Throughout the ages, art and culture have always had a symbiotic relationship, with each influencing the other and, in some cases, serving as a precursor to change. Both are irrevocably insubstantial without the presence of the other. But, what could be noted here is the definitive effect and influence of culture on art. Not only has culture inspired some of the greatest artists of our generation and those before us, but it has also lent itself as the social context to define some of the greatest works of art.
You can see these influences across generations; whether in Edouard Manet’s incredible descriptions of “bourgeois” life which at the time was considered vulgar and absurd, but which was in fact a mirror interpretation of the undersides of Parisian society or “Fearless Girl” by Tali Gumbiner and Lizzie Wilson who, even for her fair share of criticism, has become a symbol of female empowerment. For art, culture plays the dual role of muse and dictionary.
So if art and culture are mutually inclusive, what does this mean for a country like India?
Well, when it comes to India, you could say the country is steeped in artistic inspiration. Since the roots of our culture can be traced back to the time of the Indus Valley Civilization, Indian culture has gone through something of a metamorphosis, creating an amalgamation of diversity ranging from Aryan, Mughal, Dravidian and European lineages. So whether it is our languages, our rituals, our religion or our social etiquettes, Indian culture is steeped in history, heritage and civil evolution, presenting the perfect backdrop. for any artist to absorb and interpret.
Understanding this diversity and the role that art plays as a medium to present it, not only to the world but to the societies that make up the complex social framework of such a vast nation, is essential to understanding the cascading influence of Indian culture on art. This relevance and this delicate narration whether through the canvas, the song, the dance or the quatrain; forms the very essence of some of the incredible works produced by famous Indian artists. Take for example MF Hussain who was largely influenced by Indian goddesses, or Subodh Gupta, a contemporary artist influenced by humble everyday objects used in a typical Indian household.
The sometimes subtle and more often bold nuances of Indian culture have and will continue to influence Indian artists.
At the very beginning, when we begin to unravel the nuances that influence Indian culture and therefore art, we see religion and the sense of country sitting at the top of that list. This is why if one skims through the pages of India’s historical-artistic sensibilities, one will see them adorned with depictions of myths, legends and patriotism. From Raja Ravi Varma’s epic 1870 painting ‘Shakuntala’ which brought one of Mahabharata’s most iconic characters to life, to Abanindranath Tagore’s ‘Bharat Maa’ which used symbolism to reunite a country torn apart by colonialism , Indian artists have used art to portray culture as well as give voice to the movements and idiosyncrasies that have defined their generations.
Plus, in a country with more than 19,500 languages and dialects, it’s no surprise that language has been a central subject for many artists. For example, regional scripts like Devnagiri, through their intricate detail, have been recreated in several works of art. Abanindranath Tagore reinvented Bengali writing in calligraphic form. Although distinct in style, the two works captured the essence of Indian languages in all their glory and showed the world that inspiration can be found even in the letters of the alphabet.
Indian culture makes a lasting impression
While Western and European influences may have influenced Indian artists for some time in the early 2000s, the current Indian aesthetic is a blend of cultural authenticity and modern interpretations. Take, for example, Delhi-based figurative painter Vinod Balak, whose surreal works combine Western artistic conventions with a very distinct Indian cultural flavor. Whether in his dystopian canvas entitled “Tomorrowland” or his juxtaposition of Indian spirituality and pop culture in “Vishnu with Bonsai”, the influences are pronounced and in fact serve as inspiration in the latter.
In fact, digging a little deeper, we will realize that Indian culture has continued to inspire Indian artists not only to create beautiful works of art, but also to spark conversations and challenge the dialogue about the status quo. And no artist immortalizes this meaning more than Bharti Kher, whose signature ‘Bindi’ pattern captivated audiences with its subtle yet pronounced message of a revived sense of femininity; whether through carvings or adorned on the Lady Dior signature bag.
As you begin to learn about India’s unique cultural sensibilities, you will begin to see its imprint on art forms that go beyond those spread out on canvas. You begin to identify their effect on architecture, literature, theater and even fashion. Vibrant and lively performances by Katputli theater that tells tales of legends and heroes, a mix of Victorian and Mughal architectural influences that span landmarks and iconic buildings across the country to workshops (local and international) drawing inspiration from clothing and accessories from bygone eras, the influence of Indian culture on art in India is endless.
The opinions expressed above are those of the author.
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