[This is the second and concluding part of the conversation between R. Sivakumar and Parvez Kabir on art practice and its history.]
1. Shiv da, in our last conversation you have told us about the role Santiniketan has in defining your works and thought. Let’s begin this conversation with the opposite idea; on the role your 1997 NGMA curation, ‘Santiniketan: Making of a Contextual Modernism’ had in defining the place of Santiniketan in the history of Modern Indian Art. If I am not wrong, you are the first Art Historian to present Santiniketan as a movement rather than a school. What are the reasons for such a reading?
R.S.K.: I had been looking at and studying the work of the Santiniketan masters and thinking about their approach to art since the early 80s. The more I looked at them the more it became clear that the practice of subsuming them under the Bengal School was misleading. This happened because early writers were guided by genealogies of apprenticeship rather than their styles, worldviews, and perspectives on art practice. Although this became clear to me early in my study, I did not put my thoughts together until I was asked to curate an exhibition for the NGMA. It was one of the several exhibitions they had planned to mark the 50th year of independence and one of the very few that actually was realised. It gave me a chance to put my reading to test by presenting it in the form of a curated exhibition rather than as an inadequately illustrated text. Luckily many of the interested viewers responded to it positively and many thought that they had overlooked Santiniketan’s contribution not having seen it in any strength.
But it would not be entirely true to say I was the first to present Santiniketan practice as a separate art movement rather than as a sub-group within the Bengal School. Benodebehari and K.G.Subramanyan had at least implicitly argued for such a disjunction. May be I was the first to argue for such a disjunction more directly. Putting the works of the major Santiniketan artists together and presenting their work in fairly large numbers also should have helped the viewers in gaining a clear and comprehensive picture of their achievements and differences. More significantly, having put to rest the 40s and 50s attempt to dock onto internationalist modernism, it perhaps simply came at a time the Indian art scene was more prepared to respond to the kind of art the Santiniketan artists had produced and its underlying perceptions.
I am not sure, however, if everyone noticed the distinction I drew between Santiniketan as an art movement and Santiniketan as a school very clearly. There was both a Santiketan movement and a Santiniketan school, but these are two different things. The movement was shaped by the practices of the masters, chiefly Nandalal, Benodebehari, Ramkinkar and Rabindranath. Their art practices were interrelated but did not stylistically converge. They were linked more by concerns and as participants in a discourse to which each contributed in a different manner. They themselves saw this very clearly but many who wrote about them did not. They either plumped for Nandalal and Benodebehari, or for Ramkinkar and Rabindranath; one pair representing a traditionalist position and the other a modernist position. I am not suggesting that there are no differences between them but that they saw themselves as co-authors of an art scene being essayed around shared issues, complementing each other and expanding their concerns and reach rather than at war with each other.
Nandalal acknowledged Benodebehari and Ramkinkar as artists of the first order among his students; they in turn saw him as a seminal mentor. Rabindranath too valued Nandalal’s evaluation of his work and declared when his paintings were well received in the West that the art of Santiniketan was getting recognized. Their regard for each other should not be mistaken as mere courtesy shown towards each other as denizens of a civilized community. They were at least as clever as those of us who see them as divided into conservatives and moderns and were not blind to the differences between them. They saw each other as necessary fellow travellers who collectively enriched the scene, and believed that a tradition is built upon differential evolution rather on unmitigated sameness.
A movement always allows more latitude than a school. The Renaissance allowed Giotto and Cimabue, Masaccio and Fra Angelico, Botticelli and Piero della Francesca, and Leonardo, and Michelangelo and Raphael and Titian to co-exist and define a trajectory guided by a community of shared but variable values. A school on the other hand lasts only as long as similarities count more than shifts. One is founded on ideas and is held together by evolution; the other by the specificities of studio practices and beaks down as soon as these change. Thus the schools of Perugino and early Raphael, Giorgione and early Titian lasted only as long as Raphael and Titian upheld the studio practices of their masters. A movement is based on engagement with ideas or issues; a school is based on the perpetuation of a style.
Santiniketan like the Renaissance was a movement with schools within it. But unlike in the Renaissance the issues that exercised them were not primarily aesthetic or limited to the issue of art language though these were very important. They were more exercised about the relation of art to cultural antecedents and of art to its time and place, to its historical and ecological location. While in the Renaissance the artists subsumed their other interests to issues of language in Santiniketan it was the opposite. This perhaps had much to do with the different historical contexts within which they evolved. Nandalal was the leader of both a movement and a school. And how the two interweaved is something that waits to be studied. And in that sense the larger history of Santiniketan remains to be written.
2. The exhibition title, ‘Making of a Contextual Modernism’ itself is quite fascinating. My question may appear quite naïve, but are you saying that all modernist programs are not contextual enough and that some are more context sensitive than others?
R.S.K.: In a sense, yes. But this needs to be explained a little. I am of course not suggesting that every other modernist programme was ahistorical; that they were not products of their time and place, or that they were not shaped by social conditions and so on. What I am trying to emphasize is that the Santiniketan artists saw one’s modernism as constituted by one’s context both historical and physical. You might argue that the difference I am suggesting is not absolute, but relative. However, a comparison with the art practices that immediately preceded and succeeded it would show up differences that make it more context sensitive than the rest.
To the academic artists of the 19th and early 20th centuries modernism was more a matter of technology, the use of oil paints and the conventions of post Renaissance representational realism. Even when the subjects they painted were Indian, the categories or genres these fell into – history, portraits, and occasionally landscape – were part of the value system they adopted along with the technique. To them the nature of modernism then was both technological and trans-local. The artists of the Bengal school in reaction to this tried to marry indigenous subject matter with indigenous style. We might have disagreements about how indigenous or revivalist this was but this surely made them even more historicist in orientation. Their modernism was then a form of indigenous neo-classicism, a new art that invoked the art of their ancestors.
The progressive artists of the 40s saw this as essentially anti-modernist. Traces of local life can be seen in their work especially their early work, but what made them modern was their engagement with the formal principles of Western modernism. In their hands, modernism once again was trans-national.
It is in contrast to these that I would argue that art produced at Santiniketan was more context sensitive. They did not believe that to be indigenous one has to be historicist either in theme or in style, and similarly to be modern one has to adopt a particular trans-national formal language or technique. Modernism was to them neither a style nor a form of internationalism. It was critical re-engagement with the foundational aspects of art necessitated by changes in one’s unique historical position. Even though cross-cultural contacts were crucial to the development of modernism and cross-cultural contacts having paved the way to the dismantling of art traditions at large made modernism, unlike any other period in art history, international in its scope, to them art produced in one place did not have to look like art produced elsewhere.
If colonialism brought the West into contact with the rest of the world, the coloniser and the colonised experienced it from two sides and responded to it differently. I do not mean just politically. On either side, it produced a cultural cleavage, led them to question their respective traditions, and made them open up to other cultures, other possibilities. However, it did not wipe out their history, their cultures, the differences of life-experience, and it was not necessary that it should also make their art similar. To them modernism sprang from the new situation one found oneself in – politically, culturally, and environmentally – and how one responded it. Modernism was for them not homogenous but generic.
This was not unusual; although the way in which the history of modern art is written about, or was written about until recently, make it looks so. We only have to consider the case of modern literature. Cross-cultural interaction and engagement with the local went hand in hand in the shaping of modern literature. Moreover, it is widely recognized that modern literature was shaped by contributions of writers from different parts of the world. Compared to this the history of modern art is almost entirely seen as a product of the Western world. The Santiniketan artists were one of the first who consciously challenged this idea of modernism by opting out of both internationalist modernism and historicist indigenousness and trying to create a context sensitive modernism.
3.You also co-curated another important show:’ Tryst with Destiny: Art from Modern India [1947-97] in Singapore in the same year. Can you tell us something more about that exhibition?
R.S.K.: This was another exhibition commissioned to mark 50 years of Indian independence. It presented not one particular aspect but an overview of Modern Indian art since Independence. Since Mrs Rakhi Sarkar of CIMA, who co-organised it with the Singapore Art Museum, and I selected the works jointly, it reflected both our perspectives. We agreed on most of the artists included in the show; however, some were added by her and reflected her interests. I advised on the works to be sourced and wherever possible they were included. Our aim was to select works that was representative of both the individual artist the art scene. And since I couldn’t make it to Singapore the presentation was designed and hung by Ms Karen Lim of SAM and Mrs Sarkar.
It was primarily meant for the Singapore viewers and this was the first major exhibition of Indian art in that country so it was consciously designed to give them a synoptic view of the Indian art scene of the last fifty years. It was in a way a part of the 90s initiative to establish cultural contacts between Asian countries. And I think it succeeded in bringing Indian art into focus in Singapore. Other exhibitions followed it and Indian galleries began to open shop in Singapore.
Although a beginning was made in the 90s to study the modernisms of Asia in relation to each other rather than each individually in relation to West the contacts have been so far very sporadic. There have been occasional seminars and a couple of books have come out but there are no in-depth comparative studies yet. Emerging in the aftermath of colonisation, Asian modernisms displayed certain similarities in their initial years. But subsequently their native sensibilities began to play a greater role in the way they responded to certain aspects of modernism. An exhibition like Cubism in Asia demonstrated that the reception of even a particular style or movement like cubism was varied and culturally nuanced rather than uniform.
While Asian response to cubism can be traced to the 20s, Japanese artists of the 30s alone produced works that were closely similar to the work of the French cubists. Incidentally cubism entered China about the same time through the work of the artists associated with the New Woodcut Movement, and in tandem with revolutionary themes. In many other places it was adapted in conjunction with expressionism or decorative abstraction during a second wave of cubist influence during the 40s and 50s that broadly coincided with the beginnings of the post colonial phase in Asian countries. During this phase the influence of cubist became subsumed under post-cubist humanism, interestingly beginning with Japan where a more formalist kind of cubism was practiced during the 30s.
So Asian modernisms are context bound, and presentations of our modernisms should be, I believe, able to contribute to the unravelling of this under explored part of our regional history.
4. Coming back to your works on the Santiniketan masters, you have written several articles on Nandalal, and also have been a curatorial advisor to the recently published volume on the artist: ‘Rhythms of India: The Art of Nandalal Bose’. However, we still feel that Nandalal is a much misunderstood master. The majority among art historians see him either as a Bengal school champion or as a traditionalist pedagogue. His brilliance as an ‘inventor-executor’ of multiple linguistic modes is often taken as a lack of stylistic integrity. What are your thoughts on this problem?
R.S.K.: The problem, as I have mentioned, is that we still judge things by certain received ideas. Anyone with an interest in local cultural antecedents is construed as a nationalist, all nationalists are seen as revivalists, and all art that is informed by an understanding of the past is thought of as one kind and so on. In this context the Bengal School became an umbrella term for everything that was done between Ravi Varma and the Bombay Progressive Group. The few honourable exceptions like Gaganendranath, Shergill and Rabindranath were seen as artists who were informed of modern Western developments and anticipated the true modernism of the Progressives. For all the developments in art history, we are still largely governed by the Western idea of modernism, and we still think that it is unitary, and essentially a unique sequence of styles rather than an attitude or approach to culture and the world.
Seen in this way Nandalal is read as a nationalist and a traditionalist. He was an artist who was exercised about the whole scene not with his own personal practice alone. Nandalal began his career at a time when the Indian art scene was lean. To Ravi Varma only work that fell within a certain range of realism was art, the artists of the Bengal school replaced it with a so-called Indian style but that was also equally limited. All great traditions, Nandalal realised, was nurtured by a broad spectrum of language and not by a lean style, and that for a real cultural resurgence we needed an art scene with a large spectrum of language and function. He set himself to build this as an artist and teacher. Not only working at multiple levels and with varied conventions but also analysing their linguistic rationale for the benefit of his students. In this, he was not different from Paul Klee for instance; only their contexts were different.
Nandalal subsumed expression under communication. Each communicational function required a different linguistic inflection and conversely each linguistic idiom had a different communicational felicity. Thus, he conceived different art traditions or conventions as fulfilling different expressive and communicational needs. While this helped differently skilled students to find a place within a large cultural/communicational spectrum, it encouraged the more talented among them to be creative at many levels. To achieve this in his own career he had to put language over style. In modern art style being signature and an index of the artist’s individuality, not altogether wrongly, this was misconstrued in Nandalal’s case as an absence of individuality. Although style reflects individual sensibility in certain cases in others it is an artist’s concerns that reflects his or her individuality. An artist whose concerns and communicational needs are large as in the case of Nandalal, or one’s emotional responses are varied and shifting as in the case of Picasso, might embrace stylistic diversity precisely for a fuller expression of one’s individuality. Therefore, I would argue that artists like Nandalal and Picasso construe and express their individuality differently from artists like Abanindranath or Modigliani.
There is also another unacknowledged side to Nandalal’s contribution to our understanding of Indian art. Although he wrote little and it cannot be called art historical, he was one of the most perceptive interpreters of traditional Indian art. Perhaps his reading of tradition as a hierarchy of visual language came from his early interactions with Coomaraswamy, but he carried it forward and gave his students a linguistic and structural understanding of Indian art. As a practicing artist and teacher he demonstrated an understanding of Indian art that was as insightful as that of Coomaraswamy and Kramrisch. This makes him an unacknowledged but significant contributor to the study of Indian art. Benodebehari, Ramkinkar, Subramanyan and Ramachandran have all benefited from this. Such an understanding is also reflected in the writings of Benodebehari, Subramanyan and Gulam Sheik.
5. Do you think this misunderstanding has its roots in the high modernist image of an artist who expresses his ‘Self’ through his art; rather than the skilled craftsman who produces quality works of different kind? If so, do you think the newly emerging image of the ‘artist-designer’ in the West will help us in re-evaluating Nandalal’s works?
The modern idea of the artist as one who expresses his ‘self’ is a little muddled. It carries a lot of post-romanticist baggage. It construes the ‘self’ as the subjective and emotional responses of the artist, a kind of inner reality, which separates him from the world. Taking a step further, this inner reality is construed as something that the artist is not fully conscious of, for at least a part of it, and a significant part of it, remains repressed. Therefore, he cannot know himself fully but he can tap this inner ‘self’ and even externalise it by letting it ooze out as sap or pus. Style and expressionist style in particular, therefore, is the principal token of self-expressionism under modernism, a sign of the artist’s authenticity.
I am not rebuffing the idea of individuality, but its rather limited understanding in a lot of modernist art writing. Our individual sensibilities matter but it is formed in contact with the world, and our ideas, understanding and concerns, as much as our emotional responses, shape our individual selves. Our conscious endeavours define us as much as our subliminal drives. One is as true as the other is. So then why should we define the ‘self’ in this limiting fashion?
Professional hacks who lend their skills to realise a brief to which they are not ideologically or emotionally committed are perhaps the only artists who do not give expression to their ‘self’ in one-way or the other. Anyhow the point is not so much about artists and craftsmen; there might be some difference between them in our times but this was not always so, the more fundamental difference is between societies that value adherence to tradition and others that privilege innovation. In certain periods the difference was much less than in our times. The difference between artisans and artists should have been thin during the Gothic period, even during the Renaissance it was much less than today. Many of the individual masters of the Renaissance grew out of workshops that also produced others who conserved traditions more than innovate and individualise practices.
Craftsmen were not always conformist, they too displayed an urge for experiment and innovation, and when they did this they became artists. In the past traditions evolved like this and traditions allowed space for this. Someone like Benodebehari who was initially sceptical about Nandalal’s vision of craft and art as connect panorama of skills and practices changed his opinion when he came across Kulasundr Shilakarmi, a traditional artisan who was not bound by canons and was sensitive and open to innovation. This not only changed his opinion about medieval craftsmen but also his attitude to art teaching.
Now that artist-designers are gaining ground in the West, we may also rehabilitate Nandalal but if we were independent in our thinking, we did not have to wait for that to happen.
6. The second most discussed master, Benodebehari Mukherjee, has not been subjected to such misunderstandings, thankfully. You too, have highlighted his glittering, as well as brooding singularity in your writings. Did you ever feel that the weight of his personality sometimes tends to obscure our understanding of his works? I am particularly concerned about the whole mythology around vision and blindness with regards to his work.
R.S.K.: His congenitally impaired vision and later blindness are facts, and they had a certain influence on his art. You might romanticize it, or make him something of a curiosity but that is bad art history. As an artist he belonged to the main stream and made a very important contribution to it. We are interested in him for the quality of work he produced and its place in the history of modern Indian art, just as we are interested in Beethoven not because he went deaf but because of the music he composed and its place in the history of Western music.
We can only speculate about what impact his impaired vision had on his personality and if it left a shadow on his work. We are on surer ground when we enquire into how his vision influenced his approach to representation and how it adds to our understanding of the issues involved in perception and representation. I believe serious writers on his art have not allowed the first to overshadow their enquiry into the latter. In his early work, for instance, he tried to marry details observed from close with broad shapes perceived from distance. Beginning in the 40s, we see him calligraphically inscribing forms apprehended through touch and internalised as modules. This brings a palpability and broadness not only to his forms but also to his rendering of space. He moved from there to a sort of post-cubist rendering of form and space as interchangeable elements of a scene brought into existence simultaneously by structurally conceived stokes and patches of colour.
The shifts in his representational methods might have been partially necessitated by his failing vision, but its significance for his viewers is not contingent upon it. And his images are about our shared world. This is so even in Kattamosai where he recounts his post-blindness experiences. It is not about a blind-man’s inner world but about his attempts to negotiate the material world he shares with us and the sensory insights into it he gains in that process. Using these insights, as an artist he paints for the visually enabled and engages us in a dialogue about the world and our perception of it. Somewhere Van Gogh talks of disease being a vehicle to God. Just as someone can turn disease into a vehicle for knowing God, Benodebehari turned his failing eyesight into a tool for an exploration into the perception and representation of the world.
Kattamosai apart, blindness is not thematically invoked in his oeuvre. And while it might be pertinent to our study of his representational methods it is not relevant to the thematic study of his oeuvre. I hope my own writings do not give you an opposite impression.
7. In the Benodebehari centenary seminar in Santiniketan, back in 2004, you presented a paper where you argued that Benodebehari’s scrolls initiate a move away from representing ‘landscapes’ to the representation of ‘land’ itself. To my mind, that was a very original argument. Can you elaborate a bit on that? I am sure many of your readers who were not present in the seminar would like to know about it.
R.S.K.: Not just Benodebehari but the work of the Santiniketan artists in general. In the seminar I only presented Benodebehari’s scrolls as exemplary examples of this.
As you know, one of the factors that contributed to the development of landscape painting as an independent genre in the West was tourism, people travelling to absorb the natural beauty that was on offer, or travelling for what you may call aesthetic purpose. When this began to happen you wanted to popularise the delectable spots that a place had to offer, or travelling artists wanted to sell these distant views to a home audience. Thus landscape painting was essentially painted snap-shots of the aesthetically pleasing views the world had to offer. Further, the scenes were chosen on the basis of certain compositional formulas, such as the repoussoir and aesthetic categories such as the picturesque and the sublime. Thus the landscapes were fragmentary views that fitted a pre-given pictorial taste.
Indian landscapes by European artists who travelled to India were essentially of this kind. What image of India do we get from them? They revisited the same motifs, repeatedly framed them in a similar manner and more often painted them in an ambient light and in colours alien to local experience. Indian artists trained in the government art schools too continued this tradition. In contrast to this, the Santiniketan artists tried to convey a more rounded experience of the place they lived in. You might call it an insider’s view of the place. When you live in a place and are a keen observer, you develop an affinity, not unlike the friendship and understanding you develop through constant interaction with people, which is governed by intimacy or by ethics rather than by ideas of beauty and non-beauty, or factors of aesthetics.
Thus, Benodebehari’s ceiling mural is an encyclopaedic representation of the Birbhum landscape. And so are his various scrolls, they give a roving view of the local landscape, sometimes it is more space than details and suggests a plenitude of time. He lavishes on the rugged terrain the kind of attention Rembrandt and Rubens lavished on the unflattering bodies of the women they painted. Both are acts of love. His familiarity with Far Eastern landscape painting provided Benodebehari with certain appropriate formats for such painting of the land. Far Eastern scrolls were more encompassing visions of nature rather than landscapes in the Western sense.
This perception of nature came from the idea of place being an important factor in the formation of one’s identity. This is where the Santiniketan artists significantly differ from the artists of the Bengal School for whom identity was shaped by history or cultural antecedents rather than experiences gained from their environmental location. Rabindranath played a role in bringing about this change, but Nandalal, Benodebehari and Ramkinkar were receptive to it. Nandalal painted the local scenes in all its variety and through all the seasons. Ramkinkar too often painted all that he could see from a spot in several watercolours. Benodebehari’s scrolls and the ceiling mural communicates is this affinity for place most emphatically.
8. You have co-curated the grand Benodebehari Centenary Retrospective exhibition and co-authored the catalogue in 2007. What was the whole process like and how did you and Sheikh Sir go about it?
R.S.K.: I think it was a very fruitful collaboration for both of us, for me definitely. Gulam Sheikh, although not trained in Santiniketan, is one of those artists who share several characteristics of the Santiniketan masters. He has a broad interest in the arts – visual, literary and performing. Among the modern artists and art writers, he is one of the very few who has a deep interest and understanding of the traditional arts. He is also one of those who are well informed about the global scene. For all these I have always admired him from a distance. The Benodebehari retrospective gave me a chance to interact closely and know him personally. And it was rewarding.
Although he was my senior he gave me a lot of space, and we were exchanging notes all the time. Although I was familiar with Benodebehari’s work from my earlier researches and exhibition, he had known Bendebehari personally more than I did. We spend days looking at the works and discussing them, through emails when working alone in Santiniketan or Baroda and Delhi. Our general scheme was simple. Benodebehari, perhaps like a host of Indian artists of his generation, was little known and less seen. His murals have an important place in his oeuvre but only the few who had been to Santiniketan have even seen them. So outside a small circle of friends and admirers he was little known. There were a few essays, and of course, the film on him by Satyajit Ray, but even these were not easily accessible. We wanted to bring all this together and as comprehensively as possible and make him known in his fullness. We used our judgement in selecting the work, and this was not difficult because Benodebehari preserved little that he was not satisfied with, and as curators, our judgements generally converged. We decided to recreate his murals through reproductions, almost to scale and present them as they are viewed in their original setting. Our idea was not to over edit but to present every aspect of his work, his paintings, murals, prints, paper cuts, sculptures, work in textiles, books and so on. Where there were constrains of availability we tried to reconstruct them. For instance, there was hardly any example of his textiles available so we got some made using the original blocks. We worked out a timeline to contextualize him and arranged the works in a way the viewer could discover certain connections, but we did not want to over editorialize so we kept the curatorial texts to a minimum and left the viewers to absorb and discover in his own fashion.
I think our individual resources and knowledge came together and added to the quality of the exhibition. Perhaps I could have handled the academic side reasonably, but without Gulam Sheikh the presentation would not have been the same. He not only came up with interesting ideas but also saw to it that it was materialised working against all odds. Nilima and Mrinalini, both of whom have good aesthetic judgement, also helped us with the practical details of mounting and framing and such other things. Rajeev Lochan, as the director took care of the logistical aspects, he also joined us in some of our field trips. We also consulted Mani-da (K.G. Subramanyan) and Riten-da (Riten Mazumdar) who had known Benodebehari closely since their student days when it came to details of chronology and so on. In all it was a good collective effort that allowed us to achieve more than what we would have done individually.
9. In between, you also wrote the introductory piece to the book ‘My Pictures: A Collection of Paintings by Rabindranath Tagore’, which came out in 2005. How easy and how difficult is it to evaluate Rabindranath as a painter?
R.S.K.: Personally, I do not see much difficulty. After all, in the context of modern art we do have other self-trained artists like him. Finally, it is the work that counts and not how one becomes an artist. The only difficulty, if that is a difficulty, is that all his works were painted over a short period and there was not much technical or stylistic evolution. Of course there are changes but they are not as defined as say in Van Gogh who also painted for about the same number of years or in Shergill whose career was even shorter. He also went back and forth a bit and being an artist who was not in full command of his technical resources his work was a little uneven. Therefore, one has to be more cautious in employing style as a tool for the art historical analysis of his oeuvre.
Because of this, there is a tendency to consider his oeuvre as a consolidated entity. Although it was a small book, breaking away from this I tried to see if we could actually respond to his works individually, and wrote individual notes on all the paintings reproduced.
10. Your other big work, ‘The Paintings of Abanindranath Tagore’ came in 2008. In this book, as well as in your other writings, you have suggested that Abanindranath’s works are best seen when pitched in different forums, and that there existed a Pan-Asianism and a cultural cosmopolitanism along with the nationalism in his artistic concerns. Can you tell us about the complexity involved in understanding such a person’s works?
R.S.K.: Abanindranath was a victim of his own early success. As a thinking person living under colonialism, he was sensitive to the need for reasserting one’s cultural identity and of the need for reviving one’s self-esteem and sense of freedom. He was a nationalist only in this broad sense. It is another matter that the nationalists appropriated him as an exemplar of their own ideas of nationalism.
By training and inclination, he was a realist and his elective affinities were guided by his sensibility. He was a Baudelairean modernist by his aesthetics, a dandy and a symbolist who saw the world by the light of his imagination and through a spectacle tinted by memories. He was well informed, even erudite, so he did not see art as a craft but as a personal apprehension of the world through sensibility and knowledge. Everything else including nationalism and Pan-Asianism were incidental and he lived on the fringes of the contemporary world. But he was sensitive of his location, at first intuitively and later more programmatically, looking at the new world taking shape around him like a flaneur, keenly but from a distance.
The actual unfolding of all this was a little more complex. Even an artist who is charting a solitary path will have to chart it through the contemporary world, and self-discovery is a process. His fall out with Western academic training coincided with the emergence of Swadeshi. But this did not lead to the rejection of realism but to the discovery of a more agreeable version in Mughal miniatures. This led Havell and Nivedita to proclaim him as the founder of a new Indian painting, and gradually he was made the head of a new school. He did not protest but he did not stick to his assigned role either and when Pan-Asianism brought him into contact with Japanese artists he did not hesitate to adapt their techniques to develop a more selective kind of soft focused realism. The style this led to was entirely personal and one that suited his own sensibility. Ironically, in the Omar Khayyam series, in which his Pan-Asaianism inspired stylistic development culminated, he embraced an ‘Orientalist’ view of the East. There was no ideological straitjacketing, or linear development. He also moved from narration to loaded images and back to narration.
The one significant thing that he seems to have realised very early was that the modern world that was emerging was bound to be more polygenic, a confluence of different cultural strands rather than homogenous. This is evident even in the Krishnalila series, considered his first individual achievement. The format is Indian, the treatment is broadly Western, theme is Hindu and based on its treatment in Vishnavite padavalis, the inscribed texts are in quasi-Persian calligraphy invoking Mughal miniatures. It points to an emergent scene or communitas shaped by cross-cultural interactions rather than to the revival of an earlier society. The idea is revisited, with even more complexity, in the Arabian Nights series towards the end of his career.
Unfortunately, his champions and followers missed these complexities; they cut him to fit their coats. They turned the wash technique he developed to give expression to his personal sensibility into an academic lingua franca of nationalist art. Unlike him, most of them were not erudite or thinking artists and did not even realise the difference. Nandalal was one of the few who realised that his own sensibility and talent did not match that of his teacher. And, as I have already mentioned, he took a different road.
11. You are teaching for more than 27 years now. As far as the practice of Art History is concerned, a lot has changed in these years. To my mind, the difference is most recognizable in three areas. First, in the realm of Aesthetics. Earlier, we were taught how to appreciate a work of art depending upon the soundness of its formal construction. Nowadays, art writers seem to be more bothered about the instrumentality of an image, or the social realm where it manifests itself, or the hermeneutic network at use.
R.S.K.: The second area where the change can be observed is the area of writing as practice. Earlier it was commonly assumed that any critic who discusses a work of art must investigate it over what was thought to be a common forum [be it an aesthetic, or a formal forum]. However, in the last thirty years, with the introduction of cultural studies and the emergence of specific investigations [I have in mind critical works which foregrounded the issues of class, caste, gender and sexuality], this supposedly wholesome image of art criticism has given way to an unpredictable, complex and dynamic practice of the same.
The third area is what interests me most. It seems to me that the whole chronological framework of looking at the history of art is slowly giving away to pocket frameworks, where images are grouped from any perspective and analyzed for their internal relationality. It is more like a mnemosyne of sorts that is prevailing over a smooth chronology in most of the art institutions except Santiniketan, as far as the syllabus is concerned. As a teacher and writer, how do you negotiate with the changing frameworks of looking at a work of art? And what, according to you, can be gained from such a framework, and what will be lost?
That is a whale of a question and a very complex one. In a general way, I respond to these changes in the way Abanindranath responded to the changing world. I see them with some interest but from a distance. There are two reasons for this. I have already referred to them in a certain way but let me reiterate them a little once again to clarify my response to your question. I see change as inevitable, even academic disciplines have to change, though a young discipline art history too has seen many changes in the recent decades. New art history and radical or critical art history are part of this ongoing change. What is new today will be institutionalised tomorrow, what is radical will become conservative, what is challenging entrenched ideologies today will become the academic norm tomorrow. In fact it is already beginning to happen with what was new twenty years ago. This is not to suggest that we ought to therefore resist change or that we have nothing to learn from them. My position has been to regard them from where I am and to inflect my own trajectory in the light of new developments. This of course might be taken as a modest programme.
When I began to teach the new changes you mention were beginning to be articulated, but this did not mean I had access to them at that time. When I was a student, what I had access to was what is dubbed formalist art history today. Although there were a few exceptions, history of Indian art was still being written as an adjunct to political or dynastic history. This was in contrast to what was happening in the West. I thought it was important for art history in India to become an independent discipline. I was therefore drawn to writers who gave primacy to the image and developed ways of discussing them. Wolfflin of the Classical Art but also Riegal of the ‘Dutch Group Portraits’, Gombrich, John Berger, Steinberg, Meyer Schapiro and so on. It should be clear from this list that it was not formalism of one kind and definitely not of the Greenbergian kind – which was insightful reading of art works framed by a wrong paradigm. It might be more accurate to say that I am more interested in what some call scopocentric art history. Serious engagement with form leads you on to meaning and its social articulation, from the analysis of style you move on to how meaning is formed and communicated visually.
A scpocentric art historian need not begin and end with forms, he can also begin with a close formal reading of a work and move on to explore how the personal, social and art historical contexts are articulated through the formal specificities of that work. Certain new developments in social art history, have attempted to do just that. Robert L. Herbert and T. J. Clark, following the lead suggested by Schapiro, have written social art history that pays close attention to the visual and formal aspects of paintings. Some of that I find riveting. I also think that they have helped us to recognise the historical agency of cultural and intellectual practices, which is an improvement from the idea of social and economic determinism of culture that overshadowed the writings of the Antal and Hauser. There can be a similar move from the scopocentric/formalist to a semiotic analysis. I would count Rosalind Krauss’s book on Picasso’s cubist collages as one such effort. Although her goals and conceptual frame works are non-formalist she pays as much attention to the formal construction of the collages as Greenberg did.
The disappearance of what you have called the ‘common forum’ or the multiplicity of subject positions from which art history is written is seen as a consequence of the opening up of art history as a discipline to less privileged classes/groups on the one hand and to interdisciplinary encounters on the other, which in itself is not unwelcome. This naturally brings in many subject-positions and different readings and this can be educating. Such subject-positions have what Amrtya Sen has called ‘positional objectivity’ and when they are used for self-scrutiny they lead to openness, but when they are turned into entrenched campaigns for political and cultural hegemony of one kind or the other they become counter-productive.
The same goes for what you have called ‘pocket frameworks’. The large chronological histories lead to the search for overarching explanations and theories. This led to some generalisation. Both formalist and social art historians of yesteryears often lapsed into such generalisations. Looking at shorter periods have been therefore gaining ground, T. J. Clark’s study of French art of three years, 1848 to 1851 is simply an exemplary and extreme example. This may be necessary after all the surveys art historians have done but this also means that we are progressively shying away from developing a new comprehensive understanding of art.
Methodologies do not make good or bad art history, what we do with them does.
12. Finally, what are the projects you have for the coming years, academic and personal?
R.S.K: I am working on a few things. Most of them are extensions of my standing concerns, but, as historians, let us not speculate about what has not come to pass.