On reading Art for a Modern India, 1947–1980, one is most struck by the ambition underpinning this project. Rebecca M. Brown's text unveils an array of artistic output starting from India's independence in 1947 until the 1980s prior to India's economic liberalization. Brown addresses the central paradox embodied in India's postcolonial condition—the transaction between modernity and the quest for Indianness. She does not approach either category as neatly constituted; instead she cuts into recent moves within postcolonial studies that point to the "centrality of colonialism to the production of modernity." She states in the introduction to the book that colonialism served not simply as a "tangential motivating factor but as a constitutive, core element" within modernity" (p. 3). This is a crucial move whose implications span the disciplines of both art history and anthropology, wherein arts and cultural practices outside the Euro-American canon have invariably surfaced as "alternatives" evoked within the [End Page 300] modernist project to critique the dominant and hegemonic paradigm. More specifically in the context of India, this flags up the tensions within the terms of reference for the arts heightening our sensitivity towards the operations of ideology within aesthetics.
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Brown's study of arts in India qualifies the disparity between modernity and modernism, which may be clear within a Euro-American context but assumes varied significance in the post-colonial context, principally as modernization comes to be equated with Westernization and neocolonial dependence. Through the breadth of materials examined and their juxtaposition in the carefully designated chapters of the edition, Brown inaugurates a much required and rigorous method for art history in India. This method privileges discourse over other terms of debating arts such as biography or technique— a move that only a few historians from the subcontinent, such as Geeta Kapur, have been previously able to successfully make. Brown brings varied media, such as Hindi cinema, parallel cinema, architecture, painting, industry and photography onto a common plane, from which she investigates and debates their strategies and discursive implications. This fosters cross-disciplinary discussion and overcomes the restrictions of focusing on a single medium. While discussing the works, Brown's approach is descriptive and comparative. She points out that arts discourse in India was effected by the euphoric nation-building project that was itself charged with the quest for asserting a distinct Indian identity on which basis claims were made to India's past, prior to colonialism.
Brown highlights how nationalist assertiveness was problematically regurgitating the varied tropes of colonial discourse, including the orientalist posture. This problematic has two implications: One, it highlights the contingency underpinning the mobilization of India's history and aesthetics prior to colonialism; and two, it sets up the specific terms of critique for a modernist project in India. The first three chapters of the text focus on issues of authenticity, iconicity and narrativity. Brown repeatedly points out how any claim to or valorization of a puritanical past is problematic, being ahistorical and essentialized and therefore counterproductive to a critical, modernist sensibility. She analyzes specific artworks, and while she points out discursive and strategic disparities between a spread of artists ranging from Charles Correa to Satyajit Ray, MF Hussain, Le Corbusier and Krishen Khanna, among others, what is wanting in this section of the book is a frontal and more direct discussion of the class backgrounds and social histories of the artists. The discussion of the artworks is detailed and evocative, and it is for this reason that one feels a gap between the artist's body and the work. While Brown consciously steered away from plotting biographies, perhaps the ethnographic life history method that serves to contextualize the individual socio-historically could have been used to evoke the artist-as-person before us. In the endnotes for the chapters, Brown does gesture toward the artists' backgrounds and supporting literature, but a rounded and more critical discussion would clearly draw upon...