Slippery Spaces: The State of Indian Modernity

The Chandigarh College of Architecture, a central plank of Le Corbusier's modernist vision for the city. Photo courtesy of Urban Ghosts Media.

The Chandigarh College of Architecture, a central plank of Le Corbusier’s modernist vision for the city. Photo courtesy of Urban Ghosts Media.


The slippery space, like a fish.

The Indian city of Chandigarh, about an hour’s drive from the capital, New Delhi, still carries the remnants of a Nehruvian vision of modernity: Corbusier’s grand state buildings and their fat slabs of concrete glistening in the heat. It is a disquieting city, boulevards and avenues laid out in neat rows that stand out in a country otherwise dominated by chaotic spillages. Once a year, local municipalities of “booming cities” like Pune, Nagpur and Kolhapur tag trees lining the streets with thick white stripes to mark what is to be cut down, eradicated in order to make way for the new: electricity lines, street lights. Often, these changes take place in people’s front yards, or narrow down a privilege already quite scarce: recreational public space. These cities are being refurbished, one white stripe at a time, for an impending modernity that they have been so prescribed. Chandigarh, an “ideal” version of the same, stands as a fading relic to a Nehruvian idea that splintered, unable to withstand the pressure of a post-independence politics. A testament, nonetheless, to India’s ongoing grapple with the modern.

In a brutal review in the Guardian about the Bhupen Khakhar show at the Tate Modern this year, critic Jonathan Jones tripped over himself several times. In a situation where most of what he writes may simply be taken with a pinch of salt and tossed over the shoulder, Jones, unwittingly, reaches at something interesting:

The only reason to give Khakhar a soft ride would surely be some misplaced notion that non-European art needs to be looked at with special critical generosity – that Khakhar’s political perspective on the world is more important than the merits of his art.

That non-European art needs to be looked at with special critical generosity. Perhaps, yes, it is a critical generosity indeed that needs to be extended to the work of non-European artists. What is really at stake, however, is by whom (and it is certainly not Jones).

Since the colonial encounter, Indian art history – in writing mostly by Europeans – is narrated seamlessly from the Mohenjo-daro civilisation to the Mughal, according to which external influences are translated into a distinctly Indian idiom. It is a narrative that portrays a singular trajectory of Indian art, as though it belongs to an ancient and unbroken traditionalism. It falters thus, because in its premise it does something very dangerous: it considers India as a unified territory, largely a construct of post-independence politics, and thus begins to reinforce a kind of homogeneity. The Indianness of Indian art takes the shape of an entirely metaphysical and spiritual allegory. Another tendency is to place the Indian timeline “objectively” against a Western one and make value judgments based on European stylistic categories that trace back to Vasari, rather than as a manner with which to discuss relative difference.

In February 1955, Francis Newton Souza – a Goan painter and part of the Bombay Progressives group founded in 1947 –  opened his first solo show in London at “Gallery One”. In a review for the New Statesman and Society, John Berger wrote:

How much Souza’s pictures derive from western art and how much from hieratic temple traditions of his country, I cannot say. Analysis breaks down and institution takes over… I find it quite impossible to assess his work comparatively. Because he straddles several traditions but serves none.

To respond, in an autobiographical illustrated text, Words and Lines, Souza himself writes,

I myself read, write and think in a language alien to me: English, a language not my mother tongue but spoken to me by my mother since my childhood. But the difficulty in expressing myself arose from the very start. For how can one articulate in Anglo-Saxon with a jeweled mandible that was fashioned by the ancient Konkan goldsmiths of Goa?

What Souza articulates is how identities seem to constantly modify one another at the point of their encounter. This starts with the very formation of the Bombay Progressives, often hailed as the “founders” of Indian modernism (a tall order, no less), whose members – Hindus, Muslims, a Catholic; painters and sculptors alike – come together at the brink of Indian Independence to find common ground. They sought to counter the well-established Bengal School of painting, which held a strong nationalist ideology, and slip out of derivative categorical notions. Their intention was inherently political, especially with their proximity to social revolution.

But such political intention cannot so easily translate into political work, however it may enter into political dialogue.

that Khakhar’s political perspective on the world is more important that the merits of his art.

The main issue here, to paraphrase historian Partha Mitter, is that the art historical principle of influence is not a neutral and objective concept. An Indian artist engaging with a non-“traditional” style of work becomes immediately locked into the interdependent relationship between coloniser and colonised. Berger’s analysis of Souza, or lack thereof, thus becomes understandable, and important too, in the way that it exposes the limits of his ability to critique. He is, after all, reviewing an artist just introduced to the London art scene in a way that will make his work appeal to a largely white, European audience. The modern Indian artist, in this way, borrowing from Homi Bhabha, always seems to be white, not quite.

If modernism looks to strip its canvas away from its context, perhaps it ought to do the opposite with its Indian participants: there is a silent intimacy between painter and canvas, be it Souza, Khakhar, or even Amrita Sher-Gil, transforming both into powerful historical agents. Contemporary art historian Savita Apte suggests that the Bombay Progressives legitimately constructed, configured and contested modernism within the Indian context – that “they were able to articulate a new national aesthetic… the Progressive artists localised modernism”. The idea of a localised modernism is thus far more interesting – their formative goals are straightforward, rooting themselves within their political context, re-inventing modernist formal strategies to suit their own political agenda.

So what is a constructive way of talking about modernism in India? Where do we afford it critical generosity? To start with, it would be to separate the analysis of the work from a Eurocentric reactionary critique. Instead, it is important to illustrate a symbiotic relationship between the artistic traditions they adopt and the lineage from which their work extends.

It becomes particularly problematic when modernist work is declared “primitive” – and with Souza, for instance, this is done often and unheedingly. Art historian Yashodhara Dalmia (who incidentally has written the only comprehensive narrative on the Progressives) writes:

In being influenced by Romanesque and Picasso, who in turn drew inspiration from primitive art, Souza completes the circle. Souza’s early works, which were inadvertently imbibing these influences, were also incorporating the ‘primitive’ via the mediation of the West… In reclaiming the ‘primitive’ then, Souza was virtually re-inventing his own art and that is where his strength lay.

Souza is not just accused of imbibing the influence of Western artists; he is accused of internalising their own appropriations of primitivism, a link which remains tenuous at best. Postcolonial theory, which discusses the formation of words such as “primitive”, deliberately destabilises the language used to discuss the “Orient” by accepting is as political product. As Said explains, this language is “a network of interests […] governed not simply by empirical reality but by a battery of desires, repressions, investments, projections”. Said highlights the importance of language in forming the discursive construct of the “Orient” as an object of colonial knowledge. So why then do Indian historians like Dalmia still reduce Souza’s work to such simplistic category?

Partha Mitter takes this forward by claiming instead that primitivism may be considered as a counter-modern discourse of cultural hybridity. Souza’s work is considered primitive because of its references to savage naturalism, but he seems to be undoing this very classification through choice of subject, a kind of creative unwriting of painterly categories. In Words and Lines he writes:

These tables of etiquette are cluttered with Victorian cutlery! (Queen Victoria still rules India, my dear) But I’ve cleared my table with one swipe… Only Tricksters can swiftly pull out from a table without clatter, leaving it still laid.

Perhaps the cyclical relation between modernity, modernism and primitivism allowed the Indian modernists to develop a language with which to represent the nuance of all three critical dialogues. Indeed, it may even be useful to consider primitivism more as a nostalgic return to a past that, while it cannot be recovered, is nevertheless in a process of constant reinvention.

The progress of India’s modernity often seems to lie in the comfy corridors of wealthy homes, or in the grandstanding architecture that a Nehruvian agenda left behind, which in fact is far from the truth of it. Perhaps it is through the activation and rewriting of our communal history that we may begin to rework the structures that we still refer to today. It appears altogether impossible to move this narrative beyond its history without constantly returning to it – while, at the very same time, this history seems to simultaneously predicate and withhold its own future.

Anita Dube, in a piece about the Indian artist Bhupen Khakhar, published in ArtAsiaPacific this spring, writes: “He occupied the slippery space, like a fish… and he lived in those slippages.” Indeed, the slippery space is the modern itself, entirely elusive – and seemingly out of our scrambling reach.

Skye Thomas

About Skye Thomas

Skye Arundhati Thomas is a writer and editor from India, currently based between Bangalore, Pune and Mumbai. She is primarily interested in portraiture through writing, photography and postcolonial voices.

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