New Delhi Art Critic, Sushma Bahl, with Overview of Contemporary Indian Art

Sushma Bahl
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The vista of Indian art reflects a diverse terrain of creative influences unfolding over the centuries, each artist mirroring his or her own individual response to the ever changing realities of a given time and space. The sophistication in the artistic development of ancient India art is exemplified in the temple statuary of the early second-millennial period. Built in accordance with classical treatises, such as Silpa Shastra and the illustrated manuscripts of the medieval era, these structures are rich with decorative embellishments, drawing on abstractions from nature, surrounding habitat, history and mythology and reinforcing the inextricable intertwining of art and life. 

Editor’s Note: The opening and closing images in this article are not specifically referenced in the text: Opening work (above), Roi Pajursky, Untitled (n.d.). The names of other pictured-artists’ works are highlighted in the story. fine arts magazine 

The Company School of Art, made for Western tastes, extoled British colonialism in 19th c.

 The living arts of India, which continue to connect to classical and folk art heritage, also continue to shape and impact current socio-political realities, as it tracks a future course, through contemporary creative practices in one form or another,. But then there is also the creator’s own persona and passion, triggering, shaping and colouring his/her response to changing times and society, giving each work of art its distinct and unique form and feel—making it ananya, or like none other. 

Rewinding to the 20th century 

Mahadas Gandhi and Abanindranath Tagore, of Bengal School of art (c.1935)

 In the preceding eighteenth and nineteenth century, there emerged the Company School of Painting, a genre when Indian artists focused on capturing the exotic for their British patrons, using water colour and oils, instead of traditional mineral and vegetable colours, in an amalgam of western academic realism and perspective, with a touch of the stylization of Indian miniature traditions. The history of the modern Indian art movement is generally seen to begin in the 20th century with the emergence of Santiniketan and Bengal art led by Rabindranath (1861-1941) and Abanindranath Tagore (1871-1951) and Nandalal Bose (1882-1966), amongst others. Two other significant painters of the period are Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906) and Amrita Shergil (1913-1941). The two, though different in their personal and creative thrust—Ravi Varma from the South and Shergil from the North—the former’s work was often categorized as decorative calendar and portraiture art, rooted in Indian mythology and folk forms, while the latter’s was more-realistic work, focused on day to day life of simple people that she encountered in her father’s palatial home in a village. Yet, each adopted influences of British oil painting practice in their own particular way. These artists were amongst the pioneers who reflected the merging of ‘modernity’ with ‘nationality’ in Indian art. This trend occurred against a backdrop of art schools set up by the British at Madras, Calcutta, Lucknow and Bombay that were modeled on western academic canons, widely perceived to run against the grain of India’s eternal cultural traditions. They did, however, help train a whole generation of Indian artists. 

Tyeb Mehta, Mahishasura, 1997

 The big thrust for change seen prior to independence, came initially from the Bengal School, then from the progressives in Mumbai and Shilpi Chakra in Delhi, who attempted to evolve their own style by breaking free of the stultifying confines of imperialist designs or static realism. The second half of the century, post-independence took a different turn, with the setting up of the Fine Arts Department at M. S. University in Baroda, with the city emerging as another important center for artistic endeavor. A search for regional identity and sensibility was subsequently articulated in the ‘60s by Madras Group, who formulated the Chola Mandal Artists’ Village to distill and engage handicraft traditions, techniques and designs in their art. The turbulent period of the 1970s, with national crisis and Naxalite (Maoist communist) movements, formed the political backdrop for a more intense exploration of issues around socio-economic political realities in art. The real challenge to an inward-looking stance of the earlier decades came in the 1980- 90s, from artists such as Tyeb Mehta and J. Swaminathan; the latter taking a lead in the founding of an art museum at Bharat Bhavan, in Bhopal. Towards the end of the century, as India became progressively engaged in a globalised world, with new economic and media opportunities impacting people’s lives at every level, the rapidly-changing scenario began to be reflected in the work of younger generation of artists from around the country, not just in their varied use of media but also their focus, imagery and techniques. 

J. Swaminathan, Untitled (c.1990)

 A fairly striking change is noticeable between the art-scapes of the two halves of the last century. The post-independence era artists were breaking free of thepolitical compulsions and artistic constraints of derivative subjects and rigid formulaic patterns that guided earlier generations. They also began to distance themselves from their close association with British realism or Parisian abstract expressionism—also symbolic of their predecessors style—as they began to engage more openly with the international art scene. One also notices a renewed vigour in experimentation with abstraction, narrative and pop art during this phase, attempting to capture life’s fleeting moments, as well as the changing times, concerns and happenings in and around the self, the society, the nation and the wider world. 

Contemporary practice 

Shobha Broota, Nude, monoprint (n.a.)

 The seeds laid in the 20th century nurtured the art scene now flowering in the first decade of the 21st century. Issues and preoccupations, once the focus of the previous generation, faded into oblivion as younger artists—not just the privileged few from the big metros—but also mofussil India extending from Bihar and Orissa to Trivandrum and Bangalore, spurred by blurred borders, globalised economy and wider access to opportunities and new media, began to turn ‘glo-cal’, equally comfortable with their indigenous sources and international links. Much of the current artistic expression, in one way or another, converges around the all pervasive consumerist ethos of instant gratification, information explosion, changing times and issues around individual versus society or private as against public to tune in sensitively and walk boldly in rhythm with the new air and times. 

Sanjib Chatterjee & Anjalee Wakankar of Kaaru, The Seven Steps of Buddha (2006)

 With the stage taken over by a younger generation of artists, not over-burdened or overly-indebted to their native history, a new openness to change and growth is paplable on contemporary Indian art scene. With individual styles and approaches apparent, nevertheless, much of it works well together, but with some striking or incongruous examples that appear like ‘global Olympia’, to borrow a phrase from KG Subramanian. On the whole though, this free-flow across forms and media has brought forth a refreshing new genre of art, including photographs, hyper-realism, digital representations, video, installation, public art, design and new media creations besides paintings, sculptures, prints and performance art, amongst others. This work is being increasingly appreciated amongst a more diffuse audience. 

The current political climate seems to be a point-of-convergence through which artists are filtering their experiences and concepts in search of a contemporary working style. Everyday life in rural and middle-class urban India, some real, other imagined, is scrutinized, magnified, or reinterpreted to evoke thoughts, pathos, irony and a variety of emotions. The artist’s objective is often to highlight a personal, economic, social, environmental or political issue. There is art that appears simple and familiar and other, in the digital realm, where the past, present and future dissolve into a single, multilayered interpretation. An equally remarkable paradigm shift is noticeable in sculptural works by several artists, each created in different form and out of a different media. Today’s artist is also experimenting with found materials and indigenous elements for innovative applications in special combinations and unusual treatment, subjecting stone and metal to new designs for site-specific installations. 

Zakkir Hussain, Murder in the City (2007)

 Issues such as sexuality, regional identity, corruption, denial, violence and concern for environment are addressed by some of the artists. Women artists are shedding their self-imposed confines, as they engage their creative energies on wider issues of feminist and other human interest themes. The space left vacated is effectively being taken up by their male contemporaries, also creating work voicing their concerns around gender issues. A twist is added to the picture by NRI artists who bring to the platform their multiple identities and a distant view of their ancestral culture. Given the profusion of art galleries, auction houses, art entrepreneurs, funds and shows of Indian art internationally, art business and its creative domains have turned soul mates. This new scenario marks the vibrancy and high-aesthetic merit, as well as escalating market value of contemporary Indian art. 


The artists featured in this essay, make up a creative assemblage that presents an interesting overview of contemporary Indian art practice. The range encompasses masters, moderns and the younger artists; the rootedness, diversity, innovation and internationalism in their art. With a fair proportion of the artists, including women, born post-independence and from outside the big metros, the selection comprises a wide spectrum, making it a comprehensive composition within some practical constraints. 

Chandra Bhattacharya, Untitled, (n.a.)

 Ananya means, ‘unique or the likes of which there is none other.’ Most of the works mentioned are recent and represent the artist’s current creative oeuvre. Arranged in twelve thematic sections they include abstract art; figuration; narrative; landscapes; spiritual; socio-political, or cutting edge art, amongst others. There are paintings, drawings, prints, ceramics, photographs, new media art, sculptures, installations and more to represent different genres, forms, media and price; ranging from masters to emerging artists, of all age groups and backgrounds from across India and beyond. While each piece is set in a categorical framework, my personal view is that the creative flow, represented by their multifaceted approach, will allow most the art to float across these artificial boundaries with equal ease and élan. 

There is a resounding Ethereal air surrounding the unique abstract renditions on canvas and paper by Achuttan Kudallur, Akkitham Narayanan, Gurdeep Singh, SH Raza, Manish Pushkale, Prabhakar Kolte, Shobha Broota and Sujata Bajaj. Iridescence seems to infuse the work based on Indian design elements, cosmic symbols and calligraphic impressions, with energy, while some others appear more pensive. With bare minimum details they evoke a natural world in non-representational forms, focusing on the intrinsic quality of things rather than their exterior form. There is a range of Panorama in landscapes, sights and views depicted in works by Babu Xavier, Bhagat Singh, Brinda Chaudasma Miller, Klove, Kaaru, Manav Gupta, Manu Parekh, Sakti Burman, Shuvaprasanna, Surya Prakash and Satish Gujral that capture the scenic beauty of nature, its surroundings, atmospherics and air. 

Vineet Kacker, Spirit Marker (2007)

 Theatrics of life are enacted in works by Arunanshu Choudhury, Asit Kumar Patnaik, Farhad Hussain, Naynaa Kanodia, Raghu Rai, Sanjay Bhattacharyya, Shanti Panchal, Shahid Parvez and Sheikh Hifzul. Their personalized illumination or interpretation of objective reality is accentuated by social pointers, directly in some cases, obliquely in others. There is a humorous and satirical narrative in some work, while the rest is variably depicted with distinct creative force. The thrust for Smoke screen that includes multi-layered work by artists Apurba Nandi, Ashutosh Bhardwaj, Dilip Sur, Rajesh Ram, Sisir Sahana, Yusuf Arakkal and Zakkir Hussain is primarily on social issues and political concerns, while in Crossings there is a direct engagement with concepts where art is represented in encounters with complex situations to provoke and appropriate featured events, ideas, actions and processes, and artists Manoj Vyloor, Partha Shaw, Puja Iranna, Radhakrishnan K S, Sidharth, Sharmi Chowdhury, Siju Thomas, Simrin Mehra Agarwal appear in this category. The spectrum, or montage, in their work can be seen in their elegiac tonal variations, presenting images dealing with complex relations between art, life, religion, economics, society and politics, appearing sometimes brutal and at others, tender. 

Pratul Dash, Life of a Double, Video (2006)

 An increasing number of male artists appear on the Gender- bender platform, sharing it with their female contemporaries, including Chandra Bhattacharya, Julius Macwan and Viren Tanwar who along with Anupam Sud, Chaitali Kulkarni, Durga Kainthola, Pranati Panda, Shipra Bhattacharya and Seema Kohli. They create art works focusing on themes around feminine emotions and concerns. While some work around the sensuousness and sexuality of the female body, others have tuned in on her place and role in society. Traversing man-woman relationships, the female nude body and her life-in-motion, this group of artists chose to map female experiences and gender politics along powerful lines. 

Re- routing roots encompasses works by Bratin Khan, Mukesh Sharma, Ankit Patel, Pradeep Puthoor, Ramananda Bandopadhyay, Ramesh Gorjala, Suhas Roy and Thota Vaikuntam. All create a feast for the eye and appear to derive their inspiration and essence from mythology and folk arts in one way or another—be it the imagery, the content, the medium or technique. There is a Zen spirit and meditative stance in evocative imagery differently created by Arpana Caur, Jagmohan Bangani, Neeraj Goswami, Puja Bahri, Sanatan Dinda, Shampa Das Sircar, Satish Gupta and Vineet Kacker. One can see a divine and sacred spirit and a reality transcending time, space and eternity in these works, achieving mystic overtones in a peaceful ambience. 

Sonia Mehra Chawla, The Urban Indian Mappings Inside Out (2009)

 The Metropolis with its imposing structures that threaten to engulf normal life of simple helpless people, are brought alive in work by Binoy Varghese, Dhruva Mistry, Pratul Dash, Rahul Mukherjee, Raj Kumar Mohanty, Samit Das, Soumen Bhowmick, Suman Gupta and Viraj Naik in the category called, By lanes. Rural/urban, man/animal and rich/poor dividing-lines that threaten the idea of co-existence are challenged in these works, that also feature issues triggered by reckless generalizations and entangled knot of identity and migration. Occasionally playful, but more often disturbing, their graphic depiction of the divide is deliberately ambiguous as it closes in on denial, violence and discrimination in our society. 

For some Trend spotting, cutting edge and experimental work we close in on work by Chintan Upadhyay, Debraj Goswami, Dileep Sharma, Kumar Kanti Sen, Mithu Sen, Sonia Mehra Chawla and Sanjeev Sonpimpre. In their world of illusions, often using fascinating media montage, they develop their artistic language and statements by overlapping politics and personal issues. They present us with a paradox, where reality ‘on the ground’ is articulated in bold and immaculate detail, where the underlying message or ugliness of a situation is wrapped up in dynamic imagery. 

Sandeep Biswas, Untitled, photograph (n.a.)

 Beyond the lens photo and media art features work by Anshika Verma, Arunkumar HG, Jatin Kampani, Mahesh Nair, Parthiv Shah, Parvin Dabas, Sajjad Ahmed, Sandeep Biswas, Siddhartha Das and Yogesh Gajwani. Their work conjures up atmosphere, sights and ideas around people, life as it is lived, or simply the beauty of nature. While the aesthetic elements in the work are similar to other media, there is a divergence in their techniques. Looking beyond the lens in the selection and construction of a scene or image is crucial to the philosophy of an artist/photographer. Their work is often portrayed in a mix of reality and dreams, bringing to the world views and experiences that the artist may have observed or undergone not only through the camera lens but beyond it. Quoting from Fine Art Through the Lens, published by Inner Voice: “If the art in painting and sculpture lies in the outward expression of an inner reality, the art in photography lies in striking an inner relationship with an outside entity” 

Collector’s choice includes a group of art works sourced from private collections that some of the connoisseurs have lovingly built over the years. Featuring a range of art that expresses peoples’ personal preferences, this section includes some masters as well as a few younger artists. There are paintings by Badri Narayan, Bose Krishnamachari, Laxma Goud, Lalu Prasad Shaw, Ganesh Pyne, M F Hussain , Jayasri Burman, Maya Burman, Jogen Choudhury, Paresh Maity and Sanat Kar to be considered. Within each one’s artistic oeuvre, there is one or other emotion in some form or another at play; fantasy, surreal expression, scathing social annotations, luminous introspection, ordinary experiences, romantic tenderness or sensory occurrence in the range here. 

Arunkumar HG, Untitled, mixed media (2008)

 For most of today’s artists and their creative output, the concept and creative development process is as engaging as the final work. There is also a great deal of border-crossing, with artists experimenting in varied genres, including assemblage, performance, music, films, architecture and design. Sanjib Chatterjee and Vineet Kacker, both qualified architects work in the domain of fine art. The former works in crafts and the latter with ceramics; while artist Satish Gujral finds designing buildings as exciting as making sculptures, paintings or murals. National Institute of Design trained designers, Parthiv Shah and Kumar Kanti Sen work in photography, video and mixed media art, while artist Arunkumar HG gives us a feel for his multi-dimensional creativity and aesthetics by producing photographs, as well as sculpture, installations and videos. Dilip Sur, based in London, makes art that mirrors his worries about the violence and politics in the name of religion in this country. Vadodara-based Sharmi Chowdhury gets her inspiration from the murals of Diego Rivera and José Orozco, which she saw during a recent visit to Mexico. 

Shilpa Gupta, Singing Cloud Object (microphones, multi-channel audio) (2009)

 It is this plurality and ability to traverse varied terrains, assimilating and adapting what is out there, that gives contemporary Indian art its inclusive and refreshing appeal, with depth and glamour. As seen in the work by these and many others, including Shilpa Gupta, Singing Cloud Object, built with thousands of microphones with 48 multi-channel audio (2008-09), Bharti Kher, Riyas Komu and Subodh Gupta, the new generation appears comfortably at ease with themselves and the world around. Breaking free of old fashioned practice of restricting art to decorative imagery or rigid disciplinary conventions, they innovate to shape their art and ideas, using a range of materials including new media and everyday objects or by making larger-than-life works for public spaces, bringing art into a wider public arena for pleasure and reflection. 

Riyas Komu, Indien (2009)

 Present-day Indian art is both bewilderingly heterogeneous and strikingly individual. It can be unhesitatingly rooted in and equally open to external influences. It uses ethnic sources and craft traditions with as much ease as it employs unconventional materials and new technologies. Some of their studios are equipped with technical facilities, making them appear to be factory assembly lines, complete with staff assisting the master creator. They may also work collaboratively, while taking up residencies, sharing and creating art jointly with other artists. 

As the diverse range of artists covered in this survey article illustrates, the Indian artist today is versatile, creative and focused on ideas, narratives and concepts with equal attention to delineation, composition, texture and finesse, not just palette and form. They have captured the attention of the public as well as private collectors given the free expression of a personal voice and physicality of their work. There is a distinct spark of originality emerging from contemporary India art today. As the current of change flows fast and far in the Indian world, artists turn globe-trotters celebrities and savvy networkers, extending their reach and their influence beyond national borders and restraints of a tradition-bound canon. Much of it is soundly grounded to make it engaging, as they address social issues, articulate their political stand, delve into subversive arena, barge into banned cultural spaces and feature their personal feelings and encounters, uninhibitedly. Their work can be bold or beautiful, subversive or beastly, politically-charged or socially-conscious, highly focused or multi-layered with meaning, very personal or strikingly uninhibited; all this at a time and place when the art of making art is being played out for a global audience. And yet, ironically, for art from any source to remain relevant, Oscar Wild said it best: “A work of art is the unique result of a unique temperament”. 

by Sushma Bahl, Contributing Writer-at-Large 

New Delhi, India 



• Janson, H.W., A History of Art, Thames and Hudson, 1979 

• Mitter, Partha, Indian Art, Oxford University Press, 2001 

• Coomaraswamy, Ananda K, The Transformation of Nature in Art, Edited by Kapila Vatsyayan, IGNCA & Sterling Publishers Pvt. Lt, N Delhi. 1995 

• Geeta Kapoor, When Was Modernism, Essays on Contemporary Cultural Practice in India, Published by Tulika 

• Anupa Mehta, India 20- Conversations with Contemporary Artists, Mapin/Alekhya Foundation, 2007 

• Berger, John, Ways of Seeing, BBC & Penguin Books. 1977 

• Contemporary Indian Art, Other Realities, edited by Yashodhara Dalmia, Marg Publications 

• Major Trends in Indian Art- Lalit Kala Academy 

• Various exhibition catalogues and websites


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  2. penny schaber November 9, 2010 11:03 am

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    Fabulous article and an eye-opener in terms of what is going on in the expanding global art market.

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  11. Tridibesh Sanyal February 17, 2015 2:39 am

    Very interesting article. Unfortunately there are two errors in one caption of a photo here – showing Tagore and Gandhi sitting together. Caption says – “Mahadas Gandhi and Abanindranath Tagore, of Bengal School of art (c.1935)”. First – Mr. Gandhi’s first name is Mohandas. Second – the person next to Gandhi ji, is Rabindranath Tagore” the nobel laureate poet and not Abanindranath the painter.

  12. Rohit yadav December 29, 2019 9:32 pm

    Make the gallery available to the new artist ?


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