Debashish Banerji studyof aboindranath is significant addition to existing scholarship. Departing from the received tradition of looking at abanidranath as an artist shackled by his commitments to nationalism Banerji recognizes the complexity that cross cultural encounters bring to the colonial world and locates abanindranath squarely within this new space of inter subjectivity dialogue and mutual transformation. Deftly combining theoretical insight with a wealth of historical and familial facts he demonstrates how abanidranath through his simultaneous engagements with the pre modern communitarian and the colonial modern brings in not only an alternate modernism but also intuits the postmodern itself.
The alternate nation of Abanindranath Tagor provides a revisionary critique of the art of Abanindranath Tagore the founder of a national schools of Indian painting popularly known as the Bengal schools of art. It categorically argues that the art of Abanindranath which developed as part of what has been called the Bengal Renaissance in the 19th-20th centuries was not merely a normalization of nationalist or oriental’s principle but was a hermeneutic negotiation between modernity and community geared toward the fashioning of an alternate nation resistant to the stereotyping of identity formation of the nation state. It also establishes that his art embedded in communitarian practices like kirtan, alpana, pet naming syncretism, and storytelling through oral allegories south a dialogic social identity within the inter subjective context of locality regionality, nationality and trans-nationality.
This book is well illustrated with many of Abanindranath creation. It will be a rich reference work for students researchers and academics from various subject areas such as arts and humanities sociology and cultural studies and would be precious for artists art collectors connoisseurs museums and art galleries.
Debashish Banerji, a great grandson of Abanindranath Tagore, holds a Ph.D in Art History from the university of California Los Angeles. He teachers Asian art history at Padadena city college and Indian studies at the university of philosophical research los Angeles. He is also adjunct faculty at the department of Asian and comparative studies at the California institute of integral studies san Francisco and has served in various capacities in academic institutions as well as in museums and art galleries across the world.
Debashish Banerji is a great grandson of Abanindranath Tagore and holds a Ph.d in art history from the university of California Los Angeles. He is a professor of India studies and the educational co-ordinator of the university of philosophical Research Los Angle. He also serves as an Adjunct professor of Art history at the Pasadena city college and at the department of Asian and comparative studies at the California institute of Integral studies San Francisco. He has curated a number of exhibitions including Divine Carriers: Recent Art from India and Nepal at the lanand art gallery Loyola Marymount university los Angels CA (1998): Conturs of Modernity: Contemporary Art of India at the founder Hall SOKA university California (2005): Yamato-e the journey of Japanese Painting at the Kala Kendra Auroville (2006) and the world of Ajanta at the sri Aurobindo Ashram Art Gallery Pondicherry (2008).
I take great pleasure in writing this Brief foreword to Debashish Banerji exciting new work which brings to bear methodological innovations and a cluster of new ideas on a revisionist study of Aanindranath Tagor one of the major artists and ideologue of the nationalist Bengal school of painting in the early decades of the 20the century. Not only is Abanindranath legacy in artistic nation building still open to debate but the story of the art produced as a form of nationalist resistance during the colonial period is self complex and multi layered giving rise to a rich array of interpretation. Until now most of the major work have dealt with nationalist art form the perspective of the Indian elite who were engaged in constructing a modern cultural identify commensurate with the struggle against the British Raj. One of the criticism leveled against the elite has been their self interest who by accomplishing an anti colonial political revolution helped blunt the edge of a social revolution that should have followed India decolonization.
The discourse of the mainstream histories of nationalism are seen to concentrate on the political revolution spearheaded by the elite the include the Bengal school artist to the neglect of the underclass or Subaltern culture. Debashish Benerji takes a variant approach inspired by the innovative work of the subaltern scholars who have sought to draw our attention to sections of the population that have not always received appropriate consideration from historians. To be sure Banerji protagonist Abanindranath Tagore belongs to the highest echelons of the Bhadralok or elite group of Bengal. Benerji’s originality however lies in presenting abanindranath from an entirely different perspective. Countering the established view that the Bengali artist engaged in a form of nostalgic historicism in his construction of national self definition Benerji argues that the artist turned for inspiration of folk and popular cultural forms notably to the Vaishnava Kirtan tradition of Bengal an influential demotic form that combines religious song and recitative and Bengali women domestic to no less than a communitarian critique of modernity which had been responsible for the suppression of collective thought and actions. Abanindranath perspicacity here is revealing. The myth of imagined unity propounded by the dominant discordant discourses of the so called minority cultures. Benerji thesis is that Abanindranath alternative form of communitarian nationalism informed the later works f the Bengali master an idea Banerji master an idea develops by means of an innovative approach to art history as performance seeking to engage creatively with social forces in order to establish that the past was replete with immanent possibilities. Such a radical alternative nationalism resurrected in the present postcolonial era. This bold and imaginative approach to an alternative nationalist art history proposed by Debashish Benerji will and must generat intense debates on the nature of nationalism modernity art class and identity.
Abanindranath Tagore (1871-1951) is recognized in mainstream history as the founder of a national school of early 20th century Indian painting known more commonly today as the Bengal school. The national basis of this art in its turn has been read by several modern scholars as derived from orientalist constructions of an Indian art history by figures such as E.B. Havell (1861-1934) and Ananda Coomarswamy (1877-1947). In this work I have argued against such a perception drawing a distinction between stereotypical and alternate forms of cultural nationalism in the process. My contention is that central in the art of Abanindranath Tagore is not the normalization of nationalist or oriental’s principles but a critical engagement with post enlightenment modernity as the underlying paradigm behind colonialism and nationalism, anticipating the objectification and fragmentation implicit in its order and countering these with a seeking on the one hand for transcendence or individual autonomy and on the other a creative communitarian intersubjectivity.
In this I take the fragmented subject of modernity as constituted by a variety of distinct discourses corresponding to lived and imagined communities. Modern capital teleology progressing toward globalism establishes its regime institutionally through nation states and symbolically through the modern me troplis. Calcutta the earliest urban seat of british colonialism in Indian was the site of a number of such coexisting discourse with their specific trajectories during the late 19th and the early 20th century and within this contested territory Abanindranath Tagore made his art Practice into a variety of negotiations between modernity and community. These discourse brought into engagement by Abanindranath in his person and his art work include his Jorasanko family community Bengal regionalism as exemplified through the Bengal school of art and the complex movement of cultural politics today known as the Bengal renaissance Indian nationalism pan Asianism and international orientalism as determinative in the production of homogenized models of nationalistic resistance. Thus individuals local schools and regional national and transnational movement have all tended to be reduced to stereotypical collusive agents of Orientalism. Though the imbrications and entanglement of these domains is undeniable I believe they need to be viewed as distinct discourses meditated through individual and creative choice of self identifying and rejection.
Looking at the different stylistic and thematic periods of Abanindranath Tagore painting this study locates the artist as a creative agent within these intersubjective context of locality regionality nationality and transnationality engaged in a process of hermeneutic negotiations between modernity and pre modernity. Through an investigation of these phases I show that Abanindranath art practice yields a variety of strategies for producing a hybrid dialogic space and an ongoing transformative praxis which I theorize as an alternate nationalisms. Thus this study is equally about the creative production of this cultural space and attempt to develop the theoretical tools to make visible the luminal negotiations involved in the production of this space along with the strategies and conditions for its creation and maintenance; and indicates the necessity of its dialectical co existence with the institutional and indicates the state as a corrective to nationalistic stereotyping and a critical force toward the continuous revision of the national identity construct.
A Brief Historiography
Abanindranath Tagore (1871–1951) was an artist who lived in the colonial urban center of Calcutta at a time when India was under British rule. As part of a widespread manifestation of Indian cultural politics around the turn of the 19th/20th century Abanindranath Tagore is well known as the founder of an art movement later to be called the Bengal school. Rising to prominence in the early decades of the 20the century largely through the dual promotion and patronage of British Orientalist and Indian nationalist interests Abandranath and his disciples came to exemplify a national style closely related to the popular establishment of the discipline of Indian Art History.
As a matter of fact the art of Abanindranath Tagore was a selective engagement with modernity through strategic and performative choice based on modern constructions of an Indian classicism a pan Asianism of Japanese origin and a regional and local cultural history. A strong individualist and subjectivist sensibility characteristic of modern authorship was made the centre of a somewhat arbitrary stylistic identity construct miniature watercolor painting based on the wash and the rhythmic line which came to characterize the Bengal school. As a polemical construct the Bengal school came to represent a break from the prevailing norms of western academic naturalism and espoused alternate subjective and spiritual standard of aesthetics and art creation. In this the claims of national authenticity were made for its art and it was appropriated by the Indian nationalist struggle for liberation from British rule.
Even during its ascendance however controversy surrounded the issue of the legitimacy of its principles and public debates raged regarding its desirability. The art of the school was castigated for its revivalism its subjectivism and its effeminacy. A medley of powerful forces were in its favor and by the 1920 most of Abanindranath students had been appointed heads of art colleges all over the subcontinent thus effectively establishing the national hegemony of the Bengal schools of Art. But this hour of glory was short lived as the entry of western avant-gardism from the 1930s brought its own Euro American subjectivist canons of form and taste and critical opposition to bear against the attempts of the Bengal schools. The rhetoric of this new internationalist and modernist idiom was soon instrumental in ushering a period of artistic experimentation throughout the country. The pejorative evaluation of revivalism Traditionalism effeminacy spiritually sentimentality and preciosity were reinvaded against the Bengal school and it was effectively marginalized.
However Abanindranath premier student Nandalal bose (1882-1995) was exceptionally influential as the head of the Kala Bhavana (art house) at the artist uncle Rabindranath Tagore visva Bharati University in sAntiniketan. Through the protean work of Bose and his tutoring of many student the Bengal school lived on and continues to influence contemporary artists in India particularly in Bengal. These artists though are mostly isolated to localized domains of practice and find little voice in the dominant concerns of the contemporary mainstream. Post modern expressions focused mainly on material social political sexual and religious oppressions within the contemporary postcolonial nation have replaced the modernism avant-gardism of the mid-century. Form the intellectually privileged vantage of these more immediate and worldly discourses the Bengal school with its traditional mystical and aesthetic concerns seems impossibly distant conceptually and temporally an aberrant instant of colonial history fated for obsolescence and oblivion.
Part of the intention of the present work is to stimulate a critical revisioning of the art of Abanindranath Tagore. Though I do not view creative or subjective agency as a qualitative essence outside of the social constructs which are its bounding and expressive contexts I also do not believe that such bounding context can be identified with agency. In the case of Abanindranath I have tried to Isolate agency from the concerns of orientalism nationalism pan Asiansim and regionalism (Bengal Renaissance Bengal School) and local or domestic cultures and study the strategic and performative choice of such agency in fashioning a dialogic intersubjective and intercultural communitarian space. In doing this I question the prevailing locus of post modernism drawing on the importance of situated histories and there engagements with lived and imagined community constructs as part of a continuous reworking of accumulated collective subjectivities.
The stylistic stereotype characterizing the Bengal school forms only a temporary phase in this engagement one marked by specific subjective and Strategic concerns which I try to explore. The identification of this stereotype with Abanindranath Tagore is shown to be a reduction though its existence and furtherance is not denied. Here also the canons of taste applied to castigate and marginalize this production demands our critical assessment. A virile heterosexual masculinity as the defining aesthetic of the realized nation as expressed in the dominant temporality of India hour of independence has no absolute merit. Historically it may be compared to British Victorian norms against which late pre-Raphelitism developed its vocabulary of cherubic adults or to post song china which consistently devalued the melancholy production of the southern song court which in turn inspired the national aesthetic of mano-na-awre in Japan. These historical analogies are not without relationship with Bengal school. Both the late pre Raphaelitism of Burne Jones and his descendents and the modern adaptation of mano-no-aware of the Japanese nationalsit Nihonga School. Both played their part in the fashioning of Abanindranth artistic subjectivity and consequently that of the Bengal school. National taste is a relative and temporal matter of rhetoric and politics. Qualitative judgments on art are the stock in trade of the art critic who is blind to the historically constructed nature of his/her own preferences of taste; the art historian is more interested in the social condition and semiotics of asesthetic production and thus in dislodging the absolutist doxa of prevailing taste.
Contextual Considerations: Bengal Renaissance, Orientalism, Nationalism
Over the last two decades much critical attention has been turned to a consideration of the anti-colonial cultural politics associated with the turn of the century struggle for Indian independence particular in what has been termed the Bengal Renaissance within which Abanindranath and his school have been categorized. This attention has followed in the wake of the application of Foucauldian anti-foundationalist through to colonial and national culture studies in critiques such as Edward Said Orientalism (1978) and Benedict Anderson imagined Communities (1983). The rising specter of religious neo/ultra nationalism in India has added urgency to these considerations its roots being sought in representations of the nation fashioned at the turn of the century in the “Bengal Renaissance.” Prime example of such representation have been identified as the Neo Vedantist inclusivism of Vivekananda and Bankim Chandra Cahtterjee Neo Tantrik invocations of unconditional surrender at the altar of the nation envisioned in the image of the mother goddess.
Indian nationalism itself ideologized culturally in a certain strand of the Bengal Renaissance and its political extension revolutionary extremism has been viewed by a growing number of scholars following said as an interjected form of Oriengalism the western anthropological mythology of an eternal and essential zed India the spiritual opposite of the material west. Other worldly exotic and idealized this India is seen as an ahistorical substantialized agent monolithically unified by the totalitarian doctrinal structures of Hinduism a zoological preserve of colonial fantasy incapable of historical change or structural rupture initiated by indigenous individual agency. Seen in this light the so called anti colonial cultural resistance of the Bengal renaissance (and its constituent parts such as the Bengal school of art) becomes in reality a compliance with colonial goals by a swallowing of the epistemological opium bait of its most advance disciplinary agents of Orient lists.
Of course not all scholars view the cultural phenomenon of the Bengal renaissance in this light and many variant interpretations and emphases continue to complexify this broad narrative. Specifically a number of Indian post colonial scholars have questioned the essentialized wholesale projection of orientalism on the phenomenon of nationalism denying all creative agency to Indians in their reception assimilation and transformation of western thought.
Without going into detail I may mention here the work of Partha chatterjee (1986, 1993) and Sudipta Kaviraj (1995) both of whom have dwelt with some attention on the novelist Bankim Chandra cahtterjee who has been considered one of the literary founder of the Bengal renaissance and whose novels were highly influential in subsequent national liberation movement in Bengal. Partha chaterjee devotes a chapter to Bankim Chandra as the exemplar of the nationalist moment of departure and Kaviraj present a full length critical study of his writings in the book The unhappy consciousness (1995). In chatterjee work Bankim ironic mimicry of the British categoric net of exclusive social definitions is compared with the indigenous fuzzy potential of words as an example of alternate forms of consciousness present in early nationalist thinking. Kaviraj defence of Bankim reformist tendencies is aimed at showing how post enlightenment positivism has been selectively incorporate into Hindu religious ideology by Bankim so as to make it adaptable to modernization while yet retaining its transcendental bias. However both these scholars become apologetic when considering Bankim last novels where explicit images of war and revolution accompany an ideology of the nation seen as the mother to whom her children are asked to sacrifice themselves.
This image is particularly significant for our consideration since it become one of the keynotes of political activity in turn of the century Bengal Bankims poem Vande Mataram (Hail the mother) becoming the anthem of the Bengal revolutionary extremism. Significant too since as part of the anti partition movement of 1905 Abanindranth iconizing of the figure of Bharat Mata (Mother India Plate 1.1) and the utilization of his painting in a political rally has been held as a sign of his complicity with the project in political rally has held as a sign of his complicity with the project of Hindu nationalism. This form of unthinking monolithic Hindu inclusivism would leave the muslim alienated and disenfranchised it is argued leading inexorably to communal confrontation and national fragmentation.
However sugata bose a contemporary historian of modern India has drawn attention to the local and regional conditions of iconic creation such as those of Bankim and Abanindranath. In both cases Bose points out it was not Bharat Mata (Mother India) that was originally invoked but Banga Mata (Mother Bengal) the representation of a unified regional linguistic community. Original serving local cultural and political need it could be extended as a voluntary gift to the national cause as a federalist not an uniformitarian gesture. Moreover the cultural consciousness of Bengal prior to the appearance of nationalized communal politics was one in which the image of the mother Goddess had a strong emotional charge to Hindu and Muslim alike. Powerful poem to the mother Goddess were written by the leading early 20th century begnali Muslim poet, Kazi Nazrul Islam and the more recent struggle for liberation of Bangladesh revived the entire turn of the century corpus of patriotic Bengali songs including the large number of these visioning the region as the Mother. The political ideology of the leaders of the revolutionary extremism that accompanied the Bengal renaissance such as Aurobindo Ghosh and Bipin pal has also been shown by bose to be uncompromisingly pluralist in conception following ideas of localized autonomy in the structuring of pre modern Indian sub continental empires. One may draw the conclusion from Bose work that the forms of cultural and revolutionary politics that constitute the discourse of what has been called the Bengal Renaissance are to be read more carefully in their regional and communitarian contexts as distinct from national ones their innovative adaptations to the exigencies of westernization and their selective care in the constitution of heterodox identities.
Another scholar who commends himself by his resistant reading of Orientalism in the modern Indian contexts is Wilhelm Halbfass. Though his work on turn of the century Bengal is primarily addressed to aspects of its philosophical and religious thought the sees the selective acceptance of Orientalist ideas by Bengali Hindu thinkers such as Vivekananda as dialogic strategies aimed at a mutually transformative enterprises of survival through innovation. In this however he warns of the inequalities of the dialog tracing said back through his forebears to Heidegger and his idea of the inexorable Europeanization of the earth. On the Indian side he disagrees with the followers of said who believe that the notion of a Hindu tradition was a 19th century Orientalist construct a reification internalized reveals an inadequate study of the history of self identification in India. Although Halbfass rejects the notion of Hinduism as an ahistorical essence he nevertheless affirms a continuous tradition or cluster of traditions which share an identity that has persisted through historical transformations referring to his major historiographical and hermeneutical treatise India and Europe (1988) he says:
This understanding of religion and philosophy can be extended to the cultural representations of the Bengal Renaissance. To do this a disciplined avoidance of monoculture readings privileging an oriengalsit or other Eurocentric discourse and its methodological replacement by a hermeneutics of hybridity based on an identification of intersecting domains of culture is necessary.
In the field of India Art History approaches such as those of Bose or Halfass which might be termed post oreintalist are not so readily in evidence. Particularly I the study of the Bengal school two major and comprehensive works in the English language that have appeared in the last decade are tapati Guha Thakurtas the making of a new Indian Art: Artists Aesthetics and Nationalism in Bengal 1850-1922 (1992) and partha Mitters Art and nationalism in colonial India 1850-1922 (1994). These narrative have viewed Abanindranath and his students principally as a school of nationalist artist in whom the polarization between a material west and a spiritual east typical of orientalist thought became the major issue. Mitter in his prologue acknowledges most of the reductionist concerns I have outlined above. He cautions against the reliance on universal standards in the analysis in of art and against the neglect of context and agency in favor of external narrative. In his words:
However in his treatment of the Bengal school though he marshals an impressive and encyclopedic store of information on the period and the interactions among artists critics and patrons subjective topography of the art as a creative negotiation remains largely sketchy and limited to orientalsit and Victorians motivations this happens I believe because the local and traditional conception histories of the art remain concealed and unteorized. This approach is even more pronounced in the work of Guha thakurta. Moreover in both these works but particularly the latter the emphasis has been placed on a historical study of the politics of promotion and patronage whereby an invented orientalist taste was normalized as nationalist culture and hegemonically inscribed into the public consciousness.
Whereas I do not discount the importance of Orientalsim and nationalism as motivating influence in the work of Abanindranath and his disciples I feel that an exclusive reading along these lines is overly simplistic and does not capture adequately the locus of Abanindranath subjectivity or the importance of his work. this locus is constituted by a number of distinct domains mainly an indigenous discursive field of heterodox Bengal mysticism filtered and modernized as part of a jarasanko tagore culture extending itself into engagement with discourse of nationals identity international orientalism and continental pan Asianism and marked by a striving toward the fashioning of a communitarian dialogue space within was also the locus of an alternate nationalism existing in creative and performative social choice outside of and alongside the institutional space of the emerging nation state. The representations of such subjectivity were deliberately ambiguous resisting reduction through a shifting deployment of personas expressing transcendence and hybridity.
By paying close attention to these performative choice in the art and life of Abanindranath and b development and by developing the necessary theoretical tools, I have tried to bring to light this otherwise concealed dimension of an alternate culture nationalism. In the context of orentalsim and nationalism as determining forces in the representation of Abanindranath my aim has also been to question the limits of the prevailing description of these paradigms to reprioritize a regional discourse to explore the untranslatable liminalities and refractions arising from the dialogic collision of prefabricated alien ideologemes and to return agency to the artist in the fashioning of a (post) modern subjectivity.
To accomplish these aims it is necessary to disengage to the contextual focus from the nationalist moment of Indian history and extend it both forward and backward toward its post colonial future and its premodern past. A paradigmatic post enlightenment modernity impacting India via colonialism had already initiated radical changes in art theory and practice as a disciplinary subset of a system of civilizational change. Calcutta being the earliest center of colonial power had been at the vanguard of these changes with the emergence of a western educated native elite the bhadralok and its entry into the educational administrative and commercial circuits of the colonizers. The objectification of civil society with its characteristics subject formation and the division into private and public spheres was well on its way to subsuming the native population. In the field of art annual are salons changes in patronage and the presence of European artists and art teachers had given birth to the artist as a new elite professional imbued with the aura of genius; and a culture of connoisseurship with the art critic historian and collector as its high priests. This was in marked contrast to the practice of art in precolonial India where the artist chitrakar had a subjugated social and economic status belonged to a caste based often hereditary community underwent a tradition of oral tutelage and was professionally employed. In this light Tapati Guha Thakurta has rightly pointed out that Raja Ravi verma (1848-1906) can very well be thought of as the first modern Indian artist marked by individuality of choice and social elitism. But it is really the emergence of cultural nationalism in Bengal at the turn of the 19th/20th century that awoke a critical consciousness in the Indian artist and a need to engage with the cultural dichotomies of an alien civilization.
This in its turn is to be perceived as part of a larger culture of social questioning and creativity that has been termed the Bengal renaissance. Forming that luminal layer of native society sandwiched between modernity and premodernity the bhadralok sector characterizing this culture found itself at the critical and creative cusp of a discourse marked by specific concern and dialectics rooted in a living regionalist and an emerging (trans) nationality. It is important to recognize at the outset that what goes by the name of the Bengal Renaissance is note a monolithic substantializes subject nor a conspiracy. Further as discourse we cannot treat in isolation its indigenous constitution. Even if we try to locate its origins in the dialogic mix of colonialism orientalism and nationalism we must recognize that each of these convenient categories are not in themselves unfrgamented and carry a variety of orientation and attitudes with echoes and dissonances making up the multi-stranded and hybrid nature of the discourse constituted by them.
Following Dipesh Chakrabarty what I find interesting in this mix is a strand of communitarian culture seeking to adapt a traditional village sociality into urban and modern terms. Intervening between the premodern and the modern this aspect of the cultural constitution of the Bengal renaissance while acknowledging the inevitable isolation of the individual as the subject citizen of the nation state sought to ground individualism in the intentional choice and practices of a living communitarian habitus so as to socialize a luminal state of praxis between modernity and premodernity. By locating Abanindranath Tagore art practice within this strand of the Bengal Renaissance I see him as a modern agent seeking local and communitarian homologies for the larger emergent discourse of region nation continent and world thereby aiding in the worlding of these abstract discourse. Thus such practices can be seen as resistant to nationalism even while constituting it and from this vantage post modern and post colonial.
The modern artist in the west if one is to periodize cultural modernism by the awakening of a radically critical consciousness turned on the ontology to teleology of post enlightenment modernity by the mid 19th century shares with Abanindranath the cultural conditions and consciousness of art production. The engagement of such a critical consciousness may lead to a very large variety of approaches as evident in the continuing manifestations of modern and post modern art. The rapid and unending succession of forms and movement of modern and contemporary art is itself an aspect of this engagement and point to the operation of a dynamic whose engine propels the engagement. At least one understanding of this restlessness of the spirit of art in modern times is its need to operate dialectically with modernity by remaining on its periphery. Art thus become a critical praxis which sidesteps its co-optation by the intellectual bastion of modernity the academy powered by capital and the nation state through a refusal to be defined/identified/classified. Movements or concerns of contemporary art are therefore strictly temporal so constituted by criticism and creativity as political gestures confronting the established order of modernity and erasing themselves as soon as they become assimilated through academic normalization art critical or art historical journalism collectorship or museology. Art production here can be seen as performative and programmatic and the printed or spoken word that often accompanies the image as part of the self declaration of the artist or movement must be read as inseparable from it and co-constituting it. Manifestos explanations annotations and commentaries are an endemic part of the productions of a modern artist and have to be seen in this polemical and performative context. Abanindranath body of work is symptomatic of this both in terms of the repeated reinvention of form and meaning in his art and the large body of text produced by him in its varied relation to his art.
Moreover mid 19th century Europe presents an initiatory moment in the critical where the artist assumed the self assured stance of prophet and believed in the power of creativity to constitute an alternate modernity. At the same time this heightened sense of individual mission has often co existed with an awareness of the destruction of community and the alienated objectification of the individual with the consequent need to redefine the alienate objectification of the individual with the consequent need to redefine the social ontology of the artist and the social role of art. An example of an early modern (some would say proto modern) art movement sharing these concern is that of the pre Raphaelites and their more wide ranging successor the art and crafts proponent of late 19the century England. In both these movement there is both a looking back and a looking forward the nostalgia fir a bygone European medievalism with its spiritual and communitarian ground and a will to refashion modernity through the creation of integrated environment resistance to mass production and the incorporation of natural forms and shred meanings and ideals into everyday objects. Such concerns also surface later in the first quarter of the 20th century in creative communities such as the Bauhaus in Germany where an acknowledgement of individualism and the ubiquity of technology is combined with the seeking for a non ethnic and non symbolist functional aesthetic of form and material designed by and put at the service of communitarian societies fashioned metaphorically as modern adaptations of medieval social forms.
Critical concerns of this kind are also to be found in the communitarians strand of the Bengal renaissance and in the field of art throughout the work of Abanindranath Tagore and some of his followers. In fact ideas of the Arts and crafts movement were from the outset powerfully present in Abanindranath artistic expression through his intimate connection with E.B Havell principal of the government college of Art Calcutta and other prominent indophile collaborators of the arts and crafts movement such as Ananda Coomarswamy considered by many as the father of the academic discipline of Indian Art History while Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) Abanindranath uncle and one of the key figure of late 19th century Bengal renaissance founded a creative and educational community at Santiniketan for which he found affinities at the Bauhaus. This is to say that nationalism and its engagement with colonialism or Orientalism cannot be an exhaustive or even adequate frame for the understanding of the work of Abanindranath which must be assessed more rightly in terms of its broader engagement with modernity for its post modern or post colonial agency.
A number of other attributes of Abanindranath art now explained in term of nationalism or Orientalism can also be viewed in these broader terms. That art is representation and not imitation is an argument rehearsed repeatedly in the debates accompanying both western modernism and the art of Abanindranath dranath and the Bengal school. Art as imitation of nature or naturalism/illusionism was born as a canonical form during the European Renaissance and in this prefigures the systematic objectification of reality that form the epistemic shift of the enlightenment and the age of modernity which has evolved from it. Illusionism places the viewer in the vantage of the subject and presents the world as the object of his conquest and enjoyment. The truth of the world is therefore a truth of surfaces and distances perceived in its three dimensionality and represented as perceived through the principled use of chiaroscuro modeling and perspective. The third or depth dimension in this case projected onto the two dimensional picture surface serves the function of both distance and time since in invites the fantasy of the duration of traversal. Disappearing into the receding mists of the perspectival vanishing point such duration evokes the teleology of the enlightenment the dream of an eventual omniscience and omnipotence and the colonial Orientalist romance of infinite tourism adventure and conquest.
In pre Reniassance medieval Europe art was held to be representational of a truth of religious ideas iconic and eternally present. To the art history of the mid 19th century fashioned in the shadow of enlightenment evolutionism as part of its disciplinary apparatus this art of medieval Europe marked an immature stage in the linear progress of civilization which reached its perspectival or panoptic fulfillment only in the art of the Renaissance. In the totalized map of world history the art of non western peoples took their place alongside medieval European art at various primitive stages of the flowering of the powers of artistic expression (as of human consciousness) adequately and canonically represented only in the Renaissance. Such a program of mapping essences in a teleology of progress prefigures and projects the political world conglomerate of nation states hierarchically arranged with Europe (now Euro-America) at the civilizational summit of modernity destined bearers of the omniscience and omnipotence of the future as the perspectival vanishing point of a Hegelian end of history.
From the late 19th century art practices in Europe whether through the exaggerated stylizations of Rosetti of Burne Jones or the distortions of form and space in the works of the French post impressionists set about to demolish the notion of art as natural illusion or truth as objectified reality. In England ideologues connected with the arts and crafts movement following William Morris countered the trajectory of modernity with a call for an engagement of Handicraft with the machine a demolition of the distinction between arts and crafts and for an integration of art into the built space of a communitarian context as against its auratic isolation in art museums and galleries the secular cathedrals of the modern world. Influential in determining art pedagogical policy in India some of the thinkers espoused a revisionist art history which decentered the art of Renaissance Europe. The two most important figures in some sense responsible for the construction of an Indian art history and color influence on the art Abanindranath Tagore (at least in its early stage) were E.B. Havell and Ananda coomaraswamny. In Havel revisionary scheme published in his open letter to educated Indian European art was categorized into three phases: Spiritual (Middle Ages) intellectual (Renaissance) and material (post Renaissance) and material (post renaissance). Artistic decline came in the 17th century heralding the insincere art of the 18th and finally the materialist art of 19the century. But the origin of the decline was to be found in the Renaissance when art creased to be communal. Havell berated the British educated Indian for having succumbed to the Renaissance centerd values of connoisseurship thereby losing sight of the spiritual in Indian art.
These views of thinkers like Havell and coomarswamy though acting in opposition to the canonical art history of the west and the trajectory of modernity implicit in it were nevertheless not unproblematic. We have already touched on the connotation of Orientalism which they lend themselves to (a) the construction of India as a spiritual other of the material west an historical essentialzed mythical subjecthood constitutive of the abstract nation state and (b) the effect of a principled exclusion of India from the possibilities of modern progress thus leaving it vulnerable to both material and cultural exploitation by colonial powers. I agree that such a charge can to some extent be brought on these thinkers though it is arguable to what extent their India is ahistorically spiritual or devoid of materiality. Be that as it may my concern here is to point to the affinities or homologues outside of the categoric constraint of Orientalism between the art practices of modern Europe critical of the trajectory of modernity and those of Abanidranath and his students fueled by similar concerns of cultural epistemological and ontological resistance to and engagement with modernity in both cases we find an acknowledgement of the fragmentation of the individual and the homogenizing forces of nation and world and in both an attempt to humanize these abstract spaces through communitarian innovations.
The emphasis on the flatness of the image in the case of Abanindranth and the Bengal school for example has been construed as traditionalism or nativism sub serving a national interest. The art of abanindranath is not unequivocally Indian nor unequivocally flat. It certainly however poses a challenge to perspective and three dimensional modeling and in this sense may be thought of in alignment with similar conscious challenges being invented in the art practices of European modernism. Similarly the influence of a Japonisme in Abanindranath art from 1904 is so pervasive and prominent that I believe it would not be wrong to say that his work is more Japanese than it is India this Japanese influence and been recognized as emanating from Okakura Kakuzo visit to Indian in 1902 and has been identified as part of a larger Orientalist pan Asianism projecting in this case a continental spiritual identity for Asia as materialist Europe other. Though a good case had been made for this to which there is no doubt merit the diversity and rage of stylistic and technical incorporation from Japanese art in abanindrantah Japonisme invite viewing in terms aligned more closely to the seeing for an arrive of alternate ontologies of seeing resistant to modernity in the pervasive Japonisme of western modernism.
I would like to address at the outset in this introduction three other specific characteristic of Abnindrant art practice and a point of social ontology the miniature format of most of his work its sexuality its cultural eclecticism hybridity and his subjective location as an artist.
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