India’s Indigenous Modernism

I just received a new research publication – “Group 1890, India’s Indigenous Modernism” from DAG and this re-kindled the various arguments on modernism in India and my thoughts on the history of modernism in India.

Using a snippet which documents the views of Jagdish Swaminathan and the 1890 group

“By the times the 60s rolled around, the times had changed and the piquant urgency of the Progressives’ stand or the boldness of their move had faded, … , and the Progressives, the original rebels, had themselves become … the establishment.”

While the Progressive Artists’ Group and some of its prominent members put Indian modern art on the global map, what they represented to their succeeding generation of compatriot artists was a popular visual idiom (consisting broadly of reworkings of Western landscape and expressionist figurative modes) that was successful and not without its pictorial strength, but they had not brought forth any innovation of basic artistic premises or elements – whether form, theme or color as Swaminathan himself  wrote a few years later…

the art of the ’50s Indian modernists  lacked authenticity as a modern Indian expression for it failed to sufficiently speak

that the continued championing .. of Western modernism in Indian art

We were getting fed up with this kind of crap, Swaminathan recalled with marked annoyance in his memoirs

The lack of authenticity as mentioned by Swaminathan is evident, if you compare with the some of the art in the 40s and 50s in the US (where abstract expressionism was created) and elsewhere to those created by the progressives. Neither were these links/inspirations ever denied by the artists .

Franz Kline 1956
Franz Kline 1956
Clyfford Still 1948
Clyfford Still 1948
De Kooning 1947
De Kooning 1947
Jackson Pollock - Number 1a - 1948
Jackson Pollock – Number 1a – 1948

Francis Newton Souza‘s style changed drastically from the 1940’s in India


to after he went to the London


S H Raza for example was introduced to abstraction during his visiting lecturer-ship at Berkeley (my alma mater as well) in the 1960s


There can be little doubt that the Progressives (who went abroad) were heavily influenced by the trends in the west and while they set out to be revolutionaries they ended up simply creating art that can be described as some version of successful western art styles at that time (as per Jagdish Swaminathan). Most art critics actually do not dispute this !

Here’s my take on India’s Indigenous Modernism

India’s Indigenous Modernism – Starts Early 1900s !!

Modernism in India starts in the early 1900s and due to different reasons than in the West. There it starts due to the pioneering work by Cezanne and the experiments in primitivism by Picasso.

Cezanne Analytical Cubism
Cezanne – Houses at l’Estaque (1908) – Analytical Cubism
Les_Demoiselles_d'Avignon Picasso
Les Demoiselles d’Avignon – 1907 – Pablo Picasso

In India it starts due to Nationalism – a desire to create a sentiment (of independence) away from the academic art being practiced and advanced by the British. It started as a recognition of our rich history in the arts and even as a look-east policy.

At a time when good art in India was considered to be

1850s Oil On Canvas

these two artists challenged the established norms and created their own idiom. This was not a small feat by any yardstick.

Abanindranath Tagore

Recognition of our national identity

Abanindranath Tagore Bharat Mata
Bharat Mata – 1905

Recognition of our history, our mythology

The_Passing_of_Shah_Jahan Abanindranath Tagore


“Look-east” (Japanese) washes

Abanindranath Tagore Nasim Bagh


Jamini Roy

Who left a successful career as a commissioned portrait painter in the 1915-20s

Representative Commissioned Portrait
Representative Commissioned Portrait

To discovering his own style and oeuvre after years of hardship and experimentation

Jamini Roy Minimalism


Jamini Roy Mother Child

Jamini Roy Ram Balram

The contributions of these two artists cannot simply be described as a new style – their contributions can only be described as being akin to moving mountains !

It almost feels that we are moving in cycles – Indigenous art, Global Inspired art, and then back to Indigenous art in response possibly to the political situations present in the country.

And the story is even more complex, for in-between Abanindranath Tagore / Jamini Roy and the Progressives, there were the Santiniketan modernists – namely Nandalal Bose, Ram Kinker Baij, Benode Behari Mukherjee and Rabindranath Tagore.

Amrita Sher-gil, India’s most coveted artist

Further add to the cauldron artists like A Ramachandran and K G Subramanyan (dean of both Santiniketan and Baroda schools no less). Sculpture artists like Meera Mukherjee , Somnath Hore

So while a kudos needs to be given to the research team at DAG and their book on ‘Group 1890’, this is just my small note to point out that the story is deeper and that indigenous art in India / Indian Modern Art begins much earlier – closer to early 1900s.

Indrajit Chatterjee

Image Credit : 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8


Triumph of Modernism – Partha MItter

When Was Modernism – Geeta Kapur

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