PRINT Summer 1986

The Common Air

Our English host was gracious
We were soon at ease;
Or almost:
The servants
Were watching.
—Gieve Patel, Evening

It took me a long time to see that de Kooning was not merely undisciplined.
—Bikash Bhattacharjee

THE IDEA OF INDIA IS like an immense dark space in our imagination: we feel it lying hiding in a part of our minds where we store things too big and “other” to absorb—in the unconscious, or in that shadowy area of consciousness in which we relate to concepts like infinity, outer space, the sublime, or the underworld. For thousands of years, Westerners seeking something unknown and unnamable have been drawn there. Long before Mia Farrow and the Beatles, the Greeks and Romans climbed the hills to gurus’ caves. In the ’60s many went there, often artists and writers; in the ’80s, many more are making the trip. Throughout our century, really, from E. M. Forster to Francesco Clemente, this visit to the unconscious of our own imagination has established a sense of the outer limits of Western culture, showing us what we are not, offering us a freedom from our own traps of history and identity. What people bring back is shock and thrill and changed lives. They’ve seen and felt something that lies outside our grids of order and patterns of values, something that seems timeless, like the ocean, and that has the power to rearrange the Western mind.

India’s all-absorbing contradictions are not accessible anywhere else, except, perhaps, deep in ourselves. Its neolithic villages spill naked tribal people into overcrowded urban streets where yogis brush by businessmen in Western suits, while lepers creep painfully to taxicab windows to beg. The country’s overwhelming combination of beauty and horror opens into dizzying reaches of anonymity: the masses. The British, at once fascinated and repelled by India’s uncontrollable vastness, feared the seductive loss of self that was offered by the experience of “going native,” of losing one’s grip on Western civilization and history, and descending into an adventure without end or purpose. More recently, it seems, many of us who visit India go precisely in order to loose that tired grip, or to break its oppressive force. Meanwhile India, while offering us a way out of history, suffers and acts within its own history, a history that seems to feature fatality and cyclicity, that is always surging like the waves. Caught in the endless rounds of its cycles, India gazes at moments toward the West, hungering to participate in the Western feeling of history, with its appearance of purpose and linear direction. India and the West, the West and India—we are what each other’s imaginations are seeking.

India has endured several thousand years of repeated foreign conquest and frequent foreign rule. Its culture, despite the intensity of its selfhood, its gravity as itself, has functioned as a receptive membrane upon which other cultures have left their foreign imprints. The result is a society characterized by uneven development and layered with a pluralism beyond Western imagination. The coin room of the Indian Museum, Calcutta, tells the story. In chronological sequence, it holds Persian coins, Greek coins, Kushan coins, Sassanid coins, Hina coins, then, for a rare change, the coins of the native Indian dynasty called Gupta, followed by Muslim coins, and, for a long two centuries, the coins of the British. The prehistoric Dravidian migrations were followed, at the dawn of Indian history, by the Aryan invasions, which were followed in turn by Persian conquerors, then by the conquest of much of India by Greek monarchs, the Greeks being succeeded by a variety of Central Asian invaders and rulers. Muslim invasions in the Middle Ages led to centuries of rule by often-warring foreign dynasties, until the British, after episodes of Portuguese, Dutch, and French commercial exploitation, got rid of the Muslim rulers in their turn. Each of these elements took from India and became a part of it. Like the neolithic earth that much of it still is, India has received the seeds that have been flung upon it.

In art, the heritage of Hindu temple sculpture, say, lies alongside Central Asian art of various kinds, Mogul miniatures, 19th-century British realism, and currents of 20th-century European and American influences as well as earlier European ones, particularly that of the Renaissance. India was in a sense a postmodern culture before it was a modern one. (Think of the common phrase “divided India.”) The spatial vastness of the country contains as much variety, contradiction, and conflict as does its layered heritage. In addition to the basic division between the north, roughly Aryan, and the south, roughly Dravidian, regions such as the Punjab, Bengal, and Gujarat are semiautonomous cultural zones, each with its own languages, its own stories, its own music, its own style of dance, and so on. For hundreds of years the Indian mind has had access to a complex amalgam of cultural paradigms without needing to go beyond India itself. (Unfortunately, this access can offer little solace to the vast masses whose body-breaking labor and heartbreaking broken bodies are seen constantly in the streets.) Long before Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche declared that the modern age in the West would be an age of comparison, something like that situation existed in India.

An array of inherited cultural elements—literary, philosophical, religious, artistic, and so on—together make up what in India is called the Tradition. In the visual arts today this complexity is mirrored forth with startling clarity. One may practice the Tradition by practicing any part of it in the prescribed way. Though Hindu elements are at the very center of the Tradition, all its features are ultimately seen as Indian. One may paint miniatures in the Mogul style or portraiture in the 19th-century British style and in either case one’s work is Indian. The history of Indian art in the last century has been a history of changing modes of relating to the Tradition.

The various traditions that coexist within the Tradition in the larger sense have until recently resisted assimilation with each other, maintaining themselves in isolated sectarian schools, each puristically practicing its particular mode. In many of the colleges of art, for example, these divisions are still rigorously maintained. A “Painting” course means 19th-century-style British academic realism, mostly portraiture. Students standing before turn-of-the-century-style easels produce paintings practically identical, as if from one hand, and often dark like Old Master paintings; the darkness legitimizes them, making them look like the reproductions of old European paintings that hang around the hallways and staircase landings of the colleges. A course in “Indian-Style Painting” is very different: students sitting on mats on the floor make copies and imitations of Mogul miniatures. Both groups are apt to be proficient, but always within a strictly delimited inherited style. Most often, there has been no mingling of styles. Similarly, in a “school of sculpture” near Madras (“the best in India,” said my guide, “and maybe the world”), dozens of young stone-cutters make more or less exact copies of traditional Hindu temple sculptures, maintaining the style with no sign that any crosscurrents exist in their world.

A break in this situation in fine art began to appear with the Bengali cultural movement early in this century. In an influential essay of 1921, still reprinted, on “The Meaning of Art,” Rabindranath Tagore, the great Bengali poet, educator, and theorist of art, referred to the various art traditions that had established themselves in India as “masks with exaggerated grimaces, that fail to respond to the ever changing play of life.” Indian artists, he wrote, should set themselves free from their multitude of inherited styles, each sheltered in its own academy. They were to stop limiting their production to the various established branches of the Tradition. At the time he wrote this, aged around 60, Tagore had begun to produce paintings that “approximated the work of some of the avant-garde modern artists of the West,” in the words of one Indian commentator. The National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi, has room after room of these. But the Western Modernist influence on Tagore’s work is not the whole story. He did not neglect his Indianness, but, in a mood profoundly prophetic for later Indian art, spoke in the same essay of being “naturally Indian in spite of all the borrowings that [we] indulged in.” In India, the paintings of Tagore (to Western eyes, somewhat childish-looking) are esteemed like sacred icons, and with reason. For all his loving attention to the Indian tradition, Tagore threw the lightning bolt by saying that art must at the same time be national and transcend nationalism, be local and worldwide.

The impulse toward internationalism that appeared in a mild form in the Bengali movement gained momentum when India became self-ruling, for the first time in about a thousand years, in 1947, adopting a democratic constitution for the first time in its long history. Around this time, self-conscious assertions of Indian cultural Modernism began to be made. The most famous occurred in the same historic year. A group of artists in Bombay issued a manifesto, calling themselves the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group. They were immediately acknowledged by artists who shared their attitude, in Calcutta and elsewhere. The Bombay Progressives unabashedly recommended the adoption of the styles and modes of European Modern art, specifically the School of Paris. Certain of them also advocated abstraction, with an ideology essentially formalist in the Western mode, decrying subject matter and insisting that only attention paid to line and color was valid. India had produced abstract art before—notably in the various 18th-century tantric schools—but for two thousand years Indian art had been primarily an art of the figure. With the Bombay Progressives, it took a turn regarded by many of these artists’ compatriots as a rejection of the Tradition, even though much of their work continued to employ vestigial references to Hindu signs of a variety of kinds.

Despite the unquestioned impact of the Bombay Progressives on Indian culture, Modernist abstract painting did not catch on widely there. A number of early abstractionists have since become figurative painters, as have most of the artists of the generation that followed; among prominent Indian artists today, Sayed Haider Raza, V S. Gaitonde, and Ram Kumar (born 1923, 1924, and 1924 respectively) are among the few who remain abstractionists. The revolutionary and problematic relationship to the Indian identity adopted by the Progressives was exacerbated by the fact that many of them left India soon after the formation of the group, some staying in the West for long periods of time or permanently. As Tagore had thrown the lightning bolt, this generation felt its heat, and were propelled by its impact much farther into internationalism than Tagore himself was ready to go. The abstract work of the Progressives ranges from Raza’s mild tachism with hints of tantra, to the vaguely mottled surfaces, redolent of spirituality, of Gaitonde’s canvases, to Kumar’s competent late-Abstract Expressionism-like paintings. Raza has lived in Paris since 1949; Kumar spent a long time in that city, where he studied under Fernand Léger and knew Paul Eluard, but now lives in India again, and Gaitonde has remained in India. Figurative work by the Progressives tends to feature indigenous scenes painted in styles that verge on the abstract. It ranges from the early village-art-like illustration of M. F. Husain (born 1915), and his sophisticated later imitations of movie billboards and photographs of Indian street scenes, to F. N. Souza’s scenes from Hindu mythology, in treatments reminiscent of Paul Klee and Marc Chagall. Souza (born 1924) was the actual founder of the Bombay Progressives, and wrote its manifestos.

It’s difficult to exaggerate the importance of the generation of the Bombay Progressives, with their post-Tagorean denunciation of exclusive Indianness for its own sake, their affirmation of internationalism, and their attempt to come to terms with the School of Paris. In the ’40s in India, the idea of doing something that did not grow out of and above all receive legitimation from some part of the inherited Tradition seemed an outrageous or atrocious idea. Then a handful of people, with no following, no sanction from any authority or institution, and no justification in terms of their own culture adopted Modern art. Yet this was a service for India, not a betrayal of it. It was an attempt to close the gap between India and the West in one breathtaking step. A certain wishful element seems involved, and the mechanism of the wish was based on the Modernist concept of universality. It seemed for a brief time that one could enter history on the same footing as everyone else if one tuned one’s sensibility to the Modern universals. This step away from the cumbersome weight of inherited, externally imposed traditions held momentous promise. Tyeb Mehta (born 1925), a painter of the generation of the Bombay Progressives whose work is of great importance today, once said, “It took courage, at that time, to pick up a brush, to make a mark on a canvas”—a mark, in other words, that was not this or that inherited icon or word or symbol, a mark expressing a sense of what it feels like to be outside a tradition or a rule, to be an individual expressing one’s own sensibility. At the moment that someone lifted that brush and made that mark, a part of Indian culture entered the modern world.

Still, Western viewers may have problems in accepting this and other Indian work that derives its look in part from Western models. For example, when seeing Mehta’s thrilling oil paintings, which to Western eyes recall the late paper-cutout works of Henri Matisse, or the beautiful paintings on glass by K. G. Subramanyan, which recall earlier works by Matisse, we find ourselves asking what the value is of having more Matisse-like work long after Matisse. But if this is how we approach the art, we miss how beautifully its apparent Western derivation mingles aromatically with strangeness and idiosyncrasy. These questions bring us deep into the issues of art history and derivation. The question of chronology—who was first in making things that look like that?—needs to be viewed within the larger context of cultural diffusion. Early in this century European artists adopted the styles of alien, primarily Oceanic and African cultures, not as momentary quotations but as lasting permeations of their styles, which supposedly arose from their selves. The fact that a style of African mask may have been made for centuries in Africa did not lead us to denounce Pablo Picasso as derivative for imitating it at a time when it was old, even classical, in its own context. To an extent, this was because the African look was a new experience for us, as the Matissean one may be for Indians. As the borrowing culture, we felt enriched; now, as the lending culture, we seem to feel superior. But it must be stressed that the history of diffusion rarely follows chronological niceties; as a transfer of elements from one culture to another, diffusion necessarily confuses. This is how a civilization spreads and grows. Ultimately, the whole issue of the newness of art is involved, for in a sense, of course, all art is derived from sources, and most culture is made up in large part of elements once diffused in chaotic recombinations from elsewhere. Finally, it should be said that in asking who made something that looked a certain way first, we are asking a question that in a global world, where all elements are laid out on the table, is surely dead. We can see the African model that moved Picasso, and we can see the Matisse model that moved someone else. The useful question now is not who first thought of the look, but what did each culture or artist do with the look, how it was used, contextualized, filled with meaning—how it functioned.

In India, some artists of the generation of the Progressives shied away from the danger of appearing to submit so directly to foreign influences. Amrita Sher-Gil (1913–1941) and others developed types of figuration rooted in Indian village life. K. C. S. Paniker (1911–1977) developed, in the ’60s, a form of abstraction that has come to be called Neo-Tantric. Neo-Tantra makes a gesture of sympathy toward Modernism while remaining far more tightly bound to the Tradition than does the relatively free abstraction of some of the Progressives. Paniker chose not to follow Western models of abstraction directly but to base his work on abstract art already existing in the Tradition, the cosmograms and meditative abstractions known loosely as yantras. His work combines abstract shapes, scratchy symbolic figures, and extensive blocks of text that delicately join and harmoniously respond with the various images. Paniker is not reported to have made any statements about yogic or tantric intentions in his work, though its connection with the tradition of tantric illustration is visually obvious.

Other Neo-Tantric artists, while motivated by Paniker’s example, shifted emphasis in various ways. Most of them eliminated the texts that occupied such a striking visual place in Paniker’s work, altered his delicate silvers and golds to primary colors, simplified imagery into single yantric configurations, and surrounded their work with declarations of yogic intentions. G. R. Santosh (born 1929), for example, regards his paintings—which look strikingly like certain American psychedelia of the ’60s—as actual yantras, that is, as icons that contain at a vibrational level a yogic power beyond that of ordinary objects. One of the most commercially successful artists in India, he speaks like a guru and seems to regard himself as an institution. Biren De (born in 1926) developed a version of Neo-Tantric abstraction more dynamic and painterly than Santosh’s, less airbrushed and elegant in look, more like hewn logs than polished wood inlay. Among somewhat younger artists who have adopted the Neo-Tantric style, Om Prakash (born 1932) makes luscious axial-symmetrical abstractions, with names like Glorified Seed, 1984; the works emphasize a somewhat clichéd sense of tantric spirituality. To a Westerner, the work of K. V. Haridasan (born 1937) is the most compelling and interesting of the type. More complex and finely balanced than most Neo-Tantric work, less simplistically axial or central, his paintings have a sophisticated relationship to American hard-edge abstraction along with their yogic intentions and yantric derivation. The ’60s work of Swaminathan (born 1929) is related to that of Paniker but wilder, inspired as it was by a desire to blow apart the emerging consensus on School of Paris taste that the Bombay Progressives had put in place. Swaminathan’s recent work is not really Neo-Tantric, though it retains hints of tantric abstraction; its delicate personal iconography of bird and mountain is a powerful force on the contemporary Indian art scene.

Much Neo-Tantric work is obsessed with the center. Twentieth-century Western philosophy has been dominated by the tendency to acknowledge the decentered self and the culture it exists in, to deny doctrines of essence and eternality. The centrality emphasized by Neo-Tantric work suggests a reluctance to enter such areas of thought, an insistence on the adequacy of the Hindu theological notion of the absolute self (atman), and on the balance and wholeness of Hindu society. Neo-Tantra’s conservative relation to the Tradition is suggested by the fact that it is a more or less exclusively male movement, unlike other strains of contemporary art in India. And while Modernist abstraction—including the work of the Progressives—described a freely evolving confrontation with pictorial form (which went from centered to decentered to allover), Neo-Tantric art, on the other hand, shows a tendency to avoid the challenge of abstraction. Its dependence on yantric forms limits its range, rendering it formulaic. Neo-Tantra is also somewhat contradictory insofar as some of its practitioners associate it with the idea of an age when art was a cultic, socially integrated function—the Western analogy would be the age of the cathedrals—yet the work functions quite differently in its own setting, where some of the artists, for example, sign their works, exhibit them in galleries, and sell them for individual gain. Still, within the Indian framework—and things have their own meaning within their own frameworks—this art, in the ’60s and early 70s, the age of color-field, hard-edge, and Minimal painting in the West, was a feasible solution to the problem of maintaining Indianness while not totally rejecting Modern influence.

India’s contemporary ethic is torn between the Western affirmation of individualism and the momentum of collective reality from the past. The collective force of the Tradition is generally opposed to certain qualities of Western culture—its individualism, its libertinism, and, above all, its materialism, which is talked about so much in Indian newspapers. Moreover, a great deal is at stake for India in the question of whether art is a timeless, cultic activity or a history-bound and history-generated one. Traditionally, Hinduism has regarded itself as transcending history Modernism and Modern art represent history. Behind the distinction between the Progressives and the Neo-Tantrists lie different senses of identity, the one willing to submerge the Indian identity in an international identity based on alleged artistic universals, the other based on Indian traditions and on an insistence that they have meaning and power apart from participation in the world community. Both of these movements go on.

The generation of artists born mostly around 1940 inherited a set of more or less rigid and mutually exclusive options, represented by the Progressives, the Neo-Tantrists, and the purist practitioners of the Tradition. Their teachers and role models as artists expected them to choose one of these approaches, and to commence practicing it as it had been practiced. Some, of course, did so. Others, heretically, became eclectics. These artists ignored the barriers between the various purisms and chose from each whatever they wanted, combining elements without regard to origin. They freely mingled ideas from Western art, from the Renaissance to Modernism, with the Persian, Mogul, and other influences that are part of the fabric of India itself. Out of this stew a new, more complex, and critical voice for Indian art—primarily Indian painting—is emerging. For these artists the important thing about, say, Mogul or British painting is that it is natural to an Indian, part of the national heritage, regardless of where it came from in the distant past. It is a part of the artist’s self, and hence it may appear in the work—simultaneously with the many other elements that are also parts of the artist’s self.

Indian artists of this generation have developed a noticeable parallelism to developments in the West. For the most part, they have rejected abstraction in favor of figuration. They have opened up their art from a purist reductionism to the acceptance of a wide variety of influences, and they have made self-conscious use of quotation from art history in general. The force of this parallelism cannot be dismissed by saying that the Indian developments derived from those in the West. They seem to have derived primarily from the mandate of India’s own situation. Indian artists have responded with an independent selectivity to exhibitions of foreign art that have traveled in India. A show of works by Paul Klee in 1979 had a dramatic influence, but India hardly turned its head for Jackson Pollock and other Abstract Expressionists in 1967, while Bulgarian icons, and graphics from Mongolia, were viewed with the same attentive interest as shows of German Expressionism. To a degree, this quality of selective openness to influence in the post-Progressive generation might be called post-Modern, as the Progressives themselves were adamantly Modern; but this terminology, derived primarily from Western experience, may not be adequate to describe Indian events.

Artists of the generation born around 1940 often show an intense involvement with social realities in their work, expressing a feeling that at this date abstraction does not seem to them to serve. The recent work of Gulam Mohammed Sheikh (born 1937) centers around the theme of “returning home”—that is, of finding an Indian identity again. His paintings are actively and complexly quotational. In About Waiting and Wandering, 1981, a Piero della Francesca madonna appears in company with an architectural scene based on Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Good Government, ca. 1338–48. In Revolving Routes, 1981, we see Auguste Rodin’s Thinker, a floating figure from Chagall. In Untitled, 1985, an angel from a Persian miniature flies by. In these and other works by Sheikh, architecture is treated in a style based on Mogul painting. Various figurative scenes are both separated and framed by an intricate architectural maze which surrounds and contains them. Different small spaces are cleared and separated from one another without perspectival connection, or with foreshortening lines that disagree from one area to another. Sheikh sees a parallel between the treatment of space in Mogul miniatures and that in the Renaissance school of Siena, especially Lorenzetti; both treat space as human-sized and made for intimate relationship.

Sheikh’s work illustrates some of the ways in which an experience of contemporary Indian art may be illuminating to us in the West. Its startling combinations of elements from Eastern and Western classicisms is based on a perception, derived from art history of the relativity of realisms. Both European and Chinese art, Sheikh remarks, have arrived at styles that have a claim to being called realistic—yet these styles are very different. As the diffusion patterns that bring diverse cultural elements into India may indicate to us the relativity of our own developmental sequences, so a confrontation with a variety of realisms may show us the relativity of our own acculturated sense of what’s real. A generation ago the Mogul method of representing architecture without the convergence of parallels toward a vanishing point appeared primitive in a Western culture habituated to the conventions of Renaissance perspective. Today, our own sense of spatial reality has pulled somewhat toward the Mogul, as architectural drawing has come to emphasize the axonometric rendering, in which parallels do not converge and the more distant parts of a building are as large on the page as the nearest.

Vivan Sundaram (born 1943) distinguishes his work from expressionist painting on the grounds that he works from “a desire to locate the figure” whereas “the expressionist figure is isolated.” He and many others of his generation wish to see the figure within its social environment, which is the radically uneven and changing face of India. His work continually contrasts the old and the new India, but without assuming that the new India has yet clearly revealed itself. In Portrait of Father, 1980, the male figure, off center in its Western business suit, seems both isolated and forbidding. There is a mystery to what lies behind his eyes: are his thought patterns Westernized? Where has he hidden the Indian in himself? In Guddo, 1981, an Indian woman of the old style squats in the background; in the foreground, gazing contemplatively out of the frame, is a young woman suggesting the mystery of the new India, of what it will be. Thinking about Themselves, 1981, shows three women in an intimate setting, not conversing but almost as if posing for a camera. In the dreamy enclosedness of the women’s quarters, and in the complexity of their dress—one in a sari, one in Punjabi garb, one possibly in Western clothing—are suggestions of the isolation of India, of its enclosure in the private dream of the Tradition, and of the variety of conflicting forces pulling it in different directions.

Like Sheikh’s, Sundaram’s work sometimes involves a mixture of autobiography and quotation. In The Sher-Gil Family, 1984, the artist Amrita Sher-Gil, Sundaram’s aunt, is shown with his mother and his grandmother. One of Sher-Gil’s own paintings appears as a quotational prop within the environment. Though there is a similarity between the practice of these Indian artists and Western quotational art, the differences are perhaps even greater. Quotational art in Europe and America contains elements of homage, but usually the dominant tone has been one of criticism of art-historical notions of originality, of style, of the nature of movements in art, and especially of progress, an idea that in the Modernist emphasis became formulaic. By holding up for neutral inspection the esthetic or representational canons of the past, out of context and stripped of their aura, the artist is often asking us to perceive the limits of those canons. In the work of Sheikh and Sundaram quotation is less critical and ironic; it functions more as a way of putting oneself in a context, of making the roots of one’s art an open part of it. Sundaram, by quoting Sher-Gil, relates to the Indian past through autobiography and at the same time establishes a lineage for his art, which shares a certain intentional bond with Sher-Gil’s. By aggressively quoting Mogul, Sienese, Chinese, Modern Western, and other far-flung sources, Sheikh implicitly denies the nationalistic approach to art history; at the same time, by integrating his borrowed elements into a communication that is rooted in India by autobiographical and other elements, he demonstrates the reverse. His work, with its theme of returning home, deals most directly with the situation of wanting to belong to oneself and also to belong to the world.

Nalini Malani (born 1946) describes her work as portraying “the binding tradition of feudalism in conflict with the veneer of Modernism” that India has received. Some of her works occur in series with implied narrative connections, within which she works her characters like a novelist. In His Life, 1979–80, a series of five canvases, an Indian household is shown poised at a moment of transition. As in much of this generation’s work, the tension between East and West seems to have become gender-related: Westernization is associated with the male, Indianness with the female. Similarly, Modernism is associated with the male and feudalism with the female, or with her condition in society. The full advent of Modernism is presented as awaiting the Westernization of the female, or at least her escape from feudal limitation. Disturbingly, no one in the family depicted in His Life will look at the Westernized father. The woman we take to be his wife begins in Indian clothes and ends in Western. A tension arises, a sense of the collapse of customs and an uncertainty about what will replace them. Concerning a Friend, 1981, portrays Malani herself, on the right, and the art critic Geeta Kapur. The moment is charged. On the one hand the artist seems to watch the critic expectantly while the critic seems to look into the future, the new India, the new identity that these artists are seeking for their civilization and themselves as they relate to the outside world through the international discourse of art. On the other, the critic seems to be reacting to something just whispered to her by the artist crouching at her side. The picture expresses a mutual commitment, and sensitively acknowledges the special importance of this critic for contemporary art in India.

Bhupen Khakhar (born 1934) encapsulates the history of this generation in India. The work he did in the mid ’60s, like that of Swaminathan and Sundaram, expresses a fierce opposition to the tradition of the Bombay Progressives, a rejection of their adoption of an alien style lacking figure and narrative. Khakhar’s built-up, nearly sculptural painting Hanuman, 1966, shows the Indian monkey god, famous as a warrior in the Ramayana, shaking his fists in a hot red rage. From this rage the new art of India would emerge, the rage of India’s despair. By 1980 Khakhar had evolved a complex magical realist style, which, like Sheikh’s, involves Mogul-influenced architectural vistas enclosing different groups of people engaged in everyday activities in a kind of Day-Glo hyperreality.

Other artists’ work moves still closer to forms of social analysis, for example the Calcutta street scenes of Veena Bhargava (born 1938), and the Bombay street scenes of Sudhir Patwardhan (born 1949) and Gieve Patel (born 1940). (Patwardhan and Patel are both medical doctors.) The social allegories of a somewhat older painter, Paritosh Sen (born 1918), are related to these artists’ work. Patwardhan addresses the ancientness of the peasant culture caught in onrushing modernization, urbanization, and Westernization. Where Khakhar and Sheikh paint magical, Mogul-like architecture, in Patwardhan’s paintings factory buildings, high-rise hotels, and new apartment houses dominate the landscapes, towering over walking and bicycle-riding peasants. Patel also emphasizes the environment. “We want,” he has said of himself and of some of his peers, “to tell all we can about man and where he lives.” Patel’s Gateway, 1982, shows a young man in Western clothing lounging, evidently unemployed, on the seawall before the Bombay monument called the Gateway of India, while an old woman in native garb sits begging nearby. The Gateway was conceived in 1911 to commemorate the first Indian footsteps of King George V; its design refers to the Taj Mahal, the monument of another foreign conqueror, a Mogul. The title Gateway refers to the ambivalent effects of foreign influence, and to an Indian desire to escape from the Tradition into the world at large. Patel’s powerful series of portraits of cases he has encountered at the clinic where he works—Hanged Man, 1983–84, Man Crushed under Truck, 1983, One-Eyed Woman, 1982, and so on—express a compassionate yet realistic attitude toward the fragility of life. These humanistic images, like some of Goya’s, face the grotesque unsentimentally yet without cynicism.

Like several of his peers, Bikash Bhattacharjee (born 1940) was involved in the ’60s reaction against School of Paris taste. As an alternative, his work features a 19th-century British academic style more openly than most of his peers, yet he turns this style to magical realist or surrealist uses, often both poetic and witty. In Bhattachatjee’s iconography as in Malani’s, India seems to await the Indian woman’s break with the Tradition: the more Westernized male appears almost as a preliminary sacrifice to initiate a transition that the female will complete. In Deity, 1982, an Indian woman’s face is misted or clouded over. Stiff-Necked Hero, 1982, is a trompe l’oeil portrait of an Indian man (his head casts a shadow on a wall outside the picture) behind a seated Indian woman with a blank space where her head and face would be. The man’s identity is clear, but appears dead; the woman’s is potential. The clouded or blank face is India’s future; it is what Sundaram’s young woman in Guddo is seeing outside the frame of the picture, what Kapur in Malani’s Concerning a Friend is about to rise to meet, gazing intently out of the frame. In His Office, 1981, shows the Westernized male authority figure, as lonely as Sundaram’s bankerly father, at his Westernized corporate desk. Behind him a drawn curtain, like the cloud over the woman’s face in Deity, conceals the repressed past and the unpredictable future of India.

The narrative concern of much of this art expresses an alert attention to the drama of lndia that is unfolding, both the grand drama of its destiny in the 21st century and the local drama of the gradual formation of a contemporary type of art. Other important artists take different approaches to the task of redefining India in terms of the rest of the world, and the rest of the world in terms of India. Ganesh Pyne (born 1937) applies tempera to canvas in sensitive Klee-like fantasy images that achieve an almost eerie lightness and transparency. His subject matter involves a gentle saturation of the surrealist image with mythological overtones and suggestions of children’s dreams or stories. The brilliant, sometimes weird ink and pastel drawings of Jogen Chowdhury (born 1939), and the etchings of Anupam Sud (born 1944), images of faceless people disappearing into passageless doorways or reaching for one another blindly through architectural spaces askew as in a dream, carry an immediate nonnarrative force that is not exactly symbolic or metaphoric but near it. They are images in a flash rather than images that unfold in narrative time. The recent work of Arpita Singh (born 1937) involves a sophisticated, noticeably Westernized manipulation and repetition of found images and simplified portraits over a ground strewn with childlike drawings of airplanes and automobiles. The eloquent formulaic landscapes of Paramjit Singh (born 1935) accumulate enormous force in obsessive images of grass and stone that seem to swell with inner life. These artists, though they share with the narrativists of their generation the project of working out India’s new art language, tend to emphasize sensibility more than socially mediated responses. Their conception of the artist’s role is very close to a common Western Modernist conception, though the system through which their work is socially processed is very different.

In the West, of course, many artists must hold other jobs to pay the rent, but in India, an even smaller proportion of artists are able to make a living with their art alone. Furthermore, in India, artists are apt to have more varied involvements with the arts than in the West, above and beyond their everyday jobs. In addition to being a painter, Tagore, of course, was a great poet; Husain is also a poet and filmmaker; Souza is a journalist; Kumar has written and published novels, short stories, and travel books in Hindi; Patel has published two books of poems, and had a play produced; Mehta is a filmmaker and writer, and so on. This situation seems to survive from an earlier, prespecialized age. It is not uncommon for artists who have regular jobs to use their annual vacations for an exhibition, for which several kinds of space are available. The sparse museum accommodations for modern art are supplemented by a looser, more open system of noncommercial galleries, rather like alternative spaces, and often sponsored by a larger institution. These galleries are rented by the artists (the Triveni Gallery in Delhi cost the equivalent of $12 a day in the summer of 1985), who mount the shows themselves. There are few such spaces, but they are highly regarded and influential. Older, established artists often still exhibit in them. Sometimes a jury sifts applications. Traditionally the artist is present at the show through all the hours it is open; he or she not only functions as the gallery attendant, but is available to discuss the work with visitors. Here again, as in the multiple professions of the artist, one encounters an element from an earlier and possibly warmer time.

A small but growing network of commercial galleries is also arising in the major cities, more or less on Western models. Some of these are rough and frontierish, but at least one has perfect white walls and track lighting. From our perspective it might seem that as this art system grows it will lead to a stultifying commodification hierarchy, which sooner or later will draw Dada-like forces into being to counteract it, with a consequent splitting of Indian art into antibodies of antibodies and subtleties of subtleties that in turn will become new, more refined commodities, creating new, more refined uses for themselves, and so on. But most Indian artists don’t see this kind of system looming in the near future. They don’t make their living by their art, so they can appreciate the emerging galleries more as places for experimentation and for reaching an audience, which promises to grow as the years pass, than as a real commercial option. Finally, alongside these galleries and alternative spaces should be mentioned a system of government support, exemplified by the Lalit Kala Akademi, a government agency which dispenses money, studios, and jobs to artists, and is a major art publisher. It includes a group of 2,000 voting members, all artists, and is administered by officers elected by the members. (These officers tend to become entrenched, developing constituencies that they serve in order to remain in office.) The Lalit Kala, the various government-supported colleges of art, and the government-supported National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi hold exhibitions, but they do not seem deeply committed to the emerging contemporary-art scene—in part, perhaps, because of the comparative youth of many of its artists.

In India, careers are not made young, and the artists born around 1940 are still emerging. Still, an even younger generation has already begun to express itself. It seems, not surprisingly, to have a somewhat different set of concerns. Ranbir Singh Kaleka (born 1953) paints overlapping meshes of images, derived from both nature and the media; exacerbating the magical realist treatment to the point of the bizarre, these works imply complex semiotic transactions between different categories of images, in a way related to, though not very like, certain complex layered work in the West today. Sushart Kumar Mandal (born 1950) produces abstraction, figuration, or something between, with no anxiety about the propriety of one form or another. The first exhibition, in 1985, of Chandrasen M. Salvi (born 1960), at Delhi’s Triveni Gallery, comprised a single multipieced work that floated bewilderingly among the genres of abstract art, Pop art, graphic design, and Conceptual art. The question of Indian identity—the “Indianness” of the work—was approached through a series of transformations of the Indian flag, inspired, says the artist, by Jasper Johns’ treatment of the American one.

In the inner conflicts of its art system, as in its tensions between nationalism and internationalism, abstraction and figuration, and more, the recent and current art history of India is a kind of paradigm, compressed into a few years, of the issues of art and cultural identity in general. When a culture that has been deeply engrossed in its own tradition has contacts with the different customs of a variety of foreign cultures, either it builds a wall, usually only mental, around itself to fend off foreign influences; which are seen as innately threatening (because other), or it attains an understanding of the relativity of its own customs and, with that, the beginning of a gradual expansion through the incorporation of foreign elements into itself. The diffusion of artistic styles and motifs is one of the most visible and volatile elements in the latter choice, because it seems to break down the identities of traditional cultures. The Progressives made the necessary radical beginning, sacrificing their personal identification with the Tradition because not to do so meant clinging to, and reinforcing, what V. S. Naipaul called a “wounded civilization.” To them, Modernism was a call. Some experienced it as a mighty force that drew them away from home, in a process as radical and unforgiving as a storm. Not much of self—understood as the sedimentation of one’s past—was left to the Progressives. Then the next generation, having been effectually set free by the Progressives, found that it was no longer necessary to leave home, and began weaving out of old materials a new story for India, seeking among the broken pieces its new face, its new artistic spirit. They attempted to return their art home. But having been abroad, it brought new gifts, new baggage. One never returns home as one left it, and hence home can never be experienced again exactly as we remember leaving it. It is perhaps in the midst of catastrophic change, or in a time of anguished endings and beginnings, that artists have the greatest opportunity to offer something of crucial value to the culture around them, by seeking, through the image, ways to deal with the destruction of an old identity and to begin to shadow forth a new one. This is perhaps a more direct expression of the power of the artist’s role than is available to a Western artist today.

In the Art Diary, a kind of international telephone book, published in Italy, that describes itself as “the world’s art directory.” India occupies the same amount of space as Ireland. An Indian artist remarked to me that when Europeans and Americans see Indian work they usually think it’s just an imitation, or, in the more skeptical phrase, “airport art.” “That’s just the surface,” he said, “though it is true that we are trying to understand European art; we feel it’s necessary.” It is strange for us, to whom this artistic language looks so familiar in many ways, to try to comprehend the Indian claim, and sureness, that it is new. To understand this idea we have to let go of the elements that we think we own exclusively; to let them live a new life, with new meanings and intentions around them. The general questions of value, originality; and identity so prominent in the discussion of our contemporary art are among the many issues raised by the current Indian situation. One reason we might be ready to accept Matissean or Klee-like works from a contemporary Indian artist is that in our own system it has become necessary, for a complex set of reasons, for artists to revive past styles. One could easily see Matissean paintings in a gallery today in New York. But of course it is not that simple: a Matissean painting by a Post-Modern Westerner will involve levels of irony and criticism, whereas for an Indian artist, Matissean motifs may be a positive instrument with which to build. By and large, Indian artists are attempting to build up a language; we are dissecting one.

The intention in the work of Indian artists born in the ’50s and ’60s is the most ambiguous. In speaking with one young artist who exhibited paintings that looked somewhat like Josef Albers’ studies, I asked if Albers was a model he had in mind. He did not know the name, and after a moment’s thought said, “It may have been done this way in the West before, but I have not heard of it.” Clearly he was telling the truth, at a conscious level. But clearly, too, through his general exposure to advertising and magazine design, to reproductions, to traveling Western shows, and to the imitations of imitations that pass over our globe, he may have known Albers without knowing that he did. This brings up all the questions that we usually ask in the inspection of art, whether our own or others, when we see things primarily in terms of one tradition. We ask, Is it original? Is it derivative? Was the artist conscious or unconscious of this or that similarity or relationship? And so on. These questions are meaningful within a specific tradition, but they are culturally relative. Consider, on the one hand, a young Indian artist who comes up with a design insight and is innocent of its general context or background in the world’s art, and on the other hand a young Western artist, filled with art-history courses, choosing elements from art history as if it were a salad bar. We have no yardstick by which to judge that one activity is more worthwhile than the other. They are on the opposite ends of the life of a language, its accretion and its dissolution.

To say that elements of our past visual languages are being adopted by Indian artists is not to say that our language is being worn like something handed down. Like loanwords passing from one language to another, visual elements enter new linguistic configurations and purposes in different cultures. In our transition from Modernism to Post-Modernism we are at the beginning of a new language. (Unless a culture is dead, it cannot come to the end of one language without being at the beginning of another.) There are advantages to a time when, as William Butler Yeats put it, the center can not hold, when one’s tradition is dissolving into incoherent units and one’s identity likewise is somewhat free-floating or in question. At such moments options for freedoms come into being that are not otherwise available.

A freedom like this was enjoyed in Europe during the Renaissance, when many European artists, writers, and thinkers, changing their focus, overleapt the Christian period and looked to ancient Greece and Rome for models. That time marked the beginning of the formation of our cultural language—really, the beginning of our tradition of Modernism, which now is passing or past, though we live with its inheritance of problems still. European artists of the Renaissance were at the end of the language of feudal Christian art, free to choose a new heritage and, to an extent, to redefine themselves through it. In India the Progressives exercised such a freedom when they chose Western Modernism as a new foundation. The next generation of Indian artists are extending this project as they borrow from a worldwide system of art languages and find new ways to express their Indian heritage. Such borrowings open up new directions of expression not available before, as the infusion of thousands of loanwords from Latin in the 17th century made English, for the first time, a language in which philosophy could be discussed and produced.

In Europe and America, we too have been groping recently for new ways to relate to our tradition, and have been infusing it with loan elements from other cultures to open it up in directions in which it is now closed. As with Indian artists, Western artists have turned to a variety of sources of new elements, among them Japan and India. Many Western artists have gone to India in the last thirty years, some of them many times. Most of them do not relate directly to contemporary Indian art while they are there, but take home elements from India’s past, as Indian artists have from our past. Some Western artists collaborate with Indian craftspeople. Some bring new ranges of color into their work, new strangenesses of images, new feelings of light and dark, new feelings for materials—including fabrics, papers, and metals—and new stylistic influences or borrowings, like Clemente’s Mogul-like miniatures and his references to Hindu mythology, or Howard Hodgkin’s incorporation of Rajput and Mogul influences. There is, in addition, a body of work by Westerners that is merely derivative kitsch or psychedelia or empty tantricism.

These passages between Eastern and Western cultures are parts of a vast array of intercultural transactions in the world today which together comprise a great process of reorganization and seeking. In a shrinking yet terrifying world, we have to learn—and use—each other’s languages, for the future is an unknown language that we will compose together.

Thomas McEvilley is a writer who lives in New York. He is a reviewer for and contributing editor of Artforum and a professor at the Institute for the Arts, Rice University, Houston.