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Indian Artists: Promoting Art For Social Change

Indian Art For Social Change: a Medium to Highlight Current Issues

Art is the most preferred way to express emotions, narrate tales, or exhibit history in a creative format. Speaking of which, Indian art has often been a metaphor or symbol to highlight relevant issues over time. As we know, Indian art in various forms, like sculptures, wall paintings, architecture and engraved scriptures, has captured historic tales, beliefs and traditions. From colonial period to contemporary times, Indian art has been a medium to showcase one’s perception of social and political change or issues at hand.

Indian art can be mainly traced back to rock paintings that date to prehistoric times. Since early men were occupants of caves and heavily relied on nature for their basic means, their drawings revolved around those themes. Scenes of hunting, community-building and flora and fauna were depicted with either stick figures or geometrical dots and lines. One can possibly infer how the dots in a circle around one major motif signified a community revering a single entity as superior. Thus, this proves that humankind took to art to express their state of being.

How Indian Art Changed Its Narrative During Colonial Times

Image credit : Wikipedia

In spite of India being gifted with rich culture and heritage in terms of the arts, we were regarded as unskilled and unable to understand fine arts. Fine arts was seen as the superior understanding of art. The British were of the opinion that Indian artists did not possess the sensibility to appreciate it. But gradually, by the late 19th and mid 20th century, major cities like Calcutta, Bombay and Madras introduced nationalist art in their newly established art schools.

The first nationalist arts facility, Kala Bhavana, was a part of Visva-Bharati University in Shantiniketan. The school was a mix of nationalism and a modern approach towards Indian art. The then popular artists like Gaganendranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose, Benode Bihari Mukherjee and Ramkinkar Baij changed the narrative of Indian art and crafts during colonial times and used art to highlight social change.

Deriving Inspiration From Folk Art Traditions

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Benode Bihari Mukherjee focused on highlighting the spiritual and humane teachings by mediaeval saints like Tulsi Das and Kabir. Whereas the sculpture, Triumph of Labour by D. P Roy Chaudhary, at Marina Beach, Chennai, India, still stands with all its glory, depicting May Day. A day that commemorated labourers’ right and pledge to create their party. While academic art and Cubism have been one of Europe’s major art movements and also had an influence on Indian artists, there were other Indian artists who paved the other way and did not take keen interest in making art based on literary sources. 

Artists like Ramkinkar Baij derived their inspiration from the Santhal tribal community situated at the outskirts of Shantiniketan. Jamini Roy, inspired by Bengal folk art, used patterns and colours as village artists did.

Indian Art For Social Change: Post World War – II

Image credit : The Modern Indian Art book by NCERT

World War- II had its collateral damage on India. Still under colonisation, the outrageous famine in Bengal, poverty, and mass migration compelled the Indian artists to use their art to speak of social issues. Looking at the disturbing scenarios around them, artist Chittoprasad and Somanth Hore were specially called upon to sketch the villages majorly affected by Bengal Famine. In its true sense, Indian art was used to depict social change. The sketches were later published under the name Hungry Bengal.

Indian Art For Social Change: Post Independence 

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Post independence, Indian art gained access to modern techniques and ideas. In spite of the modernist style, the paintings revolved around Indian themes. The Progressive Artists’ Group was established with the intention to emphasise Indian art post the colonial era. “Bazaar art”, as the name suggests, was a hybrid form of commercial modern art for the people. During this time, Indian art became a means to express not only social change but also political developments.

Bharat Maa, freedom fighters and political leaders found their place in Indian art. “The Splendour That is India” by artist P.S Ramachandra Rao exhibited Mahatma Gandhi amongst the gods and deities indicating the unparalleled contribution of the father of nation for India’s independence. 

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Paintings with scriptures were made to make a greater impact. Like the one painted by Prabhu Dayal, “ Satyagraha- Yoga Sadhana” which illustrated the prominent leaders and highlighted the fact that there is no freedom without struggle on the path of discipline.

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One of the major struggles of 1947 was also the partition. Indian artists like Krishen Khanna, who grew up in Lahore, took to his canvas to narrate the plight of people during the partition, mainly revolving around women and children.

How Indian Art Helped to Highlight Social Issues Now

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India now faces diverse social and other relevant issues. In the wake of modernisation, digitisation and globalisation, developing India is struggling to find a balance between urban and rural India. The social and economic disparity within the regions of India is quite evident. As an aftermath of this, Indian artists used traditional art to highlight or create awareness about the social changes.

The best example being the Covid-19 pandemic, wherein most folk artists collectively worked towards highlighting social and economic changes, as well as their impact. Renowned Indian artist Kalyan Joshi used Phad art to exhibit the arduous journey of migrants and the plight of people during the pandemic. He also used folk art to create awareness about social distancing. On similar lines, Pattachitra artist Sonia Chitrakar, the Gond artist Mahesh Shyam also painted the effects of the pandemic to create awareness.

Image credit : (Warli art in Delhi as part of the second edition of St+art India and Asian Paints’)

Indian traditional art was used as a medium for the beautification of streets and buildings. It not only restored the beauty of the place but also spoke of the early occupants of it.

Indian art has always stood the test of time and expressed social changes. Learn such interesting Indian art forms on Rooftop. Download the app and get access to the Artwiki: a space to discover all about Indian art under one roof. Follow us at @rooftop_app on Instagram to learn more about Indian art culture and heritage.

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