Modernism in South Asia By Dube, Saurabh

DOI: 10.4324/9781135000356-REMO9-1
Published: 09/05/2016
Retrieved: 18 April 2024, from


In South Asia, a certain haziness regarding modernism and modernity derives not only from the manner in which they can be elided with each other, but the fact that they are both frequently filtered through the optics of modernization. At stake is the acute, albeit altering, importance of being modern – as a person, a nation, and a people. This is true not only of quotidian common sense but of scholarly sentiments. Here, modernization implicitly entails pervasive projections of material, organizational, and technological – as well as economic, political, and cultural – transformation(s), principally envisioned in the looking-glass of Western development. In this scenario, tacitly at least, different, often hierarchically ordered, peoples are seen as succeeding (or failing) to evolve from their traditional circumstance to arrive at a modernized order. Indeed, motifs of modernization, carrying wide implication, readily draw together mappings of modernism, modernity, and (being) modern, such that each shores up the other.


Why should this be the case? To begin with, a crucial characteristic of dominant descriptions of the modern and modernity has hinged on their positing of the phenomena as marked by a break with the past, a rupture with tradition, and a surpassing of the medieval (see Dube 2010). Here, through ruses of teleological historical progress, stages of civilization, and social evolutionist schemas, by the second half of the nineteenth century, across much of the world, an exclusive West was increasingly presented as the looking-glass for the imagining of universal history. As worldly knowledge, borne alike by empire and nation, oriented not merely toward ordering but simultaneously remaking the world, these neat proposals and their formative presumptions variously entered the lives of South Asian subjects. On the Indian subcontinent, across the twentieth century, such principles and presuppositions were first disseminated as ways of approaching social worlds, and soon instituted as tissues of experience and affect within everyday arenas, at the very least among the middle classes. In this scenario, the blueprints of modernization actually distilled the meanings of the modern, articulating an imaginary but palpable, distended and aggrandizing West/Europe as history, modernity, and destiny – for each society, culture, and people. In artistic, intellectual, and aesthetic arenas, modernism(s) in South Asia have variously, often critically, engaged with these projections and presuppositions: but they have also been unable to easily escape their long shadow.

A key characteristic of modernism at large has been to emphasize the difference of the contemporary present from past epochs. Within South Asian modernisms, this claim of a surpassing of the past was variously inflected by the gravity of anti-colonial and nationalist imaginaries, the weight of memory and history, the pull of the mythic and the primitive, and the burden of a violent independence and post-colonial politics. This is to say, these endeavours, inhabiting ‘multiple constellations throughout the twentieth century’, appeared critically shot through by ‘a dialectical process of invoking, resisting, or negotiating questions of tradition, identity, and experience’ (Sunderason 2011: 246). It followed, too, that ruptures with prior artistic moments within the subcontinental aesthetic landscape – alongside engagements with wider modernist imaginaries – instilled these tendencies with rather specific energies.

Together, imbued with dense, particular histories and shaped by distinct, tousled temporalities, South Asian modernisms bear their own twists and quite discrete textures.

In what follows, I shall elaborate these first formulations by exploring varied intellectual-political currents, broadly understood, that informed distinct modernist moments, cutting across different forms of aesthetic production in South Asia. Here, such underpinnings have to be culled from within modernist practices themselves, since the many influences were yet sieved and reworked through self-directed aesthetics. This is to say that modernist practices on the subcontinent critically communicated with each other and with those in other parts of the world – as well as with intellectual currents across the continents – while often exceeding the more formal scholarly currents in South Asia, which in turn could be somewhat readily derivative of the West. Indeed, the modernist practices/forms under discussion drew upon resources of myth, epic, and history at large, not as mere representations of the past, but as a resource that helped to intimate a present/future, a rupture with the prior, in the creation of a distinctively Indian modern. All of this insinuates rather specific intellectual configurations. In other words, this chapter offers a rather particular argument about how we might approach modernist practices as bound to intellectual-political underpinnings and their particular articulations, foregrounding thereby multiple yet overlaying temporalities and trajectories of modernisms in South Asia.


By the beginning of the twentieth century, British rule was 150 years old on the Indian subcontinent. This period had seen shifting, layered entanglements and conflicts between the colonizer and the colonized: the suppression of dynamic yet contentious processes turning on indigenous authority and political economy; the containment of fluid borders between field and forest; and the subordination of the Indian economy to North Atlantic cycles of trade, profit-making, and consumption. On the one hand, the systematic destruction of forests, the conversion of commons into property, and the emphasis on increasing land revenue had led to the lineaments of an agrarian order consisting of settled agriculture and specialist commodity production, marked by relatively clear groupings of caste and community. This had lasting legacies for the nationalist and imperial imaginaries, including modernist ones: village, agricultural, and caste arrangements that had acquired their distinct terms and textures principally across the nineteenth century were now rendered as ageless, millennia-old, innate attributes of Indian civilization. On the other hand, this extended epoch had witnessed uneven yet acute articulations of colonial urbanism, entailing debates on the content of tradition and formations of gender on the subcontinent, religious negotiations of evangelical encounters, nationalist contestations of colonial claims, and varied experiments with European traditions in the letters, arts, and politics.

Against the backdrop of these twin, broad-based movements, crucial for formations of aesthetics in South Asia, I recount a vignette from the early twentieth century.

On 7 May 1921 the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore celebrated his sixtieth birthday in Weimar, and used the opportunity to visit the Bauhaus […]. [Soon], at Tagore’s suggestion, a selection of Bauhaus works was shipped to Calcutta to be exhibited, in December 1922. […] Among the exhibits (which mysteriously never returned to Europe) were two watercolours by Wassily Kandinsky and nine by Paul Klee, [and a larger number of other pieces by many different artists]. […] The exhibition was well received, but […] what was perhaps even more important about it was that a number of Cubist paintings by Rabindranath’s nephew Gaganendranath Tagore and folk-primitivist works by his niece Sunayani Devi were also shown on this occasion.

(Chaudhuri 2010: 943–4)

At least three points stand out. First, at stake in the exhibition was a break with the formidable influence of prior nationalist art, especially the Orientalism of the Bengal School. If the Bengal School configured a counter-colonial, ‘pan-Asian’ style of narrative painting as part of Swadeshi nationalism (1905–11), while opposing the academic naturalism of narrative art, now a newer disposition came to the fore. Thus, one form of counter-colonial sensibility, appealing to bourgeois nationalists, was replaced by a modernist anti-imperial imaginary, which would soon draw on the energies of the subcontinental popular.

Second, rather more than the ready influence of the Bauhaus (or of Europe/West, at large), it is the experiments of Gaganendranath – and, in a different way, those of Sunayani – that appear as an inaugural moment of the modernist idiom in Indian art. None of this involved a mere imitation of European modernism. Actually, discussed as part of the quest for ‘artistic autonomy’ in the modernist journals of the day, in Gaganendranath’s work, ‘a dynamic, fluid, mysterious play of light and shade and color’ replaced ‘the relatively static geometry of Analytical Cubism’, revealing also ‘an imagination steeped in literature and myth’ (Chaudhuri 2010: 944–5; see also Mitter 2007: 18–27).

Third, while Gaganendranath’s work remained something of an exception in terms of its broader impact, the folk imaginary underlying the art of his sister Sunayani had wide implications. It not only affected the primitivist motifs of the artist Jamini Roy, a point usually acknowledged, but arguably formed an integral part of larger expressions of primitivism and ruralism in modernist art in India. Such manifestations were shaped by distinct configurations of anti-colonial nationalism on the subcontinent.

Until the end of the 1910s, Indian nationalism had remained a principally middle-class (and elite) phenomenon, despite some attempts during the Swadeshi period to draw in popular participation in nationalist agitation. All this was to change from the beginnings of the 1920s as M.K. Gandhi took decisive steps to transform Indian nationalism, turning the Indian National Congress into a firm grouping with an organizational structure and regular membership (rather than a forum that met at the end of each year). Gandhi’s political strategy was to draw in the participation of the Indian ‘masses’, especially the peasants, yet to do so in a rigorously controlled manner, such that the subalterns obeyed and followed the Congress leadership. At the same time, the nationalist endeavour to ‘discipline and mobilize’ was equally accompanied by Gandhian ideology and practice that struck an acutely anti-industrial, anti-urban note. Here were to be found an imaginatively counter-modern cadence, turning on a critique of Western civilization, a valorization of the village and tradition, and an innately moral politics. The subaltern groups in turn came to articulate their own, supplementary anti-colonial politics and understandings of nationalism, which acceded yet exceeded official and middle-class understandings.

All these developments were variously articulated with expressions of folk and primitivist imaginaries in modernist Indian art. There were different trajectories here. Nandalal Bose, who presided over the art school at Rabindranath Tagore’s Santiniketan, conjoined folk styles, bold brush-strokes, and outdoor murals in an eclectic practice. This served to engender an aesthetic discourse rooted in the community, including through Bose’s association with Gandhi that led the artist to produce wall panels for the Haripura Session of the Indian National Congress in 1938. Arguably, this association of nationalism, community, and (the insistence on) a formal clarity acquired distinct dimensions among Bose’s students, even as their experiments bore testimony to the critical autonomy of aesthetic traditions. Thus, if the painter K.G. Subramanyan honed an expressive, imaginative, figurative style, the sculptor Ramkinkar Baij – a remarkable talent from a humble background and with scant formal education – represented the lives of the Adivasi Santals, creating monumental outdoor sculptures of these subjects in cement, rubble, and concrete, to showcase thereby a ‘subaltern modernism’.

Taken together, here was a querying of the colonial connection with a bourgeois modern, articulations of the national dynamic with an avant-garde modern, and explorations of the critical contours of a (contending, ‘primitivist’) modern. At the same time, in formations of modernist imaginaries in South Asia, the density and gravity of artistic interchanges also often exceeded the formal influence – intellectual and ideological, aesthetic and political – of anti-colonial nationalism. Here, the Bengali artist Jamini Roy’s primitivism arrived at striking modernist brevity through a simplification of form and an elimination of details. Drawing on folk forms while rooting his work in local artisanal practice, Roy created an art at odds with colonial urban culture precisely through its intrinsic valorization of the community (and the communitarian) in actual aesthetic practice. Similarly, Rabindranath Tagore’s own modernist internationalism in art was not only founded on critical intimations of the ‘illegitimacy of nationalism’ (Nandy 1994), but his forceful, mask-like, virtually totemic images were an acute expression of what Partha Mitter has described as ‘the dark landscape of the psyche’ (71). Finally, away from Bengal, painting in north India, Amrita Sher-Gill’s primitivist art, at once formatively modernist and startlingly cosmopolitan – drawing comparisons with her Mexican contemporary, Frida Kahlo – far exceeded merely ‘indigenous’ influences. It intimated instead a politics of art that refuses to be reduced to prescribed ideology, and one that yet awaits understanding, especially in terms of its rethinking the content of tradition and debating the nature of modernity.


From the 1920s onwards, anti-colonial nationalism, drawing in popular participation, appeared accompanied by connected yet contending tendencies, socialism and communism, which could all now form compelling friendships and forge intimate enmities. These intellectual-political impulses had a profound impact on the arts – from painting to literature to theatre to cinema – in the 1940s. These tumultuous times of famine and suffering, an anti-fascist war and subaltern struggles, the end of empire and intimations of independence saw the formations of progressive organizations such as the Indian People’s Theatre Association and various artist groups. This wider

left cultural movement sought to create in art a distinct ‘popular’ – ‘national in form, socialist in content’ – and in its wake, it brought together artists, writers, and performers in a common platform to fashion the idiom of progressive art.

(Sunderason 2011: 252)

Even as these initiatives were being expressed, the subcontinent gained independence from British imperial rule, itself accompanied by the Partition of its landmass and people into two nations, India and Pakistan (West and East). The hopes and desires for freedom of the new nations were fragmented, even split, by the violence that marked their Partition. While estimates vary, between 200,000 and 1.5 million Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs were killed in the violence, including reciprocal genocide; around 75,000 women of these communities were raped and/or abducted; and a little less than 15 million people were displaced, losing home and belonging across new national borders. Some of the split nature of these processes was captured by Nehru, the formidable statesman-architect as well as ideologue-rhetorician of a modernist nationalism, in his ‘tryst with destiny’ speech, delivered at the stroke of the midnight hour on 15 August 1947 (qtd. in Banerjee-Dube 2015: 437).

Yet much of this failed to convince modernist artists and authors. While the communist slogan ‘Yah azadi jhooti hai (This freedom is a lie)’ did not prove persuasive, the recognition of a truncated freedom, a compromised independence, and Partition’s violence haunted the modernist imagination at large. Nor were these spectres laid to rest as India embarked on a vigorous programme of nation-building, based on a governmentally planned economy, state presence in heavy industry, and the building of large dams and other monumental public works. Indeed, what came to the fore was a nation and society lacking in soul and spirit. Against this were variously pitted issues of artistic autonomy, aesthetic independence, individual alienation, and social commitment in the quest for a modern that was avant-garde in expression yet Indian in essence – imagination and practice in which epic, legend, and myth often played a critical role. Here, I provide a series of juxtapositions from different art forms.

In the wake of independence and partition, modernisms in South Asia saw an acute overlaying of artistic technique and the force of the past, an incessant interchange between the density of aesthetic traditions and the urgency of the present. This present had to be made modern – for the people, for the nation-in-the making, with its flaws and fractures. Some of this is clarified by the terms of theatre in the mid twentieth century. The activities of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) turned on progressive performances, realist drama, and social critique, aimed toward ‘cultural awakening’ among the people of the subcontinent. At the same time, rather than being subsumed by a limited aesthetic-politics of agitation and propaganda, here were to be found innovations that drew upon the resources of realism in order to reveal rather other glimmers of modernist theatre. Unsurprisingly, in the terrain of theatre in South Asia, the social impact drama of the 1940s was followed by cutting-edge developments, which critically, imaginatively articulated epic and the avant-garde, myth and the contemporary, legend and the present in expressions of modernism, developments that yet remain insufficiently conceptualized.

Unsurprisingly, in ‘progressive’ endeavours in the plastic arts, questions of a practice that was adequate to an emergent era, an inviting internationalism, and a modern art came to be of critical import. In such a scenario, what was the precise place of a new nation within a novel aesthetic? Did the former implicitly uphold the latter, providing the space and support for key emergences? Or, did the nation hinder aesthetic autonomy? It followed that these artistic efforts could follow different directions, but none could escape the demands of avant-garde autonomy. Thus, the most influential of these artists’ organizations, whose prominence came to virtually eclipse that of the others, the Progressive Artists’ Group (of Bombay), which was founded at the end of 1947 as a response to the Partition, spoke not only of a radical break from the past, but of an autonomy of the work of art itself: ‘Absolute freedom for content and technique, almost anarchic’ (cited in Sunderason 2011: 254).

At the same time, the articulations of such autonomy were deeply entangled with the density of myth and memory. Indeed, these resources could be a means of unravelling the pain of the Partition, the puzzle of the nation, the ambiguity of identity, and the force of exile. Two salient examples, both emerging from the Progressive Artists’ Group and each extending from the 1940s into our present, should suffice. In the work of M.F. Hussain, who came from a disadvantaged Muslim background, altered cubist configurations entered into conversations with prior traditions of Indian sculpture and miniature paintings, while he sieved the resources of epics, legends, gods, and goddesses to construe a distinctive modernist idiom. Similarly, the art of F.N. Souza, a Catholic, who fiercely guarded his autonomy in exile, conjures a formidable expressionism that is ever tied to figures and forms of a distinctive past. Here are to be found crucifixes and the (black) Christ, last suppers and erotic nudes, the mother and child, each drawing in the textures and tangles of a vernacular Christianity and everyday aesthetic from Goa in western India, all held in place by the conjuring of ‘a God, who is not a God of gentleness and love, but rather of suffering, vengeance and terrible anger’ (Mullins 1962: 40).

Consider now that literary modernisms in the mid twentieth century engaged at once with related genres in the rest of the world while seeking also to express a specific modern on the subcontinent. This could reveal formative tensions and critical creativity, as suggested by the two most significant figures of Hindi modernism Ajneya (S.H. Vatsyayan) and G.M. Muktibodh. On the one hand, Ajneya stressed a ‘formalist universalism’, concentrating on ‘poetic structure, rather than on social or historical problems’, while emphasizing the immense isolation and alienation of the modern individual (Chaudhuri 2010: 956). On the other, Muktibodh’s ‘intensely self-conscious, anguished poetic voice abandoned the high modernism of Europe and America for experimental, radical, sometimes surreal sequences that draw equally upon the Bhakti tradition of late medieval India as upon other literatures of Asia, Africa, and Latin America’, construing new configurations of the mythic and the epic (Chaudhuri 2010: 956).

Finally, mid twentieth-century cinema in the subcontinent straddled realist representations and innovative aesthetics that reached far beyond a mere ‘national allegory’ and adroitly drew together the aural and the visual, sensibility and technique, dance and drama, and the ‘old’ and ‘new’. Thereby, it cast alienated individuals at the centre yet set them adrift, showed the finger to promises of progress, sieved the contradictions of imagined worlds, held up a mirror to the lies of nation, and looked into the eye of a living ghost, India’s partition and its intimate violence. Now the auteur and the actor, new flâneurs both, could frequently, grimly move through the restless scuttle of quotidian creatures, facing up to the immanent possibility of an un-climatic end. Here was cinema – of Ritwik Ghatak and Satyajit Ray, but also of Guru Dutt and Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, among many others – that recast mythology, rethought history, and reworked the contemporary in probing and unravelling the innocence and idea of India.


These mid twentieth-century modernists had arguably anticipated the unravelling of the South Asian nations from the 1960s onwards. If in Pakistan such undoing entailed the central place of authoritarian governments and military regimes, in India the idealism of the past was replaced by a manipulative politics, cynical invocations of socialism, and attacks on democratic norms – all in the name of the nation, unity, and progress. Unsurprisingly, the birth of Bangladesh, aided by India, was among the last gasps of Bandung-era, third-world nationalism. What came to the fore were not only the governmental registers of a politics of violence, exemplified by the state of Emergency (1975–7) in India, the execution of Z.A. Bhutto in Pakistan, and escalating ethnic conflicts in Sri Lanka, but increasingly newer openings/orientations toward corporate capital, the political-religious Right, and a neo-liberal imagination. These developments have been accompanied by lower-caste assertions, subaltern struggles, armed left militancy, popular-democratic endeavours, and feminist (as well as alternative sexuality) interventions.

In front of these developments, salient tendencies have redefined issues of art, literature, and temporality in modernisms in South Asia. Here are two examples. The first concerns the narrative moment (and ‘movement’) from the 1970s onwards, which has posed critical questions of what constitutes properly modernist artistic practice in an independent India – a nation that had betrayed its dispossessed, both people and art, the one bound to the other. Here are to be found re-visitations – by women and men artists – of epic and legend, myth and history, the past and the present in acutely figurative and explicitly narrative ways within the visual arts, including cinema. These procedures and representations have foregrounded questions of the majority and the minority, the body and pain, gender and sexuality, and the entitled and the popular. The second key development, which began in the 1950s but acquired formidable force a decade later, involves Dalit (‘broken’) literature and art, expressing the anguish and anger of India’s ex-untouchables. Here is a break not just with prior artistic traditions, but a rupture with the civilizational claims of a society and a nation, through endeavours that have brought into being a new language and idioms, a novel iconography and imaginaries, including distinct emphases on issues of gender intimating also a Dalit feminist practice. Clearly, modernist temporalities, modalities, and expressions continue to find distinct articulations of intellectual-political currents and social-cultural matrices in South Asia today.


1 Research and reading for this chapter were conducted as a Fellow of the Stellenbosch Institute of Advanced Study (STIAS), South Africa, and I gratefully acknowledge STIAS’ support.

2 For a wider discussion see Dube 2011, especially 1–10.

3 Unsurprisingly, in scholarship on modernism in India, modernization and modernity are uneasily folded into understandings of modernism. See, for example, Kapur, Chaudhuri, and Mitter.

4 For an understanding of modernity as turning on heterogeneous-yet-interlocking histories, which extend across the past five centuries, such that modernization and modernism appear as crucial yet partial components in the broader articulation of modernity, see Dube 2011.

5 See Guha-Thakurta.

6 See I. Banerjee-Dube.

7 The two paragraphs that follow draw upon Mitter and Chaudhuri.

8 See also Kapur.

9 The place and presence of Nehru’s writing, politics, and persona in expressions of modernism on the subcontinent require greater understanding.

10 There could be frontal artistic engagements with the Partition, too, as in the writings of Sadaat Hasan Manto (in Urdu) and of Khushwant Singh (in English).

11 The mainly monumental designs of architectural modernism in India – in the wake of Lutyen’s New Delhi and the presence of Le Corbusier’s city of Chandigarh, the latter built with the blessings of Nehru – tell a rather different story, for which there is little space here.

12 See Kapur and Sheikh (ed.).

13 See, for example, Tartakov (ed.) and Garawala.

Further Reading

  • Banerjee-Dube, I. (2015) A History of Modern India, New York: Cambridge University Press.

  • Chaudhuri, S. (2010) ‘Modernisms in India’, in P. Brooker et al. (eds) Oxford Handbook of Modernisms, Oxford: Oxford University Press. 942–60.

  • Dube, S. (2010) ‘Modernity and its enchantments: an introduction’, in S. Dube (ed.) Enchantments of Modernity: Empire, Nation, Globalization, London: Routledge. 1–41.

  • Dube, S. (2011) ‘Makeovers of modernity: an introduction’, in S. Dube (ed.) Handbook of Modernity in South Asia: Modern Makeovers, New Delhi: Oxford University Press. 1–25.

  • Garawala, T.J. (2013) Untouchable Fictions: Literary Realism and the Crisis of Caste, New York: Fordham University Press.

  • Guha-Thakurta, T. (1992) The Making of a New ‘Indian’ Art: Artists, Aesthetics and Nationalism in Bengal, c.1850–1920, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Kapur, G. (2000) When was Modernism? Essays on Contemporary Cultural Practice in India, New Delhi: Tulika.

  • Mitter, P. (2007) The Triumph of Modernism: India’s Artists and the Avant-Garde, 1922–1947, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

  • Mullins, E. (1962) Souza, London: Anthony Blond.

  • Nandy, A. (1994) The Illegitimacy of Nationalism: Rabindranath Tagore and the Politics of Self, Delhi: Oxford University Press.

  • Sheikh G. (ed.) (1997) Contemporary Art in Baroda, New Delhi: Tulika.

  • Sunderason, S. (2011) ‘Making art modern: re-visiting artistic modernism in India’, in S. Dube (ed.) Handbook of Modernity in South Asia: Modern Makeovers, New Delhi: Oxford University Press. 245–61.

  • Tartakov G.M. (ed.) (2012) Dalit Art and Visual Imagery, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

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Dube, Saurabh. Modernism in South Asia. Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rem.routledge.com/articles/overview/tousled-temporalities.

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