Multiple Modernities

Atul Dodiya, Sabari with Her Birds (2005).
Lithograph and chiri-bark paper collage on
paper, 50 x 40 in. Courtesy Philadelphia
Museum of Art

During June - December 2008, the Philadelphia Museum of Art hosted the exhibition, "Multiple Modernities: India, 1905-2005". The artists represented included Jamini Roy, A. R. Chughtai, F. N. Souza, Bhupen Khakhar, Nasreen Mohamedi, M. F. Husain, Tyeb Mehta, Gieve Patel, Sudhir Patwardhan, Rabindranath Tagore, V. S. Gaitonde, and Atul Dodiya.

Here is Stamatina Gregory's review of the exhibition, published in Modern Painters.

Disaffection with academicism, an embrace of simplified, abstracted forms, and a search for the spiritual in art—the overarching trajectory of Indian modernism may seem, at first glance, to resemble a shopworn Western narrative. Each of these 30 drawings, prints, and watercolors, however, offers highly personal windows onto a politically charged century that straddled decolonization, partition, secular movements, and the assertion of a national identity—in other words, a specifically Indian experience.

At the forefront was the Nobel Laureate Rabinandrath Tagore, represented by several drawings of birds and stark, abstracted faces (all 1928–30). Tagore’s experimental university at Santiniketan in rural Bengal became a hotbed of innovation, where artists rediscovered and combined the techniques of traditional manuscript illustration and East Asian painting. Several works directly attest to the university’s legacy. Bhupen Khakar’s wispy watercolor Untitled (Puja on a Visit to Santiniketan) (ca. 1990s) depicts a devotee paying homage to the school, and Tyeb Mehta’s angular charcoal of a bird was created during a 1984 residency there.

After independence, abstraction became a way to reconcile India’s figurative tradition with pure form. V. S. Gaitonde’s 1957 drawings, formal exercises in rhythm and line, are sensitively matched with Nasreen Mohamedi’s elegant Untitled (Rectangles in Space) from the 1980s. Mohamedi is the only woman represented here, despite India’s vibrant, integrated contemporary art scene, and depictions of goddesses from Hindu epics are left to artists like Atul Dodiya, whose admittedly striking Sabari with Her Birds (2005) reimagines its main figure as a youthful yogini. The history of Indian modernism has been laid—let its revisions begin.

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