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Toward a Development of a Cosmopolitan Aesthetic

  Nalini Bhushan

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.

Key Words
authenticity, colonial art, art criticism, cosmopolitanism, identity, Indian aesthetic theory, modernism, race

1. Introduction

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 interaction is 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 Indian.

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 serious attention.

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 colonial India.

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 see).

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. [1] 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,” [2] guilty of undisciplined excess, as evidenced, for instance, in the paintings of the Kalighat school, [3] and symbolic of an untamed Other, or else as mere imitative shopwork, as in the case of the Company School. [4]

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; [5] it was historically continuous with ancient art subjects, depicting Indian mythological and religious themes such as Ravana carrying off Sita in the epic Ramayana [6] and Shakuntala; [7] 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 stature was 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” [8] 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, [9] 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 ….” [10] 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. [11] 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 him.” [12]

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. [13] 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 racialized aesthetic.

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. [14] 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. [15] In it she plays with the category of race even as she undermines its pretensions to essentialist purity. In many of her works, [16] 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). [17]

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, [18] 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.” [19] 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.” [20] 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!” [21]

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 [22] 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.

4. Conclusion

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 [23] 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. [24]

Nalini Bhushan, Smith College


Published July 29, 2009


[1] 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 Research (forthcoming).

[2] Tapati Guha-Thakurta, The Making of a New ‘Indian’ Art (London: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 184.

[3] See, for example, Kalighat Painting. 1880. Anonymous, n.d.. Oil.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_demon_ravana_fighting_with_the_ape_ hanuman,_1880,_kalighat_school.jpg

[4] 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.

[5] Ravi Varma, Here Comes Papa, c.1890s. www.cyberkerala.com/rajaravivarma/rrvhtm15.htm.

[6] Ravi Varma, Jatayu Vadha, c. 1890s.


[7]Ravi Varma, Shakuntala, c. 1890s.


[8] Guha-Thakurta, op. cit., p. 183.

[9] Abanindranath Tagore, Zebunnisa, 1902.


See also: Abanindranath Tagore, The Feast of Lamps, c. 1906-7. Kokka woodblock print.


[10] Nivedita. “The Function of Art in Shaping Nationality, Part I,” The Modern Review 1907. January issue. Quoted in Guha-Thakurta, op. cit., p. 187.

[11] A.K. Coomaraswamy, “The Present State of Indian Art. Part I: Painting and Sculpture,” The Modern Review, 1907. August issue.

[12] Guha-Thakurta, op. cit., p. 189.

[13] 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 nation.

[14] 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.

[15] Amrita Sher-Gil, Self-Portrait as Tahitian, 1934. Oil on Canvas. 90x56 cm. Collection: Vivan and Navina Sundaram, New Delhi.


[16] Amrita Sher-Gil, Brahmacharis, 1937. Oil on Canvas. 145.5 x 88 cm. Collection: National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi.

www.fridakahlofans.com/~amritafams.com/Paintings03.html.See also Amrita Sher-Gil, Bride’s Toilet, 1937. Oil on Canvas. 145.5 x 88 cm. Collection: National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi.


[17] 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.

[18] 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.

[19] Quoted in Yashodhara Dalmia, Amrita Sher-Gil: A Life (New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2006), p. 101.

[20] Ibid., p. 91.

[21] Quoted in Dalmia, op. cit., p. 43.

[22] 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.

[23] I owe this way of thinking about naming to Gregory Velazco y Trianosky (conversation, November 2007).

[24] 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 draft.