Finding God in art and art in God

Spiritual call

Figures from Hindu mythology and folk tales are such an omnipresent feature in Indian art that we don’t blink twice on seeing one.

But how did this movement come about? Who started it and how has the portrayal of religious subjects in Indian art evolved over the years? An art gallery in Hauz Khas, the Delhi Art Gallery, has taken on the onerous task of addressing these daunting questions through a massive exhibition titled ‘Indian Divine: Gods & Goddesses in 20th Century Modern Art.’

Drawing uniquely from the gallery’s entire collection of over 32,000 pieces of art, this exhibition presents 300 artworks by nearly 80 artists in the modern era across three centuries. It is on public display till May 31.

Explaining the idea behind this display, head of exhibition and publication at the gallery, Kishore Singh, says, “The roots of all Indian art can be traced back to its cultural richness and mythologically-based sculpture, frescos and miniatures. This rich body of art traces its genesis to spirituality and religious storytelling. All modern artists have taken their subjects or contexts from this pool, available as a reference of uninterrupted art practice in India.”

The works are dated from the 19th century to present-day with the earliest work going back to 1849 on saint Chaitanya in the Early Bengal style. The exhibition builds a historical perspective and chronology of Indian art on themes straddling iconographic traditions, depiction of Gods, the divine principle in mainstream religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity, as well as vivid folk imagination and idiom.

The exhibition begins with late 19th century art from regions as diverse as Bombay and Bengal. This includes oil paintings of deities in the Western style by artists of the academic realist school such as Raja Ravi Varma and MV Dhurandhar, as well as religious episodes featured in the hybrid style (a mix of Western realistic painting and Indian art concerns) – the Early Bengal. Krishna-Radha, Krishna-Balram, Shiva and Laxmi find place of pride here.

It goes on to document the popular Kalighat paintings as well bazaar prints on these themes that flooded the markets with the advent of paper, lithography, etching, linocut and mechanical printing. Notable paintings here include Deb Gostho (An assembly of Gods), Mahavir Hanumanji and Shri Shri Gaurang Avatar. Devyani Krishna’s Allah stands out. 

The exhibition features a number of works on Christian themes and imagery, led by the first Indian artist to have explored the theme, Jamini Roy (Madonna and Jesus). He is followed by well-known artists such as Krishen Khanna, FN Souza (Christ), Madhvi Parekh (The Last Supper), Kanwal Krishna, S Dhanapal and V Nageshkar. A great number of works on Buddhist themes are also included such as by Sudhir Ranjan Khastgir.

Many Indian artists also responded to the theme of minimalism and abstraction producing sublime works to meditate upon. The reference is to yantra and tantra-themed artworks by GR Santosh, Sohan Qadri, PT Reddy, Sunil Das and others. Do watch out for a small collection of sculptures as well. The ‘Indian Divine…’ is a complete documentation on religion in
Indian artosphere.  

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