Indian Painters And Their Impact On Society
Art is subjective and thus cannot be judged objectively. Creative interpretations meet innovative visual expressions to produce art that is considered ‘good’. Technical skills aren’t enough; as an artist, you must combine style with meaning. The most prominent Indian painters were those who made art a means of change. They introduced new ideologies to the public and shaped society’s notions of what ‘art’ ought to be.
Rooftop brings you a list of Indian painters who challenged precedents and created a unique artistic voice through their vision.
1. Abanindranath Tagore: The Revivalist Of Indian Painters
Abanindranath Tagore was an eminent Indian artist who founded the Bengal School of Art. Abanindranth defied the Western art ideologies accepted by other Indian painters. At the Calcutta School Of Art, Abanindranath learned advanced oil painting techniques from Charles Palmer as well as how to use pastels from O. Ghilardi. He also learned European painting techniques in detail and developed an interest in watercolour.
Abanindranath took inspiration from the Ajanta cave paintings as well as the Mughal and Rajput art styles. He believed that western art was ‘materialistic’ and that returning to Indian spiritualism would give paintings more soul and substance. Tagore followed traditional Indian painting techniques. He depicted themes of Indian mythology, philosophy, and traditional art styles.
His status as one of the most prominent Indian painters of the time led him to meet many foreign dignitaries, such as Yokoyama Taikan, a famous Japanese painter, and Okakura Kakuzo, a Japanese art historian and critic. He used Chinese and Japanese calligraphic styles in his later paintings, which suggests that meeting like-minded Eastern artists may have strengthened his beliefs.
2. Nirode Mazumdar (1916–1982): Forgotten Indian Painters Of The 19th Century
Nirode studied at the Bengal School of Art under the guidance of Abanindranath Tagore. In the beginning, he agreed with the ideals of the Bengal school: that Indian art needed to retain elements of traditional painting in order to maintain its ‘Indianness’. By the time he finished his studies, he had rebelled against this ideology. Mazumdar received a scholarship from the French government to study engraving techniques in Paris, and later worked in London as well. He was one of the founders of the Calcutta group- young artists that rejected mainstream art sensibilities and drew inspiration from the social and political conditions of the time.
Unfortunately, his legacy is overshadowed by that of other prominent Indian painters. The knowledge of most of his work was confined to Mumbai and Calcutta, due to several reasons. In 1958, he destroyed most of his earlier paintings, and completely withdrew from the public eye a few years before his death. His paintings were surprisingly controversial among critics and fellow artists, and unknown to those who were not actively involved in the Indian modern art movement.
Nirode painted on large canvases, often exploring a single theme in his paintings. He thoroughly thought and researched before even beginning a painting. To him, art was less intuitive and more intellectual—technical expertise needed to be combined with conceptual interpretation. His work shows the influence of movements like Fauvism, Cubism, and Abstract Expressionism.
Heavy linework, Tantric themes, and a penchant for geometric visualisation gave his art a strong impression. His work was thought to be both historically rooted and contemporary. His use of ‘constructive symbolism’ and serious exploration of spirituality through modernism made him well-known among his contemporaries.
3. Jagdish Swaminathan (1928–1994): Guiding Indian Painters Towards Modernist Discourse
J. Swaminathan was one of the founding members of Group 1890, a short-lived yet profound art movement. He was initially a journalist and worked as the editor of Mazdoor Awaz magazine. He later studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. Swaminathan discovered the artist Jangarh Singh Shyam, the first Gond artist to gain international recognition, and Bhuri Bai, the first Bhil artist to do the same. Jagdish actively worked for the recognition of artists practising tribal art forms such as Bhil and Gond.
Jagdish Swaminathan was one of the first Indian painters to blend traditional Indian methods with modern art. He expressed a deliberate rejection of nationalist identity and local art movements through his early geometric brush paintings. He was inspired by the bright colours and geometric forms of the Pahari School of Art.
Swaminathan used bold and bright colour fields and veered towards the abstract representation of popular local and cultural motifs. To him, the ‘spiritual heart’ of a painting was very important. He considered the Bengal school’s ideologies to be too idealistic and European modern art to be too rigid. His Modernist paintings are replete with motifs of folk and tribal origin.
4. F.N Souza (1924–2002): One Of The Most Controversial Indian Painters
Francis Newton Souza was one of the founding members of The Progressive Artists Group of Bombay. He was born in Goa and later moved to Mumbai with his family. Souza was the subject of scandal from an early age, having been expelled from college twice. He frequently found himself in trouble with the Indian police due to his paintings being deemed ‘vulgar’ and ‘indecent’. Much later in life, he was excommunicated from the Catholic Church.
His work was strong but not dynamic. Souza made several paintings directly referencing Christian imagery and the Catholic Church. His ‘black paintings’ are especially famous for their evocative and violent suggestions of sensuality. He later painted several watercolour paintings of the Goan landscape and poverty in rural India. Souza’s signature style was a blend of Eastern and Western. Female nudes, religion, landscapes and scenery were motifs that featured throughout his work. His reputation degraded in his later years due to repeated affairs, scandals, and drinking problems.
5. Nalini Malani (1946-present): Bringing Female Indian Painters To The Forefront
Nalini Malani is an artist who incorporates theatre, videos, and art installations with traditional mixed media painting. She studied Fine Art at the J.J. School of Art. Art worked with photography and film after graduation and explored the political and social environment of Indian society through her work. She was a part of the 1981 exhibition ‘A Place For People’, which explored human relationships and social issues.
Nalini uses acrylic, oil paints, and watercolour in her traditional work. She was one of the first Indian painters to transition to mixed media and digital techniques, which allowed her work to become increasingly relevant in recent times. She uses a plethora of techniques such as stop motion, digital animation, puppets and shadow shows and video to create art that is as immersive as it is unconventional.
We see the use of rapid brushstrokes in her paintings as well as the reverse painting technique. Strong and sidelined feminine figures are also prominently displayed in her work through use of Hindu and Greek female characters such as Sita, Medea, Cassandra, etc.
Indian Painters And The Evolution Of Artistic Ideologies
As Indian art underwent new phases and developments, the artists continued to innovate new methods and ideologies. Though radically different in techniques and beliefs, these five Indian painters have played a significant role in the shaping of India’s art history. Art has a direct impact on society’s progress. Indian painters continue to blend modern and traditional, Indian and Western, to preserve our heritage while staying connected to current trends.
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By Melissa D’Mello