The “True” India: The Creation of a Nationalist Identity

Jamini Roy, “Three Bengali Women,” c. 1965, acrylic on paper, Scripps College, Claremont, CA

This exhibition explores the role of 20th-century modern artists—J. Sultan Ali, M.F. Husain, Jamini Roy, and Rabindranath Tagore—in creating and shaping India’s national identity. Featuring 13 works of art, including paintings, bronze sculptures, photography, and rare books, this exhibition provides a look at pre-and post-colonial Indian artistic responses to the global modernist art movement.

The British Raj, the oppressive reign of the British Empire in the Indian subcontinent, lasted from 1858 until independence in 1947. The late 19th century Indian modernist art movement was born as a reaction against British colonization. Artists fought to assert a positive cultural image of India to counter the British imperial view of Indian tradition being “backward.” The global dominance of Western ideas of modernity spurred a cultural resistance among Indian artists, who created a modernist style distinct to their country. They sought to portray an Indian identity on their own terms, rather than be seen through foreign lenses like those of the American photographer William Witt, who visited India during the Second World War.

A defining feature of global modernism was a rejection of realistically portrayed, historic subjects. Primitivism, an outlook and artistic approach that appropriated so-called “primitive” styles, such as tribal arts, was embraced by certain Indian modernists to contradict colonial schools of art and a rising industrialism. Indian modernists turned their gaze inwards and harkened back to the history of their subcontinent, not unlike Western modernists who evoked images of pre-industrial European society.They valorized rural Indian forms over Westernized ones and continued the depiction of significant figures like historically celebrated deities.This exhibition places Jamini Roy’s works alongside 19th-century Indian bronzes to represent aspects of what the modernists were attempting to revive. Through their work and efforts to represent the people of India, modernist Indian artists developed a rural, idyllic, folk-art aesthetic that created an enduring visual legacy in and of India.

Netra Bhat (USC ’23), Getty Collections/Conservation Intern, Summer 2021


The three works below engage with representations of Indian rural life in its varying forms. 

William Witt, an American, photographed poverty in rural India while he was stationed there during World War II. His lens is that of an outsider’s—his Western gaze prompts discomfort in the Faces of India’s two women, which can be seen in the way they reach for their veils, covering their faces for the camera. Whereas prominent Indian modernist painter Jamini Roy’s Three Bengali Women stand tall in their traditional sarees and look directly at the viewer with their veils pulled back, unlike the women in Witt’s photographs.  

Although Witt’s pictures aimed to spotlight regular people, Faceless Woman, as is evident in the title, betrays an impersonal view which contributes to the Western “othering” narrative of Indians. Roy’s rural women look regal, showcasing how Indian modernists sought to invent the face of India with a romanticization of rural, traditional culture at the forefront.

William Witt (1921–2013) 
Faces of India, 1943
Gelatin silver print on paper
14 x 11 in.
Gift of Sally Strauss and Andrew E. Tomback
Scripps College, Claremont, California 

William Witt was stationed in India during WWII, and inspired by documentary photography, began his photo career on the subcontinent. Witt portrays a throng of veiled women and their children. The photo is perhaps a snapshot of how the world imagined a stereotypical rural Indian setting, as scenes like this are often the ‘face’ of India. 

Jamini Roy (1887–1972) 
Three Bengali Women, c. 1965
Acrylic on Paper
29 1/4 in. x 15 1/2 in. 
Gift of Mr. Vladimar S. Aronovichi
Scripps College, Claremont, California 

One of the most celebrated Indian modernists, Jamini Roy’s signature bold, black calligraphic brushstrokes and large, almond-eyed women seem to pop from the paper. Although he was academically trained in classical Western painting at the Bengal School of Art in India, Roy began to look toward native Bengali folk art to develop his iconic primitivist style, which we see in this work. His limited palette consists of earthy colors made from locally found minerals and plants, like tamarind seeds.

William Witt (1921–2013) 
Faceless Woman, India, 1943
Gelatin silver print on paper
14 x 11 in.
Gift of Sally Strauss and Andrew E. Tomback 
Scripps College, Claremont, California 

This woman captured by Witt has her face masked by a veil and is performing what is possibly a daily chore of pumping and pouring water from a communal tank to take to her home.  


The three works below place Jamini Roy’s Cow and Krishna alongside Indian bronzes from circa 1800 to represent aspects of what the modernists were attempting to revive.

The ball in the hands of the god Krishna, seen in both the bronze and Roy’s painting, is symbolic of the story where the young deity steals lumps of butter from neighboring houses. Such mischief humanizes him. These stories live on in the rural consciousness and were what modernists like Roy referenced in order to connect urbanites to village scenes, creating a homogenous nationalism. Indian freedom fighters, including Mahatma Gandhi, idealized folk arts and handicrafts (like the bronzes seen below) as the cultural heart of India. Roy helped promote this ideal, using his unique works and self-made paints to protest the industrialization that accompanied colonization. 

Jamini Roy (1887–1972) 
Cow and Krishna, c. 1950
Gouache on Paper
12 in. x 16 3/4 in.  
Gift of Mr. Vladimar S. Aronovichi 
Scripps College, Claremont, California 

The hypnotizingly large eyes of Jamini Roy’s cow draw you into this vibrant work, where the artist incorporates whimsy with background motifs. The blue figure on the right is the infant Krishna, a widely revered God in Hindu mythology. Roy aspired to carve out a distinct style for himself, stating “I do not care whether my paintings are good or bad. I want its appearance to be different.”  

Crowned Lord Krishna, c. 1800
2 3/4 in. x 2 1/2 in. x 2 in.  
Gift of Mr. Vladimar S. Aronovici
Scripps College, Claremont, California 

Brahma Candle Holder, c. 1800
2 1/2 in. x 2 3/4 in. x 2 in.  
Gift of Mr. Vladimar S. Aronovici
Scripps College, Claremont, California  

These bronzes of the divine child Krishna and the worshipped cow Nandi (in this case, in the form of an incense holder) are household items in India, often placed in prayer rooms.  


Miniature paintings like the ones below flourished during the reign of the Mughal Empire in India (1526-1857). Hookah or opium pipe smoking in a courtly scene was prominent in Mughal paintings, due to the commonality of the practice among emperors and their penchant for commissioning art.  

As seen here, Mughal miniatures were highly detailed, sometimes painted with brushes consisting of a single hair. The labor-intensive quality of these miniatures required artistic collaboration and division of work. Similarly, Indian folk art was often produced collaboratively in workshops, a tradition that modern, anti-consumerist artists like Jamini Roy upheld. Prominent modernists like M.F. Husain and Amritha Sher-Gil drew inspiration from the style of Mughal miniature artists, which were themselves a synthesis of Indian vernacular art’s bright palette, Persian manuscript’s fine detail, and the technical forms of European art. These examples showcase the connectedness of global modernism and how every regional movement played a part in the creation of modernist art. 

Portrait of Man Smoking Hookah, c. 1800
Paint and colors on paper
12 x 9 1/2 in.
Scripps College, Claremont, California  

Kneeling Man with Opium Pipe, n. d.
Paint on Paper
8 11/16 in. x 6 9/16 in.
Gift of Mr. Edward Nagel 
Scripps College, Claremont, California  

Katherine Gilette Osbourne Papers
Ella Strong Denison Library, Scripps College, Claremont, California

Little is known about this Indian manuscript (that was in an American traveler’s souvenirs), except that it demonstrates the Devanagiri writing system, which is shared by several languages like Hindi, Sanskrit, Marathi and Pali. The text is interspersed with minutely detailed miniature paintings, which are often followed by intricately decorated and handwritten title pages. It is a religious text, most likely Hindu, since the God Krishna can be identified in blue. The binding consists of a European print, and the text might have been rebound by former owner Ms. Osbourne. The decorative nature of these miniatures and their storytelling capacity were aspects of primitivist artwork that Indian modernists were attempting to revive.   

M.F. Husain (1915-2011) 
The Triumphant, n. d.
Oil on Canvas
25 3/8 in. x 33 1/2 in.  
Gift of Mr. Vladimar S. Aronovici
Scripps College, Claremont, California  

One of the best paid Indian painters of his day, M.F. Husain portrayed Indian imagery in contemporary styles like the bold, modified Cubism we see above. Husain was a part of the Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG) in Bombay (now Mumbai) whose motto was to paint with “absolute freedom.” PAG formed in 1947 during the tumultuous partition of India and Pakistan. The group’s art was never without socio-political commentary on current matters, and Husain was no outlier. In The Triumphant, Husain depicts the royal, majestic Indian elephant perhaps as a symbol of the British Raj finally leaving the subcontinent and the people of India triumphing over colonialism.

Sultan Ali (b. 1920)
Lonely, n. d.
Oil on Canvas
30 in. x 24 1/2 in.
Gift of Mr. Vladimar S. Aronovici
Scripps College, Claremont, California   
This piece—an oil painting diverging from formal realism, with its intentional cracks and figurative flaws—encapsulates J. Sultan Ali’s art. Ali trained under the strict confines of classical European painting but felt that overall, the style was too cold. He sought to bring his Indianness into expressionist works that were inspired by tribal communities, Hindu deities, and other religious iconography. The woman in the painting seems calm, serene albeit for the cracks that belie a darker, somber feeling of loneliness. This yearning for art to convey true feeling rather than technical perfection was Ali’s goal, as he states, “I was more concerned with the heart than the head.” 











William Rothenstein (1872-1945) 
Six portraits of Sir Rabindranath Tagore, 1915
Ella Strong Denison Library, Scripps College, Claremont, CA 
English painter, printmaker and writer William Rothenstein had a career that intersected with the rise in Indian nationalism. Rothenstein was a war artist, drew portraits of famous people, and was a witness to the Indian modernist movement. He became enraptured with the Bengali poet and artist Rabindranath Tagore, who started the Santiniketan art school in 1901 to “blend the best of Eastern and Western culture.” Rothenstein sketched the above portraits of Tagore when the poet visited him in London. 

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) 
The crescent moon: child-poems, 1914
Ella Strong Denison Library, Scripps College, Claremont, CA 

Rabindranath Tagore was a Bengali artist, poet, author, song-composer and playwright. In 1913 he became the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Tagore wrote in Bengali, his native language, and his works, including this one, were translated into English. However, layers of symbolism can be lost in translation. For example, “Fairyland” above references the tulsi (holy basil) plant. Commonplace in Indian homes it connotes scenes of domestic beauty to Indian readers but would lose that emotional impact with a Western audience. His nephew, Abanindranath Tagore, created the poem’s accompanying artwork and founded the Bengal School of Arts which trained modernists like Jamini Roy. Rabindranath Tagore’s appreciation for folk culture was reflected in his work. He became a spokesperson for Indian independence abroad and was seminal in defining Indian identity during the 1900s. 



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