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Home > Contents > Article: Jan Brouwer
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Towards Understanding Contemporary Indian Painting
Painting in the context of extra-postmodernity, neo-postmodernity and modernity
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Jan Brouwer

In the 21st century we come to know about contemporary Indian Art through art reviews in newspapers and magazines, exhibitions in galleries in major cities and through a few Museums for Modern Art. The writings on contemporary Indian Art are written by art lovers and occasionally by artists themselves. Although Modern or contemporary Art is mostly only available in mega cities and a few middle-sized cities in India, the artists may have either an urban or a rural background. The connoisseurs of contemporary art are invariably urban based. They describe the artscape in various terms such as an escape from tradition, change in manners and customs, emotional modifications and departure of
Gieve Patel : Fishers (oil on canvas) conventional perceptions of Culture and Nature or their environment of agonies, despair, banalities, and boredom. Their interpretations may consider the complexities of the art-historical, historical, geographical and metaphysical nature of the art works. Much attention is also paid to the techniques and methods employed. Restricting ourselves to the art of painting it is observed that the critics describe the works in terms of ideas and motifs and in two sets of terms, namely, pertaining to the auditory and visual, and the spatial and temporal. The auditory terms are, for example, resonance, silence, loud, hush, tone, and pitch. Examples of the visual terms are size (diminished or increased), form, destruction of form, shape, sharpness, light, dark, reflection, and shadow. Interpretations may also consider ideas or visions of the painter in such terms as landscape of the mind, commentary or the inner gaze. One reads such spatial references as pattern, upper, lower, crossing the frame, beyond, and temporal terms such as day, night, timeless, time bound, and eternal. Occasionally one reads about a form-space relationship or a time-space relationship. Due attention is always paid to motifs such as rural, urban, religious, natural, and technical.

Although the remarkable vocabulary of the critics of contemporary art helps us to view this art, most of us still find it difficult to understand modern or contemporary painting. To come to a real understanding (not mere knowledge) of contemporary Indian painting I propose an anthropological perspective. This does not imply a simple relationship between Art and Society as Culture comprises three components: a society (people and their institutions), a civilization (all texts and artefacts that the people have produced) and a mentality (the [often hidden] codes that inform the other two components. It does not imply conventional historiography but considers historical factors in a broader cultural frame. Thus, in contemporary India four such cultural traditions can be distinguished: the Scriptural Tradition, the Traditional Practices, the Modern State and an emerging Simulation State. In contrast to European culture, Indian Culture shows a consistent principle of juxtaposition, so that all four cultural traditions are living traditions within the same Time and Space. Each tradition knows painting as means of communication but each tradition has its own media, mode of communication, patronage, and outreach. Patronage has a different form in each of the cultural traditions. Its importance is that it shows that there is in society a significant section that supports the arts including painting. In turn this means that paintings express something collective. Patrons of the Art are different people historically as well as contemporarily. At present it is observed that modern art is patronized by the public and private sectors in Indian economy. Various institutions of the Modern State as well as the big corporate houses support contemporary art. And since recently we can even speak about an art market in India.
Whatever may the meaning of what is commonly called “modern Indian art”, in particular painting, it is not easily grasped by those who look at it. The concept of Art itself is difficult to understand and even more difficult is to say what Indian Modern Art is. This study is not primarily interested in identifying and recognizing the Indian element in Modern Indian Art, but to place contemporary art in the wider context of indigenous knowledge, modernity and postmodernity, so as to reach an understanding of the meaning and messages that modern painting give. This requires some explanation of the terms used.

The concept of Art is a child of the Enlightenment that gradually grew up after the French revolution and during the industrial revolutions. The concept as we know it today is not older. Today’s scholars usually use concepts that belong to the idiom of the Modern State even when analyzing historical situations or those that do not belong to a Modern State. The Modern State identifies particular performing or plastic expressions of culture as Art in all four cultural traditions. It thus labels expressions from without.
Modern Art is recognized by schemas that are obeyed which one follows independently of the work itself. They have the security and efficacy of signals; they recur in each new piece. Part of the Modern State are the Modern Schools of Art, the training in rule-following and pattern recognizing and there is always a frame of reference. In general, modern Indian painting is produced after 1947 and in particular in the 21st century.
Postmodern art tend to become unique events which are not reducible to any guiding schemas, a priori. It demands a different mode of attention; there is no fixed frame of reference. I speak about contemporary painting for all paintings that express modernity and reserve the term postmodern for specific modes that express postmodernity.
When reading about postmodernity one can not escape a feeling of recognition when one lives in India. Postmodern society in contrast to modern society does not leave the problem of death or rather that of mortality to a higher authority. Postmodern Man has not relegated the problem of mortality to God but brought it back to Man himself. Bauman calls this view one of “privatised mortality”. “One can follow the Hindu pattern of privatising death and compensating it with a collectivised immortality: accept the permanence of being – ‘that which never cease to be’(Bhagavad Gita, quoted in Carse, 1980:133 – and thus make life and death into exchangeable forms of eternal being, stages whose duration does not matter in view of the perpetuity of existence.”(Bauman, 1994:2) While this refers to the Scriptural Tradition and Traditional Practices it corresponds with the contemporary view of “self-care” and its complement of “reincarnation”. On this point the earlier Indian cultural traditions and postmodern views match.
At the same time, the concept of personhood as being one body housing more than one self is what the earlier traditions and postmodernism have in common. Therefore, I speak about extra- and neo-postmodernism. It can be argued that in the field of Art the extra-postmodern rangolis are comparable to the neo-postmodern “installations” and what about the paintings on bullock carts, lorries, and road surfaces? The immediate difference between the extra- and neo-postmodern views is to be found in the views on kinship, social relationships, on death and on perpetuation and survival that are often expressed in painting.

Contemporary India shows in both its extra- and neo-postmodern traditions freely competing styles and life patterns, but there is a strong urge to strive for purity. When there is purity there is also impurity. In the extra-postmodern society this took the shape of classes in society, for which there is no place in the indigenous sociological theory of Varna, namely the groups that are now called the scheduled castes and tribes. In the neo-postmodern society similar groups are emerging which sociologists have named the underclass of flawed consumers. There is a tendency to criminalize the socially produced problems. Postmodernity is marked by a dismantling of all collective interference into individual fate.
The Modern State sees itself as the sole guardian of orderly life. It legislated order into existence and defined order as “the clarity of binding divisions, classifications, allocations and boundaries”. (Bauman, 2003:18) The Modern State set as its task to uproot the middlemen of communities and traditions. It set its citizens free to choose occupations and life-styles and to live within an agreed, legalised framework. It promised to liberate the individual from inherited identity. It is convinced that everything can be rationalised and objectivised. Problems and conflict in modern society are solved through direct dialogue between the conflicting parties. In modern conditions it was normal to get a job for life, while under postmodern conditions jobs as such are no longer: be grateful for today and do not think of tomorrow. Under modernity all risk, whether private or collective were collectivised. In postmodernity risk has been privatised.
Modern art communicates between individual producers (painters) and a large audience. What art communicates is culturally constituted concepts. The main concepts relate to the cultures view on mortality, immortality, the individual and the whole of society (collectivity).
Both the extra- and neo-postmodern worlds live under conditions of permanent and irreducible uncertainty. Like everything else the person is also disassembled. Under postmodern (extra and neo) conditions one body does not house one self but a collection of ‘selfs’. Each ‘self’ conjures up, carries and expresses its own meaning based on its own set of principles. Both Hobsbawm and Harvey frequently use the concept of schizophrenia or talk about the schizophrenic dimension in postmodern art. What is observed, I feel, is that no longer does one body house one person. There is no longer a unitary person as in the modern period or in modern art. What we see today in neo-postmodern society and art is a total disassemblement, disconnection, disintegration, fragmentation that can only be ‘linked’ to a concept of personhood that considers a body that houses many persons or rather selfs. Under the extra-postmodern condition the solution to the problem of identity was found in caste (jati or clan) while under the neo-postmodern condition men and women live with the perpetual identity problem unresolved.
The chief characteristics of modernity and postmodernity may be summed up as being:



View on mortality

collectivised mortality and immortality

privatised mortality and collectivised immortality

Solution of conflict

through direct dialogue between two opposites

Ternary structure and monologue discourse. The
dialogue is split up into a series of soliloquies with the conflicting parties no longer
listening; they are meant for the third neutral element

Ideal and practice

ideal of the individual and the collectivity in the world leads to a continuing tension between the individual and the collectivity in the world

Ideal of the autonomous individual outside the world
and the practice of individualism in the world

Concept of personhood

unitary self (one body housing one person who judges everything on the basis of a single set of principles

the multiple self (one body houses more selfs)

Dealing with inevitable mortality

it is left to God; man should not interfere, hence against euthanasia and scepticism to cloning and organ transplants

cloning and organ donations

Society comprises

producers and consumers: the regulated market

no longer citizens but only consumers

Citizens / consumers

The citizens have a historical perspective on production and creation that should be ever newer, never gratified; signifiers and signified

The consumers live in a perpetual present; there is no creation only recreation: collage, montage, absence of representation; only signifiers

Dynamics of culture

While the four cultural traditions are juxtaposed this does not imply isolation in the field of art. Motifs, materials and messages may cross the boundaries. There is such a thing as the modernity of tradition, there is also such a thing as the postmodernity of tradition as well as import and export of ideas between the cultural factors and between Indian and non Indian expressions.
The emerging Simulation State is born out of the Modern State as much as postmodernity is born out of modernity which leaves the question of the role of the avant-gardes. “By ‘simulacrum’ is meant a state of such near perfect replication that the difference between the original and the copy becomes almost impossible to spot.” (Harvey, 2003:289)  Modern avant-gardes lead to new and improved consensus. Postmodern avant-gardes undermine the possibility of any universal agreement.

The modern era knows modernist avant-gardes. The avant-garde does what the other will do later. In the background is here a linear concept of Time and a strong believe in progress later called development. In this modern thinking there is thus a past, a present and a future.           
Various authors (Bauman, Harvey, and Hobsbawm among others) agree about the existence of avant-garde in the modern period and at the same time about its end. As Bauman puts it: “The limit of arts lived as a permanent revolution, was self destruction…We may say that the avant-garde arts proved to be modern in their intention, yet postmodern in their unanticipated, yet inescapable consequences.” (Bauman, 2003:100)

 In Europe the Enlightenment was a collective phenomenon unlike Enlightenment in India that was (and is) individual. The European Enlightenment was announced as early as 1435 with Alberti’s theory of perspective. This theory took perspective in painting as we with our eyes see it through a window. This concept of perspective continued to be the main element in all painting from the 16th century to the decade 1904-1914, or more precisely, to 1913 when the Dutch painter Piet Mondriaan presented the world’s first abstract painting (“Oval Composition”) which saw the light of day before the scientist Niels Bohr presented his theory of the atom as a mini-constellation. Based on the concept of perspective I therefore propose to call European painting during the period 1435 to 1914 as the modern period with its modern art. During this period Alberti’s perspective seems to be the only continuity, for it passed through various movements that culminated in the modernity project (Habermas, 1983:9) which came into focus in the 18th century. Representation in painting as part of the Enlightenment “embraced the idea of progress, and actively sought that break with history and tradition which modernity espouses.” (Harvey, 2003:12) Within the modernity project painters, like many artists, had a very special position. They had a creative role to play in defining the essence of humanity. After the French and Industrial Revolutions it became increasingly difficult how to ‘represent’ the eternal and immutable. Many painters, like Manet, were preoccupied with “the creation of new codes, significations and metaphorical allusions in the languages they constructed…Modernism could speak to the eternal only by freezing time and all its fleeting qualities.” (Harvey, 2003:21) Different movements followed each other: Impressionist, Expressionist, Cubist, Surrealism but the old perspective was still in tact. After Mondriaan the rules are perpetually in the making as much as the process of meaning-making. The rules of representation were bequeathed and the way how to see the world was seriously challenged. Postmodern art is no longer concerned with ‘representing’. The truth lies now “in the non-artistic and pre-artistic reality – wanting to be found and given artistic expression. Having thus been ‘liberated’ from the authority of ‘reality’…the artistic image claims in the on-going bustle of meaning-making, the same status as the rest of the human world.”(Bauman, 2003:106) In contrast to modern art, contemporary art does not reflect life but adds to its contents. As Jean Baudrillard puts it “there is no privileged object…The work of art creates its own space.” (Baudrillard, 1993:147) Representation is now replaced by simulation and “simulation refers to the world without reference, from which all reference has disappeared.” (Baudrillard, 1993:163) Art during the Enlightenment period became separated from non-artistic reality. It created more or less fixed meanings. Postmodern art creates meaning while this is now a process that should never come to a halt. Postmodern art has replaced order and consensus with freedom. It keeps imagination and possibilities alive and enhances freedom with respect of creeds. “[O]ne can say that if the modernist avant-garde was about blazing trails leading to a ‘new and improved’ consensus, the postmodern avant-gardism consists in not just challenging and sapping the extant and admittently transitory form of consensus, but undermining the very possibility of any future universal, and thus strangling agreement.”(Bauman, 2003:109) The difference between extra- and neo-postmodern arts becomes clear now. Extra-postmodern art accepted the preordained reality of beings as being part of God’s creation while its tolerance of difference simply kept everyone to his station in life, to his own kind in institutionalised and ritualistic patterns.

 In any society, spatial and temporal practices abound in subtleties and complexities. Whether a culture’s principle is ‘replacement’ or ‘juxtaposition’ any form of art, including painting, will reflect, represent or interpret spatial and temporal conceptions and practices. Bourdieux writes: “the temporal forms or spatial structures structure not only the group’s representation of the world but the group itself, which orders itself accordance with this representation” and showed how “all divisions of the group are projected at every moment into the spatio-temporal organisation which assigns each category its place and time.” (Bourdieux, 2003:163) Modernization (through the Modern State and its institutions) entailed the continuing disruption of spatial and temporal rhythms.

The characteristics of the four cultural traditions may give us some idea what we may expect in contemporary painting in India:

INDIGENOUS Religious motifs or those selected from the Vedic and classical texts such as the concepts of Maya, Shakti, Purusha, or (neo-tantric) gods/goddesses alone or with spouses (deities as superhuman beings)
Primordial themes Multiple perspectives but not reversed perspective (as in indigenous Chinese painting)
Absence of cause-effect relationships within a single logical domain of reference. Absence of an avant-garde.
Recognition of the individual

Religious motifs, quasi-divine
The typical role of an avant-garde
Collectives and individuals, single or together
Alberti’s perspective
Cause-effect relationships
Historical view on time-space relationships
The mother figure or mother and child

The death of avant-garde
No longer Alberti’s perspective
Destruction of form
Absence of individuals or groups of people
No representation
Death viewed as privatised mortality
Time-Space compression
Instantaneous communicability over space
Permanent present

In my earlier work I demonstrated that both the traditional and modern artisans make a distinction between (i) finishing a work and completing a work, and (ii) between the use of these two terms in two different contexts (textual versus colloquial). This adds to our understanding of their perceptions and actions concerning the delivery of their product. Naturally, after having delivered his incomplete product, the craftsman engages himself in a new work. After some time, while this work is in progress, he receives a call from the previous patron to attend the ceremony to complete the previous one. The craftsmen call it a 'new work'. In our words, each work - the old one, the new one, and the completion of the old one – is considered a separate assignment. Thus, the manufacturing of a product up to its delivery and the making of the product ready for functioning are viewed as two different issues. This system of breaking up a single production into two different assignments is not restricted to the members of one caste (Visvakarma) or to so-called traditional artisans. In modern construction work, carpenters, masons, plumbers, electricians, glass setters, painters, polishers and similar artisans of any caste background follow more or less the same lines of meaning.            
In its most simplistic form, the reasoning behind this "splitting system" is thus: the transcendent order is the order of completeness and perfection. It is placed outside the world which human beings only reach on their death. The avoidance of completion and perfection is thus one of avoidance of death. This is to be seen both metaphorically and sociologically. For during the time lapse between 'finishing' and 'completing' a product, artisans start up new works for other patrons. The cultural ideology is thus inseparable from the mundane survival strategy: here two domains that in the West and in the modern state are separated, are intertwined.
 The perception of society in terms of interrelated domains follows directly from the world-view. As the case of the Visvakarmas demonstrates, the transcendent order is the order of virtues, completeness and perfection, for which qualities there is no place in the world.
 Now the question arises how painters deal with the problem of completeness. When Lal asked the painter Gieve Patel when he considered a painting ‘complete’ his answer was “When the materiality of each object reaches an optimum concreteness in relation to other elements in the painting.” (Lal, 2004:15) This is an interesting answer for it refers to the textual rather than colloquial concept of completeness which is located “outside the mundane world” and refers to purity. On the other hand he relates it to “concreteness” which is “of the world”.

 To understand contemporary Indian art in its modern and postmodern forms need to be studied in an anthropological perspective to gain fresh insight. The avant-garde in the Indian situation in which different cultural traditions are juxtaposed is to be explored to find a telling and prophesy aspect of contemporary painting in India. Questions regarding motifs and perspective will have to be revisited. Is there an avant-garde in Indian painting and what role does it play in India, with special reference to painting, against the known self-defeating role it played in Europe? Can we speak of announcing in a culture of juxtapositions? Does painting in the Indian context also have this value of prophesy, a different one or none at all? To understand contemporary painting, painting as one form of art is seen as just one aspect of a totality, not of society but of culture. But cultures are not static at any point of time but processes. These are processes of differentiation, separation, division and classification that create new meanings through diacritical practice. The structure that can be observed is a privileged probability. “Culture is nothing but a perpetual activity and ‘structure’ is nothing but the constant manipulation of possibilities.”(Bauman, 2003:133) Cultures give meaning to pre-established meanings. The study thus not only considers paintings as individual expressions but also as collective expressions of world-view.

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Baudrillard, Jean 1993. Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews, ed. Mike Gane. London: Routledge.

Bauman, Zygmunt 1994. Survival as a Social Construct, in Mike Featherstone (Ed) Cultural Theory and Cultural Change. London: Sage Publications.

Bauman, Zygmunt 1998. Postmodernity and its Discontents. London: Polity Press.

Bauman, Zygmunt 2003. Mortality, Immortality and Other Life Strategies. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Bourdieux, Pierre 2003. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Britt, David (Ed) 1999. Modern Art. Impressionism to Post-Modernism. London: Thames & Hudson.

Brouwer, Jan 1997. The Goddess for Development. Indigenous Economic Concepts among South Indian Artisans. In: Social Anthropology Vol.5 No.1. pp 69-82.

Brouwer, Jan 1988. Statement on the Arts being attachment to PhD Thesis Coping with Dependence. Leiden: Karstens Drukkerij.

Brouwer, Jan 1999. Feminism and the Indigenous Knowledge System in India: An Exploration., in: R. Indira and D.K.Behera (Eds) Gender and Society in India Vol.1. New Delhi: Manak Publications.

Brouwer, Jan 2003. Modern Media of Communication and Indigenous Knowledge In: India and Europe: Towards an Anthropological Perspective, in: Jos Gommans and Om Prakash (Eds) Circumambulations in South Indian History. Leiden: Brill.

Carse, James P. 1980. Death and Existence. A Conceptual History of Human Mortality. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Forge, Anthony, 1973. Primitive Art & Society. London: OUP.

Habermas, J. 1983. Modernity: an incomplete project, in H. Foster (Ed) The anti-aesthetic: essays on postmodern culture. Washington: Port Townsend.

Harvey, David, 2003. The Condition of Postmodernity. An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Oxford: Blackwell.

Hobsbawm, Eric 1975.  The Age of Capital 1848-1875. New York: Vintage Books. Hobsbawm, Eric 2000. The New Century. London: Little, Brown and Company.

Hobsbawm, Eric 2001. The Age of Revolution. Europe 1789-1848. London: Abacus. Hobsbawm, Eric 2002. The Age of Extremes – The Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991. London: Abacus.

Lal, Lakshmi 2004. My Brush with Art. An Anthology of Contemporary Indian Art.New Delhi: Rupa & Co. Michell, George, Catherine Lampert and Tristram Holland (Eds)1982. In the Image of Man. The Indian Perception of the Universe through 2000 years of painting and sculpture. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Sen, Geeti (Ed) 1992. Indigenous Vision. Peoples of India. Attitudes to the Environment. New Delhi: Sage Publications.

Zurburg, Nicholas (Ed) 1997. Jean Baudrillard. Art and Artefact. London: Sage     Publications.
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Dr Jan Brouwer is the Director of the Centre for Advanced Research on Indigenous Knowledge Systems (CARIKS).P.O.Box 1 Saraswatipuram, MYSORE 570 009
T: 0821-2542215; E:


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