Modern art schools were established in India after 1857 in Calcutta, madras and Bombay. Indian students started handling new art material like oil colours on canvas, water colour on paper. They also became familiar with art practices like drawing and paintings from models in studios.
Earliest style to be developed was Company School of Paintings which was a result of
Raja Ravi Verma as a national painter – Raja Ravi Varma can be called India’s first modern artist, first Indian artist to master perspective and the use of the oil medium; probably first to use human models to illustrate Hindu gods and goddesses on a wide scale and first Indian artist to become widely famous. His works were accessible to the common man because of his venture of printing and distributing the Oleographs. The mass printing of the Ramayana and Mahabharata images of Raja Ravi Varma helped the art to reach every nook and corner of the country thus helped to forge a national identity in modern India.
Patronage by the British gentry class and administration in wake of loss of patronage from Mughals and local rulers. They were curious in Indian way of life and wanted to send it back to their homes in England. They also set up schools in presidencies and a hybrid art – Indo-European – developed. Many new elements like landscaping, water and oil colours, canvas etc were introduced. Company Kalam or Company School was not a pan-Indian phenomenon and was localized to early port towns and presidencies and a few other towns only. Sewak Ram, Iswari Prasad and Ghulam Ali Khan were important prominent painters.
European artists brought with them the idea of realism. This was a belief that artists had to observe carefully and depict faithfully what the eye saw. What the artist produced was expected to look real and lifelike.
Another tradition of art that became immensely popular in colonial India was portrait painting. Unlike the existing Indian tradition of painting portraits in miniature, colonial portraits were life-size images that looked life like and real. The size of the paintings itself projected the importance of the patrons who commissioned these portraits. This new style of portraiture also served as an ideal means of displaying the lavish lifestyles, wealth and status that the empire generated.
There was a third category of imperial art, called “history painting”. This tradition sought to dramatise and recreate various episodes of British imperial history, and enjoyed great prestige and popularity during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. These paintings once again celebrated the British: their power, their victories, their supremacy.
While first few generations of Indian artists started mastering European art materials and techniques, some deeper changes took place in the thinking of the urban educated middle class with increasing awareness about evil nature of the British rule. By the last decades of 19th century nationalism started inspiring Indian art as well to discover rich cultural heritage of India. The work done by Europeans like William Jones, Max Muller etc brought to light India’s literary and philosophical heritage. Some important archeological discoveries like Harappa and Ajanta also helped in searching a true Indian national art. Young artists like Nandlal Bose and others visited the newly discovered cave paintings of Ajanta and studied the murals.
Ravi Verma was another big name. He was a prince from Travancore and he painted the anecdotes from the Indian epics and Sanskritic literature. He learned the art of oils and canvas from Theoder Jenson, a European artist, and applied it in Indian context. He used European realism to depict Indian subjects. Shakuntala, Saraswati etc are some of famous paintings. He tried to create a style that was both modern and national. He mastered the Western art of oil painting and realistic life study, but painted themes from Indian mythology. Responding to the huge popular appeal of such paintings, Ravi Varma decided to set up a picture production team and printing press on the outskirts of Bombay. Here colour prints of his religious paintings were mass produced. Even the poor could now buy these cheap prints.
Bengal School of Painting or Avant Garde or Neo Art School was another famous art initiative led by E B Havell, A K Coomarswamy and Abnindranath Tagore who was nephew of Rabindranath Tagore. Other noted members associated with it were Gaganendranath Tagore, A K Haldar, Jamini Roy and so on. It was a reaction to the Western art which was becoming popular those days. . They also rejected the art of Ravi Varma as imitative and westernised, and declared that such a style was unsuitable for depicting the nation’s ancient myths and legends. They felt that a genuine Indian style of painting had to draw inspiration from non-Western art traditions, and try to capture the spiritual essence of the East. So they broke away from the convention of oil painting and the realistic style, and turned for inspiration to medieval Indian traditions of miniature painting and the ancient art of mural painting in the Ajanta caves. They were also influenced by the art of Japanese artists who visited India at that time to develop an Asian/Oriental art movement.
Abanindranath and Nandalal did not simply follow an earlier style. They modified it and made it their own. It was called neo-art school because new mediums and styles were used. Canvas, water colours etc were used. Now shading techniques were also used. Use of canvas facilitated bigger paintings and landscaping became popular. It also revived Indian tradition and local subjects from myths and folks. In the last decade of 19th century, Havell had joined the art school in Calcutta as it principal. Havell drew the attention of Abnindranath Tagore to the rich heritage of classical Indian art and the medieval Mughal miniatures. Abnindranath also studied ancient Indian texts on art and also benefitted from experience of Coomarswamy who was from Sri Lanka, but had wrote many books on Indian art. These three, their works and followers came to be known as Bengal School. Their themes were indigenous taken mostly from Puranas, classical literature, guided by the Indian canons of painting and tradition, they painted small size paintings on water colours mostly with a limited palette. Abnindra was influenced by the Japanese technique of water colour wash paintings which created delicate tones and mystifying areas of light and dark. He portrayed Bharat Mata (1905) as a four-armed Hindu goddess wearing saffroncolored robes, holding a book, a mala, sheaves of rice, and a white cloth symbolizing Shiksha, Diksha, Anna and Vastra. The image of Bharatmata was an icon to create nationalist feeling in Indians during the freedom struggle. Another famous painting of his is Shajahan looking at the Tajmahal. Arabian Nights is another famous work of him.
Gagnendranth Tagore was also one of the founders of Indian Society of Oriental Arts in Calcutta in 1907, along with this brother Abnindranath Tagore. He was highly influenced by Japanse styles and French styles. Inspired by Cubism, he developed his own cubism style. Unlike Abnindranath and Nandlal Bose, he was not interested in revivalism and instead focused on contemporary art like Cubism.
Bengal school had a great following at Shantiniketan where Rabindranath Tagore had setup Kala Bhavan where three artists dominated – Nandlal Bose, Binod Behari Mukharjee and Ramkinker Baij. Nandlal Bose was a painter and a great nationalis and a disciple of Abnindranath Tagore. He derived his inspiration from Ajanta cave paintings and folk arts. He also made genuine effort to connect folk artisans and artists. To mark the 1930 occasion of Mahatma Gandhi’s arrest for protesting the British tax on salt, Bose created a black on white linocut print of Gandhi walking with a staff. It became the iconic image for the non-violence movement. Nandalal Bose also originally painted the Indian flag, slightly different from its present form, and it was inspired by the freedom struggle. He became principal of the Kala Bhavan at Tagore’s International University Santiniketan in 1922. He is also credited with making up of a large poster for Haripura session of Congress. He was also asked by Jawaharlal Nehru to sketch the emblems for the Government of India’s awards, including the Bharat Ratna and the Padma Shri. He is also known to have taken up the task of beautifying the original manuscript of the Constitution of India. Similarly, Binod Behari Mukharjee was also influenced by oriental traditions. Ramkinker Baij was a painter as well as an accompalished sculptor and is best known for his magnum opus ‘Santhal Family’ sculpture. He became another disciple of Nand Lal Bose, and then became one of the pioneers of modern Indian sculpture. He joined the Visva-Bharati University at Santiniketan as a fine arts student. The artistic creations of Ramkinkar Baij have been inspired by the lifestyles of rural dalit or Adivasi communities. He also made famous statues of ‘Yaksha and Yakshi’ in front of RBI building.
Out of the Bengal School, folk traditions of mainly Bengal and Orissa emerged. Jamini Roy painted images with minimum lines and bright colour scheme on a plain base and has taken themes from folk and tribal life. He initially drew in Western style, but later found folk style more authentic especially paintings of Kalighat, patua art etc. He drew in reaction of Bengali School and Western style. He completely used native materials and folk themes.
There were other artists also who took deep interest in European art as well. Amrita Shergil and George Keyt were among them. Amrita Shergil died in a young age, bbut had profound contribution to the Indian art. She had one of her parents from Hugary and had her education in Europe. She started as an impressionist and switched to post-impressionism of Gauguin – a profound post-impressionist. She made many paintings of folk life of Punjabi peasants and also did paintings on South India. Her palette was rich in bright colours. Figures in her paintings used to had a quaint, emaciated physiognomy like that of Gauguin’s women. The first important painting was ‘Young Girls’. She was greatly impressed and influenced by the Mughal and Pahari schools of painting and the cave paintings at Ajanta also. In 1937, she produced famous South Indian trilogy of paintings – ‘Bride’s Toilet’, ‘Brahmacharis’ and ‘The South Indian Villagers’. By this time, her style had transformed and her paintings expressed the life of Indian people through her canvas. The Government of India has declared her works as National Art Treasures, and most of them are housed in the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi.
Rabindranath Tagore also dabbled into paintings during his 60s. Tough Kala Bhawan in Shantiniketan which was a major center of Bengali School, ran under his patronage, he was not influenced by it and had his own style – he was neither a revivalist, nor a modernist. His paintings were strongly individualistic with his own moods instilled in them. He later on, also established a studio called Bichitra.
Progressive Artists Group of Bombay was formed by artists like S H Raza, F N Souza in 1948. Souza was a rebel painter and his paintings were done in Expressionist colours and style and were infused with contemporary human situation. He was the first Indian artist to receive recognition in the west. He attended Sir J.J. School of Art but due to his involvement in the Quit India Movement, he was suspended in the year 1945. Souza was the founder of the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group. S H Raza’s painting style is known as – The Razabindu – For him, the ‘bindu’ has been a vast subject with its variations throughout his life. Raza’s works make price history.
Abstraction is the dominant element in Raza’s Bindu series at the turn of the 1980s. Hailed as one of the country’s most expensive artists, he set a milestone last year when his work, ‘Saurashtra’, sold for Rs 16.42 crore in an auction at Christie’s. Tyeb Mehta is one of the progressive Indian artists along S H Raza and F N Souza. His popular themes are – diognal series, falling series etc. His famous painting titled the “Falling Figure and Bird” displays a human figure in a state of deliberation while falling.
After independence, two government institutions were set up – National Gallery of Modern Art and Lalit Kala Akademi. Apart from organizing exhibitions, Lalit Kala Akademi also organizes Triennale – a once in 3 years festival organised abroad to promote modern Indian art.