In this essay I explore the interaction between race and
aesthetics in colonial India (1857-1947). In the context of nation building and
the Indian independence movement, the Indian art world struggles to articulate
conditions for the very possibility of an artist who would be authentically
Indian while remaining authentically artistic, a seemingly impossible
accomplishment. And yet a chosen few are somehow are able to do just this: cosmopolitan
Indian artists, transcending the parochial boundaries of nation, race,
ethnicity, and religion as set by tradition, while remaining rooted in
something that is nonetheless fundamentally Indian. I focus on three artists
from this period, Ravi Varma, Abanindranath Tagore and Amrita Sher-Gil,
documenting the vastly different receptions of the public to each of their
works and techniques, and exposing the complex network of reasons and emotional
attitudes that, in the end, allows for each to be justifiably viewed as a great
Indian artist, although the first two do not free themselves from the
constraint of using a ‘racialized’ aesthetic lens.
authenticity, colonial art, art criticism, cosmopolitanism,
identity, Indian aesthetic theory, modernism, race
In this essay I explore the interaction between race and
aesthetics as it emerges in a particular context, namely, the complex patterns
of response to artists and their work in colonial India (1857-1947). This
fueled by the trope of the authentic, exemplified in the selfconscious demand
that artists, their artwork and the emerging aesthetic sensibility in the late
19th and early 20th century, be, in a variety of conflicting senses, authentically
What does it mean for an artist and/or her work to be
authentically Indian? Race can always be recruited in service of authenticity.
Race, the primal fantasy of the authentic, is often the unspoken major premise of
an argument for authenticity, despite the more explicit discourse that is
apparently focused on something else entirely, namely, cultural or national
identity. We see this clearly in the Indian colonial context. On the one hand,
the test for authenticity requires providing the right answers to the following
sorts of questions: Is the art nonwestern enough? Is it national enough? Is it
brown enough? Is it native enough? How much of these ingredients is enough to
warrant the seal of authenticity? On the other hand, is it creative enough to
be art? Is it technically sophisticated enough? Is it distanced enough?
Is it aesthetically transformative enough? How much of these is enough
to warrant the seal of high quality (authentic) art? These twin requirements of
good art turn out to be almost
impossible to satisfy jointly. An artist is either authentic (authentically
Indian but uncreative) or creative (aesthetically authentic but un-Indian).
Either way, in the end he or she ends up being rejected as an artist who merits
There are, however, notable exceptions in colonial Indian
art. There are a chosen few artists who somehow are able to do the impossible:
to transcend the dichotomy and to become cosmopolitan Indian artists.
That is, they are viewed by critics and aesthetes (rasikas or true
appreciators of art) of their time, as transcending the parochial boundaries of
nation, race, ethnicity, and religion as set by tradition, and as in this way
being cosmopolitan, while remaining rooted in something that is nonetheless
fundamentally Indian. How does this occur? I focus on three artists from this
period, documenting the reception of each of their works and techniques, and
exposing the complicated network of reasons and emotional attitudes that, in
the end, in retrospect if not at the time in which they lived, allows us to
justifiably view each of them as among the great cosmopolitan artists of
I distinguish between the projects of the artists Ravi Varma
(1848-1906) and Abanindranath Tagore (1871-1951), on the one hand (very
different from one another in some respects, but in others deeply implicated in
the same ideology), and that of Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-1941) on the other. I
will argue that while the first two artists succeed in being cosmopolitan,
neither of them succeeds in transcending a racialized aesthetic. Their work,
while it reveals their cosmopolitan sensibilities, remains rooted in an
ideological fantasy shared by many Indians and British alike of that period in
the context of nation building, the colonial fantasy of the authentic, one that
insists on keeping race at the center of the aesthetic enterprise. In contrast,
Sher-Gil’s aesthetic is one that succeeds in being cosmopolitan in a different
way. The difference between Varma and Tagore, on the one hand, and Sher-Gil, on
the other, is not that she succeeds in transcending the racialized aesthetic
where they fail to do so. It is rather that Sher-Gil’s own struggles with authenticity
have little to do with the colonial fantasy of race and so there is nothing for
her to transcend. Since she does not get caught up in the ideology of the
authentic to begin with, she is freed from its constraint, in her work, and in
her sensibility as an artist (although this very freedom raises the issue of her authenticity as an Indian artist, as we shall
2. Varma and Tagore
The fundamental challenge for artists and art enthusiasts in
India in the 1850’s was to move Indian art into the modern era while retaining
its Indian character.  But
how was one to create art that was at once genuinely artistic and authentically
Indian? Traditional Indian art was viewed by Indian and Western aesthetes alike
as either “monstrous and barbaric,” 
guilty of undisciplined excess, as evidenced, for instance, in the paintings of
the Kalighat school,  and
symbolic of an untamed Other, or else as mere imitative shopwork, as in the
case of the Company School. 
The early work of Raja Ravi Varma (of Kerala), in the period
from 1900-1907 was initially seen as successfully overcoming this problematic
dichotomy. Varma used techniques from the Company School in the style of
Academic Realism, but evoked Botticelli and Renoir in style and sensibility.
Varma’s artwork, in its subject matter, represented Indian virtue (domesticity)
and female beauty;  it
was historically continuous with ancient art subjects, depicting Indian
mythological and religious themes such as Ravana carrying off Sita in the epic Ramayana
Shakuntala;  and
it contributed overall to the nation building effort.
Varma thus initially achieved success as an Indian
cosmopolitan artist, viewed as being both authentic and creative. But his
ultimately unstable. For an ”Indian Renoir” was, in the end, a Renoir manqué;
one who merely happened to be Indian. And so, his art came to be
disparaged by most Indian and western art critics as inauthentic. He came to be
regarded as expressing at best an Indian enthusiasm, that, while genuine, was
superficial, merely reporting on Indian mythological themes rather than
artistically rendering them. Thus Ravi Varma, in the end, was impaled on both
horns of the dilemma: incapable not only of being both authentic and
creative in his work but incapable of being either.
This deprecation of Ravi Varma’s work went hand in hand with
the evolution of a different approach to Indian art, starting around 1910, this
time focused on “idealism and spirituality”  as
the key to its authenticity. Art critics such as A.K. Coomaraswamy and Sister
Nivedita explicitly contrasts Ravi Varma’s work with that of Abanindranath
Tagore, arguing that, in the work of Tagore,  one
finally finds a recovery of genuine tradition, transformed as the exotic,
disciplined, ideal and spiritual Other to the West’s realist, practical and
material artistic sensibility as it is imitated in the work of Ravi Varma.
Within this new critical perspective, one grounded in the
Indian theory of rasa (which has at least two senses is revealed not as failed representation (mere
imitation) but as successful evocation. Nivedita writes, “[a]n Indian
painting, if it is to be really Indian … must appeal to the Indian heart in an
Indian way ….” 
Based on her criteria, Ravi Varma gets it all wrong. The buxom female body
depicted by Varma becomes a distraction from divine womanly virtue, evoking, at
best, the wrong bhava (or emotion). The Indian norms of purity and
spirituality are undermined by Varma’s overtly realistic (albeit idealized)
depictions of women, men, children, and gods, as well. His subjects are seen as
represented without the aesthetically significant symbolic markers that would
lead the knowledgeable viewer (rasika) beyond the concrete work to a
contemplation of a transcendental ideal, the Indian ideal. This, the
truest ideal, is of otherworldliness, of a world beyond this actual world of
appearance where the ineffable soul of India is revealed by Indian artistic
genius, as in the work of Abanindranath Tagore.
In terms of their artwork alone, though, it is hard to
justify issuing the seal of authenticity in the one case (Tagore) and
withholding it in the other (Varma). It is clear that Varma is appropriating
the styles of the European masters in rendering Indian themes, and is wildly
successful with the Indian public, for whom Indian art becomes salient
as the authentic expression of Indian sensibility as never before. On the other
hand, however, it is clear that Tagore is appropriating Japanese and Mughal miniature
styles in his work (along with French impressionism) in rendering Indian themes
and is wildly successful with the Indian art elite, for whom Indian art
becomes salient as the authentic expression of Indian sensibility as never
before! So why is Varma’s work eventually judged to be discontinuous with the
deepest Indian sensibility, while Tagore’s work is seen as continuous with it?
The answer to this question, of course, is not entirely
clear. The influential contemporary art critic A.K. Coomaraswamy bases his
criticism of Varma’s work quite explicitly on Varma’s training lineage. 
The Bombay and Madras Schools of Art, on his view, train their artists to
simply mimic western styles, so that while the subject matter of the artwork
may well be Indian, in its style and evocation it is distinctly “unIndian.” In
contrast, the Calcutta School, again, on his view, explicitly rejects such
mimicry, with a record of seeking newness in Asia, rather than Europe, looking
to Japanese art style and sensibility. But here is a telling quote from
present-day art historian Guha-Thakurta: “[In the end], it was …Orientalist and
nationalist propaganda which established him [Abanindranath Tagore] as a cult
figure of ‘national art’ and defined a ‘New School of Indian Painting’ around
There is another possible answer, one that may have more to
do with ideological lineage than with training. The fact is that the Bengali
Abanindranath Tagore was far more closely connected to the arbiters of high
taste in Calcutta than was Ravi Varma, who was an interloper, from Kerala, in
the South, and a popular and “cheap lithographer” at that. This explanation
suggests that we take seriously the very real possibility that, in the end,
matters extraneous to the quality of the art itself -- matters such as whose
art lineage is more expressive of continuity with the Indian tradition; what
subjects are evocative of Indian virtue; which forms best express Indian
spirituality; and, last, but certainly not least, who counts as the
quintessentially Indian artist it is these
matters that may explain Varma and Tagore’s relative evaluation in the contest
for the artist who is most accurately to capture the aesthetic soul, the rasa,
the essence, of colonial India.
Last, but not least, it is worth noting a weird irony in the
discourse of Indian authenticity, which is replete with racial overtones: Varma
draws his stylistic image from the white race, while Tagore looks to the
nonwhite (Asian). Tagore gets to be an authentically Indian by imitating the
Japanese. It is also worth noting the role of very strange hybrid aesthetes,
like the mixed Coomaraswamy (Sri Lankan and English) in Boston, Sister Nivedita
(European by birth but Indian by choice), or the protestant Anglophone Brahmo
Samaj Bengali reformers in Calcutta (like the Tagores), in deciding these
issues in India.
3. An Indian in Paris: Amrita Sher-Gil
Let us return to that crucial quote by the influential art
critic Nivedita that set up the artistic challenge for that period: “An Indian
painting, if it is to be really Indian … must appeal to the Indian heart in an
Indian way ….” What we have here, as captured in this wonderful quote, is the invention
of a distinct category of art, of artist, and of audience in India, for the
very first time, namely, Indian art by an Indian artist, for an Indian
audience. This category (INDIA) is both occasioned by the British colonial
encounter and a creative response to it.  In
the work of Varma and Tagore we have the invention of an Indian artistic
tradition, which is a complex weave of nation, race, tradition and
authenticity. Both Varma and Tagore tried in their own respective ways to be
free, through their deployment of methods and practices from all over the world
in their approach to art while remaining
somehow authentically Indian. In neither case was their art free from
explicit consciousness of this purpose, that is, of what it meant to be an
Indian artist, and, in each case, it drove their oeuvre and its reception.
Also, both appealed in important ways to race in their work (as physical
Renoir-esque light-skinned beauty in the case of Varma, and as (dis)embodied or
idealized spirituality in the case of Tagore. For these reasons, in neither
case did their cosmopolitanism as artists transcend what I have called the
Sher-Gil’s work provides an illuminating contrast. Born in
Hungary in 1913 (died at age 28, in 1941), she was of mixed heritage, with an
Indian Sikh aristocratic father and a Hungarian Jewish aristocratic mother. 
She spent the first eight years of her life in Hungary, moving to Simla, India
with her parents for the next eight years. She was identified as artistically
talented from an early age, and her parents moved from Simla to Paris when she
was a teenager so she could attend the École des Beaux Arts. She was trained in
the style of academic realism, but was profoundly influenced by Cezanne,
Gauguin and Van Gogh (as well as the philosopher-poet Baudelaire). Upon her
return to India, these influences were joined by the Ajanta and Cochin frescos,
the sculpture of Mahabalipuram, and Rajput miniatures. Another influence on her
work was the Budapest School (Szonyi), with their plein-air approach. Finally,
she brought a consciousness of color and form (in a sensibility reminiscent of
the formalism of the British philosopher Clive Bell) to all of her work. These
facts – personal, social, and professional -- are deeply relevant to Sher-Gil’s
artistic style and sensibility.
First, in being mixed racially, she was forcibly freed from
a crucial dimension of the essentialized and racialized authentic in the Indian
context. Consider for example this self-portrait of Sher-Gil as Tahitian.
it she plays with the category of race even as she undermines its pretensions
to essentialist purity. In many of her works, 
the fact of racial difference, as marked by color (or caste marks) does express
itself, but as a real world topic for artistic exploration, rather than as a
representation of (idealized) eternal truth.
Second, in being multiply rooted, her taste for
different traditions arises from the ground up, or organically, in
virtue of coming into contact with works, peoples and tastes within very
different cultural contexts from a very early age. This is also true of her training
(Budapest, the Hungarian countryside in Zebegeny, the Latin quarter in Paris
and the Beau Arts school, the Ajanta caves, the Punjab countryside and the trip
to South India). This acquisition, of both taste and training, is not so much a
reflective and deliberative response as it is a deeply visceral, mostly
nonconscious response to aesthetic variety. In her choices of artistic subject
matter, the attention she pays to difference is nuanced, as is attention to
similarity. This is again due to her early exposure both to ways in which color
and form differ in figure and landscape in different geographical,
racial, economic and cultural contexts, as well as ways in which they are
inextricably intertwined (as we see in the interweaving of race in her
own case, and documented in the body of her work, which is diverse in technique
and subject matter). 
These early multiple roots generate for Sher-Gil a unique
artistic perspective that allows her, in contrast to her artistic
contemporaries, a freedom to appropriate styles and blend them in such as way
as to fashion her own artistic signature. It is this multiple rootedness that
in large part provides Sher-Gil with a cosmopolitan lens that allows her to see
subjects in their particularity,  in
contrast to a nationalist lens that I have argued is used by both Varma and
Tagore through which they paint their subjects in a way that is quite
selfconsciously inflected by race.
Indeed, it is this strikingly individualistic cosmopolitan
streak that initially rendered Sher-Gil’s work simultaneously provocative and
suspect as work of a genuinely Indian artist. Even those who enjoyed her
paintings at the time in which she worked, wondered, for instance, about her
fascination with the subjects of poverty and the dark, emaciated body, viewing
her choices as at best sentimental, and, at worst, unIndian; at best the work
of an outsider, and, at worst, a betrayal of her heritage.
It is instructive to contrast this attack on Sher-Gil with
the attack on Varma. Recall that Varma was paradoxically rendered unIndian
because he appealed too much to Indians of the wrong class (not
proper rasikas or art connoisseurs). Sher-Gil’s critical attention was very
different. In her case, it was not a matter of her appealing to the wrong class
as much as it was portraying the wrong class, and in an inappropriate way, by
focusing, not on the buxom female body, which was Varma’s problem, but by
portraying it as dark, emaciated and not fully clothed, in virtue not of
sensuality, but of deprivation -- deprived of all the ingredients of material
living. This was taken to be equally problematic as an honest depiction of a
basic Indian sensibility.
This attitude regarding what constituted proper Indian art
was itself criticized by a different art critic at that
time, Charles Fabri. Fabri wrote: “This search for religion and philosophy,
this tendency to interpret all Indian art in terms of spiritual experience
stood between the sensitive and aesthetically inclined student and a proper
feeling for Indian art like a hazy, misty curtain, that veiled the truth:
indeed, hid the sheer loveliness of Indian works.” 
Responsive to Fabri’s concern, contemporary art historian Yashodhara Dalmia
describes approvingly the artistic attitude of Sher-Gil as follows: “She
[Sher-Gil] melded the Western and Indian idioms and did not, like many other
artists of her time, attempt to find an authentic ‘Indian’ mode or weave
together a nationalist agenda.” 
Sher-Gil herself said: “Modern art has led me to the comprehension and
appreciation of Indian painting and sculpture. It seems paradoxical, but I know
for certain that had we not come away to Europe, I should perhaps never have
realized that a fresco from Ajanta … is worth more than the whole Renaissance!”
Finally, in much of her work, Sher-Gil puts front and center
an exploration of the human body and various forms of human intimacy, including
feminine intimacy 
and intimacy with one’s own self. Here is where gender does become relevant to
her style of cosmopolitanism, particularly when woven in with her mixed racial
heritage. For bodies are indeed colored, while spirits and minds are not; and
bodies are inextricably an aspect of who we are. Sher-Gil clearly has no choice
but to recognize this as part of her own identity in real life, both in India
and in Europe, and it explains in part her interest in exploring this very real
aspect of human existence in her artwork, not as a voyeur surfing a fantasy or
outsider interested in the exotic, but as an intimate participant. Sher-Gil’s
early training with nude models in Paris no doubt contributes to her interest
in this subject (and this is an aspect of her modernism). But whereas in the
case of Varma and Tagore there is the added dimension of an Indian ideological lineage
to explain their respective receptions as artists, with Sher-Gil this kind of
ideological lineage is notably absent. Instead, we find in Sher-Gil, an
individual woman artist, not easily classifiable as belonging to a particular
race, nation, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation (class would be the
exception), and certainly not in an essentialist sense, attempting, in her art
work, to make sense of the range of actual experiences she has in the country
she loves, India, and with which she so strongly identifies.
This makes her a cosmopolitan artist, perhaps. What makes
her Indian? I propose at the very least the following two factors. First, she took
herself to be Indian. This was not justified on grounds of racial purity,
nationalist loyalty, or even a continued presence in India, but was rather due
to a host of interlocking causal factors mentioned earlier, no one of which was
necessary or sufficient for her being Indian, but which together enabled a
sensibility and a sense of belonging to the actual and imaginary space of
India. Second, India has come to claim her as one of its own.
This essay constitutes an exploration of some of the complex
ways in which race and aesthetics are co-implicated in the context of the
British-Indian colonial encounter. I have argued for a distinction between
Amrita Sher-Gil’s art and artistic sensibility from that of Ravi Varma and
Abanindranath Tagore. Specifically, I have argued that the cases of Varma and
Tagore reveal one way of being a cosmopolitan aesthete. Their cosmopolitanism
embodies a selfconsciousness about race, in the guise of a concern for
something else, namely, authenticity. Once race is named  for instance, it begins to be used in a particular way, so as to
mark off certain works of art as legitimate aesthetic objects (i.e., as truly
expressive of the ‘race’ in question), excluding others. Here we see that race
is not merely expressed or explored, but rather patrols the boundary of the
aesthetic. The case of Amrita Sher-Gil, on the other hand, reveals another way
of being cosmopolitan. In her case, the aesthetic is used to rethink, or at
least to situate, race differently in the colonial context. In the case of her
artworks we see race explored, with racial identity functioning as an aesthetic
subject to be itself interrogated, rather than as an instrument used to
delineate what does and does not count as (authentically) aesthetic. It is
ironic that Sher-Gil, arguably the greatest Indian artist of this period in
colonial India, was the one who cared the least about being authentically
Indian, and who cared the least about an Indian racial identity. 
Nalini Bhushan, Smith College
Published July 29, 2009
A portion of this section of the essay appears in “Whose Voice? Whose Tongue?
Indian Philosophy in English from Renaissance to Independence” (coauthored with
J. Garfield), in the Journal of the Indian Council for Philosophical
Tapati Guha-Thakurta, The Making of a New ‘Indian’ Art (London:
Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 184.
See, for example, Kalighat Painting. 1880. Anonymous, n.d.. Oil.
The British set up art schools in the major metropolitan areas (Bombay,
Calcutta, Madras) in order to train Indian artists in western art techniques.
Artists who graduated from these schools and/or who deployed the techniques
taught in these schools were called Company School artists. See, as an example
of Company School painting, The Bird. www.donaldheald.com/search/search_01.php?Author=COMPANY%20SCHOOL%2C%20India.
 Ravi Varma, Here Comes Papa, c.1890s. www.cyberkerala.com/rajaravivarma/rrvhtm15.htm.
 Ravi Varma, Jatayu Vadha, c. 1890s.
Varma, Shakuntala, c. 1890s.
Guha-Thakurta, op. cit., p. 183.
Abanindranath Tagore, Zebunnisa, 1902.
See also: Abanindranath Tagore, The Feast of Lamps,
c. 1906-7. Kokka woodblock print.
Nivedita. “The Function of Art in Shaping Nationality, Part I,” The Modern
Review 1907. January issue. Quoted in Guha-Thakurta, op. cit., p.
A.K. Coomaraswamy, “The Present State of Indian Art. Part I: Painting and
Sculpture,” The Modern Review, 1907. August issue.
Guha-Thakurta, op. cit., p. 189.
There are many good reasons for believing that India, prior to the arrival of
the British, was not one nation but a number of different principalities.
Indeed, Jawarharlal Nehru’s famous history text entitled The Discovery of
India (New Delhi: Penguin, 1946) is arguably more an invitation to his
readers to participate, via his narrative, in an imaginative viewing of India
as unified, rather than a factual literal historical description of such a
Amrita Sher-Gil. An Indian Artist Family in the Twentieth Century (Germany:
Schirmer/Mosel, 2007). This is a book based on an exhibition of Sher-Gil’s work
in 2007, held in Munich and at the Tate Gallery, London. See also www.sikh-heritage.co.uk/arts/amritashergil/amritashergill.html.
Amrita Sher-Gil, Self-Portrait as Tahitian, 1934. Oil on Canvas. 90x56
cm. Collection: Vivan and Navina Sundaram, New Delhi.
Amrita Sher-Gil, Brahmacharis, 1937. Oil on Canvas. 145.5 x 88 cm.
Collection: National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi.
also Amrita Sher-Gil, Bride’s Toilet, 1937. Oil on Canvas. 145.5 x 88
cm. Collection: National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi.
The newly opened National Museum of Modern Art in New Delhi houses a number of
Sher-Gil’s paintings, which document this diversity to which I refer.
Antony Appiah, in his The Ethics of Identity (2006), explicitly links
multiple rooted-ness to a form of particularist cosmopolitanism; this contrasts
with a universalist account of cosmopolitanism as discussed for example in
writings by Martha Nussbaum.
Quoted in Yashodhara Dalmia, Amrita Sher-Gil: A Life (New Delhi: Penguin
Books, 2006), p. 101.
Ibid., p. 91.
Quoted in Dalmia, op. cit., p. 43.
Amrita Sher-Gil, Two Girls, 1939. Oil on Canvas. 158 x 90 cm.
Collection: Vivan and Navina Sundaram, New Delhi. www.fridakahlofans.com/~amritafans.com/Paintings04.html.
I owe this way of thinking about naming to Gregory Velazco y Trianosky
(conversation, November 2007).
This paper was first presented at the meeting of the American Society for
Aesthetics, held in Los Angeles in November of 2007, at a panel on Race and
Aesthetics. I thank the audience at that session for useful comments. I
especially thank Monique Roelofs, editor of the special issue of this journal,
and Richard Millington, for detailed comments and discussion on a previous