When founding the site Critical Collective (2011), respected curator and critic Gayatri Sinha condemned the state of art history in India: “The current scenario in writing visual arts is bleak… few new studies or anthologies have been commissioned.” This gaping void has partly found its filler 20th century Indian artmain volume, which has been created for 14 years.
This huge publication was slowly created by Indian art history experts Partha Miter, Parul Dave Mukherjee and Rakhi Balaram. Divided into three chronological sections, as indicated in the subtitle and each observed by one of the respective editors, the book goes through more than 100 years of Indian art, outlining its transformation from the late 19th century through the decolonization of the country to the present day. . The complexity of the task is embodied in its form. The essays are complemented by short pieces of information kept in highlighted boxes, with an epilogue of interviews with artists and critics added as a good measure.
Everyone speaks for themselves in a deliberately disordered choir that enjoys the mess of storytelling
In design, it resembles a textbook – the font wraps around more than 600 images – but in his polyphony of collaborators, he acquires the mask of an anthology. Without the “main voice” narrative that art historians are accustomed to, or a timeline or, in fact, a map, the book is a raging mass of voices. This is the written equivalent of a town hall meeting. Everyone has their say in a deliberately disordered choir that enjoys the mess of storytelling. Eighty authors have contributed micro-stories designed to highlight the multifaceted nature of art in a subcontinent charged with linguistic, religious and geographical diversity and its diaspora.
This is a forensic approach that tramples the whole “canon”. And this revisionism emphasizes the reciprocity between the worlds of art (at times) and the smoothness of aesthetic exchange. Artists such as SH Raza, one of the founders of the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group in 1947, moved to France; Chinese artist Xu Beihong spent a year in India; in 1975, Robert Rauschenberg visited Ahmedabad as his residence (and his cunning hosts made sure that his signature was on everything he touched); artist, designer and socialist activist William Morris wrote extensively about India in an attempt to revive British crafts in the 19th century; and Francesco Clemente has collaborated with unnamed artists in Odisha and miniature apprentices in Jaipur. The book consistently establishes the error in the firmly held belief that all art outside the West is a derivative.
Beyond global marginalization, volume is struggling with internal blind spots. Chapters on the art, folk traditions and crafts of Assam are aware of the tendency to isolate these forms from the art history of India. There are gaps in a task with such ambition. The study chapter Dalit (hitherto untouchable) art does little to consider how the caste has stratified and continues to shape access to the world of commercial art. And he ignores the current avant-garde of artists such as Kirtika Cain, Sajan Mani and Amol Patil, whose practices look at where strength is. Other discussions, in a similar way, feel outdated. Where, for example, is the new generation of photographers like Sohrab Hura or the inventive textile artist Monica Korea?
However, this is the history of art in its most convenient and maze. “The water needs to be clouded,” Dave Mukherjee said at the book’s presentation at the Indian Art Fair in April. As radical as it may seem, getting lost in the tangle of time and dense information is the book’s desire and is inherent in its design.
Partha Miter, Parul Dave Mukherjee, Rakhi Balaram, 20th century Indian art: modern, post-independence, contemporaryThames & Hudson, 744 pages, 621 color illustrations, £ 85 (hb), published April 14
• Cleo Roberts-Comiredi is a writer and lecturer of contemporary art in South and Southeast Asia