Diversity in Modern South Asian Art

By Rafay Siddiqui

For several millennia, art has served as a universal means to convey the experiences, epiphanies, and emotions of all cultures within their respective times. Yet, as it currently stands, humanity’s most celebrated artworks have imposed biases in favor of European creators. Within sites such as the Louvre, British Museum, and Metropolitan Museum of Art, exhibitions disproportionately showcase works from the Renaissance, Victorian Era, and other ages of European cultural prosperity.

That’s not to say modern institutions do not embrace cultural diversity in art. Indeed, museums such as the Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany have taken strides in demonstrating the diversity, beauty, and sophistication of international art. Despite these efforts, however, this Eurocentric lens has effectively obscured the developments occurring within modern, South Asian artworks. 

Despite the limited coverage, South Asian art has shattered barriers in abstract representation. In recent years, South Asian artists have created contemporary masterpieces that combine modern techniques with historical traditions. Namely, one Sotheby’s exhibition, titled “Modern and Contemporary South Asian Art,” has showcased dazzling displays of craftsmanship with unique mediums and subjects. In particular, this article will analyze two extraordinary pieces by two artistic pioneers — Ram Kumar and Sayed Raza — to explore uncharted frontiers in South Asian art within the past few decades.

  1. Untitled by Benares Ghat

Crafted during the 1960s by Ram Kumar, one of India’s prominent 20th-century painters, Benares Ghat (left) provides an abstract representation of the city Varanasi — “one of the seven sacred cities of Hinduism.” However, Kumar’s representation of Varanasi is noticeably unconventional, as the painting features “dimly lit lanes” and is “devoid of human presence” despite its cultural

significance. Additionally, observe that Kumar’s color scheme is monochromatic, as the painting mostly features dim shades of beige, blue, and amber. Coupled with fragmented shapes, Kumar’s South Asian work is heavily reminiscent of analytical cubism, a visual technique wherein multiple perspectives are melded together on a singular plane. In doing so, Kumar’s painting is meant to evoke introspection and silence with regards to Varanasi’s otherworldly yet deserted atmosphere in the midst of a chilly winter night. Thus, similar to Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and other Cubist artists, Kumar’s Benares Ghat evokes the emotional impressions that have been associated with the holy city of Varanasi.

2. Bombay Street Scene by Sayed Raza

Painted at the tailend of British imperialism in India, artist Sayed Raza’s painting provides a sensory depiction of a bustling commercial district within the heart of Bombay. Although crafted in the mid-20th century (1945), Raza’s composition seems to manifest Post-Impressionist ideals from decades prior, especially with regards to color.

Unlike Raza’s predecessors in the 19th-century, Post-Impressionists disregarded naturalistic usage of color and light by applying thick coats of paint with vivid hues. On that note, Raza applies this technique by applying gouache, a watercolor medium thickened by chalky, gluelike substances, to create a vibrant yet opaque and blurred atmosphere. Additionally, observe that the foreground’s human figures are depicted by blobs rather than meticulous lines and forms. Although more deliberate than an action painting, championed by artists such as Jackson Pollock, Raza’s painting imparts the “hustle and bustle” atmosphere that defines any major commercial metropolis, especially within India and its booming domestic economy. While not as visually abstract as Kumar’s Benares Ghat, Raza’s work embodies the intangible qualities of India’s transformative, prosperous urban life in light of independence movements against Great Britain. In this regard, Raza embeds South Asian lifestyles with modern techniques of abstract painting, enabling for an innovative, vivacious, and gorgeous visual.

Taken together, the works of Ram Kumar, Sayed Raza, and other pioneering artists are emblematic of a shifting dynamic in South Asian art. Namely, South Asian art is not confined to monumental architecture and overtly spiritual works. On the contrary, as evidenced by the discussed works, not only is South Asian art beautiful and diverse, but it also touches upon sophisticated themes and complexities of the modern South Asian living experience.

This development serves as a notable distinction for South Asian art, especially given the political climate within which collegiate students reside. Despite the rise of globalism in modern society, which emphasizes tolerance towards multiculturalism, Eurocentric attitudes still persist in “comprehensive studies” of art history, as Western works are placed in higher regard than Oriental creations. Although institutions such as Yale University have taken tremendous strides to incorporate international artworks within classes, systemic change to the status quo requires encouragement for students to expand artistic horizons.

As with Kumar and Raza’s paintings, however, such ambition need not be executed with words or curriculum only. Indeed, art can serve as a powerful mechanism to shed light on systemic issues and, in due time, affect social change around the world. As per Harvard’s South Asian Institute, artistic cinema such as Deepa Mehta’s 1998 film Fire can shed light on personal struggles, domestic violence, and gender discrimination plaguing South Asian society to this day. Yet, in another equally important regard, unconventional art forms dispel Eurocentric misconceptions of South Asian art molded by centuries of imperialism. No longer is South Asia the “Crown Jewel” to British rule, and no longer will South Asian culture be perceived in pejorative terms.

To accomplish this feat, then, do not be afraid to venture into uncharted artistic realms, for South Asian art has never been, and never will be, confined to traditional stereotypes. As with our predecessors, this current generation can not only subvert biases to European art but also inspire others to follow suit — one masterpiece at a time.

To view the remaining artworks of the virtual gallery, click here.

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