Art and Nationalism in India

The art of India is a vital cultural expression of India. As Partha Mitter explains, it is intertwined with assertions of nationalism, the equation of modernisation and westernisation, and a desire to preserve the cultural heritage of India.

‘One of the most intriguing yet least explored aspects of western impact on traditional Asian societies in the modern or colonial period, has been the traditional artist's response to European representational art. Unlike the more obvious impact of western technology in these societies, the reception of European art has been less even in countries such as India, oscillating from an enthusiastic and wholehearted acceptance of western art to a strong resistance to it, reflecting the change from an initial period of unquestioned westernisation to the growth of national consciousness. The benefits of adopting superior technology are somewhat easier to demonstrate. In the case of art, which involves judgments of taste that are by their very nature not so absolute, the consequences are more elusive and problematic.

Although as early as the sixteenth century, Mughal artists had learned a great deal about western art from Jesuit missionaries and European travellers to India and had applied this knowledge to their own art, the first deliberate and conscious introduction of western art conventions in India came as part of a package, when in the nineteenth century the British rulers opted for the wholesale western education of the emerging Indian élite provided a new class of artists from their ranks, who were taught systematically in art schools, modelled on English establishments, such devices as linear perspective and chiaroscuro, employed since the Renaissance to create a faithful likeness of the subject. Significantly, along with these devices came European romanticism, the sentimental and literary subject matter of academic painting, in fact the whole ideological underpinning of nineteenth-century academic art: for it is not easy to import a style and leave out its intellectual and cultural assumptions.

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