Finally, long 20th century Indian art gets the forensic treatment in giant publications

In the creation of the Critical Collective . website (2011), respected curator and critic Gayatri Sinha criticized the state of the art history of India: “The current scenario on the visual arts is bleak…there are few new studies or anthologies commissioned.” This gaping void has partly found its fill in 20th century Indian arta groundbreaking tome that has been 14 years in the making.

This gigantic publication was slowly brought about by Indian art history experts Partha Mitter, Parul Dave Mukherji and Rakhee Balaram. The book is divided into three chronological sections as outlined in the subtitle and each supervised by one of the respective editors. The book traverses over 100 years of Indian art, charting its transformation from the late 1800s through the decolonization of the country to the present. The complexity of the task is embodied in its form. Essays are complemented by short bits of information in marked boxes, with an epilogue of interviews with artists and critics added for good measure.

Everyone gets their say in an intentionally sloppy chorus that revels in the mess of making history

In design it is reminiscent of a textbook – the type wraps around more than 600 images – but in its polyphony of collaborators it takes on the guise of an anthology. Without the “master voice” narration art historians are used to or a timeline, or even a map, the book is a swirling mass of voices. It is the written equivalent of a town hall meeting. Everyone has their say in a deliberately sloppy chorus that revels in the mess of making history. Eighty authors have contributed micro-histories designed to emphasize the multivalent nature of art in a subcontinent energized by linguistic, religious, and geographic diversity and its diaspora.

germination (1989) by SH Raza, who was a founding member of the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group © Courtesy of Art Alive Gallery, New Delhi

It’s a forensic approach that tramples the whole “canon”. And this revisionism emphasizes the reciprocity between art worlds (sometimes) and the fluidity of aesthetic exchange. Artists like SH Raza, one of the founders of the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group in 1947, moved to France; the Chinese artist Xu Beihong spent a year in India; in 1975, Robert Rauschenberg visited Ahmedabad for a residency (and his scheming hosts made sure his signature was on everything he touched); the artist, designer and socialist activist William Morris wrote extensively about India in an attempt to revive British craft in the 19th century; and Francesco Clemente has collaborated with unnamed artists in Odisha and miniature apprentices in Jaipur. The book successively confirms the flaw in entrenched beliefs that all art is derived outside the West.

In addition to global marginalization, the book struggles with internal blind spots. Chapters covering the arts, folk traditions and craft of Assam are aware of the tendency to remove these forms from the art history of India. There are omissions in a task with such ambition. Exploring the Chapter dalit (formerly untouchable) art does little to consider how caste has been stratified and continues to shape entry into the commercial art world. And it oversees the current vanguard of artists such as Kirtika Kain, Sajan Mani and Amol Patil, whose practices determine where power lies. Other discussions also feel outdated. For example, where is the new generation of photographers such as Sohrab Hura or the inventive textile artist Monika Correa?

Yet this is art history in its most comfortable and labyrinthine form. “It should make the water muddy,” stated Dave Mukherjee at the book’s launch at the India Art Fair in April. As radical as it may seem, getting lost in the jumble of time and the thicket of information is the desire of the book and inherent in its design.

Partha Mitter, Parul Dave Mukherjee, Rakhee Balaram, 20th Century Indian Art: Modern, Post-Independence, ContemporaryThames & Hudson, 744pp, 621 color illustrations, £85 (hb), published 14 April

• Cleo Roberts-Komireddi is a writer and speaker on contemporary South and Southeast Asian art

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