Indian art is like an ocean, and with growing audiences in the country and overseas, everyone’s vision and interests in art can be realised
– Nanda Ediga.
This musing, from graphic designer and photographer Nanda Ediga, perfectly summarises the growing global interest in India’s art history. Generally defined as geographically inclusive of modern-day India, Bangladesh, and areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan, Indian Art incorporates several art forms, historical periods, and influences. It can evocate exemplifications of beauty; transplendent through its rich colours and religious motifs, which has been argued, is why Indian Art has a particular emphasis to evoke, through sensory experience, spiritual truths that would otherwise remain unknown.
In this post, researcher, historian, and art writer, Amita Kini-Singh shares her thoughts and insights into this rich visual culture. Amita, whom I have had the pleasure of meeting through mutual e-learning, is a passionate Art scholar, and is determined to improve engagement with Art History through the next generation of learners.
Could you describe your job and area of interest?
In an early avatar I was a banker for a leading multinational bank in India for nearly two decades. I always say that by education I was a computer science and management student, by profession I was a banker but by passion I have always been an artist. I had never thought of pursuing art as a career, as my love for Physics and Maths in school and college took me down a different route, one that I quite enjoyed, as studying computer science in the 80s and 90s was new and exciting. But loving art as I did, and having studied Japanese throughout my university days, I got interested in Japanese paper cutwork art, which I wanted to pursue as a commercial artist after taking a sabbatical from my banking stint. A friend and I set up an art styling business called ArtCelle which not only completed bespoke art commissions but also advised designers, architects and individual clients on how to buy and display art in their homes and offices.
What drew you to the world of Indian Art, to begin with?
That was an interesting detour that changed my life. Soon after setting up my art styling business I was approached by friends, family, colleagues and clients to advise them on their art investments. Having never studied art history or even read enough about it, as I was more of an art practitioner than a scholar, I started taking up courses on the subject – both in person and online. In 2015, while completing a fairly rigorous Post-Graduate Diploma in Modern and Contemporary Indian Art and Curatorial Studies at the Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai, I was introduced to a period that despite being a turning point in Indian art history, had not received the detailed study it deserves. This period was the first few decades of the 20th century, during which there were several interactions between Indian and Japanese artists, scholars and ideologues, that had a far-reaching impact on the art and aesthetics of both countries, and changed the trajectory of Indian art. I was instantly drawn in as for the first time I found a subject that was an intersection of all my areas of interests – art, history, and cultural similarities between India and Japan. I was keen to research further on the topic and publish my findings, as it is quickly fading from public memory as we move further away from the first and second generation of artists who lived in these times. And what better way to do this than to commence a doctoral research? I hope to complete my PhD on the cross-cultural influences between India and Japan in 20th century art by next year.
What’s the biggest misconception about Indian Art History?
India as we know it today is a very complex country with a varied artistic and aesthetic heritage. At the beginning of Indian art history in the proto-historical period you have the Harappan Civilisation (3300 – 1300 CE), the ancient Gandhara, Maurya, and Gupta eras (1st century BCE – 6th century CE), and the pre-modern early medieval artistic period up to the 13th century during which the Śilpaśāstras were written to prescribe design principles for the visual arts. It has a myriad of cultural influences including the religious influences of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Islam, Judaism and Zoroastrianism. The Mughal and Colonial rules had their own impact on the trajectory of India art with the miniature paintings and illuminated manuscripts of the former, and the western artistic influences of the latter. So whether it is the temples of Khajuraho, the miniature paintings of Rajasthan and Kangra, the Company-style paintings of the 19th century or the contemporary art of modern, independent India, the biggest misconception about Indian art history is that it can be boxed into well-defined categories using the same parameters and aesthetic principles as the Western canon. Indian art has an exceptionally diverse and nuanced cultural, social and religious context that needs to be understood and translated exceedingly well, in order to avoid the misrepresentation that plagued colonial Indian art writing of the past couple of centuries.
Indian Miniature Painting: Shoeing the Horse. Image Credit: CSMVS Mumbai at https://www.csmvs.in/collection/galleries/miniature-paintings/231-shoeing-the-horse
What is the most challenging part of being an Art writer and historian?
It is a great time to be an art writer and historian. There are some exciting discourses and debates that are centred around the position of Indian and Asian art on the international stage and amidst the ever-evolving global art history. There is improved access to literary sources with libraries going online, and web-based image and primary source archives make it so much easier to complete your research right at your desktop from anywhere in the world, rather than relying on brick-and-mortar institutions and investing in expensive books on art theory and practice. While I always prefer to be able to visit galleries and museums and observe the original artwork, with the locations of so many of the works relating to my research being either lost, in private ownership or located in obscure galleries across the world, the fact that so many art institutions have gone online has enabled me to locate works of art that a scholar a few decades ago would have never known existed. That’s the power of internet search engines! That being said, the single most challenging part of being an art writer and historian for me is the scarcity of information relating to my field of study. Although it is temporally located within the last hundred years, the absence of adequate documentation, the passing away of significant artists and scholars who lived through these times, and the fast-fading public memory of this historic association between Indian and Japanese artists are the hurdles that I face.
If someone is thinking of entering this field, how would one go about that?
I think this is a field that needs varied skills and should appeal to the multi-disciplinarians amongst us. In order to write about art one needs to understand art, architecture, design, sociology, literature, cultural theory, critical theory, political science and history. One must be able to think logically, critically, and argumentatively, and write stylishly and persuasively in order to get your message across while adding to the existing community of knowledge. Education in most colleges and universities across the world still doesn’t cater to this multi-pronged approach to art history, and we continue to churn out specialists that are so niche in their thinking and writing that they appeal to only a very well-informed audience of their peers. Art history should not be so elitist, and when art and culture belongs to the public so should writing on the subject. For those interested in writing with this kind of public engagement in mind should arm themselves with a variety of skills and sign up for as many courses beyond what they are studying. They should take every opportunity that they can find to write about art through personal blogs, artists’ personal statements, gallery catalogues and wall texts, and online art websites many of which also conduct art writing workshops. Art galleries and museums often have great courses as well as give internships for docents that would help the younger art writer to think and talk about art while building up a good resume. It’s definitely an opportune time to enter the field.
V.S. Gaitonde, Untitled, 1968, Oil on canvas, 34 x 30 inches. Image Credit: DAG Modern. https://dagworld.com
What does the future of Indian Art look like?
Indian art is at a critical juncture and some strategic actions are needed in many areas in order to both preserve its past as well to encourage the youth to take it forward. For a country with such a diverse art and architectural heritage, the subject itself is missing from most of our top educational institutions. Some avant-garde thinking is need from the Government and private educationists to improve the quality of existing art institutions as well open new ones in order to attract the more creative-minded youth of the country – whom we are losing to either the science and management streams or to foreign educational institutions. In a country of such diversity with artisanal arts and crafts, folk art and a wide array of indigenous arts, we need to be more inclusive by throwing open the doors of our educational, artistic and literary institutions to both marginalised artists as well as vernacular scholars. Art is known to be a great leveller and what can be a more fitting place than India to use it to bridge the disparities than we have amongst economic classes, languages and religions? The future of Indian art history is exciting, it always has been, but we need to act now.