Visualizing the Nation
The Iconography of a 'National Art' in Modern India
D Tapati Guha Thakurta
The evolution of modern genres in Indian painting since the late nineteenth century provides the choice ingredients for a 'national' history. It is a history that stands apart from the western history of modernity, the colonial legacies intricately enmeshing with nationalist impulses and moorings. The twin concerns with a 'modem pedigree and 'Indian' authenticity, that shaped this art, also shaped the writing of its history. So, while Indian art is seen to have its own unique history from ancient to late medieval times, when all external influences were absorbed and remoulded within a dominant 'Indian' canon, its 'modern' history has always had to be positioned against the west, whether the emphases be on points of derivation or difference. This, in turn, has spurred the arguments for a special 'Indian' modernity in art — a case that has been often presented with differing twists and biases, the sense of Indian backwardness countered by a focus on the local and national idioms and the historical compulsions that charted a particular route for modem Indian painting. Recent writings have been specially sensitive to the 'modem' as a polemical and ideological category in Indian cultural practice, placing its specific configurations in colonial and postcolonial India against the broader canvas of the formulation of third world identities.1 My essay will attempt to recover the historicity of the categories, 'national' and 'modem', from the canonical values they came to hold in the Indian art scene. It will look particularly at the way the 'modern' was nationalized and the 'nation' invoked in the work of three prominent Indian artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries — Raja Ravi Varma, Abanin-dranath Tagore and Nandalal Bose.
Along with changed patterns of patronage, practice and professions, a set of radically altered ideas about 'art' and 'artist', 'tradition' and 'progress' very clearly block this phase of history as 'modem' — both m the perceptions of the artists and in those of later critics and art historians. The colonial encounter in India not only brought into being a new social entity of artists, with a heightened self-awareness about, individuality., identity and nationality; it also produced a special discursive and institutional space for 'art' in middle-class society. Together, both 'art' and 'artist'