Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 4, 2018
Sonal Khullar Worldly Affiliations: Artistic Practice, National Identity, and Modernism in India, 1930–1990 Oakland: University of California Press, 2015. 368 pp.; 84 color ills.; 20 b/w ills. Cloth $60.00 (9780520283671)

In her innovative and elegant book, Worldly Affiliations: Artistic Practice, National Identity, and Modernism in India, Sonal Khullar reconstitutes the history of modernism in India as nimble artistic negotiations between present and past, East and West, crafts and fine arts, and individual and nation. Through Edward Said’s notion of “affiliation,” she pushes the history of art worlds beyond the bounds of the nation-state, education, or media to revive “the worldly conditions, or social and political horizons, of cultural production” (14). By attending to artists’ mediations, she models a new theory of writing art history. Khullar examines four canonical artists—Amrita Sher-Gil (1912–1941), M. F. Husain (1915–2011), K. G. Subramanyan (1924–2016), and Bhupen Khakhar (1934–2003)—to offer a range of production, process, and conviction.

These artists have often been placed either at the extreme of Westernization rooted in urban, colonial, or European art production, or that of an Easternized artistic practice, grounded in the village, crafts, or nationalism. Khullar counters these designations by examining artists’ concerns with historical and artisanal representations, from the murals of Ajanta to the printed arts of the bazaar and from village pottery to European oil painting. Like the arts that they found inspirational, the artists are from equally varied regions, religious communities, artistic backgrounds, and genders. This allows for dialogues between artistic groups, movements, and schools to surface and therefore for a history of a national art to emerge as well as a visually and textually grounded history attentive to the economics of materials to subvert an identity-based one. Sher-Gil is more than simply a female artist, Khakhar a queer one, Husain a Muslim, Subramanyan a craftsman (37); rather they are producers of fresh visual and material forms and pictorial languages in which these aspects play a part alongside others. Cosmopolitan endeavors thus become the “structural conditions” for modernism in India, which offers a method for an integrated study of modernisms globally as well as for contemporary artists’ consideration of modernism (12).

Khullar opens her study with Sher-Gil and her modernist “calibration between east and west” connected to her formation of a nationalist art (12). Born in Budapest to a Hungarian mother and Sikh father, she moved between India and Europe until her untimely death. Khullar aligns Sher-Gil’s study of European primitivism, Orientalism, and feminism in her self-portraits in Paris, which is established in scholarship, with her subsequent engagement with precolonial courtly arts in India and the villagers she met on her travels. Khullar’s focus is Sher-Gil’s engagement with the murals of Ajanta and Mattancheri as well as Rajput and Mughal court paintings. These, Khullar argues, allowed Sher-Gil to give visual form to the masses and to women that differed from that of male artists and nationalists who conceived of “India” as rooted in the village and the mother or goddess (73). By bringing together her Western art training with classical Indian aesthetics, Sher-Gil forged compositions of “flat relief” and a palette of “hot color” that catapulted “sensuality and tactility” and melancholy to the fore (77).

Husain is similarly considered for his creation of a new language of form, but rather than Sher-Gil’s realism it is his ability to be a “picture showman” working across the media of painting and performance, the site of village and city, and the tension between art and craft. By focusing on Husain’s 1967 experimental film Through the Eyes of a Painter and his 1968–69 performance Six Days of Making, Khullar is able to frame his early paintings, such as Man and Zameen (Land) and his turn to mythology in the Mahabharata series, according to content and media. The techniques of wall and scroll painting allow for the “transformation of man and peasant into myth” (93). In between “chance and construction” (97) and reality and representation—such as a goat roaming in front of a painting of a tiger—a play happens (111). The tools and animals of the village, as Geeta Kapur suggested, become symbols through the storyteller Husain (112). Khullar’s discourse is reoriented toward his practices of making. Previous narratives circled around Husain being an “untrained genius” or his persecution by the Hindu right. Husain here is a magician who deftly reformulates familiar signs into a language of art—mythological and monumental—for a new public (184).

Subramanyan in turn is understood as an inventor of language, one of the “primitives of a new age,” who drew together the “dialects of ‘modernist’ art and ‘traditional’ crafts” or “easel” and “earth” (130–1). Rather than the separate realms codified in British colonial arts education, Subramanyan proposed a structure that reconciled fine arts and crafts. As a teacher and writer, he instructed students to integrate “materials, techniques, surfaces, and idioms” (134) such as terra-cotta tiles hung on the wall-like canvas or by making toys, painting murals, weaving textiles, and sculpting with rope. While he participated in a nationwide crafts revival, Subramanyan also sought a linguistic strategy that developed from E. H. Gombrich, who taught him in London and promoted, in Khullar’s words: “art as process—not product—and as a communicative system particular to a culture—not an ‘international idiom’” (144). The distinctiveness of Indian art, according to Subramanyan was in “its hierarchical unity” rather than “sharp dividing lines between the major and minor arts” that continued to pulse. Subramanyan’s vision of a “living tradition,” according to Khullar, was oriented toward practice and grounded in education; in order “to imagine a future, artists in postcolonial India needed to relearn the language of the past” (166).

Khakhar’s language is also described as vernacular. In line with artist Gieve Patel and critic Kapur, in his milieu of those who “understood art as a means of social change and envisioned the city as a site for that change,” Khakhar turned to the arts of the bazaar and the sociality of the urban (171, 173). By drawing a vendor of the digestive chew paan and his shop, according to Khullar, the “ordinary and ubiquitous”—also meaning the narrative and the figurative (indigenous) rather than the abstract (international)—becomes the “model for art” (174–5). It is Khakhar’s investigations of families in the city and tradesmen in the bazaar—Parsi Family (1968), Janata Watch Repairing (1972), for example—that inverts the Indian artist from the colonial designation of “imitator and workman,” the so-called Company painters and advertisers, to “native genius” (182). The often bright and mechanical artworks on which Khakhar drew inspiration thus become incorporated into a national tradition (187). Unlike the previous artists for whom the village was a source, Khakhar’s mixtures of media and reference drew on “capitalism and colonialism,” which makes his work a mastery of “sly civility” in Homi Bhabha’s terminology, rich with humor, irony, and pathos (183).

A strong claim of the book is that postcolonial modernity is rooted in a colonial and traditional past, just as the contemporary emerges from the ruins of both. By focusing on the period between 1930 and 1990, Khullar revises earlier period divisions that stressed distinctions between colonial art production, modern art in late colonialism that drew on indigeneity and European forms, and art produced after Indian independence from the British in 1947. She thus offers a broad historical trajectory of modernism in India that expands current scholarship in the field, while also providing an erudite history of modernism in India that can be used in the classroom. Khullar’s book springs from Kapur’s essential question—“When was modernism?”—and is in dialogue with others who have engaged this question, including Partha Mitter (1994), Rebecca Brown (2009), and Karin Zitzewitz (2014). It also parallels, expands, and anticipates scholarship that has focused on arts produced after Indian independence in 1947, including Brown (2009) and Terracciano (2017), and recent exhibitions such as The Empire Strikes Back (2009), Midnight to the Boom (2013), After Midnight (2015), and Bhupen Khakhar (2016). Khullar’s strategic periodization allows her to tell a continuous and cohesive history in which “the past is foundational to the representational practices of the present” (11).

While themes run through the chapters, including each artist’s attention to arts education, the creation of a public for art and a nation through art, and the dialectic between traditional and Western arts, the book pays particular attention to how artists struggled to form a new artistic language in the wake of colonialism. Khullar quotes Sher-Gil, who wrote in 1936 that “the purpose of art was to “create the forms of the future” (21), but the same could apply to Husain, Subramanyan, and Khakhar who all, through film, paint, clay, and collage sought to form a legible pictorial language. As factions of individuals, groups, and governments across the globe struggle to converse, these artists offer forms essential to bringing into being a “new world of aesthetic experience” (21). Through Khullar’s deft history, affiliation becomes a means to call such art worlds forth not only for artists and scholars but also for citizens.

Holly Shaffer
Brown University