Pantheism and Picasso, Shiva and surrealism play equally important roles in the "Modern Indian Paintings" show opening today at the Hirshhorn Museum.
Though the forms are out of European modernism--cubism, surrealism and expressionism--the ideas are straight from Indian life, lore and experience. The best works merge the forms and ideas into a distinctively Indian amalgam; the worst descend to imitation, vacuous abstraction and folksy kitsch.
All of the above are well-represented in this revealing show, hastily assembled from the collections of the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi to mark the visit of Indira Gandhi, prime minister of India. The 50 paintings by 47 artists date from 1930 to the present.
But the point most vividly made is the continuing struggle of serious Indian artists to recombine the native and the new into works of originality and power. If the show as a whole suggests that modern Indian painting is not yet fully mature, there are mature artists at work: Mohan Samant, musician and painter, is represented by a highly textured abstract work made of paint thickened with marble dust to conjure an ancient sandstone wall covered with calligraphic markings; Jyoti Bhatt has translated with mere colored ink the whimsy of Paul Klee into a witty, mysterious, highly personal vernacular.
Of several artists who have used tantric symbols in a rather dreary, unappealing way, V. Viswanadhan's abstract composition of triangles stands out.
There are other strong works: a religious allegory by M.F. Husain; splendid, broad-brush swirls of paint by Ambadas, depicting the moment when sound came to the cosmos; and the strange, narrative "Man With a Bouquet of Plastic Flowers" by Bhupen Khakhar.
Most unforgettable, however, are the artists who work in what seems a surprisingly young and sparse tradition of social comment, given India's long history of miseries. The earliest protest image on view depicts a bony, starving mother painted by the late Ram Kinkar Vaij, dating from the 1940s when India suffered one of its most devastating famines. The tradition continues in Bikash Bhattacharjee's antiroyalist piece (a pig-faced, crowned figure holding a mangled, impaled body) dating from 1969, and Krishen Khanna's "Black Truck," a dark, stirring image of thinly clad figures being hauled off in the morning cold to their construction jobs--the date, 1974.
But perhaps the highest achievement in this show is that of surrealist Jogen Chowdhury, whose "Tiger in the Moonlit Light" is unspecific in meaning but seems to ponder the triumph of raw power, symbolized by a giant tiger above a broken, helpless human.
In addition to bringing us more or less up to date on modern Indian painting, this show offers a surprising bit of history. Though India has a painting tradition as old as its magnificent medieval miniatures and prehistoric caves, it turns out that academic easel painting was a new idea when the British overlords introduced it into the Indian art school curriculum in the mid-19th century, quashing indigenous styles and techniques.
With the national movement at the turn of the 20th century, there was a brief attempt to restore native content to Indian art, but it was not until 1930, when Nobel Prize-winning poet Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) exorted younger artists to "make daring experiments" that interest in indigenous subject matter and style was revived. Also a prolific painter who obviously admired the German expressionists (his ink drawing of a "Veiled Woman" recalls Edvard Munch), Tagore is one of a handful of early painters sprinkled through this show.
So is Gaganendranath Tagore, who introduced a futurism into India in the 1920s--apparently with little lasting impact. Neoprimitive folk images of Krishna by the late Jimini Roy, for many years the best-known 20th-century Indian artist outside India, are also on view, but now seem more decorative than profound.
The show continues through Aug. 29. It is accompanied by a catalogue with introduction by Laxmi P. Sihare, director of the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, which organized and lent the works in this show.