It is co-incidental that yesterday we had discussed the contributions of Abanindranath Tagore in Art1st’s “The Visionaries” section and today we are going to talk about Professor R. Siva Kumar who has done extensive art historical research on Bengal School and the other artists involved with Santiniketan. This co-incidence is helpful because it will help us to see things in context. It will help us to understand why the attempts by artists in Santiniketan and Bengal School were not only based on a revival of the traditional Indian arts, but it was also developing a new modern language which was rooted in its Indian context. We are going to look at a seminal exhibition in Indian art history which contextualized the roles of these artists in creating a new modernism which was not ‘blindly imitative’ of the European norms. In this issue of Art1st’s “The Curator” series we introduce you to the exhibition curated by R. Siva Kumar titled Santiniketan: The Making of a Contextual Modernism.
The Curator #8
Curator: R. Siva Kumar
Exhibition: Santiniketan: The Making of a Contextual Modernism, NGMA
Siva Kumar is an art historian, art critic, and curator. He has been mainly lecturing in Santiniketan for many years but has been invited to many universities in India and abroad as visiting faculty. His main research has been on Indian modernism with special focus on the Santiniketan.
Through this exhibition Kumar introduced an important term “Contextual Modernism” to understand the unique development of modern art in India. The exhibition, through bringing about a hundred works each of four modern Indian artists, namely Nandalal Bose, Rabindranath Tagore, Ram Kinker Baij and Benode Behari Mukherjee on the centre stage, put the Santiniketan art movement into focus.
According to Kumar, the “Santiniketan artists did not believe that to be indigenous one has to be historicist either in theme or in style, and similarly to be modern one has to adopt a particular trans-national formal language or technique. Modernism was to them neither a style nor a form of internationalism. It was critical re-engagement with the foundational aspects of art necessitated by changes in one’s unique historical position.” The year 1997 was very important because the group of artists based in Baroda called the Baroda Group a coalition whose original members included Vivan Sundaram, Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh, Bhupen Khakhar, and Nalini Malani came up with an anthology of essays to situate the role of Baroda School in the context of the 1981 exhibition “Place for People.” At the same time Kumar too opened up the possibility to reengage with the role of Santiniketan School in Indian modernism. He argued that “The Santiniketan artists were one of the first who consciously challenged this idea of modernism by opting out of both internationalist modernism and historicist indigenousness and tried to create a context sensitive modernism.”
This detailed extract from an interview with Kumar helps us to understand his arguments in favour of the proposition of contextual modernism. R. Siva Kumar answers the question by Pavez Kabir.
PK: The exhibition title, ‘Making of a Contextual Modernism’ itself is quite fascinating. My question may appear quite naïve, but are you saying that all modernist programs are not contextual enough and that some are more context sensitive than others?
RSK: “To the academic artists of the 19th and early 20th centuries modernism was more a matter of technology, the use of oil paints and the conventions of post Renaissance representational realism. Even when the subjects they painted were Indian, the categories or genres these fell into – history, portraits, and occasionally landscape – were part of the value system they adopted along with the technique. To them the nature of modernism then was both technological and trans-local. The artists of the Bengal school in reaction to this tried to marry indigenous subject matter with indigenous style. We might have disagreements about how indigenous or revivalist this was but this surely made them even more historicist in orientation. Their modernism was then a form of indigenous neo-classicism, a new art that invoked the art of their ancestors.
The progressive artists of the 40s saw this as essentially anti-modernist. Traces of local life can be seen in their work especially their early work, but what made them modern was their engagement with the formal principles of Western modernism. In their hands, modernism once again was trans-national.
It is in contrast to these that I would argue that art produced at Santiniketan was more context sensitive. They did not believe that to be indigenous one has to be historicist either in theme or in style, and similarly to be modern one has to adopt a particular trans-national formal language or technique. Modernism was to them neither a style nor a form of internationalism. It was critical re-engagement with the foundational aspects of art necessitated by changes in one’s unique historical position. Even though cross-cultural contacts were crucial to the development of modernism and cross-cultural contacts having paved the way to the dismantling of art traditions at large made modernism, unlike any other period in art history, international in its scope, to them art produced in one place did not have to look like art produced elsewhere.
If colonialism brought the West into contact with the rest of the world, the coloniser and the colonised experienced it from two sides and responded to it differently. I do not mean just politically. On either side, it produced a cultural cleavage, led them to question their respective traditions, and made them open up to other cultures, other possibilities. However, it did not wipe out their history, their cultures, the differences of life-experience, and it was not necessary that it should also make their art similar. To them modernism sprang from the new situation one found oneself in – politically, culturally, and environmentally – and how one responded it. Modernism was for them not homogenous but generic.”
- Premjish, Director-Outreach, Art1st.