Ashok R. Kelkar



The Arts in India
Come of the Modern Age*


The Coming of the Modern Age to India


            PERHAPS YOU HAVE NOTICED that I have avoided the expression ‘Indian Renaissance’ in the title of my paper.  I have preferred instead to use the less colourful and so less question-begging expression ‘the Modern Age’, partly alluding to the practice of historians and partly alluding to the concept of ‘modernization’, which along with the concept of Brahmanization (introduced by M.N. Srinivasa) is invoked by anthropologists in analyzing the on-going cultural change in India.  Before I proceed to characterize the coming of the Modern Age to India it will be best to get ‘Indian Renaissance’ out of the way because this later expression tends to be misleading and has done considerable harm.


            I do not know who was the first person, Indian or European, that used this analogy with the European Renaissance, which was brought on by the breakdown of the feudal order and the rise of city states and monarchy, the revival of Graeco-Latin learning, the exploratory sea voyages to the East and to the Western hemisphere, and the rise of mercantilism and which was followed by the Protestant Reformation and the Scientific Revolution (associated with the names of Descrates, Bacon, Kepler, and Galileo).  Some historians placed Indian Renaissance in the 16th century associating it with the emergence of the Mughal Empire, the Bhakti and Sufi movements (Hindu and Muslim Protestantism as it were), and the coming of the European traders and soldiers to the Indian shores. Other historians, recognizing that the social and the cultural and the ideological upheaval was almost wholly a result of the coming of the British rule, its liberal reforms, its Christian evangelists, and of course its economic exploitation.  For them the Indian Renaissance was spread over a century, 1820-1920 to be precise.


            There are clearly vital differences between Europe coming to the Modern Age, an inner process, and the Modern Age coming to the South Asian sub-continent, an externally originating process. With Europe the shift from the Medieval ethos to the Modern ethos was a shift from a feudal to a mercantile social order, from a Church-dominated cultural order to a history-oriented cultural order, from an Other-directed personality (where the expression ‘the Other’ is to be taken in its widest sense) to a personality directed by a search for a new order.  Hamlet’s doubts about getting on with the simple filial duty of revenge, doubts which didn’t prevent vigorous action on his part, are as good a symbol of the Renaissance man as any.  What do we find when we turn to the resurgence of a prostrate India in the 19th century?  Two vivid images come to mind – one image from Tilak’s famous obituary of Ranade – who is credited by Tilak with infusing life into the cold flesh of the body social – and the other image from Tagore’s celebrated ode evoking the heaven into which he would see his country awake some day.


            The Indian resurgence seeks to catch up with four centuries of European history down to the French Revolution and the Industrial  Revolution.  The values that European modernity espoused touched upon –


(i)                 the relation between man and the universe (rationality in understanding it and utilitarianism in changing it),

(ii)                the relation between man and man (egalitarianism at home and nationalism to the rest of the world), and

(iii)              the relation between man and self (individualism and secularism in relation to the Other).


            The European Renaissance introduced secularism, individualism, and nationalism; the European Enlightenment introduced egalitarianism, utilitarianism, and rationalism.  The Indian awakening partook a little of both and equaled neither in depth or scope.  To begin with, it is not segmented but fragmented – by religion (for example, the Muslims were only partially drawn into it, social reform and emancipation of women were very much removed indeed from their thoughts), by classes aligned by caste and community (for example, the scholars and professionals were only imperfectly in touch with the new merchants like Jagannath Sankarsett and the new merchant industrialists like Jamshedji Tata and with the peasant discontent), and by region (for example, in spite of being one of three presidency towns of the East India rule and in spite of being the seat of one of the three oldest universities, Madras did not figure as a ‘renaissance’ centre along with Bombay and Calcutta) Next, the India resurgence is not all-pervasive in the way the European Renaissance was – thus, it is significant that Marx didn’t reach the Indian intellectuals till the beginning of the 20th century, that the critique of religion among the Hindus was not followed by the emergence of new philosophical thought, that one meets with personalities uneasily hovering between orthodoxy and reform all through this period.  Finally, the Renaissance man was largely conspicuous by his absence. The nearest we come to personalities alive to many sides of life are Raja Rammohan Roy (religious and social reformer, educationist, scholar), Justice M.G. Ranade (statesman, economist, historian, religious and social reformer), Rabindranath Tagore (poet, painter, thinker, and founder of Visvabharati as well as Sriniketan), and Mahatma Gandhi (political and social activist, religious and economic critic).  One has only to consider these personalities and their impact in comparison with their European counterparts and also with their Indian contemporaries to realize that the so-called Indian Renaissance is a far cry indeed from the European Renaissance.  Perhaps D.K. Bedekar’s term Prabodhan (teaching and awakening) better captures the spirit of the Indian resurgence which stood for the regeneration of a prostrate society through the assimilation of Western values and the rediscovery of Indian values especially from the distant past rather than the immediate Medieval past.  Educating the public and educating the young were the most widely shared programmes of the leaders of the Indian Prabodhan.


            In considering the Indian Prabodhan in relation to the Arts in India we shall consider not only the visual arts of painting, sculpture, architecture but also the performing arts of music, theatre, dance and the literary arts of poetry, fiction, and prose.  Without going into substantiating detail, we shall sketch only the broad outlines.  Admittedly, this essay is much more programmatic than definitive in its reach.

How the Arts of India fared in the Modern Age


            When one uses an expression like Baroque Art one thinks of the visual arts, music, as well as literature, all together, of Continental Europe in the late 16th and the 17th centuries.  The same goes for Romantic art in the late 18th and the 19th centuries.  When one thinks of the cultivation of the Arts in ancient India, one thinks of the dialogue in Vishnudharmottarapur¡na (6th century A.D., part 3) wherein Markandeya explains to Vajra how worship involves all the arts each meshing with the others.  In contrast, when one thinks of the arts in contemporary India, one finds the fragmentation to be complete. Consequently, one has to think of them in four separate fragments in assessing the coming of the Modern age to them.


            Group A            comprises music, dance, and the theatre

                                                dominated by music and/or dance.


                        Group B            comprises painting, sculpture, and



                        Group C            comprises the decorative and design arts

                                                and recreative arts such as the commercial



                        Group D            comprises poetry, fiction, essay, and literature-

                                                dominated theatre and cinema.


There is an interesting and significant correlation between this grouping and the relative use of the English language among the practitioners of these arts and in the thinking connected with these arts ranging from very little in Groups A and C through quite a lot in Group C to a good deal in Group D. This reflects degrees of ‘modernization’ in the anthropologist’s sense.  Another correlation is with the social respectability which reflects the degree of ‘Brahmanization’ (again in the anthropologist’s sense) ranging from very low in Group C through quite a lot in Group A and B to very high in Group D.


            The arts in Group A, namely, music, dance, and the non-literary theatre were the most removed from the influence of the Western counterparts but by no means free from modernization.  (As for influences from the West, we have to recognize at least the adopting and adapting of musical instruments such as the humble hormonium and the noble violin.)  In Hindustani music this process was led by Bhatkhande and Vishnu Digambar Paluskar – between them they had a four-point programme: the claim on respectability, the replacement of feudal patronage by democratic patronage through clubs and tickets, the avoidance of wastefulness and irrationality in the training of the musician, and the application of modern scholarship to committing musical lore to print.  The technology of sound recording and transmission affected the ambience and the flavour of musical life.  The break-up of ghar¡nas was led by Kumar Gandharva and the notion of experimentation was made acceptable by Ravi Shankar.  Karnatak music and classical dance were rather slow to modernize.  Dance had to be rescued from ‘nautch’ – Rukmini Devi transformedDasi-attam into Bharatanatyam, Menaka (Leila Sokhey) placed Kathak on the world map at Berlin, Vallathol founded a house for Kathakali, and Tagore’s patronage rescued Manipuri from obscurity. Ragini Devi, Udayashankar , and Tagore married dance to theatre – they called it ballet.  I think these rescue operations are quite analogous to the mechanism of upward mobility for a whole caste that Srinivasa called ‘Brahmanization’.


            The arts in group B, namely, painting, sculpture, and architecture graduated from the status of unlettered crafts to high culture via the British-sponsored art schools and official patronage.  This put them, however, in the grip of Victorian ‘academic’ art and cut them off from the lifeblood of the Indian heritage.  (Of course British patrons like Sir Charles Malet and British art teachers like Griffith were enlightened exceptions who saw the worth of the Indian heritage.)  The Bengal School of Ajanta pastiches initiated by Nandlal Bose who of course transcended the school and the one-man school of Ravivarma marrying Hindu mythology to a Baroque palette and brush were but different attempts to make the best of the situation and certainly successful in moulding popular taste for the decades to come.  Modernism came with Amrita Sher Gill but degenerated into ‘academic modernism’.  The history of vital Indian painting in modern times is still a gallery of isolated figures like Abanindranath Tagore, Abalal Rahman, Amrita Sher Gill, Benode Behari Mukherjee, and a few others and not the story of an evolving tradition.  Sculpture and architecture were even slower.  Unfortunately, the public cannot escape from ‘academic modernism’ and Christmas-cake kitsch in architecture – they become daily eyesores.  The challenge of modernism has yet to be accepted; we have still to recover from the British patronage; we have still to evolve invigorating get-togethers of excited artists.


            The arts in group C, namely, decorative and design arts and recreative arts such as the commercial cinema present us with a study in ironies.  Traditionally the arts in India have recognized a system of two varnas in symbiosis – sanskrita and prakrita, margi and deshi, shishta and itarejana. Art works of either varna were accessible to both the refined society and the general public – high art often borrowed from low art and low art often drew upon high art. The coming of the art market replaced the symbiosis of the two varnas by the mutual tolerance of three brows and a fourth partner: highbrow art was patronized by the aristocrat and the Westernized middleclass; middlebrow art by the non-Westernized middleclass; low-brow art by the urban moneyed class and the urban and rural working classes; and the fourth partner was the so-called ‘folk’ art of the peasants and the tribals. The whole scene is riddled with ironies – the marketers, thinking they are the ones to manipulate popular taste, are only victims of their own poor taste uneasily hovering between the middlebrow (grade B, mas¡l¡ films); the ‘folk’ reject folk art in favour of the lowbrow; the middle classes embrace folk art; the highbrow are becoming tourists in their own country and embrace imported middlebrow art. The arts of group C in spite of the rich heritage of decorative and recreative arts are now wallowing in a sea of kitsch – that peculiar Indian brand of kitsch – in spite of isolated peaks of excellence. The brass band and the all too loud speakers constitute a noisy threat to the traditional Indian ways of marking and decorating the passage of time.  The ‘nautch’ has made a comeback in commercial cinema and more recently in stage entertainment.  The only saving grace is the excellence of a good deal of middlebrow recorded and filmed music, which incidentally borrows more freely from Western popular music.

            The arts of group D, the literary arts of poetry, fiction and essay, the literary theatre, and the literary cinema appeared to have fared better, being firmly in the control of the Westernized and non-Westernized middle class. But this protective shell has also proved to be a limiting strait jacket.  Ancient and Medieval Indian literature is largely in verse and governed by either of three poetics1


(i)                 the ¡rsha poetic of Vedic poetry and the two great epics,

(ii)                the shishta poetic of classical Sanskrit poetry and theatre and its derivative poetries in the regional languages, and

(iii)              the prakrita poetic exemplified in classical Tamil poetry, the Sanskrit and Prakrit poetry of Jayadeva, Gathasatasai, and the like, the bhakti poetry in Sanskrit and the regional languages, and the folk poetry in the regional languages.


Bear in mind that only the shishta poetics was codified properly.  There was probably an ¡rsha theatre also – nothing survives except references in the encyclopedic lore of Bharata.  There is also the Perso-Arabic poetic of Urdu, Indo-Persian, and some Kashmiri and Sindhi poetry.  What did modernization mean to the various arts of this group?  The prose essay and prose fiction came into their own.  On the eve of the British conquest, there was no highbrow or middlebrow theatre in action.  Maharashtra and Bengal were the first to set one up and followed both classical Sanskrit and western models, especially Kalidasa, Shakespeare, Molière, and Ibsen.  Satire and humour was cultivated first in Marathi and Tamil and is very painfully percolating the other regional languages.  Traditional poetry slowly petered out – first in Marathi and Bangla, last in Telugu.  The Romantic poetic was embraced in the early phase.  Modernism fared somewhat better than in the visual arts.  Unlike group B, there was no manifestation of ‘academic modernism’ – with one important exception, contemporary English poetry written by Indians.  The use of the regional languages saved the arts of this group from being cut off from the lifeblood of Indian heritage – though it did not save them from the onset of Indian kitsch.  The literary cinema had to wait for its Satyajit Ray with its post-Romantic poetic. The segregation of the ‘brows’ has adversely affected the arts of this group, since Romantic and post-Romantic art depends for its vitality on a widening circle of sympathies.  An art of, by, and for the middle classes is not calculated to succeed in this respect. The growth points for the future in this group of arts are likely to be two – the induction of the working classes and the tapping of the ¡rsha and prakrit poetics. Dalit poetry and prose narrative in Marathi, Ritwik Ghatak’s cinema, and the play Ghashiram Kotwal are some examples of such growth points.  One also hopes that the rich store of folk satire and humour in Bhojpuri, Panjabi, and elsewhere insinuates itself in highbrow and middlebrow art. The prose essay has had a rather separate development – in the early phase it was primarily the vehicle of the Prabodhan ideology – nationalism, egalitarianism, rationalism, utilitarianism, individualism, and secularism (roughly in that descending order of priorities). The critique of religion did not, however, quite burgeon into a new Indian intellectual tradition, as we have already intimated.  The Indianization of post-liberal ideologies like Marxism was not even seriously attempted, still less achieved.


Retrospect and Prospect


            I think I have said enough by now to justify the terminological aside in the opening section of this essay.  The gap between the expectations raised by the expression ‘Indian Renaissance’ and the dampening reality of the Indian Prabodhan is not merely a terminological inexactitude but also a historical failure – fragmented, incomplete, limited, and limiting.  This historic failure is still haunting us in independent India – Swadeshi is a poor substitute for true Swaraj in maters of the arts and of ideas.


            At the same time, the debit side of the Indian Prabodhan must not blind us to its indutiable credit side which can best be appreciated in the perspective of world history – even in the perspective of the history of South Asia as a whole. Islam has never really forgiven itself its failure in wholly converting India into a dar-ul-Sal¡m – the conquest of South West Asia and Mediteranean Africa was so easy in comparison both in military and cultural terms. While the military resistance in India was not very good, medieval India partially Hinduized Islam in India.  Christianity whether it accompanied the Portuguese musket or the English pair of balances (the emblem of the honourable Company) fared even worse in spite of resolute attempts to save India.  (It was only some Christian clerics and some Western academics that realized, often grudgingly, that India was no land of utterly benighted ‘natives’ who had nothing to save but their souls.)  Modernity (in the sense of the Modern age, not in the sense of  modernism in poetry or art) has fared much better in India than either Christianity or Islam.  What is more to the point, modernity has fared much better in India than it has in most other countries outside Europe. One reason that has been put forward for this state of affairs is that there are certain affinities between the Hindu view of life and many of the values associated with the European Renaissance and the European Enlightenment – in particular, between nationalism and svadharma, between egalitarianism and the suspension of inequalities in bhakti, between rationalism and the willingness of darshanas to go where tarka (logic) and pratyaksha (sense perception and mental perception) will take you even in the face of scriptures, between utilitarianism and the doctrine of vyavah¡ra and ¡paddharma, between individualism and the recognition of atmatushti (satisfying one’s inner self) in morals and of loneliness in spiritual maters, and between secularism and the acceptance of plurality of paths in the spiritual quest.  Of course affinity is not identity and the Hindu mind has not fully come to terms with nationalism as against family and caste loyalty, with egalitarianism as against the social inequalities of ritual status, with utilitarianism as against the centrality of the sacred, with individualism as against the recognition of the pervasive character of the sacred.  So unless one takes the view (as some Westerners and some Indians do) that most of all of these values are not merely not eternal but largely pernicious, one should feel that the Indian Prabodhan has not done too badly. It has done badly only to the extent we recognize hat it could have done beter.

            But in a sense this whole line of reasoning is an irrelevant exercise.  After all India’s destiny is not merely for ever to keep catching up with the West. So thinking of the prospect is not simply a question of predicting whether India in general and the arts in India in particular will ever come of the Modern Age in the foreseeable future or not or even whether India and the arts in India will ever truly met the challenge of modernity and modernism.


            Is this a covert plea for nativism?  No, I have already said that Swadeshi is a poor substitute for true Swaraj. The contemporary Indian has a double heritage (at least) – the Indian heritage and the Western heritage.  Confining ourselves to the arts of India, we can say that the artist in India has fully to acquire (in the words of Goethe) what he has inherited – we haven’t fully exploited, for example, ¡rsha and prakrit poetics and dramaturgy; and our sense of the West is wholly Anglo-Saxon with insufficient awareness of what the Continent has to offer; and we have been the losers for it and has all been our fault.  But surely the challenge of modernity in the arts is more than merely fulfilling the heritage. Shall we or shan’t we meet this challenge?  Well, it depends – specifically it depends on three things.  First, it depends on how free, how courageous the individual artist of great talent and integrity will show himself to be.  Secondly, it depends on the health of the Indian artistic sensibility, the general level of artistic taste – the peaks of art normally require supportive slopes, they don’t rise like needles.  Vishnu Digambar’s watchword, let’s train the ears of tomorrow, was never more urgent than it is today.  Thirdly, it depends on the overall political, economic, social, moral, and cultural health of India. The prospects of the arts in India are inextricably  bound with the prospects of the Indian society and culture as a whole. Do we have the freedom, the courage to be ourselves, to enjoy the Swaraj, to shape our own destiny?




            The following citation is a telling example of the kind of documentation we shall need to work out an art history of the India of the period circa 1820-1920.


            Uday Shankar wrote of his participation in Anna Pavlova’s troupe : “Being in her troupe I learned discipline, punctuality, co-operation, stagecraft, observation, sense of balance and proportion, sense of duty, responsibility and, above all, showmanship.”  (Quoted on page 44 of Mohan Khokar, Dance in transition : The Pioneers, Marg 36 : 2. 41-76, 1985.)


            Another goldmine of documents is the carefully annotated collection of letters in Marathi (a few in English) called Vishrabdha sh¡rad¡, edited by Haribhau Mote (Bombay 1972, 1975, one more volume to follow) casting its net over men and women of action, of letters, and of the visual, the performing, and the recording arts.




            This was published in New Quest No.56:95-101, March-April 1986.


            * This is a slightly revised and augmented version of the paper presented at the Fourth Seminar on Indian Renaissance, organized by the Indian Council of Philosophical Research at Ajanta, Maharashtra on 22-23 March 1986.



1                     I am indebted to Bhalchandra Nemade for the germ of this idea.  I do not imply, however, that he will agree wholly with the present formulation.