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Mapping post-Independence India’s Modern Art evolution
Post-Independence paintings are having a positive market momentum. “Apart from increased visibility in international museums, the Indian economic boom is greatly boosting demand for works (made after independence),” Christie's (New York) modern contemporary Indian art specialist Deepanjana Klein explains to Rachel Wolf of The Wall Street Journal, as part of a detailed review of works by Tyeb Mehta, Maqbool Fida Husain, and Syed Haider Raza among others on the eve of a grand international museum show.

Incidentally, paintings by the Modern masters are now commanding high prices, scaling new records at international auctions. Of course, that wasn’t the case just a decade ago. In 2003, Tyeb Mehta’s works drew rather low valuations at auction. But the late artist’s woks set new records subsequently. His ‘Untitled’ (Figure on Rickshaw, 1984) fetched $3.2 million in a recent auction, whereas ‘Saurashtra’ (1983), an abstract canvas by Raza, went for $3.5 million at Christie's London in 2010, a new record for the artist. They are in spotlight again thanks to a grand international showcase of their major artworks that also gives a comprehensive and immersive exploration of a socio-politically turbulent phase in India.

In the phase leading up to independence, these rebellious artists often disowned the techniques, styles and even the oil-on-canvas medium taught by British-bred Indian art schools. As the country freed itself from British rule, they had their own liberation, opting for more traditional tempera renderings of local relics, rural folk and gods. Post-1947, they took to a modern, international idiom of expression, styles and media. To map this transformations, a new show ‘Modernist Art From India: The Body Unbound’ is on view at the Rubin Museum of Art, New York. It looks at the enterprising manner in which the modernist artists employed the human figure to express optimism, pain and anxiety, also trying to explore the country’s painting scene in the backdrop of its independence, the partition and the violence that followed.

‘The Body Unbound’ strives to mystify representations of the figure and the bewildering body in modernist art from India. It includes paintings from the early 1940s up to the mid-1980s that trace the development of Indian modernism, and celebrate the artistically productive dialogue between tradition and innovation. An accompanying note to the exhibition (supported, in part, by the New Delhi-based Vadehra Art Gallery) explains: “Figuration has been a long, sustained tradition in Indian art and Indian artists had already begun to incorporate secular and non-courtly figures into their works prior to Independence.”

Post-Independence, notions of the figure and body became connected with the creation of new cultural identities as well as the broad social and political concerns facing a new nation. The display takes into consideration both psychological and artistic significance of figurative modes in these works. As India's artists negotiated social, political and professional spaces for themselves in a fast-changing nation, the way they represented the body continually evolved. Young painters like Husain, Souza, Raza and embraced avant-garde European movements such as Expressionism and Cubism, They advocated for a fresh relook on rich Indian art traditions and ethos as well. After the country gained independence, strands of secularism and modernity strengthened, as artistic collectives like the Delhi Silpi Chakra and the Progressive Artists' Group in Mumbai worked towards establishing and disseminating a new India’s artistic and cultural identities.

The groups blended international modernist styles like Expressionism with ideas and imagery, which resonated locally. The exhibition starts with traditionalist representations of Indian townspeople and villagers by artists including Jamini Roy, K.K. Hebbar, and Nandalal Bose, as well as selections of PAG-era works. It turns to the sensitive representation of metaphysical Man by late Tyeb Mehta and Akbar Padamsee, and the infusion of narrative figuration through the paintings of artists like Sudhir Patwardhan, Gieve Patel, Bhupen Khakhar, and Nalini Malani. Several of them, as mentioned above, were deeply impacted emotionally by the Hindu-Muslim bloodbath that followed violent partition.

Tyeb Mehta, then an art student his early twenties, witnessed horrific images on a Mumbai street that infiltrated much of his practice thereafter. For example, highly stylized and contorted figures are wailing in ‘The Diagonal’ (1975), intersected and left incomplete, their limbs dispersed on the canvas. Unfortunately, it's an image, which remains relevant to this day. Husain, who died last year at age 95, was fondly called the ‘Picasso of India’. He freely used the broad, bold brush strokes and skillfully simplified facial features made popular by his Western counterparts. Importantly, he depicted essentially Indian subjects in his oil paintings such as ‘Lady With Lamp’, portraying a blue-‘robed woman; her head, covered - in piety, perhaps, albeit her skirt's hemline stretching non-traditionally quite a few inches above her knees!

Beth Citron is the curator of this grand showcase that traces how the country’s shift from colonial subject to sovereign nation impacted artistic trends through the milestone figurative work by 23 pioneering artists. Gathered from local private and institutional collections, they explore the subtle relationship between traditionally Indian, realistic depictions of the human form and modernist ideas, including abstraction. It brings to life the vibrant visual culture of India and illustrates how India’s transformation into a new nation paved the way for startling new artistic styles, apart from illustrating how figuration served as a means of exploring fantasy and the imagined body by blending whimsical modernist abstraction and the human figures’ depiction. The next two parts of the series will be presented later this year, namely ‘Approaching Abstraction’ and ‘Radical Terrain’, with a focus on abstract art and the modern Indian landscape, respectively.