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The Art Hubs of India: Part III – Mumbai

A wall mural in Bandra, Mumbai. Source: Homegrown

Mumbai, the bustling metropolis on India’s west coast, is famously known as the financial capital of the country; but it is so much more than that. It’s a vibrant centre for artistic expression. This cosmopolitan city boasts a rich artistic heritage, having evolved from a colonial outpost to a leading art hub in India. This transformation that spans centuries is a rollercoaster of a story – of colonial influence, artistic rebellion, and a thriving contemporary scene.

Early Artistic Seeds: Colonial Encounters and the Raja Ravi Varma School

Mumbai’s artistic journey began in the 18th century under British rule. The colonial influence is evident in the early art scene, dominated by European styles like portraiture and landscape painting. Established in 1857, the Bombay School of Art became a key institution, focusing on Western academic traditions. Here, artists received training in life drawing and oil painting, a stark contrast to the indigenous art forms prevalent at the time. The early days of this school of art saw artists like L.N. Taskar who worked on landscapes with a narrative element, M.V. Dhurandhar who painted Indian myths, legends and historical incidents, and Pestonji Bomanji who portrayed both eminent personalities as well as common people. 

Raja Ravi Varma’s 1896 painting The Brave Kusumavati.
Image source: The Hindu

Raja Ravi Varma’s 1896 painting The Brave Kusumavati.

However, the seeds of a distinct Indian identity in art were also sown during this period. The famous Raja Ravi Varma, a prolific artist from Kerala, spent significant time in Bombay (as Mumbai was then called). His arrival in the mid-19th century marked a turning point. His paintings, depicting mythological and historical scenes in a blend of Western techniques and Indian aesthetics, sparked a nationalistic fervour in art. He incorporated vibrant colours, traditional costumes, and dramatic compositions, drawing inspiration from Indian mythology and epics. This “Raja Ravi Varma School” inspired a generation of artists, including Bombay-born artists like D.G. Ghulam Shaikh and Shiavax Chavda, who began to incorporate Indian themes and styles into their work, paving the way for a more distinct Indian voice in the art world.

The Progressive Artists’ Group of Mumbai

The 20th century witnessed a significant shift in Mumbai’s art scene. In 1919, the establishment of the Sir J.J. School of Art marked a turning point. This prestigious institution provided a platform for Indian artists to explore their own styles and narratives, moving beyond the rigid European academic traditions. The school offered training in various mediums like sculpture and printmaking, alongside painting, fostering a more diverse artistic environment. This spirit of exploration culminated in the formation of the Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG) in 1947 – the same year that India gained independence. 

The Founding Members of the Progressive Artists' Group (front row: F.N. Souza, K.H. Ara and H.A. Gade, back row: M.F. Husain, S.K. Bakre and S.H. Raza).
Image source: Expressions

The Founding Members of the Progressive Artists’ Group (front row: F.N. Souza, K.H. Ara and H.A. Gade, back row: M.F. Husain, S.K. Bakre and S.H. Raza).

The PAG, led by artists like K.H. Ara, M.F. Husain, F.N. Souza and S.H. Raza challenged the prevalent academic style and colonial influence that had dominated Indian art for so long. They embraced modern European movements like Cubism and Expressionism, reinterpreting them through an Indian lens. Their bold colours, distorted figures, and social commentary reflected a newly independent India grappling with its identity. The PAG’s work often addressed themes of social injustice, poverty, and political turmoil. Their exhibitions, often held in unconventional spaces like cafes and public halls, sparked controversy and debate, but also established a new direction for modern Indian art. The PAG’s influence, although short-lived, extended beyond Mumbai, inspiring artists across India to experiment and create art that spoke to the realities of their own time.

Post-Independence Boom: Galleries, Institutions, and the Rise of the Market 

The entrance to Jehangir Art Gallery, Mumbai.
Image source: Wikipedia

The entrance to Jehangir Art Gallery, Mumbai.

Post-independence, Mumbai witnessed a flourishing art scene. Galleries like Gallery Chemould, founded in 1963, played a pivotal role in showcasing and promoting the work of PAG artists and their successors. These galleries provided a platform for experimentation and international exposure. They actively curated exhibitions, published artist catalogues, and connected Indian artists with international audiences. Renowned institutions like the Jehangir Art Gallery, established in 1952, and the National Gallery of Modern Art, inaugurated in 1954, became vital spaces for exhibitions and public engagement with art. These institutions offered a platform for both established and emerging artists to showcase their work, attracting a wider audience to the visual arts.

A photograph taken at Christie’s first auction in India - Mumbai, 2013.
Image source: Hindustan Times

A photograph taken at Christie’s first auction in India – Mumbai, 2013.

The liberalisation of the Indian economy in the 1990s further fueled the growth of the art market. Auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s set foot in India, leading to a rise in art collector interest and increasing prices for established artists. This commercialization provided new opportunities for artists to gain recognition and financial support. Galleries could invest in showcasing their artists internationally, and artists could focus on their creative pursuits without financial constraints. However, this commercialization also sparked debates about the commodification of art and the pressure on artists to create works that appealed to the market.

The Role of Mumbai’s Financial Muscle

Mumbai’s position as India’s financial centre significantly bolsters its art scene. The presence of wealthy collectors and a thriving market creates opportunities for recognition and financial support for artists. This financial muscle empowers galleries and institutions to invest in exhibitions, artist residencies, and other initiatives that further strengthen the art ecosystem.

Galleries can showcase their artists internationally, participate in art fairs, and publish high-quality catalogues, all contributing to artist profiles and career development. Additionally, art collectors provide crucial financial backing, allowing Mumbai-based artists to focus on their creative pursuits without financial constraints. This backing fosters experimentation with new materials and techniques, pushing the boundaries of artistic expression.

The rise of international auction houses undoubtedly fueled the market and increased art prices which was speculated to have a negative effect on the kinds of subjects artists made work about. However, it’s important to recognize that Mumbai’s art scene extends beyond commercial galleries and high-profile auctions. A network of government grants, artist-run initiatives, and alternative funding sources also plays a vital role in nurturing artistic talent.

Artistic Rebellion: A Defining Force in Mumbai’s Art Scene 

Mumbai’s artistic spirit is not solely driven by financial gain. The city has a history of challenging the status quo, evident in the formation of the PAG and their bold artistic expression. This rebellious spirit continues to motivate contemporary artists in Mumbai to push boundaries, experiment with new forms, and engage with social and political issues.

This spirit of artistic dissent manifests in various ways in Mumbai. Reena Saini Kallat, for instance, uses drawing, photography, sculpture and video to explore subjects like memory and migration. Similarly, Shilpa Gupta makes politically charged work that brings up questions of identity and power structures, with medium no bound. Mumbai’s street art scene thrives on this same energy. Tyler, a prolific street artist often referred to as ‘ the Banksy of India’, uses stencils and murals to address political issues and social inequalities. Another prominent figure is Jas Charanjiva, a street artist whose work frequently challenges societal norms and celebrates the strength of women These artists, along with countless others, push boundaries and spark conversations through their thought-provoking works.

Tyler’s piece titled ‘Tug of War’.
Image source: Vice

Tyler’s piece titled ‘Tug of War’.

This rebellious streak extends beyond the canvas. Independent art spaces like Harkat Studio and Project 88 provide platforms for experimentation and critique, fostering a sense of artistic freedom in Mumbai. These spaces often host artist talks and workshops that challenge traditional notions of art and encourage dialogue on critical issues. Additionally, Mumbai’s vibrant cultural scene, with its mix of music, theatre, and literature, provides a fertile ground for interdisciplinary collaborations. Artists often work together across disciplines, pushing the boundaries of artistic expression and challenging established norms.

This spirit of rebellion ensures that Mumbai’s art scene remains dynamic and relevant. It compels artists to engage with the complexities of contemporary India, sparking conversations about social issues, political realities, and the human condition. This artistic rebellion is a defining force in Mumbai’s art scene, constantly evolving and shaping the artistic landscape of the city.

Today’s Mumbai: A Thriving Contemporary Scene of Diversity, Experimentation, and Global Recognition 

Global Recognition 

Today, Mumbai’s art scene is a vibrant tapestry of diverse styles, mediums, and artistic voices. From established masters to young, experimental artists, the city nurtures a wide range of artistic expressions. Street art and independent experimental spaces especially provide platforms for emerging artists to showcase their work and experiment with new forms. These spaces foster a sense of community and dialogue not only between artists but within the art scene as a whole. 

Moreover, Mumbai has also become a hub for international art events, attracting galleries and collectors from around the world. International art institutions like the British Council and the Goethe-Institut host exhibitions and workshops in Mumbai, fostering cultural exchange and exposure to diverse artistic practices. Artists from diverse backgrounds find a home in the city’s art schools and studios, contributing to a rich artistic dialogue. This global recognition has cemented Mumbai’s position as a leading centre for contemporary Indian art.

Written by Lakshmi Nagaraj, an independent mixed-media artist and arts professional working towards pushing the boundaries of art practices and including marginalised voices while doing so. 

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