture, making it possible to universalize itself, keeping intact its uniqueness. The institute looks to promote the study of South Asian art so as to reflect the vital position of the region today. Its focus is primarily on the colonial-modern and contemporary post-colonial South Asia from where modernity can be conceptualized and understood in all its historical complexity through debates and reflections.

Today’s new, emerging and self-confidently global India possesses a new level of self-consciousness, elevated from the debris of the past. This is exactly what ‘Making India Visible: Visual Culture and Modern Art in India’ strives to achieve, trying to fathom its new visual regime.