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Artivism Unveiled: Tracing the Historical and Aesthetic Roots of Artistic Activism in South Asia

Nicolas Nercam


The aim of this contribution is to provide a comprehensive exploration of the historical and artistic dimensions of contemporary artistic activism in South Asia. Focusing on modern and contemporary visual art history, it identifies key milestones in the relationship between art and politics in the region—a rich and extensive history stretching from the early 20th century during the anti-colonial struggle to the geopolitical shifts of the 1990s. Over this period, the dynamic interplay between art and politics gave rise to groundbreaking artistic forms, shaping the perspectives of contemporary activism in South Asia, whether through rejection or adoption. Employing a chronological approach to this subject allows for an understanding of the major trends that characterize the art field in a rapidly changing context. Simultaneously, the examination of specific regional examples helps identify expressions of the evolving connection between aesthetics and politics, shedding light on the distinctive and fluid role of artists engaged in political expressions.

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  • 1 “Chittoprasad Bhattacharya. A retrospective 1915–1978,” March 16 to July 6, 2018. https://www.studi (...)
  • 2 The exhibition presented a wide range of Chittoprasad’s reproductions: from his drawings on the man (...)

1In 2018, a retrospective of the work of the artist Chittoprasad Bhattacharya (1915–1978)1 was held in the New York branch of the Delhi Art Gallery (DAG). For the first time, Chittoprasad’s engraved and drawn representations of the disasters of the Great Bengal Famine of 1943, as well as his linoleums and numerous political drawings,2 received international recognition. The artistic and political career of Chittoprasad Bhattacharya (an artist who was a member—and later a fellow traveler—of the Communist Party of India (CPI) and an activist in the global peace movement), however singular, is by no means unique in South Asia. Many artists of the 20th century have been committed artists (without necessarily being members of a political party), questioning their artistic practices in the light of their social and political commitments, in complex and sometimes conflictual relationships with institutionalized forms of political power.

  • 3 To take India as an example, the contributors to Major Trends in Indian Art (1997), published on th (...)

2The aim of this article is to provide a historical and aesthetic overview of the development of the interrelations between art and politics in South Asia during the 20th century, from the period of anti-colonial struggles to the economic opening of the region at the end of the century. Given the scope of this Special Issue and its contributions, this article will focus primarily on three countries: India (in particular), Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. These interconnections between art and politics form a rich and dense history in South Asia. However, it should be noted that these cultural and artistic forms and practices have often been marginalized, or even excluded from a history of modern and contemporary art in South Asia.3 Many historical and aesthetic approaches to the South Asian modernism (from the first half of the 20th century until the 1970s) favored a national narrative of art history and minimized the artistic dimension of these engaged artistic practices, limiting them to their strictly political, even propagandistic, dimension linked to social and anti-colonial struggles.

3In the field of art sciences, it should be noted that academic studies on the art-politics dialectic have appeared since the early 2000s, showing a wide range of approaches and analytical perspectives. D. Achar and S. K. Panikkar (2012), for example, brings together articles on current developments in activist art in South Asia. Similarly, the writings of K. Zitzewitz (2014) and those of T. Guha-Thakurta and V. Zamindar (2024) question the secularist dimension of art in South Asia, in the light of the violent challenges and attacks to which it has recently been subjected. S. Ramaswamy (2011) gathers a series of essays on the significance of the attacks carried out by Hindu nationalist organizations against the artist M. F. H., while S. Mathur’s work (2019) analyzes the effects of the writings of art critic G. Kapur on the directions of engaged contemporary art in India. Finally, M. Maheshwari (2019) approaches the question of censorship, blasphemy, and the right of expression in the arts by combining sociology, political, and legal sciences.

  • 4 National Seminar “The Issues of Activism: The Artist and the Historian,” March 6–8, 2004, Departmen (...)

4The question of the advent of a new political art was also addressed in conferences and seminars, in particular, during an event organized at the Faculty of Fine Arts of Baroda, in March 2004, entitled The Issues of Activism: The Artist and the Historian.4 At that time, the violence in Gujarat (2002–2003) was still fresh in people’s minds. The seminar emphasized the fact that popular visual culture had been one of the keys to the mobilization of fundamentalist violence and the proliferation of rumors. Participants noted the emergence of a new popular imagery fueling violent action: riot CDs. They exposed images captured during demonstrations or violent atrocities, often taken on the spot by mobile phones and sometimes borrowed from the Internet. Published on CDs and widely marketed, these images were used to politically mobilize and indoctrinate for the benefit of the Hindu nationalist right by encouraging hatred of minorities (particularly Muslims).

  • 5 Partha Chatterjee, The Nation and Its Fragments. Colonial and Postcolonial Histories, Princeton: Pr (...)

5This series of publications and colloquia helped restructure the history of art in South Asia, mainly in the light of the discourses of gender, postcolonial, decolonial, and subaltern studies.5

  • 6 The art critic delivered a lecture during the fifth edition of the “Ravinder Kumar Memorial Lecture (...)

6The book Towards a New Art History: Studies in Indian Art (D. Achar, D. Mukherji, and S. K. Panikkar 2003), produced by the Department of Art History at the University of Baroda, set out the different directions taken by this critique of art history, focusing particularly on the porous nature of the categories of “fine art,” “popular and tribal arts,” and “mass art.” Similarly, the article “Secular Artists, Citizen Artists” (2006),6 by critic and art historian G. Kapur, bears witness to this significant shift in the political trends in artistic activism in South Asia, from Marxist obedience to gender, decolonial, and subaltern studies. Taking cues from the subaltern studies, which have initiated a reevaluation of Indian history under the guidance of historian Ranajit Guha (Guha 1998, 2003), there has been a shift away from the dominant narratives that previously shaped the historiography of the Indian subcontinent until the 1970s.

  • 7 The first current refers to a colonial (or colonialist) historiography reproducing certain clichés (...)
  • 8 The second is centered on the political and economic history of colonized India, being interested i (...)

7Contemporary Indian historiography, spurred by these fresh perspectives in art history, now seeks to delve into the artistic expressions of the marginalized segments of society, including the lower castes and tribal communities. This shift reflects a departure from the conventional narratives of “colonial history”7 and “national history,”8 marking a significant evolution in scholarly focus. This emerging art history is keen on exploring the accomplishments of those who have been overlooked or oppressed, aiming to assess their contributions to the political, social, and cultural evolution of India. Particularly contentious is the examination of the relationship between art and political activism, which remains a subject of intense scrutiny and debate. This perspective is coupled with a criticism of the mimicry by the Indian bourgeoisie, who unknowingly imitated the former colonizers (adopting Western academic illusionism at the end of the 19th century and becoming fascinated by the modern forms of the European avant-gardes in the first half of the 20th century).

8In presenting this historical and aesthetic panorama, I will focus on three artistic movements that have maintained specific relationships with political and social junctures in South Asia, and that continue to exert a certain influence on the development of contemporary artistic activism. This will provide an initial insight into the diversity of forms of articulation between art and politics that have taken place in the 20th century: firstly, the Bengal School and its links with the Swadeshi movement in the early 20th century, then artistic primitivism from the 1920s to the 1930s and its correlations with a political primitivism initiated by Gandhi, and finally the progressive art movement from the 1930s to the 1950s and its correspondences with the international anti-fascist and progressive movement. In this overview, I will put particular emphasis on the significance of the ideological and aesthetic line adopted by the progressive movement, which had a significant impact on the engaged art of the immediate post-independence period right up to the imposition of the state of emergency in India (1975–1977), and I will conclude with a discussion on the survival of these different legacies (between rejection and adoption) within contemporary artistic activism in South Asia.

9Thus, the aim of this article is to contribute to the development of a narrative surrounding the history of socially committed art in South Asia. The goal is not merely to establish direct connections between political upheavals and artistic advancements, but rather to recognize how these political events have influenced the formal and conceptual innovations within the avant-gardes of this region.

1. The art of the Bengal School and the political thought of Swadeshi

  • 9 As Jean-Luc Racine points out, the phenomenon of the so-called “Bengal Renaissance” at the end of t (...)

10The emergence of the artistic movement known as the Bengal School is part of the rise of nationalist thought in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as well as the construction of the so-called “Bengal Renaissance.”9 The work of P. Mitter, which began in the late 1970s (Mitter 1977), opened the way for scholarly literature on the impact of colonialism on artistic production in South Asia. Then, from the early 1990s, works were published that explicitly addressed the Bengal School and its relationship to nationalist ideals: T. Guha-Thakurta (1992, 2004), P. Mitter (1994, 2007), D. Banerji (2010).

  • 10 The Swadeshi nationalist movement is considered the first mass movement for Indian independence. It (...)

11This movement, of which the artist A. Tagore (1871–1951)—from the aristocratic Tagore family of Calcutta—and the British E. Binfield Havell (1861–1934)—then director of the Calcutta government art school—were at the forefront, was seen as the artistic expression of Swadeshi’s nationalist ideology.10 This was underpinned by the Orientalist conception of a “spiritual and mystical” East opposed to a “materialistic and pragmatic” West (Inden 1986, Luden 1993). Swadeshi ideology reflected, among the bhadraloks (the Anglicized Bengali elite), a disenchantment with the Western education they had received, as well as a strong revival of interest in classical and medieval Indian civilization, particularly Hindu. The writings of European Orientalists, in particular those of M. Müller on the Rig Veda and the research of British archaeologists J. Prinsep and A. Cunningham (Cunningham 1883, 2021), contributed to the “sacralization” of the Buddhist and Hindu past, both in the West and among the Indian bourgeoisie (Cohn 1996). In his work Art and Swadeshi—a true manifesto of the Indian revival in art—the art historian and critic A. Kentish Coomaraswamy, an ideologue of the movement, declares:

Indian aesthetics are an inexhaustible treasure trove of refined invention. But have you never noticed that all these inventions come from the past, that modern India, anglicized India has produced neither beauty nor poetry, but has profoundly destroyed the beauty and poetry of our heritage. … Swadeshi must be more than a political weapon. It must be a religious and artistic ideal. (Coomaraswamy 1912:1–2)

  • 11 The Western academic paintings of Raja Ravi Varma (1848–1906) raised mythology and the great Hindu (...)
  • 12 It is necessary to clarify that, contrary to the ideological credo stated by the thinkers of the Sw (...)

12 The search for a purely Indian heritage, for an artistic heritage specific to the subcontinent, led these nationalists to question the end of Western aesthetics, which were henceforth seen as an art form subjected to British power. While the subjects of the works of the Bengal School movement were still borrowed from Hindu mythology and epics, their visual treatments (far removed from the European illusionism of R. Varma)11 were inspired by the miniature techniques employed in the princely courts of the northern Indian subcontinent in the 17th and 18th centuries: the Mughal, Rajput, and Pahari schools.12 The pictorial production of the members of the Bengal School was therefore presented as Indian in both style and content, and was labelled the “new Indian style” (Guha-Thakurta 1992). Considering that “authentic” Indian culture was the domain of the past, belonging to a pre-colonial “golden age,” Swadeshi’s nationalist ideology supported the conception of an intrinsically archaic, passive Indian civilization that needed to be museumized in order to save its traditional practices from inevitable destruction. The writings of Coomaraswamy and E. B. Havell thus objectivized the conception, dear to Orientalists, of a mystical but passive East, opposed to a materialistic but active West. Indian nationalism, like the artistic forms that it encouraged, drew on the ideological principles (even the clichés and stereotypes) of a colonial culture that it sought to oppose. Thus, it was primarily a Hindu artistic heritage that was claimed by A. Tagore and his followers. This is evidenced by the publication of two works by A. Tagore (Tagore 1914, 1921) in which there is no mention of Muslim contributions to Indian art.

  • 13 Once the independence of Pakistan was acquired, the leadership of the National College of Art was s (...)

13The aesthetics of the Bengal School continued after Independence, not only in India but also in West Pakistan, with the appointment of the painter S. Gupta (1887–1964), student of A. Tagore, to head the Mayo School of Art in Lahore (renamed the National College of Arts).13 While the pictorial style characteristic of the Bengal School (miniaturization, preciosity, pastel tones) was preserved in West Pakistan, particularly in the works of A. Rehman Chughtai (1897–1975), Hindu themes were abandoned in favor of subjects from peasant life or from the Mughal history of the Indian subcontinent.

2. Political primitivism and artistic primitivism

14Around the 1920s, the advent of a “political primitivism,” nourished in particular by the ideology of Mahatma Gandhi, redistributed the definition of Indianness and led to the emergence of an “Indian artistic primitivism.”

  • 14 As Sally Price points out in her book Primitive Art in Civilized Places, the notion of “primitivism (...)

15Through colonialism, primitivism in the arts was exported to non-Western cultural areas (such as that of the Indian peninsula in particular). Playing on the ambiguities inherent in the notion of the primitive,14 the Anglicized Indian elite saw primitivism as central to the debate on the definition of Indian art and its relationship to colonial culture. The notion of primitivism was used by the subcontinental elite as an ideological tool to challenge the model of industrial-colonial society, and served to construct the aesthetic and conceptual frameworks of art movements in pre-independence South Asia.

  • 15 In the 1920s, Abanindranath Tagore wrote the book Magnum Opus Banglar Brata on traditional alpona p (...)
  • 16 Within Indian Primitivism, the paintings of Amrita Sher-Gil (1913–1941) and Jamini Roy (1887–1972), (...)

16P. Mitter closely links the development of Gandhi’s “political primitivism” with the advent of “artistic primitivism,” and thereby situates primitivist approaches within the debate on an Indian nation freed from the colonial yoke (Mitter 2007). In order to regenerate contemporary artistic practices, Indian artists were asked to draw on folk art (seen as a true expression of the continuity of the national artistic tradition).15 The artist N. Bose, who was close to the Congress movement and an admirer of Gandhi, is certainly the one whose work best illustrates the osmosis of the political and the artistic.16 In his quest for artistic Indianness, he sought the bases for a pictorial renewal in traditional rural art. In 1922, he was appointed head of the Kala Bhavan (school of arts and crafts), Shantiniketan, in the ashram founded by R. Tagore. In the bucolic setting of Shantiniketan, N. Bose, taking the opposite approach to colonial schools, established an educational method that closely associated environment with artistic practices. In 1937, the Congress Party commissioned N. Bose to organize the Congress pavilion for its session at Faizpur. Gandhi had, for the first time, chosen a rural area for his party’s meeting. The Faizpur pavilion was built in the image of a pandal, using rural building materials (bamboos, coconut fibers, straw, dried palm leaves). N. Bose organized an exhibition of rural crafts (popular images, pottery, textiles, etc.). This development marked an essential stage in the nationalist sacralization of Indian rural values by certain members of the Congress. It helped give the party the image of a political movement in tune with the rural population and always ready to listen. This new interest in rural craftsmanship was, in fact, indicative of the politically necessary transformation of the Congress from an enlightened bourgeois party to a mass party, by virtue of its fight for independence. For the Haripura Congress pavilion in 1938, N. Bose and his students produced 83 posters in the workshops of the Kala-Bhavan of Shantiniketan. The materials and motifs of this work were inspired by popular art. N. Bose adopted the undulating line of Kalighat pats of Calcutta (Archer 1971) and devotional images from Orissa to create these posters. Here he skillfully blended classical and popular Indian artistic references. T. Guha-Thakurta writes of Haripura’s work: “It reveals a dominant force in the Indian art scene of the 1930s, that of combining the ‘classical,’ and the ‘popular’ and the ‘modern’ to produce art form that could symbolize the nation” (Guha-Thakurta 1995:31).

17The origins of Indian artistic primitivism are therefore eminently political. The Indian nationalist movement, in the wake of Orientalist studies, recognized traditional, popular, rural, as well as many forms of tribal and “subaltern” art, as explicit manifestations of the “authentic” expression of the Indian soul. The nationalist elite then constructed the mythical image of the “Indian peasant,” the naive bearer of the “authenticity” of the nation’s values, perpetuating cultural practices unchanged since times immemorial, while in comparison the urban world, exposed to the various invasions (Persians, Afghans, the Portuguese, and the British), had long since lost its “cultural purity” to a decadent cosmopolitanism. Rural communities were seen as living manifestations of a kind of original Indian society (an ideal image of a golden age of Indian history and culture).

18We can identify four major reasons for the emergence of rural art as a source of expression of national authenticity and the construction of the myth of “rural art.” First of all, Indian rural art was seen as a radical antithesis to Western academicism. Promoting rural art was a way of advocating art for the masses and condemning the elitism of bourgeois and aristocratic art, which had adopted the values of European academic naturalism or those of the Bengal School. From then on, the aristocratic style of the Bengal School, with its miniaturization, preciosity, literary themes, and taste for historicism, no longer embodied the new values granted to Indianness. But the art of rural India also reinforced the myth of the poverty and simplicity of the original India. In adopting the spinning wheel, Mahatma Gandhi understood perfectly well the political significance of the image of rural craftsmanship. The ancestral character of Indian craftsmanship in rural areas was magnified and the idea of an unchanging India erected as a national myth. Indian intellectuals of that time drew parallels between local rural art and a certain Western modernity, if only in the purification of forms and visual simplification. Finally, this glorification of rural craftsmanship helped define an Indian identity, and more specifically a Hindu one. Popular practices in the countryside evoked the myth of a “pure” and “authentic” India, impervious to foreign pollution.

19The village would remain central to national imagery in the context of the modernization driven by Nehru’s socialism in the first decades after independence.

20The aesthetic reference to folk and tribal art was unanimously accepted and encouraged by all political components of the independence movement. For the left wing of the Congress and for the Communist Party, revaluing popular art meant stimulating a mass art form that had been ignored for too long in South Asia by the cultural superstructure of the bourgeoisie. The new appreciation of traditional crafts also satisfied the right wing of the Congress and the various Hindu components of Indian nationalism. It allowed them to re-emphasize Vedic national values and the idea of an “authentic” India that was not only pre-British, but pre-Muslim. The remarkable contribution of Islamic cultures to Indian popular art was thus minimized, if not eliminated.

  • 17 In this context, the artistic journey of the painter Sadequain Naqvi is noteworthy. In 1976, an exh (...)

21The political consensus around popular art cannot therefore completely mask the dissensions that shook the intellectual and cultural world of South Asia before independence. A real division within the artistic heritage of the Indian subcontinent was already taking shape at that time, along national, and in some cases ethnic, lines. The partition of 1947 reinforced the communal divide, with a Muslim artistic heritage on the one hand and a Hindu culture with its own values and specific aesthetics on the other. This is evidenced by the incentives given by government cultural institutions in West Pakistan to contemporary artists to invest in the field of calligraphy (a marker of Muslim culture).17

22Primitivism thus gave rise to political debate, but also to an aesthetic one. In the West, the primitivism movement in art, in its explicit desire to overturn the values of rationalism, gave birth to the criticism of industrial capitalism, cultivating the myth of the Golden Age. These European critics were nourished, in particular, by a certain type of Eastern philosophy, filtered through the proponents of Theosophy and establishing a duality between materialism and spirituality. Kandinsky, for example, made connections between the Russian Orthodox faith and Indian spirituality. Malevich was strongly influenced by the writings of Vivekananda, and Mondrian was an avid reader of the Bhagavad-Gita, the Upanishads, as well as the writings of Krishnamurti.

23In Western theological interpretations of a modernity renewed by primitivism, the South Asian art world found the tools to forge its own identity. Primitivism presented itself as an alternative to Western rationalism and colonialism, through its willingness to critically consider the spiritual needs of a technological civilization. For the elite of the subcontinent, as for certain proponents of modern art in Europe, the primitivist movement opened up the possibility for an aesthetic of globalization, including non-Western achievements, as an integral part of Art history. The postulate of primitivist aesthetics was thus objectified: recognition of the absolute universality of artistic language, where any art object could be understood independently of the meaning it had in the society in which it was conceived. The connoisseur’s interest in primitive objects had to be directed primarily to the plastic qualities of the figures—their effect of line, surface, and mass color—regardless of any sociological and cultural data (it was felt that the ethnological context could confuse the appreciation of the plastic qualities in themselves).

  • 18 J. Swaminathan contributed to the notoriety of the tribal artist from the Gond ethnic group, in Mad (...)

24To conclude this overview of artistic primitivism in South Asia, I would like to draw attention to the investment of the painter J. Swaminathan (1928–1994), a key figure in the construction of the Bharat Bhawan in Bhopal. He headed this art center from 1982 to 1990 and organized cultural programs showcasing the breadth and diversity of Indian tribal art.18 Many post-independence artists, such as K. G. Subramanyan (1924–2016), N. Altaf (1949), or N. N. Rimzon (1957), were interested in and borrowed from rural and tribal folk art. In Bangladesh, it is worth noting the paintings and drawings of Q. Hassan (1921–1988), which combine borrowings from rural decorative elements (plant stylizations, geometric patterns borrowed from pottery or traditional Bengali textiles), or even the artistic work of S. Ahmed (1922–2012), characterized by the representation of the “Santal woman.”

3. Political progressivism and artistic progressivism

  • 19 It was in 1979 that a first work was published by the academic and political activist Sudhi Pradhan (...)

25It was in April 1936 that a doctrine that combined anti-colonial struggle and anti-fascist struggle emerged in the subcontinent, with the creation, at the session of the Indian National Congress Party, of a United Front under the leadership of J. Nehru, President of the Congress Socialist Party (left wing of the Congress). The Communist Party of India (CPI), which was still outlawed at that time, joined this venture. Under CPI’s leadership, the All India Students’ Federation (AISF student union) and the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS peasant union) were created during this session. This United Front enabled the synergy of initiatives and struggles, as well as the visibility of communist mobilizations, whether political, social, or cultural. In the cultural and artistic spheres, this active collaboration between left-wing forces of all persuasions led to the creation of the All-India Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA, founded in 1936) and the Indian People’s Theater Association (IPTA, founded 1943).19

The left cultural front—PWA and IPTA

  • 20 It is difficult to define the precise contours of what we call “progressive culture” in general, an (...)

26These cultural and artistic organizations, which grew out of the anti-fascist movement, formed a network of resistance and collective struggle in the face of colonialism and imperialism, and helped build international links between intellectuals. This internationalism was an important feature of progressive culture20 that developed in many countries, with communist ideas and initiatives playing a key role in progressive culture in the 1930s and 1940s.

27The policy instigated by the then Secretary General of the CPI, P. C. Joshi (in office from 1936 to 1948), was decisive in the creation and dynamism of the PWA and the IPTA, by recognizing a significant role for culture and the arts in the political struggles (Adjania 2016). The PWA and the IPTA were veritable melting pots where writers, actors, and artists came together and worked in synergy, in a totally original and innovative way. Among the many writers affiliated with or close to the PWA, we can cite: M. R. Anand (English-language writer): Coolie (1936), The Sword and the Sickle (1942); Y. Singh (Hindi-language writer): Dada Kamred (“Comrade, the big brother,” 1941), Deshdrohi (“Traitor,” 1943); T. S. Pillai (Malayalam-language writer): Thottiyude Makan (“Scavenger’s son,” 1947); Randidangazhi (“Two measures,” 1947); T. Bandyopadhyay (Bengali-language writer): Ganadevata (“The people as God,” 1942), Bingsho Shatabdi (“The 20th century,” 1945). In the field of visual arts, it was with the formation of the Calcutta Group (CG) in 1943, and then the Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG) in 1947, that progressive aesthetics began to be embodied in modern art. Artistically, progressive artists rejected the academic realism of R. Varma and the sentimentalist and Orientalist aesthetics of the Bengal School of A. Tagore. For the progressive artists of this period, the defense of progressive values went hand in hand with the affirmation of international artistic modernism. Their formal references drew on the modernist formalism of the Euro-American avant-gardes (Singh 2023). But progressive masters could also borrow from Asian traditions, cultivating the idea of a universal human community. As Z. Jumabhoy points out: “Progressives consistently drew on these hybrid traditions because their work argued for a plural nation, providing a visual counterpoint to Nehru’s plea for ‘unity in diversity’” (Jumabhoy 2018:22).

28The Indian People’s Theater Association (IPTA) was founded on May 25, 1943, at the National Conference of Theater Artists held at the Marwari School, Bombay. The name of this theatrical association was chosen in reference to Romain Rolland’s eponymous work Le Théâtre du Peuple, published in 1903. Through this association, it was in the field of theater that the link between art and politics seems to have been the most active (Nercam 2011). Most IPTA members were Communists or Communist sympathizers. Working in the performing arts, the IPTA was made up of actors, singers, dancers, directors, and teachers, who were organized into “brigades.” The IPTA’s aesthetic and ideological line differed little from that of the PWA, of which it was an offshoot. The theater group aimed to forge connections with audiences from peasant and working-class backgrounds through their campaigning efforts (mobilizing the people through shows, in order to prepare for the revolution, combining revolutionary and nationalist fervor). This led affiliated troupes to work outside the aesthetic and logistical framework of traditional urban theaters. Events in the streets, in suburban factories, or in the heart of villages became the new formulas for theatrical productions.

  • 21 The Russian term Narodnik (“people’s”) refers to a short-lived Russian agrarian socialist movement (...)

29The association set out to explore popular art forms (borrowed from the Indian rural world), as well as modern artistic forms (borrowed from the West), in relation to a political strategy of persuasion. The creation of the IPTA was inspired by Russian and Soviet political and cultural movements and obedience. In her approach to the IPTA, the art critic and historian G. Kapur draws parallels with the pre-Bolshevik Narodnik movement21 from the late 19th century, with the aesthetics of the Soviet agitprop of the 1920s (Kapur 2007), and with the forms of traditional yatra theater (Raha 1993).

30The IPTA became the center of a new theatrical form involving stage design and acting, as well as a new cinema. In the field of theater, for example, let us cite the Bengali director and actor B. Bhattacharya and his play Nabanna (Harvest) produced in 1944, and the troupe director U. Dutta. In the same vein, the Gananatya theater troupe, also a member of the IPTA, collected rural folk songs and disseminated them to the working population of the metropolises of northern India. In the field of cinema, let us limit ourselves to mentioning the names of personalities who helped to build and animate the IPTA: the Bengali filmmakers R. Ghatak and M. Sen, the Hindi filmmaker K. A. Abbas, the film actors P. Kapoor and B. Sahni. This movement should be recognized for its pivotal role in catalyzing liberation efforts, harnessing the creative energy of young people in the national struggle, and addressing the challenges posed by local feudalism, British imperialism, and fascism. In Sri Lanka, the Marxist-based Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) was founded in 1935 and was as much involved in the anti-colonial fight and the construction of a nationalist policy as it was in defending the working classes. Essential to the formation of the LSSP were Sri Lankan students returning from English or American universities, who had been exposed to international communist politics and the ideas of Indian communism. The LSSP was also at the origin of an active progressive cultural policy in Sri Lanka (Hoek and Sunderason 2022).

An “aesthetics of the left”

31These associations (PWA, IPTA, LSSP) enabled the expression of a new artistic sensitivity, representing the social and political realities of South Asia at that time (the throes of war, famine, and anti-colonial struggle) and denouncing the oppression of the feudal conservative system and of colonial and capitalist imperialism. As cultural organizations affiliated with Marxism, they forged a novel connection between political and social activism and modern art in the subcontinent, marking significant milestones in the cultural history of South Asia (Panikkar 2017). The emerging aesthetic centered on a fundamental question: how to encapsulate the lived experiences of struggle among the populace and ignite efforts toward social and political change?

32The artists, writers, filmmakers, poets, and art critics associated with or sympathetic to these groups endeavored to craft forms that resonated with their ethical and political convictions. Their aim was to disseminate revolutionary Marxist ideas within the context of the anti-colonial struggle, striving to break free from the artistic norms of their time. Their objective was to enable the expression and portrayal of repression and inequality, shedding light on the plight of the oppressed. Artists such as Chittoprasad Bhattachraya (1915–1978), Z. Abedine (1914–1976), and playwright B. Bhattacharya (1906–1978) exemplified this approach through their depictions of the horrors of the 1943 famine. The question of artistic form and its participation in a broad political mobilization was, of course, central to the aesthetic debate within the PWA. In the visual arts, the PWA rejected colonial academicism and the Orientalism of the Bengal School, and was wary of the Parnassian dimension (“art for art’s sake”) and formalism that the association attributed to the Western avant-gardes. While acknowledging the contribution of artistic primitivism, the association advocated an aesthetic of realism, in line with the “critical realism” approach developed by Berthold Brecht who invited the committed artist to “reveal the complex causality of social relationships …, denounce dominant ideas …, underline the moment of the evolution of everything” (Brecht 1976:117). The PWA drew on G. Lukacs’s description of the “realist artist”:

Every major realist fashions the material given in his own experience, and in so doing makes use of techniques of abstraction, among others. But his goal is to penetrate the laws governing objective reality and to uncover the deeper, hidden, mediated, not immediately perceptible network of relationships that go to make up society. (Lukacs 1938, 2001:1043)

33Realism was an aesthetic form that allowed an “objective representation of reality in order to reveal contradictions in social relations and thus show the way for revolutionary change” (Sarkar 2009:70). The realism cultivated by this association was far removed from a verist representation of reality. From the progressive artistic movements of the 1930s–1940s, linked to the Marxist cultural movements, there developed in South Asia what L. Hoek and S. Sunderason call “an aesthetics of the left” (Hoek and Sunderason 2023), which initially manifested within the framework of the decolonization struggles and debates and, once independence was achieved, defined the main links between art and politics.

34These committed artists and artists’ collectives, which were originally aligned with the ideological stance and commissions of the Communist Party, reoriented political aesthetics towards “national-popular art” (Hoek and Sunderason 2022) in the post-1947 political context. The forms developed by this “aesthetics of the left” were mobile and singular in their relationship to political and ideological content (Hoek and Sunderason 2022). Such a collaboration between nationalism (working for liberation from the colonial yoke) and the left (working for a socialist revolution) relied on the use of a common vocabulary: “people,” “popularization,” “popular,” “politics / art / artist,” “progressive.” The left largely supported Gandhian populism, interacting with a revolutionary popular imagination (Hoek and Sunderason 2022).

The notion of “progress”

35The PWA and IPTA viewed “progress” as a transformative shift, especially considering the prevailing social and political circumstances, notably the conditions of colonial and feudal oppression. The role and objective of progressive arts and culture were to contribute to the promotion and realization of these changes, by creating a necessary social and ideological sensitivity that would allow the participation of the people in this process of change (giving access to a degree of consciousness that would allow conservatism to be transgressed). The manifesto drawn up by the All India PWA at the association’s first congress, held in Lucknow on April 10, 1936, sets out the concept of “progress” in these terms:

We believe that the new literature of India must deal with the basic problems of our existence today—the problem of hunger and poverty, social backwardness and political subjection. All that drags us down to passivity, inaction and unreason we reject as reactionary. All that arouses in us the critical spirit, which examines institutions and customs in the light of reason, which helps us to act, to organize ourselves, to transform, we accept as progressive. (Pradhan [1975] 1985:75)

36The notion of “progress” was therefore conditioned by a specific historical context linked to the conditions of colonial South Asia. It was clearly opposed to the “colonialist,” “fascist,” “imperialist,” and “reactionary” forces (it was in these oppositions that the ability of associations to federate was to be found), in the light of Marxist and Communist conceptions of social progress and the emancipation of humanity. Progressive culture was expected not only to militate for, or even actively participate in, changing the conditions of the material world, but above all to stimulate creation in the fields of literature, theater, the arts, and all forms of cultural actions. The aim was to create “the cultural needs” to bring about these political and social changes. The President of the first session of the PWA, M. Premchand, highlighted this dimension in his inaugural speech:

We shall consider only that literature as progressive which is thoughtful, which awakens in us the spirit of freedom and of beauty; which is creative; which is luminous with the realities of life; which moves us; which leads us to action and which does not act on us as a narcotic; which does not produce in us a state of intellectual somnolence—for if we continue to remain in that state, it can only mean that we are no longer alive. (Prem Chand 1985:44)

37The idea of “progressive” culture, promoted mainly by the left-wing parties of that time, had a strong regional impact in Bombay, Calcutta, Chittagong, Dhaka, Lahore, Karachi, Kashmir, and Colombo. Across South Asia, this rhetoric of progressive art, carried by writers and artists, was rooted in the demands of a Universalist modernism of artistic forms, associated with socialist values. The leading figures of this progressive cultural movement in South Asia, such as M. R. Anand in India or F. Ahmad Faiz in Pakistan, cultivated a dialogue between national identity and international values. The assimilation of M. R. Anand’s thought into Nehruvian modernity—defense of secularism and a multicultural Indian nation—and F. Ahmad Faiz’s exile—imposed by a repressive Pakistani regime—helped to build a Left culture that blended “alienation” and “assimilation.”

Progressive aesthetics after independence

38The period of the anti-colonial struggle was therefore clearly a moment of particular convergence between art and politics. The political investment of the artistic avant-garde, which was in the orbit of the independence movement, contributed in its own way (however modest), and in the field of art and culture, to the advent of independence: the proclamation of independence, on August 14 and 15, 1947 for Pakistan and India, and on February 4, 1948 for Sri Lanka. In this way, the relationship between art and politics in the first half of the 20th century could be perceived as particularly effective; the figure of the artist as a “subjective and subversive agent” (Achar and Panikkar 2012) was able to demonstrate its effectiveness and power to change society. Members of the political and artistic world might have believed in a form of harmony between artistic revolution and political revolution. In South Asia in the 1930s and 1940s, the art-politics nexus came together at a time of particularly acute crisis (world war, anti-colonial combat, famine, partition, migratory flows), in a period where politics, like culture and art, were fractured concepts. This fracturing of concepts would be the legacy of the colonial period, and the artists of immediate independence—artists whom the art critic J. Appasamy describes as “transitional artists” (Appasamy 1987:26–28)—would have to recompose an art-politics articulation on new bases.

39Once the independence of the countries of South Asia had been achieved, the development of a progressive art would take forms and directions linked both to the contingencies of the Cold War and to the local specificities of social and political development. The 1960s and 1970s were critical years, marked by the intensification of decolonization, by the crises between the USSR and China, and by the spread of the revolutionary ideology of Maoism, which fascinated not only Western intellectuals but also students from the Third World.

  • 22 For further insight, see the film Calcutta 71 (1972) by filmmaker Mrinal Sen.

40In India, the CPI broke up for the first time in 1965 following the Sino-Indian war. This split gave birth to the Communist Party of India—Marxist (CPI(M)), characterized by more assertive Maoist tendencies (the CPI remaining more sensitive to Soviet positions). The CPI(M) then split in 1968, with the creation of the Communist Party of India—Marxist Leninist (CPI(ML)), which advocated a return of the peasantry as the driving force behind armed revolution. This split was linked to the Naxalbari peasant revolt (1967), in northern Bengal, which had a major impact on Calcutta’s university campus, resulting in the advent of the student-led Naxalite movement that spread throughout the country and then the whole of South Asia (Ram 1971).22

41In West Pakistan, the painter and calligrapher S. Ahmed Naqvi (1930–1987) joined the PWA in the late 1940s. From the beginning of his career, his allegorical paintings depicted the struggles of workers and the toiling masses, accompanied by Kufic calligraphy.

42After Partition, Z. Abedin settled in East Pakistan and helped found the Institute of Arts and Crafts at Dhaka University (now the Faculty of Fine Arts) in 1948. His art would remain strongly imbued with the themes of famine and peasant suffering, and his pictorial style would remain marked by the realistic/expressionist aesthetic of these drawings of the 1943 famine. In 1954, he helped to organize the first All Pakistan Art Exhibition, bringing together artists from both Pakistan and India (Dadi 2010). In East Pakistan (Bangladesh in 1971), the left was at the origin of cultural and political demonstrations on a national scale, allowing dialogue with peasants, tribes, and the working class—all linked to student movements—to contribute to the construction of a Bangladeshi linguistic and cultural identity. In January 1969, students at Dhaka University drew up an 11-point political and cultural program against the dictatorial military regime of General A. Khan. Then, in February 1969 (in the wake of the Naxalite movement), a socialist peasant uprising was led by Maulana Bhashani, the leader of the National Awami Party peasant party (Hoek and Sunderason 2022).

43In Sri Lanka, the left was also involved in building a politics of identity in a country where the issue of language and the relations between Sinhalese and Tamil cultures are particularly tense. On the island, 1971 was marked by Maoist-inspired popular and student uprisings claiming solidarity with the Naxalite movement.

44The narratives of the left in postcolonial South Asia have were dynamic, multifaceted, and shaped by activists and sympathizers with informal connections that transcended the ideological and political boundaries of nation-states and parties. These historical junctures were thus characterized by personal experiences, artistic expressions, national aspirations, and transnational influences, forming a complex web of intersections.

4. Artistic activism in South Asia: between globalization and local roots

45It was during the national liberation movement that the defining traits of the “committed artist” were solidified, a designation that set the standard for creative practitioners until the 1980s. Under the Nehru/Gandhi dynasty, the Indian Republic regarded the artist as “an ideal representative of the national community” (Kapur 1981:1–9). The community of artists and intellectuals was expected to embody the progressive values advocated by the central State, by placing its social and artistic investment beyond community antagonisms, in order to contribute to the advent of an acceptable transition towards modern, democratic, and “secular” governance.

The “secular identity” of the artist

46Embodying what G. Kapur calls “secular identity” became the credo of the artistic community (Kapur 2000). Artists and art critics largely adhered to the emancipatory ideology defended by the “Indian way.” This helped to endow the Congress government with a positive aura, presenting it as the Indian people’s one and only recourse towards political, economic, and cultural emancipation. The artist M. F. Husain (1915–2011), a founding member of the Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG), embodied this post-independence “national artist.” Born into a Sunni Muslim community in Maharashtra, M. F. Husain knew how to borrow from different iconographic and visual registers (references to Hindu iconography, textile motifs, modern Western formalisms, etc.) to build a visual vocabulary for the Indian nation.

47This political protocol between the artistic world and Central government, organized around the defense of Congress values, began to crack when I. Gandhi, then Prime Minister, imposed the Indian Emergency from 1975 to 1977. The Congress government, badly shaken by a determined political opposition and a series of electoral defeats, decided to suspend the democratic process by imposing a state of emergency in order to combat, in its own words, a situation of “national anarchy.” Many artists decided to defy these bans and exhibit their paintings, sculptures, and street performances, often provoking a muscular reaction from the police or army. It was at this point that the notion of a “national culture” began to take hold in Indian intellectual and artistic circles, and the question of cultural plurality became a central issue.

48The Place for People exhibition, organized by G. Kapur in New Delhi in 1981, crystallized the new aspirations of a committed art. In its catalogue (Kapur 1981:1–9), the art historian asserted that the polarities that had structured modern Indian art (in particular “Indian art / Western art” and “art / national identity”) were now outdated. The works of the invited artists—B. Khakhar (1934–2003), G. M. Sheikh (b. 1937), J. Chowdhury (b. 1939), V. Sundaram (1943–2023), N. Malini (b. 1946), S. Patwardhan (b. 1949)—presented a wide range of figurative art, intimately blending borrowings from classical art, Indian popular and urban art, American pop art, and European Figuration Libre.

49In 1989, in the ideological wake of this exhibition, the Indian Radical Painters and Sculptors Association was created, being made up of young communist activists from the state of Kerala. In their manifesto, the Radicals, drawing on the theories of subalternist historians, criticized modern Indian art for its lack of independence and its institutional character. In their view, the lack of singularity in artistic modernity stemmed from a failure (or even a refusal) to analyze its colonial origins. Denouncing the ideological predominance of a “culture of elites,” the Radicals advocated an art with a political protest content aimed at the most disadvantaged, the voiceless in political and economic life (Spivak 1988). Despite its short life, this association played a crucial role in unveiling the falsehoods within the democratic state’s discourse on minorities and contributed significantly to revitalizing the connection between political activism and artistic expression.

Art and intercommunal conflicts

  • 23 These events presented a range of contemporary Indian artistic productions. The following are among (...)

50Since the beginning of the 21st century, with the economic opening of the Indian Union, contemporary Indian art has found its place in the international concert of artistic production. Major exhibitions over the last ten years have been clear expressions of this development.23 Within this globalized art scene, a number of critics, aestheticians, historians, artists, and other observers speak of “artistic activism” as a significant strand of contemporary production, expressing in its own way the “obsession du réel” (Rancière 2005) characteristic of contemporary art. From the end of the 1990s, a fringe of contemporary Indian artistic production became part of the global movement of “artistic activism,” which gave it visibility within major artistic events across the world described as “multicultural.” The works of V. Sundaram (1943–2023), N. Sheikh (1945), N. Malani (1946), N. Altaf (1949), Pushpamala N. (1956), T. V. Santosh (1968), S. Gupta (1976), T. Shah (1979), or by the Raqs Media collective are often classified as “Indian artistic activism.” The vast majority of Indian artistic activists are committed to defending progressive political and ethical values (social justice, defense of the rights of women and minorities, etc.), as well as the credo of “secular identity.”

  • 24 Tapati Guha-Thakurta’s book Monuments, Objects, Histories (2004) questions the colonial genealogies (...)
  • 25 On December 6, 1992, a group of Hindu fundamentalists, supervised by leaders of the VHP, the RSS, a (...)
  • 26 The Ayodhya affair and the riots that followed constituted the narrative of highly successful films (...)
  • 27 According to the Delhi authorities, interfaith clashes caused 254 Hindu and 790 Muslim deaths. Foll (...)

51From the 1990s onwards, the challenge to the founding values of the Indian Republic took on a new political dimension with the instrumentalization and exacerbation of communal conflicts. The Vishva Hindu Parisad (VHP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the keystone organizations of Hindu fundamentalist ideology, were the architects of this instrumentalization, and the advent of their political arm, the BJP, as an alternative to the Congress Party demonstrated the electoral roots of Hindu nationalism in India. The internationally acclaimed artist M. F. Husain became the target of persecution by Hindu nationalist activists. The artist’s Muslim origins and his free interpretation of Hindu iconography triggered the anger of fundamentalist associations (Herwitz 2006). From the end of the 1990s, he was harassed and his works were vandalized. The threat was such that he was forced into virtual exile in Dubai and died in London in 2011.24 Instigated by Hindu nationalist associations, the communal clashes following the destruction of a mosque in Ayodhya on December 6, 199225 were among the bloodiest that India had seen in recent years. The event shocked public opinion and fears of a general conflagration in the country were real.26 Then, in March 2002, the state of Gujarat was engulfed by unrest after a train attack by Muslim militants. The Muslim community was the target of considerable violence, with some describing these events as “Muslim genocide.”27

52For the artist V. Sundaram, the events in Ayodhya had a decisive impact on his artistic production; he abandoned painting on canvas, his preferred medium at that time, to devote himself to installation, which he felt was better able to convey the political message of his artistic creations with plastic and ideological relevance. In 1993, the artist presented his installation, Memorial, in which he depicted the death of a stranger during communal clashes. This artwork became the emblematic image of the decline of the conception of a tolerant and secularist India, guaranteeing peace between communities. The work is intended as a warning to citizens who could be abused. According to V. Sundaram, religious fundamentalism is used to distract communities from a serious analysis of the ideological driving forces of capitalist globalization, whose economic interests are, in principle, transcommunitarian.

53Among the many reactions of artists to the rise of Hindutva (political-religious concept claiming that India is intrinsically Hindu), the SAHMAT association (Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust), which is a forum of artists and intellectuals set up in 1989, stands out. Under its slogan “Artists Alert!” SAHMAT mobilizes academics, artists, and social actors at events where democratic rights are being called into question. The association is still very active on the minorities front, defending their rights and their security within the national cultural space. The events in Ayodhya were a major catalyst for its actions. As well as producing and distributing 200,000 posters across the country, denouncing the actions of Hindu nationalism and the passivity of the government, on January 1, 1993, SAHMAT organized Anhad Garje, an experimental, syncretic, and itinerant musical program where the popular musical traditions of Sufi-Bhakti, a blend of Muslim musical traditions and Hindu devotional music, were given a contemporary flavor (Moos and Rahman 2013).

54In 2003, S. Gupta decided to express her anger and frustration at the extreme violence of the communal clashes in the state of Gujarat. She produced an intervention called Blame (2002–2003). On a local train in Mumbai, the artist offered passengers the chance to buy, for the sum of 10 rupees, a bottle called “Blame,” filled with a red liquid imitating the color of blood. Each bottle read: “BLAME. Blaming you brings me so much happiness. So, I make you responsible for what you cannot control. For your religion. For your nationality. I want to blame you because it brings me happiness.” In each compartment of the train, she presented her product and declared, somewhat provocatively: “If you are a Hindu, you can blame a Muslim. If you are a Muslim, you can blame a Hindu. Buy this Blame bottle and put it above your television at home” (Bombay Maximum City 2006:160).

55Intervention groups of Hindu nationalist organizations continue to intimidate the artistic world with violent actions in the name of condemning blasphemy and the defamation of religion. Their targets are artists, training places, galleries, and exhibition centers. One of their notable coups took place on November 21, 2015, during the Jaipur Art Summit. A far-right Hindu group protested against artist S. Kararwal’s installation in a public place entitled Divine Bovine. It was a “flying cow” made of polystyrene and suspended from a balloon. The artist’s intention was to draw the public’s attention to the consumption of plastic and waste by cows in urban areas. For nationalist activists, the hanging work was provocative as it gave a degrading and insulting image of the sacred animal. The police decided in favor of the nationalists and Kararwal’s cow only remained in the air for around thirty minutes (Pal 2015).


56The complex history of the frequently strained interaction between art and politics laid the groundwork, both practically and theoretically, for numerous contemporary manifestations of artistic activism in South Asia. Activist collectives in South Asia frequently draw upon diverse sources, including classical and medieval artistic traditions (inherited from the Bengal School) as well as tribal and rural South Asian arts (inspired by primitivism in the arts), to enrich their endeavors. This is evidenced by the emergence of Dalit and Adivasi art on the contemporary South Asian art scene, which claims a specific history and practice. The main lesson to be drawn from the example of progressive art is that artistic production should be as close as possible to social events and political protest movements. Thus, with Hum Sab Ayodhya (1993), the SAHMAT collective did not hesitate to locate its interventions in the heart of Ayodhya site, which was highly contested at that time.

57One of the most distinctive features of South Asian artistic activism, and one that creates a significant break with the history of committed art, is its distrust of institutionalized political and trade-union forces. The artists’ experiences as fellow travelers of various political parties (communists as well as nationalists) demonstrated the incompatibility between political revolution and artistic revolution. In India, the exploration of the progressive perspective shed light on forms of anti-colonial political and cultural struggle that had been ignored or downplayed by Congress power.

58Exploring the diverse expressions of artistic activism in South Asia prompts us to contemplate the epistemology of both art studies and the sociology of political and social movements. These reflections and debates on the nature of engaged art in South Asia influence, either directly or indirectly, the various contemporary activist forms, imbuing them with a broad theoretical spectrum. While this theoretical diversity is evident in many South Asian artistic activist productions showcased at major international multicultural events today, it also resonates in locally and regionally focused activism that may lack institutional visibility.

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1 “Chittoprasad Bhattacharya. A retrospective 1915–1978,” March 16 to July 6, 2018. accessed December 16, 2023.

2 The exhibition presented a wide range of Chittoprasad’s reproductions: from his drawings on the man-made famine in Bengal (which would be collected in the book Hungry Bengal (1943)) to his drawings for the columns of the communist newspaper People’s War, then People’s Age, including his posters, drawings, and engravings for the International Peace Movement in the 1950s and 1960s.

3 To take India as an example, the contributors to Major Trends in Indian Art (1997), published on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of independence, draw a historical and aesthetic panorama of modern and contemporary Indian art without mentioning the significant contributions of a progressive aesthetic. Similarly, Pran Nath Mago’s Contemporary Art in India (2001) does not address this progressive history and aesthetic. Partha Mitter’s The Triumph of Modernism (2007) makes only a passing reference to the impact of Marxist associations on the development of the arts (theater, cinema, visual arts) during the period 1922–1947. But it should be noted that the recent publication 20th Century Indian Art (2022), edited by Partha Mitter, Parul Dave Mukherji, and Rakhee Balaram, restores the place of this aesthetic in a global and transnational history of Indian art.

4 National Seminar “The Issues of Activism: The Artist and the Historian,” March 6–8, 2004, Department of Art History, Faculty of Fine Arts, M.S. University of Baroda.

5 Partha Chatterjee, The Nation and Its Fragments. Colonial and Postcolonial Histories, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.

6 The art critic delivered a lecture during the fifth edition of the “Ravinder Kumar Memorial Lecture” at the Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi, in November 2006. The communication gave shape to an article which was subsequently published several times, without modification. It was published in 2007 in the book Art and Social Change: A critical Reader, then in 2012 in the book Articulating Resistance. Art and Activism, and finally in 2013 in The Sahmat Collective. Art and activism in India since 1989. This frequent reissue of the article can be interpreted as a manifestation of its theoretical importance as a milestone and reference point in defining the contours of artistic activism in India.

7 The first current refers to a colonial (or colonialist) historiography reproducing certain clichés about the British “civilizing mission” (social and economic transformations under the colonial enterprise).

8 The second is centered on the political and economic history of colonized India, being interested in the roles played by the Indian elites (and the working classes of the cities ruled by these elites), from a Marxist perspective, in the decolonization of the country. This “nationalist” historiography emphasizes the role of elites in the fight against the English occupier and legitimizes their monopolization of power in decolonized India.

9 As Jean-Luc Racine points out, the phenomenon of the so-called “Bengal Renaissance” at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century marks the investment of the elites of Calcutta (Rammohan Roy, Iswarchandra Vidyasagar, Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, etc.) in social and political reforms and, more generally, in the struggle for liberation from the colonial yoke, based on two decisive instruments: English education and printing. Since the architects of this movement of thought largely excluded the working classes and the Muslim minority, the term “Bengali Renaissance” is controversial in India today. (Racine 1997).

10 The Swadeshi nationalist movement is considered the first mass movement for Indian independence. It was launched in response to the British government’s decision to partition Bengal, made public in December 1903. The Swadeshi movement was officially launched at the Calcutta Town Hall on August 7, 1905, calling for a boycott of foreign goods for the benefit of local and national products.

11 The Western academic paintings of Raja Ravi Varma (1848–1906) raised mythology and the great Hindu epics to the rank of “history painting.” At the end of the 19th century, it was considered by the anglicized Indian bourgeoisie of the colonial metropolises as the expression of “national genius.”

12 It is necessary to clarify that, contrary to the ideological credo stated by the thinkers of the Swadeshi movement, the aesthetics of the Bengal School, as “national art,” did not limit its borrowings to the unique Indian culture. On the contrary, the artistic movement, with its pan-Asian aim, knew how to open up to the influences of the Japanese art of printmaking, just as the School was receptive to the Western contribution of movements like Arts & Crafts and to the art of the Pre-Raphaelites brotherhood. In this respect, Tagore’s painting Barat Mata (1905), while affirming Indian values, is reminiscent of the female representation in the productions of Dante Gabriel Rossetti of the British Pre-Raphaelites movement (Banerji 2010).

13 Once the independence of Pakistan was acquired, the leadership of the National College of Art was shared between Chughtai and the academic artist and calligrapher Allah Bukhsh (1895–1978). Thus, within this artistic institution, we find the distinctions present in the art schools of the colonial era between the Western contribution (illusionist realism) and the local contribution (calligraphy and orientalist aesthetics) (Dadi 2009).

14 As Sally Price points out in her book Primitive Art in Civilized Places, the notion of “primitivism,” in anthropology as in art history, is an ambiguous and contradictory term that still gives rise to a number of criticisms and controversies. Depending on the various meanings of the word “primitive,” the concept of primitivism does not cover the same meaning. In the history of art, the term “primitivism” refers, first of all, to the movement of celebration, by Western avant-garde artists of the 20th century, of values and forms considered ancient, original, and exotic. In this context, the observation of tribal objects from Africa or Oceania, preserved in ethnographic museums, allowed European artists, from the beginning of the 20th century, to regenerate the canons of Western representation, from both a practical and conceptual point of view. Thus, in Europe and North America, through this “invention of primitive arts,” a long process began which touched on colonial history, anthropological theories, and artistic history (Price 2002).

15 In the 1920s, Abanindranath Tagore wrote the book Magnum Opus Banglar Brata on traditional alpona paintings (ephemeral pictures of the rural environment using colored rice powder on the ground). Other personalities—Ajit Ghose, Gaganendranath Tagore—who were also enthusiastic about local crafts, had created private collections. That of Gaganendranath Tagore, which was particularly rich, included works of Jadupats (sandal paintings), Kaligath pats (popular paintings around the Kali temple, south of Calcutta), and kantha (rural embroideries). In the 1940s, the Brit W. G. Archer undertook research on rural paintings in Bengal and Bihar. Ajit Mukherjee, art critic and historian, wrote numerous works on art including Folk Art of Bengal published in 1939. Mildred and W. G. Archer wrote numerous works on Indian art and crafts (Archer 1971, 1977).

16 Within Indian Primitivism, the paintings of Amrita Sher-Gil (1913–1941) and Jamini Roy (1887–1972), and the sculptures of Ramkinker Baij (1906–1980) are worthy of mention as they draw their subject matter and plastic force from the rural and tribal productions of the Indian countryside.

17 In this context, the artistic journey of the painter Sadequain Naqvi is noteworthy. In 1976, an exhibition of his figurative paintings in Lahore provoked violent protests from conservative religious groups. In the face of this hostility, the artist made a kind of retreat, concentrating on work that was mainly calligraphic and therefore more consensual (Mitter 2001:215).

18 J. Swaminathan contributed to the notoriety of the tribal artist from the Gond ethnic group, in Madhya Pradesh, Jangarh Singh Shyam (1962–2001).

19 It was in 1979 that a first work was published by the academic and political activist Sudhi Pradhan (1979), bringing together analyses and documentation on the impact of Marxist cultural movements on the development of forms of committed art in India. This compilation of documents proposes, in three volumes, to trace an overview of Marxist cultural movements in the subcontinent, from the beginning of the 1930s to the end of the 1940s.

20 It is difficult to define the precise contours of what we call “progressive culture” in general, and in South Asia in particular. In both the political and artistic spheres, while the notion of “progress” seemed to be embraced, the idea of “linear progress” was strongly criticized (since Western cultures were the first to reach a “stage of progress,” non-Western cultures were categorized as “backward”). It was in the context of the late 1930s and early 1940s that the term “progressive” in art began to gain momentum in South Asia, as well as around the world. Politically, progressive artists defended the values (largely inherited from Marxist cultural associations such as the Progressive Writers Association and the Indian People’s Theater Association) of socialism, the fight against alienation, democracy, the defense of cultural pluralism and secularism, which in the Indian case, in the first decades of independence, was embodied by the young Congress government of Jawaharlal Nehru.

21 The Russian term Narodnik (“people’s”) refers to a short-lived Russian agrarian socialist movement active in the late 19th century. It was organized into small, autonomous economic units, bringing together village communes, thus constituting a “confederation” that opposed the central state. Land sharing and popular peasant education were among the foundations of this populist doctrine.

22 For further insight, see the film Calcutta 71 (1972) by filmmaker Mrinal Sen.

23 These events presented a range of contemporary Indian artistic productions. The following are among the most significant: iCon, India Contemporary, Venice Biennale (2005); Edge of Desire: Recent Art in India, Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth (2005); Subcontingent: The Indian Subcontinent in Contemporary Art, Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin (2006); Hungry God: Indian Contemporary Art, Arario Gallery, Beijing (2006); New Narratives: Contemporary Art from India, Chicago Cultural Center, Chicago (2007); India Moderna, IVAM, Valencia (2008); Chalo India!, Mori Art Museum, Tokyo (2008); Indian Highway, Astrup Fearneley Museet for Moderne Kunst, Oslo (2009); India Xianzai, Museum of Contemporary Art, Shanghai (2009); The Empire Strikes Back, Indian Art Today, The Saatchi Gallery (2010). In the case of France, five major events should be highlighted: Indian Summer, École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris (2005); Bombay Maximum City, Tri Postal, Lille (2006); Autres maîtres de l’Inde. Création contemporaine des adivasi, Musée du Quai Branly, Paris (2010); Indian Highway, Musée d’Art Moderne, Lyon (2011); Paris, Delhi, Bombay, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (2011).

24 Tapati Guha-Thakurta’s book Monuments, Objects, Histories (2004) questions the colonial genealogies of archaeology and art history, allowing us to understand the destruction of the Babri Masjid in relation to the reconstruction of the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya, and the celebration of the nudity of Khajuraho sculptures in opposition to the attacks on M. F. Husain.

25 On December 6, 1992, a group of Hindu fundamentalists, supervised by leaders of the VHP, the RSS, and the BJP, completely destroyed a 16th-century mosque (Babri Masjid) in Ayodhya. The city of Ayodhya is a holy place for the Hindu community as it marks the birthplace of Rama. The main reason advocated for demolishing the mosque, loudly proclaimed by Hindu fundamentalist organizations, was that it had been built on the site of a temple that absolutely needed to be restored.

26 The Ayodhya affair and the riots that followed constituted the narrative of highly successful films like Bombay (1995) by Mani Ratnam, or Naseem (Morning Breeze) (1995) by Saeed Akhtar Mirza.

27 According to the Delhi authorities, interfaith clashes caused 254 Hindu and 790 Muslim deaths. Following these clashes, more than 61,000 Muslim families left the state of Gujarat. The then Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, seems to have been clearly involved in these dramatic events.

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Electronic reference

Nicolas Nercam, Artivism Unveiled: Tracing the Historical and Aesthetic Roots of Artistic Activism in South AsiaSouth Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal [Online], 31 | 2023, Online since 31 December 2023, connection on 19 July 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Nicolas Nercam

Associate Professor in visual arts, Université Bordeaux Montaigne, laboratoire MICA (UR 4426)

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