Art and Nation Building in Colonial India

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In nineteenth century India, national art had the same status as national demands: it seemed condemned to be a deceived aspiration. The colonial encounter had indeed this effect that it submitted Indian culture to the judgment of Western colonizers; and the result was a strong depreciation of Indian past and present art. To the eyes of the colonizer, the artistic tradition in India was indeed a tradition of repetition, lacking creativity and individual expression. The first step of nationalism was hence the recovery of a cultural integrity and the valorization of Indian art. Reestablishing the link between past, present and desired future was necessary. “The past, writes Tapati Guha-Thakurta in Monuments, Objects, Histories, Institutions of Art in Colonial and Postcolonial India, as a symbol of the nation’s autonomous history and civilizational lineage, had to prepare the way for a present where tradition and modernized knowledge would together frame a new national self.”

This essay will focus on the role of art in nation building during the colonial period in India. The point that will be developed here is that art was used, first to recover a national self, and then to differentiate this national self from the colonial culture.

It will be divided according to the plan displayed on the following page.

I) The development of art as a national pride: 1850-1900s.

A. Rehabilitating Indian art: a national art history.

* The museum as a celebration of Indian ancient culture.
* The first Bengali art history.

B. Regenerating high art through westernization.

* Artistic education and western standards.
* A new high art and the example of Raja Ravi Varma.

C. Painting for the nation.

* History paintings.
* Popular paintings.

II) The reconstitution of a national aesthetics: the Bengal school 1900-1920s.

A. The rejection of Western vision of art.

* Against alien criteria.
* A new model to study indigenous art.

B. The “swadeshi” ideology of art.

* A political ground.
* A dramatic artistic shift.

C. The creation of a cultural continuity.

* Orientalist orientations.
* A Hindu tradition.

III) Moving away from Bengal school : the desenchantment.

A. The setbacks of the Swadeshi movement.

* Criticisms.
* Limits: the orientalist-nationalist debate.

B. The demands and dictates of Gandhian nationalism.

* Gandhi and the Santiniketan experiment of art.
* The making of a national canon of modern art.

C. The decline of national art.

* Towards modernism and a universal language of art.
* The rise of individual artists.

I) The development of art as a national pride: 1850-1900s.

A. Rehabilitating Indian art: a national art history.

* The museum as a celebration of Indian ancient culture.

The origins of the first museum of India are to be found in the west. The Asiatic Society, a prestigious organ of Western orientalist scholarship, was founded in Calcutta in 1784 by Sir William Jones. Thirty years later, the idea emerged to form a museum within the society, in order to gather under the roof of the society the vast material India offered for Western scholars. The museum, named Jadu Ghar, was conceived as an imperial museum, where collection representing India would be presented in an organized and classified manner. This first museum gathered objects of science as well as reliques from the past. Simultaneously to the museum, the new discipline of archeology arrived therefore in India. For the first time, there were systematized initiatives by the British towards the survey and documentation of Indian antiquities. The will for a comprehensive knowledge, as revealed by the very creation of a museum, conceived as a small...
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