BLURRING BOUNDARIES: Traditional Indian Arts in the Contemporary Visual Language

As one of the oldest civilisations of the world, India’s rich history has followed a trajectory of growth, contested by few others. When talking about the traditional arts and crafts, it hardly needs to be mentioned that the Fine Arts in India developed in conjunction with the formation of formal religions and the idea of spirituality. Religion, it fact, was the basis for the origin of all forms of Arts. Painting, Sculpting, Music, Drama and Dance – all were results of an ultimate spiritual need, inspired from and performed to achieve the same purpose, the concern for aesthetics too, being a part of it. In Ancient India, the practice of creating two and three-dimensional art was recognised as a religious ritual, the process being parallel to meditation, serving the purpose of putting across ideas and stories in pictorial rather than scriptural terms, making them understandable to the laymen.

Time progressed, kingdoms were built and destroyed, and with every conquering leader, a new civilisation prospered. The Fine Arts too, changed with the changing times. The range of their purpose widened from being a religious ritual to a means of recording events to an act of pure aesthetic pleasure.

Medieval India is marked as one of the most significant stages in the development of art and culture in the Indian subcontinent. During the first half of the 13th century, India underwent a significant change – beginning with the Turk Qutub-ud-din Aibak (1206-1210) who established the Mamluk dynasty, there began a series of short-term kings, sudden assassinations and dynastic rules. This entire period is termed as the Delhi Sultanate for reasons of convenience by scholar today. It was only around the   16th century that Zahir-ud-din Mohammad Babur ( 1526-1530), a descendant of Amir Timur from Central Asia, defeated the last Lodhi ruler, laid his base in India and ushered in stability. He established what was to later become one of the grandest empires in the history of the world – the Mughal Empire (1526-1857). The Mughals made an unprecedented contribution to refining the culture of India. Architecture, Music, Dance, Literature and Painting saw tremendous changes and unprecedented growth under them.

These kings introduced the Mughal Miniature Paintings to India. It begun with Babur’s son Humayun who brought with him two Persian artists, but the school reached its apogee under the most-gifted ruler of that age, Akbar (1556-1605). This method of expression heavily borrowed from Persian ideas and stylistics, but was given concrete form by indigenous craftsmen trained in Indian soil, readily accepting employment under an Islamic ruler. Hence the style reflected a happy mix of both – Persian in style and treatment, but Indian in terms of spirit.

Although this is the style of miniatures most people identify with today, it is not be understood as being the only school specialising in such a style.

Myriad schools of miniature paintings had flourished in India from as early as 14th century in regions of Rajasthan such as Mewar and Marwar. Rajasthan continued to be an important centre of miniature paintings even after the Mughal supremacy, retaining their individuality in schools like Bundi, Kishangarh and Bikaner. Other regions like Kangra and Chamba (The Punjab Hills) also had unique and equally impressive, at times more developed, schools of miniature paintings.

When talking about the infusion of traditional Indian art in the visual language of the contemporary art-world, one name that stands tall is that of Waswo X Waswo. Originally of American descent, Waswo has made India his home since 2005. Awestruck by what Indian culture and artistic repertoire had to offer, Waswo came down here for good, evolved an interesting and unique visual language of his own, and now stands as one of the pioneering artists of the times. His work includes sepia-toned hand-painted photographs of Indian workers, autobiographical miniature paintings as well as a certain amount of art writing. He is mostly known for his sepia photographs of local workers, which are then hand-painted by his assistant (Mirror Image, 2012). In evolving such a process, the artist’s idea is to blur the dividing line between the old and the new – taking digital shots of local people acting as models in painted studio backdrops, the artist then proceeds to get the prints hand-painted by R.Vijay, whose ancestors had been involved in the same craft in the royal households of Udaipur. The hand-painting lends a certain vintage feel to the prints, while maintaining the original softness of the sepia tone.

India had always inspired Waswo. Even as a young kid, the exotic beauty of this country fascinated him. After deciding to make Udaipur his permanent home, it was but obvious that miniature paintings would see certain amount of experimentations at the artist’s hands. In trying to do this, he had to collaborate with local artists again – the final results being somewhat autobiographical. These works employ the miniaturist format to tell personal stories of the artist, and at times engage with contemporary issues (A prayer for rain, 2009). The canon remains fixed, the materials used also traditional (Handmade Vasli paper and pigment paint) – it is almost as if the contemporary figure of the artist, suit-clad and wearing glasses and a hat, has intruded in the otherwise “miniature-like” setting of pine tree backdrops and pietra-dura inlayed marble palaces. Although a bit disturbing at first for an eye attuned to the grammar of traditional Indian art, it soon evolves into a quite interesting experiment – one worth analysing and appreciating.

Waswo works to have fun. He works as a team with local Indian artists – miniature painters, border designers, studio painters – and creates something that is fresh, humorous and at the same time, aesthetically pleasing.  His art is purely for art’s sake, for the magic that draws him into miniature paintings, and for the endless possibilities he can gauge in this conventional visual language to suit his needs.

An important sub-caste of Mewar School of Rajasthan was the Nathadwara style, best known for its pichhavais, the large ritual hangings used in Pushtimarg sect temples. These are textiles embellished with brocade, embroidery, appliqué work, jewels or paintings and are suspended behind the image of the deity. These textiles do not merely act as the backdrop, but are rather important components to alter and complete the image of the deity. The role of the pichcavai is hence something sort of theatrical and interactive, acting as a prop to arouse the aesthetic relishing (rasavada) of the devotee.

Today the art of Pichavai paintings continues in its traditional form in Nathadwara. On the other hand, Desmond Lazaro, an England-born Indian artist, has decided to adopt this traditional vocabulary as the language of his artworks.  Devoting twelve years of his life learning the skills of Pichhavai painting in Jaipur, the artist decided to work for his thesis on the same, a widely acclaimed book today (Pichhavai painting tradition of Rajasthan: Materials, Methods and Symbolism). Moving back to painting after this, Desmond has developed a very individual style of integrating this technique of miniature paintings with contemporary subject matter. His highly detailed and carefully studied subjects might range from unknown faces to faceless figures to regular objects of everyday life. In the artist’s words, “It’s the ordinary everyday moments that hold my attention most, the things we ignore, which I feel can connect us to ourselves, and others and, fleetingly, [to some sort of a] universal truth.” Executed in handmade Sanganeri paper with organic paint and handmade brushes manufactured in his workshop, Desmond tries to carry forward the craftsman-tradition of artistic creation, at the same time not losing touch with the present times.

Beginning primarily with objects ( “The Malachite Scooter”, “The Pondy Truck”, “The Ambassador”), the artist has gone on to explore the human figure in various moods such as sleeping, walking in a promenade, sitting at a park bench, to more abstract ideas of settlement, belonging-ness and loss ( “The Blue House series”, 2012, “The Baptism Series”, 2013).

Meticulously rendered and executed in vibrant colours, Desmond’s subjects are devoid of any specific background, probably hinting at a timeless and region-less quality. Could they perhaps point towards the theatrical nature of the same, the subjects acting as actors on a blank universal stage? His works often deal with nostalgia, personal loss or the human psychology – trying to equate the ideas and thought processes of the artist to those of the world at large. The meditative quality of these works become easily evident – the materials of the work being as important as the work itself. He is a traditionalist – one of those few remaining Indian artists who still find beauty in drawing and painting, and can create magic out of the mundane.

A discussion of traditional Indian arts and its adaptation in the art-world today is incomplete without the mention of Nilima Sheikh. Belonging to the proud generation from Baroda who paved the way for today’s art flowering along with peers like Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh, Vivan Sundaram and Bhupen Khakhar, Nilima Sheikh is one of the leading personalities of Contemporary Indian Art. She derives inspiration from myriad art-styles – from the Indian or Persian Miniatures to the Murals of the Far East, and her practice embraces myriad forms of expression- from paintings to theatre set designs, from hand-held drawings to scrolls. Her art teacher K.G.Subramaniyan in Baroda instilled her interest in traditional paintings. Later, she developed it into an artistic formula – grounded in traditional techniques (Casein and tempera on handmade Vasli paper), yet delivering a contemporary message. The use of traditional methods like stencils, handmade materials and the miniaturesque format allows her to develop a language to accommodate pre-modern art history and at the same time to highlight the dichotomies of the then and now.

Her engagement is primarily with re-mapping the familiar and she is attracted to the everyday, which she then renders in an intensely sensuous and poetic manner. Her themes have always been grounded in contemporary reality, although based on personal histories or timeless legends (Laila-Majnun, The Partition histories, etc). The artist tries to voice her unsettlement, anger and grief at the grim realities of the present world, being especially concerned towards the subjugation and degradation of the feminine (When Champa Grew Up, 1984), which she has explored through history, mythology, literature, oral traditions and personal experiences. She has also engaged herself with the histories of turbulent landscapes in the country – for instance in her Kashmir Scrolls Series (Each Night I Put Kashmir In Your Dreams, 2011-12), where she blends historical writing with medieval poetry and visual references from all parts of the world.

Nilima Sheikh’s art practice can be defined as the championing of the traditional Indian painter, to the regeneration of the primal bonding between “art” and “crafts”. As the artist says, Modernism does not allow some freedoms, albeit it has some closures. And I feel my job as an artist is to work around them – open up, open up and open up.” 

Shubhasree Purkayastha
Art historian and Writer at ARTINFO India