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The spirituaL in art from the contextual to the regional – Saraswathi Devi Bhattathiri

Once upon a time, a huge flood and heavy rain conferred a village by the celestials and the whole village with its inhabitants that included not only humans but also cows, buffaloes, sheep, birds, cats, dogs and even reptiles were rescued by a dark shepherd boy who lifted a mountain with his finger. Rain, otherwise a necessity for the agrarian landscape had turned to be a catastrophe since the celestials converted a necessity into a forceful blow. This is often read from the Postcolonial and Subaltern perspectives, between the dominated and the silenced, has been turned into certain discourses in this narrative. ‘Regional Modernism’ is a term that refers to the developments in visual arts in the southern part of the country, since around mid 20th century. The list of pioneers who lead to these changes include D.P. Roy Choudhary who was a direct student of Abanindranath Tagore; and K C S Panikar, who introduced western art pedagogy in the southern art schools of colonial origin. The Madras Art School began as an extended and elaborate version of the activities of Government College of Arts and Crafts of Madras of which DK Roy Choudhary was the first prominent Indian Principal.

An art movement and an art space were born out of this school; and captivated the regional tastes and coincidentally reflected upon the ambiguities inherent within the structure of art historicity itself. Art Historians like Tapati Guha, Ratan Parimoo and Krishna Chaitanya have identified the ‘Bengal school’ as the catalyst for rebirth of a pan-Indian essence in art, from within which, it seems to largely relate to the nationalist cause as a style developed in the early 20th century. Ananda Coomaraswamy’s notion of spiritual in art, Aurobindo’s apparent division of spiritual from the religious; and Okakura’s notion of Oriental practices aided the Bengal art movement in projecting works as those containing a programme, to salvage Indianness from ‘white-washed’ impressions and influences.

In the postcolonial history of art, this marked the departure from Eurocentric unilateral idea of Modernism into alternative contexts that sensitized Modernism outside the context of its origin, both idea-wise and geographically. The recurring plates of Abanindranath’s ‘Bharat Mata’ and Nandalal’s Ajanta fresco adaptations in ‘Siva Drinking Poison’ and ‘Sati’ in art historic sources like books, talks, videos, galleries; and in later adaptations of them in art accommodates an Indian Renaissance into one unilateral geographical and psychological area. Art Historian R Siva Kumar argues (in his text “Towards Making a Contextual Modernism”) that the Santiniketan artists did not believe that, to be indigenous one has to be historicist either in theme or style; and similarly to be modern one has to adopt a particular trans-national formal language or technique. Modernism was to them neither a style nor a form of internationalism. It was a critical re-engagement with the foundational aspects of art, necessitated by changes in one’s unique historical position.

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