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Between Motives And Motifs

Indian art issued forth from a deep need to establish an ideal aesthetic. Market forces have hewn off the two, but a vanguard still explores the frontiers.

This India Between Motives And Motifs

The story of art is a story of its being harnessed to various ideals—the religious, moral and ‘classical’ ideals that the Renaissance and post-Renaissance painters strove for, or an ideal bucolic arcadia so dear to the Romantic landscape artists, or even the mimetic perfection that was the proclaimed telos of the Impressionists. A need to engage the masses with the gathering forces of nationalism occurred in modern times. Two famous works—both embodying a national ideal—spring to mind: Eugene Delacroix’s Liberty Leading People (1830) and Abanindranath Tagore’s Bharat Mata (1905). Created at pivotal moments in the history of France and India, one is a clarion call to revolution; the other a serene image of benevolent motherhood. Both are unalloyedly ‘idealistic’.

Then there is the art of protest—cautionary records of humankind’s egregiousness, of the displacement of ideals. The anti-clerical ghouls and idiot monarchs of Francisco Goya condemn the social and moral rot in Spain, his ‘disasters of war’ series are a systematic impeachment of militarism, and A Military Execution in 1808 is the first great anti-war picture. Over a hundred years later, his countryman Pablo Picasso was to express much the same in Guernica (1937)—the howling, cowering, contorted mass of sufferers a lasting testament to the brutal destruction of the Basque town during the Spanish Civil War. In India, Chittoprosad Bhattacharya’s paintings of of the Bengal famine—often done for journals of the Communist Party of India, often in spare pencil, brush and ink—are a horrific record of death, decay and indignity.

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