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Modernism in Indian art - Everything you need to know

In India, during the late 19th century, old traditions of art were dying down and contemporary ideas and concepts with respect to art were emerging. With the British invasion into India, a lot of western traditions were adopted into the Indian culture. The same is applied to Indian art. The protagonists of the Modern Indian art movement took inspiration from Western traditions and techniques, such as oil painting and easel painting. This led to the emergence of the Bengal school of art, which sought a revival in primitivism through the display of the rich cultural heritage in India. This was then followed by Rabindranath Tagore’s Shantiniketan School, which focused on rural life. 

A renowned artist of this movement was Raja Ravi Varma. He was a self-taught painter who belonged to the princely state of Travancore. He is known to be the first of the Indian Modernists. His work is the perfect representation of the amalgamation of local traditions and European art techniques. His most famous paintings are images of beautiful women clad in sarees. He quickly became a well-known allegorist of Indian topics with popular depictions of the Indian epics - Ramayana and Mahabharata. His art played a significant role in the evolution of the Indian national consciousness. 

British art schools

The arrival of European artists in India, led to the predominance of oil and easel painting in India. The East India company merchants encouraged native art by providing them with a large market. This led to the birth of a distinct genre of Indian art that involved water paintings on paper and mica. These paintings often featured scenes of day-to-day life, the princely courts, native festivals and rituals. This form of art was called the ‘Company style’ or the ‘Patna style.’ This art style was known to be hybrid in nature and of undistinguished quality. 

The Bengal School of Art

During the colonial rule in India, Western art techniques and styles started creeping their way into Indian art styles. Indian artists of this time started incorporating Western ideas in their work to depict Indian themes. One of these artists was Raja Ravi Varma. In retaliation to this Westernisation of Indian art, the Bengal school of art emerged as a cutting-edge, national movement. Mughal art was used as a major influence in this school of art as it was believed that it expressed India’s unique spiritual qualities and eliminated the materialism of the West. A monumental figure in this school of arts was Abanindranath Tagore (nephew of Rabindranath Tagore), who took inspiration from Mughal miniature paintings. He is well-known for his painting, ‘Bharat Mata (Mother India)’, which depicts a youthful woman with four arms, reminiscent of Hindu Goddesses. She is also seen holding items that are attributed to India’s aspirations as a nation. Other eminent personalities of this school of thought were Gaganendranath Tagore (brother of Abanindranath Tagore), Jamini Roy, Mukul Dey, Manishi Dey and Ram Kinker Baji, a pioneer of Modern Indian Sculpture. 

Shantiniketan School 

Following in the footsteps of the Bengal school of art, emerged the Shantiniketan School founded by Rabindranath Tagore. This university was created in the hopes of preserving and uplifting the culture, values and heritage of the Indian subcontinent. An integral part of this university was the sector dedicated solely to art, known as ‘Kala Bhavan.’ Tagore’s ideologies greatly influenced Indian Modernism in art. The main artists who were a part of this university were Benode Behari Mukherjee, Ramkinkar Baij, Manu Parekh, Sankho Chaudhuri, Dinkar Kaushik, K. G. Subramanyan, and Beohar Rammanohar Sinha, Krishna Reddy, A. Ramachandran, Sobha Brahma, Ramananda Bandyopadhyay, Dharma Narayan Dasgupta, Sushen Ghose, Janak Jhankar Narzary.

Contextual Modernism

This concept was developed from R. Sivakumar’s Shantiniketan: The Making of Contextual Modernism. It was utilised as a post-colonial device to comprehend Alternative Modernism in the visual arts of India, especially pertaining to the artists of Shantiniketan. According to R. Sivakumar, the artists of Shantiniketan were the first in the field to question the concept of Modernism. 


The time of independence was not just a monumental moment in Indian history, but also in the history of Modern Indian Art. With India’s independence, numerous modern art schools emerged with the sole purpose of providing access to modern techniques and styles of art. While the art that belonged to this time period showcased Western influences, it was deep-rooted in Indian themes and images. 


Q1. What was the main aim of Modernism in Indian art? 

As compared to traditional Indian art which focused on creating images and depictions based on religious and spiritual themes, Modernism in Indian art aimed to widen the horizons of Indian art and centre it around the artist. It gave artists the freedom to create art for their own pleasure and satisfaction. 

Q2. What forms of art dominated the Modernism movement in Indian art? 

The focus of Modernism in Indian art was on abstraction, minimalism and figurative painting. Quite different from traditional art, the artists of today find inspiration in Indian music, architecture and design.