Catastrophe & Creation: Modern Indian Painting After 1947

Peabody Essex Museum


The story of India's Independence is not complete without the story of its division, the implications of which were catastrophic and creative. In 1947, on the eve of Independence, the British partitioned Imperial India into two independent nations: India and Pakistan. When the borders of the new countries were announced two days later, millions of Muslims attempted to trek to Pakistan while millions of Hindus and Sikhs fled in the opposition direction. Hundreds of thousands never made it. The trauma of Partition deeply affected India's artists, many of whom explore the event through images of fracture and loss.

Listen to Sona Datta discuss Partition's influence on Indian art
Listen to Sona Datta compare Jamini Roy and Tyeb Mehta

"In this land, once called India, such rivers of blood have flowed in the past few months that even the heavens are bewildered…. We are free. Hindustan [India] is free. Pakistan is free, and we are walking the desolate streets, naked without any possessions in utter distress."
—Saadat Hasan Manto

The arbitrary border between India and Pakistan—devised by the British in 1947 and known as the Radcliffe Line—is shown in red on this map. East Pakistan became the independent nation of Bangladesh in 1971.

Embodying Modernism
When a New York gallerist asked M. F. Husain in the 1950s why he was not painting like an Abstract Expressionist, he replied, "There is nothing abstract about a billion people." In the mid-twentieth century, artists such as Husain drew inspiration from international modernism but kept their feet firmly planted in Indian soil. As a result, there is no monolithic "modern" tradition in Indian art, but rather, a plurality of approaches that reflects influences from both the East and the West.

Husain's Man embodies the diverse influences at play in the Indian art world in the years following Independence. The figure remains central to the composition, evoking India's long figurative tradition, but his pose also recalls Auguste Rodin's Thinker. Man is an artist and a citizen. Cast into a modern world but surrounded by images of India's vast history, he observes a bewildering swirl of opposing forces—ancient and modern, Eastern and Western, hopeful and anxious, powerful and vulnerable, chaotic and creative—that informs his artistic heritage.

Listen to Sona Datta explain the significance of the body in Indian art

This quiet work explores the quality of exile that Ram Kumar identified as the basis of Indian experience. Kumar takes a stylistic cue from European modernist Amedeo Modigliani and adapts it to the realities of modern India. Here, he depicts the "Bengali Babu," the suited-and-booted brown "sahib" who had expected to find work in the colonial administration. Instead, these recent graduates found themselves suddenly without purpose at the advent of Independence.

Couple is indebted to the figurative traditions of the nineteenth-century Bengali Kalighat painters. Jogen Chowdhury's use of delicate pastels and cross-hatched ink lines evokes the Kalighat style, as does his satirical take on his subject matter. Couple was inspired by a contemporary news story about a middle-class Calcutta politician's affair with an unemployed woman. The distorted figures suggest corruption and an awkward sensuality.

The work of K. Laxma Goud celebrates the dignity of India's poorest laborers. Goud avoided idealized depictions in favor of honest ones that command our engagement. His early works suggest raw, unadulterated sexuality, which he believed found a natural and true expression in rural life, but had become complicated within India's expanding urban centers.

Goud slowly and meticulously built his figures from tiny marks made with the simplest of tools—a graphite pencil. He described drawing as being a "very pure" art and said that he wished to seduce his viewer with his line.

Even nonfigurative art retains undeniable traces of the artist's hand, as is evident in the powerful abstractions of Nasreen Mohamedi. Rather than adhering to the perfectly rigid patterns employed by Western modernist artists such as Kazimir Malevich or Carl Andre—to whom Mohamedi is often compared—she varies her marks ever so slightly, revealing her choices and decisions.

Rupture and Rebirth
After Independence, the former colonial cities of Bombay, Calcutta, and Delhi—now populated by independent citizens and their dreams—became new vistas for artists. As refugees from partition and those hoping to make their fortunes moved to urban centers, India's cities teemed with images of despair, progress, and hope. Many artists captured these disorienting scenes, and the new urban identities they helped to fashion, revealing how the spiritual and the drive toward modernity coexist in unexpected ways.

A native of Calcutta, Ganesh Pyne was deeply affected by Partition. Born in 1937, he witnessed the violence as a ten year old and recalled seeing piles of bodies in the streets as Calcutta burned. Melancholy went on to pervade all parts of his vision. His quiet and intimate portrait of a ragpicker is shrouded in layers of tempera that hang like a diaphanous veil over unspoken but deeply felt emotions.

During the mid-twentieth century, Calcutta (now Kolkata), once the grand capital of British India, was battered by a series of cataclysmic events. Political unrest, the Great Famine, religious riots, and Partition all ravaged the city and the surrounding region. Refugees flooded into the city from East Pakistan (later Bangladesh), their lives completely transformed in a matter of days.

"Beneath its everyday skin lies a vast alternate world; sometimes secret; sometimes blatant. Piercing the layers you encounter old mosaics and montages, a whole archaeology of the city and its inhabitants and immigrants."
—Nalini Malani

Malani was born in Karachi in 1946, but she and her family fled to India at Partition. Her work took on a new depth in the 1980s, when a simple problem of access forced her to switch from oil paint to watercolor. She uses the technique to explore the character of her adopted city of Bombay (now Mumbai); the layers of transparent pigment suggest what may lie beneath the city's architecture and inhabitants.

Like Pyne's Rag Picker, Mehta's barefooted, toiling Rickshaw Puller is a symbol of the burden of postcolonial urban existence, representing the endurance of suffering and poverty and the triumph of the human spirit. Balancing abstraction and figuration, Mehta accentuates the physicality of the driver by pushing the figure up against the picture plane and expressively exaggerating his hands and feet—the tools of his labor.

New Worlds
By the 1990s, the Indian art world had acquired a celebrity gloss boosted by an exploding art market. Artists working in the 1980s and 1990s, such as Atul Dodiya, Bhupen Khakhar, and Gieve Patel, questioned what it meant to be a modern Indian artist during a time of rising wealth and global ambitions that couldn't have felt more distant from the events of 1947.

Dodiya has merged his self-portrait with that of a Bollywood film star. In the 1990s, glitzy Bollywood romances gave way to deeper, neorealist films about Bombay's underworld Mafiosi. The work is branded with the familiar logo of Ralph Lauren's polo player (lower right). Further blending Eastern and Western influences, Dodiya has painted reflections of his own artistic heroes, David Hockney (left) and Bhupen Khakhar (right), in the lenses of his sunglasses.

Combining cinema, glamour, and consumerism, this work makes a bold and ironic statement about a "brave new India" and the confidence of its rising middle class.

Listen to Sona Datta talk about the 1990s

The internal lives of ordinary men are perennial subjects of Bhupen Khakhar's art. This self-portrait depicts him in the backseat of a taxi and commemorates his visit to New York City. The rain-soaked, cloudy skyline captures the dreary weather of the Northern Hemisphere. Khakhar was hungry to travel abroad, but as a self-taught artist, he was not eligible for international awards and scholarships. He made a virtue out of his own lack of training, however, by freely distorting the naturalism that was taught as standard in India's art schools, harnessing the flavor of Western Pop art to the compositional order of India's vernacular calendar art.

Like many artists of the previous generation, Gieve Patel considers the relationship between the human and the urban. Here, his two protagonists are the primary subjects of the composition, and yet the presence of the Gateway of India looming in the background draws our attention. The vast, empty space that lies between the figures and the Gateway seems impenetrable, evoking the difference that often exists between dreams and the harsh realities of urban life.

Located on the Arabian Sea in the city of Mumbai, the Gateway of India embodies India's complicated history: it is an enduring monument of the colonial past that is also a symbol of the modern nation's ambitions.

Bikash Bhattacharjee's Durga brims with what is not said, evoking the past and the present, the physical and the spiritual. The scene presents a festive crowd in Calcutta (now Kolkata) surging toward an image of the Hindu goddess Durga, who became an icon for the Independence movement in the late nineteenth century. The gaze of the middle-class Bengali woman who glances at us over her shoulder is at once beguiling and critical. Its directness disrupts the painting's illusion of naturalism and points to the contradictions and traditions embodied in modern Indian art.

Listen to Sona Datta discuss the alternative paths to modernity
The Collectors
Chester and Davida Herwitz lived in Worcester, Massachusetts, where Chester had single-handedly built a successful leather goods business. He and Davida stumbled upon modern Indian art almost by accident when they visited India in 1962. They were immediately seduced by its intoxicating mix of energy, color, and noise—qualities they found so different from life at home in the United States. In addition to being overwhelmed by India's long history, they engaged with the present moment, completely immersing themselves in the art world they encountered there.

Chester and Davida collected works that are hallmarks of India’s modern artistic heritage and emblems of India’s emergence as a vibrant, new, postcolonial country.

Relentless in their determination to showcase twentieth-century Indian art to the world, they amassed over 3,500 works in twenty-five years.

Listen to Sona Datta discuss Chester and Davida Herwitz and their collection

"This morning I made what I think is a real discovery about Contemporary Indian Art and as you might well imagine I am very excited. In thinking about Indian paintings, particularly those in my collection, what I think is common to most of the paintings has something to do with contradiction, conflict, duality, opposites, polarization, etc."
—Chester Herwitz

Credits: Story

Curated by Sona Datta, Curator of South Asian Art at the Peabody Essex Museum.

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