India achieved Independence by the mid-twentieth century, and began to navigate this very new concept of nationhood through a flourishing artistic community. Amidst this highly politicized environment, artists sought to express themselves politically and culturally by invoking ancient Indian techniques as well as borrowing techniques from the Western artistic canon. This set the foundation for exploring themes of national and personal identity, urbanism, and religion that have dominated Indian art since the mid-1950s.
Ironically enough, I fell in love with Indian art when I left home and got to Princeton. I grew up amongst people who love art, people who understand it – or make every effort at understanding it. I grew up trailing my parents and my grandfather through art galleries, museums, photography exhibits, and displays of public art. For some baffling reason, I was even entrusted with making executive decisions on what to hang on which wall, invoking some semblance of artistic sensibility I did not even know I possessed. Still, it was only recently that I began to appreciate the art that I grew up surrounded by, and maybe it is exactly because it was such a massive physical presence through my upbringing that I now, retrospectively, hold it in such high regard.
Zarina Hashmi (American, born 1937 Aligarh, India)
Home is a Foreign Place, 1999
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, The George Economou Collection Gift, 2013
I look at Zarina’s series, especially her Home is a Foreign Place, and see memory and childhood, manifest through a series of almost unintelligible lines and space that somehow make sense. Paresh Maity explores similar themes of urbanism in his cubist, complexly layered renditions of the Indian city and its interaction with the environment. Nalini Malani is another artist highly influenced by the Partition of India, whose work – focussing on themes of urbanism and feminism – I admire greatly. Medea, for example, explores the tormenting delicacy of violence in grappling with the intricacies of female identity.
I love how contemporary Indian art navigates the human body – a celebration that has, save for in artistic representation, been historically and politically shunned, masked, and glossed over. Surendran Nair’s work commemorates the body in his surrealist, dream-like paintings. He simultaneously makes powerful political statements through his work, denouncing symbols of nationalism and blind emblematic reverence. Raghu Rai’s black and white photographs, however, view the human body unabashedly in their most human, imperfect moments that always stay with me for their haunting poignancy and rawness.
An Actor Rehearsing the Interior Monologue of Icarus, 2000
Oil on canvas
Dust Storm Created by a VIP Helicopter, Rajasthan, 1975
Digital print on archival paper
20 × 62 in
50.8 × 157.5 cm
My exploration of modern and contemporary Indian art truly reemphasized how personal art is. As I attempt, amidst much confusion, to figure out who I am, and who I want to be, I have found this art to be an important reminder of where I came from. In my navigation of this massive world, it is almost reassuring to have such visual catalysts of my own memory, rooting me within something much larger than myself, larger than I could ever imagine. Of course, everything gets romanticized when you’re removed far enough from it, and I am sure this is no exception. Yet, these musings make me wonder about the power of the relationship between experience, memory, and sense perception, and where that will continue to lead me.