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5 Exhibitions That Left An Impact On Indian Art History

Evolving Ideas And Their Influence On Indian Art History

Art is constantly evolving due to exposure to new ideas and ideologies. Most people have heard of European art movements such as the Renaissance period, Impressionism, Post-modernism, etc. However, India too witnessed periods or movements that redefined the meaning and perception of art. Through the various stages of development, political and social aspects continued to impact Indian art history, creating a unique artistic voice for the country.

Artists are perpetually exploring the relationships between tradition and art, between method and the medium. Art exhibitions are a means through which the public can be exposed to new ideas instead of clinging to old belief systems.

Let’s explore the changes in mentality and art philosophy by exploring India’s art history through some of its most famous and influential exhibits.

1. The Bauhaus Exhibition (1922, Calcutta)

Rejecting Western Influence On Indian Art Forms

European standards heavily influenced Indian art and academia. Rabindranath Tagore, through his art school Kala Bhavan, tried to steer Indian art onto its own path in order to avoid becoming a European caricature. He found that the work of the artists of the Bauhaus movement in Germany echoed a similar sentiment: a desire to develop a style of creative expression free from the influence of Eurocentric ideals. Stella Kramrisch, an art historian and professor at Kala Bhavan, invited the Bauhaus to display their work alongside prominent Indian artists of the time.

The exhibition was divided into two groups, paintings by artists from the ‘Bengal School’ on the left side and Bauhaus artists on the right. The work of prominent Bauhaus artists like Wassily Kandinsky, Johannes Itten, and Lionel Feininger was a part of this exhibition. The Indian artists were all members of the Indian Society of Oriental Arts and painted in its distinctly Indian signature style with depictions of tradition and mythology.

Also read: A Guide to Art Movements in India

The Bauhaus Impact on Indian Art History

Why Calcutta? Without a doubt Rabindranath Tagore’s global reputation had a lot to do with it.

Art historian, Professor Partha Mitter

The ‘Bauhaus in Calcutta’ exhibition has been regarded as the entry point of modernism in India. It attracted many artists, art critics, writers, poets, important government officials, and people from all walks of life. It functioned as a dialogue between two distinct cultures; interacting, complimenting, and contrasting with each other to create an impactful exhibit. This exhibition also helped Indian artists break free from adherence to Western ideology and explore art through a traditional and cultural lens instead.

2. An Exhibition Of Indian Art (Burlington House, Rashtrapati Bhavan, 1947-48)

Displaying Indian Heritage To An International Audience

The ‘India through the Ages’ exhibition was held for three months at Burlington House, London, to reintroduce Indian art to the Western world. It attracted international attention, and word of the exhibition’s success created national curiosity about the artwork that was displayed. This led the Ministry of Education to exhibit the collection in India, titled, ’An Exhibition Of Indian Art’.

Indian Art History
Jain-style Saraswati Pata (image source: wikimediacommons.org)

It featured a wide range of art and archaeological objects, from sculptures and bronze artefacts of the Indus Valley and Gupta periods to Mughal, Pahari, and Rajasthani style paintings. These artefacts were sourced from various museums throughout the country to create a comprehensive display of a large part of Indian art history.

Its Impact On Indian Art History

National Museum, New Delhi (image source: rooftopapp.com)

The exhibition inspired several artists and created a sense of pride in the minds of the common people. Indians realised that their rich history and culture were something to be proud of. After viewing it, M.F. Hussain claimed that he had stumbled upon a visual synthesis of Eastern and Western art styles.

The success of this exhibition led to the realisation that such an extensive collection of artefacts should be used in the curation of a National Museum. Most of the individual contributors to the exhibits were contacted, including State Governments, museums, and private donors, and most of them responded favourably. The National Museum, New Delhi, was inaugurated in the Rashtrapati Bhawan on August 15, 1949. Thus, An Exhibition Of Indian Art directly contributed to the creation of this museum.

Also read: National Museum, New Delhi: Everything You Need to Know

3. Debut Of The Bombay Progressive Arts Group (1948)

Breaking Away From Pre-Independence Indian Art Styles

India gained independence in 1947, and the Bombay Progressive Arts Group was founded in the same year. F. N. Souza, S. H. Raza, and M. F. Husain were some of the artists who were a part of this movement. The P.A.G. wanted to move away from the British academic style of realism and the nationalist influence of the Bengal School of Art. They aimed to celebrate traditional Indian art by elevating it to international standards.

They displayed their first and only collection in 1948. Many of the members left the country shortly after, either due to personal reasons or after facing controversy. Police complaints were lodged against F.N Souza on counts of obscenity, due to the depiction of nude women in his paintings. Similarly, M.F Hussain was exiled after his paintings of naked gods and goddesses sparked public outrage.

Impact Of The Bombay Progressives on Indian Art History

Though short-lived, PAG revolutionised Indian art history by disrupting commonly accepted beliefs and moving away from mainstream interpretation. The members of this group took influence from Western art movements such as cubism, expression and post-expressionism, integrating them with Indian themes and techniques to create an art style that was vividly expressive and distinct. They empowered absolute freedom of expression and wanted to create a new visual language for modern India instead of holding on to obsolete depictions of strictly rural and traditional.

Also read: The rise of traditional Indian art globally

4. Debut Of Group 1890 (1963)

The Journey Into Abstraction And Modernism

Group 1890 was established in 1961 by a group of young male artists. Octavio Paz, a Mexican surrealist poet, was its mentor. The group held its first and only exhibition in 1963 at Lalit Kala Akademi, Rabindra Bhavan, Delhi. Although the collective did not continue activity as a group, individual members such as J Swaminathan, Jeram Patel, and Jyoti Bhatt went on to create a reputation for themselves. Other members who later faded into obscurity are now recognised for their contribution to modernism in Indian art.

Impact of Group 1890 On Indian Art History

The ideology of Group 1890 can be described as both progressive and rebellious, as its members strived to move away from the Bengal school’s traditional and sentimental ideals as well as the PAG’s Western-inspired artistic approach. President Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru inaugurated this exhibition. In his opening introduction to the exhibition, Octavio wrote that Group 1890 was not just the name of a group or exhibition, but rather a movement that desired to bring about change to Indian art as a whole.

Hospital series, Jeram Patel (image source: knma.in)

Group 1890 wanted to be free from the then-prevailing art ideologies and create a new one of their own. Their work inspired the next generation of Indian artists, including those that belonged to the Cholamanadalam School of Madras.

5. Place for People (1981)

Exploring Art As A Form Of Social Commentary

The Baroda art school brought about a change in attitudes as artists became more interested in the social and political aspects of their surroundings. Art became both a commentary and a reflection of daily life. A founding member of the Baroda Art School, K. G. Subramanyan believed that art should not be kept hidden but rather displayed in the public view.

The ‘Place for People’ exhibition in 1981 displayed this sentiment prominently. This exhibition saw art move away from the era of abstraction and become more personal, based on human relationships and people.

Impact of the Place For People On Indian Art History

Indian Art History
Guddo, Vivaan sundaram (image source: aaa.org)
Indian Art History
Train, Sudhir Patwardhan (image source: openthemagazine.com)

This exhibition displayed the work of six artists. These artists accepted local art forms, whether tribal or regional, and incorporated their influences into their work. Their work celebrated popular art styles and inspired artists to develop a ‘modern’ look while retaining Indian elements and reflecting contemporary culture.

The Importance Of Exhibitions On Indian Art Forms

Damayanti, Abanindranath Tagore (image source: wikimediacommons.org)
Indian Art History
‘About Waiting and Wandering’ by Gulam mohammed Sheikh (image source: thehindu.com)
Indian Art History
Kalighat painting from the 19th century (image source: wikipedia.org)

Indian Art underwent tremendous changes throughout the years post-independence. Art exhibitions were a way for artists to connect with the public, by creatively and artistically expressing public sentiment. We saw Indian art move away from traditional art forms completely, and then return to them full-circle. One takeaway from the progression of Indian art history is that folk and tribal art have continued to influence Indian artists and their art forms. This influence may be overt or subtle, often manifesting itself when the artist is exposed to traditional Indian art and heritage.

Today, artists continue to redefine art by re-analysing tradition through a contemporary lens. It is necessary to learn from the past- to study, absorb and assimilate it into our modern existence. Only then will we allow ourselves to succeed in the future, and to exist authentically, without artificial restraints inhibiting our creative expression.

How do we stay connected to the past? By exploring it, of course. Download the Rooftop App from GooglePlay or AppStore and enroll in our maestro courses to learn India’s traditional art forms.

Discover us on Instagram @rooftop_app for all things traditional, folk, and tribal Indian art.

By Melissa D’Mello

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