Tracing back civilisations through image culture.
Raja Ravi Varma
Shakuntala by Raja Ravi Verma
Glow of Hope by S L Haldankar
Charanjit Singh (age 91)
Drawing of Guru Nanak Devji
Indian art briskly ranges across regions, religions, dynasties, mediums and genres, which is why international museums, art historians and authors in the last century years have meticulously documented and curated this substantial force in their presentations of its creativity.
The current climate of Indian art gallops down through its vast history, which is as old as civilisation itself. The art of painting in India dates back to ancient times, as is evident from the cave paintings of Ajanta and Ellora. They tell a story of an ancient civilisation, entwined in the history, religion and philosophy of the unfragmented subcontinent of yore, and continues to shed light on the greatness of our Indian culture.
Every major period of history has layered its newer modes of expression to Indian art. The art of Greater India spans across 5,000 years, and stretches from modern Afghanistan to Vietnam and from Nepal to Indonesia. A visit to the annual India Art Fair in New Delhi upholds these very same geographical influences by displaying art and installations from neighbouring countries like Nepal and Bangladesh. Now in its 10th year, the India Art Fair is a beacon for contemporary art in the South Asian region.
Amongst the crowd-pullers at the opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi in November 2017, was the 'Bindu' by S. H. Raza. As the first 'universal museum' in the Arab world with a focus on what unites mankind, the Louvre Abu Dhabi hosts a vast collection of Indian art to accentuate their dialogue. It includes miniature paintings from the 17th and 18th century, a royal dagger carved with mythical Hindu creatures (1600 to 1665 CE), a Buddha bust from the Gupta Empire 400 to 500 CE, gold coins from the Kushana Empire dating to first century AD, and a painting of the Burmese delegation at the Mughal court from Delhi.
In an attempt to grasp its choice of perspectives and thoughts - from the earliest primitive cave markings to stones of ancient art in the Vedic and Buddhist traditions, temples and Mughal miniatures - books and lists have been researched and compiled to demystify the story of Indian art spread over the millennia.
Apart from Mario Bussagli's book called 5000 years of the art of India, Sushma Bahl in 2012 published a splendid and thorough book called 5000 Years of Indian Art. Writers today invest time to compile lists of Indian folk art forms that have survived generations, and among them cite Madhubani, Phad, Tanjore, Miniature Paintings, Kalamkari, Gond, Warli, Cheriyal Scrolls and Kalighat Paintings. Each home and family have a place and value for art that becomes part of their own history. In 1963, for example, art enthusiast Charanjit Singh received a Sunday edition of an Urdu daily in which a portrait of Guru Nanak Dev Ji was printed. This portrait was drawn by a local artist among the people listening to Guruji in Baghdad and was kept in a famous museum in the city. He had drawn a pastel drawing of that picture, his brother got it framed and now it remains in their family home until today. Art, as they say, is ethereal and personal.
Singh, now 91 years old and whose work in art spans over 70 years, included Bindu among his list of masterpieces. The nonagenarian art enthusiast who reveres S.H. Raza admits, "He was one person I regret not having had a chance to meet. He was a great abstract painter, specially the Shunya theme." The first drawing Singh made was a pencil portrait of Tagore in 1945 during WW II, and recalls, "Incidentally, I did a painting in 1996 and he [Raza] has done the same one much later." Charanjit Singh who remembers the joy of being an action artist, shares his favourites: > Jamini Roy: "I love his art particularly his tribal and folk paintings." > Manishi Dey : "A master of detail, I love his line drawings; they are so perfect." > S.H. Raza : "Famous for his 'geometric' art, lived most of his life in Paris. Died there in 2016 at the age of 94." > Raja Ravi Varma : "Hailing from the royal family of erstwhile State of Travancore, an artist of realism who blended Indian art with a touch of European masters. It is said that once an art exhibition was being inaugurated by a dignitary who noticed a 'langoti' hanging in one corner. Annoyed, he poked his walking stick to push it away when he realised it was a painting by Ravi Varma." > Amrita Sher-Gill: "Pioneer of modern Indian art, she was one of the greatest avant-garde woman artists of early 20th century. She died in Lahore in 1941 at the young age of 28. She was the eldest of two daughters of Umrao Singh Sher-Gill (a well-known scholar of Sanskrit and Persian) and Marie Antoinette (a famous Hungarian opera singer who was a companion of Princess Bamba Sutherland, a granddaughter of Maharaja Ranjit Singh)." > Jagdish and Kamla Mittal: "Though artists in their own right, they are more famous as art lovers and have the world-famous Mittal Museum. They live in Hyderabad. Jagdish inaugurated the art exhibition of my daughter Meenu in Hyderabad in 1996." Writer Sanchari Pal included it among a list of 12 famous masterpieces that every Indian should recognise. Among the colonial and modern Indian art, she cites Horses by M. F. Husain, Krishna - Spring in Kulu 1930, Self Portraits by Amrita Sher-Gil and of Rabindranath Tagore, Bharat Mata by Abanindranath Tagore, and Shakuntala by Raja Ravi Verma. In a democratic move to share the joy of art to as many people as possible, the talent of street artists was summoned. Street Art in Hyderabad and Bengaluru is an initiative to bring art to the public from art galleries.
The first-ever street art festival was held in Delhi in 2014 and collectively, these festivals aim to break away from the restrictive nature of art in India. The transition came about after sensing that to a large extent, art may become the domain of the privileged and something that can only be appreciated by a small section of society.
While Hyderabad emerged as the Street Art capital of South India with graffiti collaborations and colourful drawings on buildings, the objective of 'St+Art' in Bengaluru was to enable artists to listen to, and interpret the city by being agents of its transformation and creating conversations around local stories.
Like gardens and parks, street art forwards the mission to brighten up public spaces in India. Particularly in the last 30 years, Indian art has surged to the fore because the global curiosity to discover and study our human civilisations is at its peak. Unraveling genealogies and sniffing through the scent trail of where we come from, lures people to look closely for answers. Indian art when in dance with the evolution of mankind is a process of discovery - much like an archaeologist manoeuvring within a cave, who raises a torch to get a closer look at what's inside, say, at the caves at Bhimbetka.
Drawing and painting frescoes on walls, like the depictions in the Ajanta Caves situated near Aurangabad in Maharashtra, for instance, was the norm in ancient times, and one must leverage that the breathtaking discovery of ancient caves are like treasured super bowls, carefully protected by time, while the art depictions upon its walls and upon walls of homes, museums, palaces, fairs and institutions collectively mean that truths about mankind are here to be revealed.
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