Modern Painting in India

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A unique style of painting known as “Company Paintings” developed during the 18th and 19th centuries, through a fusion of various Indian artistic elements with those of the European techniques.

These artworks, commissioned by British Company officials and produced by local artists, were a testament to the cultural exchange and mutual influence between India and Europe. They were characterised by the use of watercolours and techniques such as linear perspective and shading, marking a significant departure from traditional Indian painting.

Under British patronage, artists were engaged from different parts of India, particularly Calcutta (now Kolkatta), Delhi, and other places, to produce a series of paintings that could document in detail scenes of the Indians’ daily lives, besides fauna and flora. By the beginning of the 20th century, several art schools were established across the country, promoting Westernized elements in painting.

Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906) from Travancore, a pioneering figure in modern Indian painting, innovated a style that combined Indian traditional attire, jewellery, and regional aesthetics with Western art techniques. His works, often depicting scenes from Indian mythology and epics such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata, were a testament to his unique artistic vision. His painting ‘Nair Lady Adorning Her Hair’ (1873) won international acclaim, winning a gold medal at the World Art Exhibition in Vienna, and his influence on modern Indian painting cannot be overstated.

The Bengal School of Painting was later founded by Ernest Binfield Havell and Abanindranath Tagore, which marked a return to Indian themes inspired by Mughal miniatures and Rajasthani art. This school influenced a generation of artists to explore and innovate within the rich traditions of Indian art, fostering a revival of indigenous styles and themes in modern Indian painting.

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Abanindranath Tagore’s best-known painting, ‘Bharat Mata’, which was completed in 1905, depicted the growing nationalistic aspirations in the country at that time. ‘Arabian Nights’ series (1930), ‘Radha and Krishna’, ‘Black Girl’ and ‘Portrait of Dhira Devi’ are some of his renowned works. Tagore also attempted to establish links with the Japanese artists in order to evolve a Pan-Asian style of art. The Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore started painting in 1930 at the age of 67 and produced some very individualistic and modern paintings.

Nandlal Bose (1882–1966), a disciple of Abanindranath Tagore, created a unique style of painting in Kala Bhawan, Shantiniketan, by experimenting with and blending various techniques. He was greatly inspired by the Ajanta murals, and his favourite themes were village life, women, and mythological scenes. 

Jamini Roy, another renowned Indian painter, developed a new style based on the simple folk milieu of Bengal as a reaction to paintings of the Bengal School. He used village dyes in his paintings and adapted elements from the ‘patuas’ of Kalighat, such as the angular forms and harsh lines. Amrita Shergil was another acclaimed contemporary modern Indian painter greatly inspired by the Mughal miniatures and Ajanta murals. ‘Brahmacharis’, ‘Child Wife’ and ‘Preparing the Bride’ are some of her great works.

 

In 1947 a new school of art, known as the Progressive Artists’ Group, emerged in Mumbai, which transformed the contemporary art scene of India by their use of bold and progressive themes amalgamated with soft and magical ones. Francis Newton Souza was the founder of this group, while M.F.Husain, S.H.Raza, S.K.Bakre and H.A.Gade were other prominent members. Professional art galleries were opened in Delhi and Mumbai by 1960. In the course of the next two decades, several abstract painters like Balraj Khanna, V.S. Gaitonde and J.Swaminathan emerged on the scene. G.R. Santosh, Biren De and others presented the ‘Tantra Art’ on canvas in oils and acrylics.

India’s contemporary art scene boasts of prominent names like K.K.Hebber, S.H.Raza (‘Surya’), Bhupen Kakkar, Gulam Muhammed Sheikh, Akbar Padamsee (‘Woman’), Krishna Khanna (‘St Francis and the Wolf’), Tyeb Mehta (‘Figure with Bird’), Laxman Shrestha (‘Painting in Red’), Jeram Patel (‘Organic Black’), Navjote (‘Hope’), Jyoti Swaroop, Manjit Bawa and others. Southern India also produced great painters like K.C.S.Panicker, P.L.Narasimhamurty, K.Madhava Menon, Mokkapti Krishnamurti, G.Subramanyan, A.Ramachandran, Ganesh Pyne, Anjolie Ela Menon and others.

 

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