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#AsiaNow Speaks with Sonal Khullar

Sonal Khullar is associate professor of art history at the University of Washington and author of Worldly Affiliations: Artistic Practice, National Identity, and Modernism in India, 1930-1990, published by the University of California Press and winner of the 2017 AAS Bernard S. Cohn Prize.

To begin with, please tell us what your book is about.

Worldly Affiliations traces the emergence of a national art world in twentieth-century India and emphasizes its cosmopolitan ambitions and orientations in contrast to previous studies that have highlighted postcolonial difference or deviation from Western norms. I focus on four Indian artists—Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-1941), Maqbool Fida Husain (1915-2011), K. G. Subramanyan (1924-2016), and Bhupen Khakhar (1934-2003)—and situate their careers within national and global histories of modernism and modernity. These artists challenged the canons, disciplines, schools, and institutions of British colonialism and Indian nationalism, thereby modeling what Edward Said called affiliation, a critical and cultural imperative against empire and nation-state. For these artists, cosmopolitanism was a critical response to colonialism, a way of asserting citizenship in national and international community that had been impossible under colonialism. Through close analysis of their careers, I discuss continuities as well as change in artistic production during the colonial and postcolonial periods, which have usually been treated as discrete in existing scholarship. I show how various legacies of the colonial period—the function of art education, the formation of a public for art, the relationship to the West, the role of tradition, the figure of woman, and the place of the village—animated institutions, exhibitions, criticism, and works of art in postcolonial India.

What inspired you to research this topic?

When I began graduate school, a new and exciting scholarly dialogue on modern Indian art and visual culture had emerged within the disciplines of history, anthropology, and film studies. To a large extent, modernist painting, sculpture, and film, the subjects of my book, were absent from this scholarship, which focused on popular visual-cultural forms such as photography, commercial cinema, prints, and posters. I wanted to consider the difference of modernist art from these forms, and also from the contemporary art that was being produced and celebrated by the art market in the twenty-first century. My goal was to reconstruct the aesthetic and political terms of modernism in India, and explain its ongoing relevance for contemporary art.

Writing a book on modernism in India was also an opportunity to participate in emerging art historical debates about modernism in locations outside dominant Euro-American centers such as Paris and New York. In the past decade, our histories of modernism have been thoroughly interrogated and revised by scholars working on diverse areas: Senegal, Nigeria, Vietnam, Mexico, Brazil, Japan, Pakistan, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union. These scholars have shown how a model of centers and peripheries is inadequate to understand the global practice of modernism, and conventional notions of origin and influence do not account for complex and shifting cultural flows in modernity. Worldly Affiliations is my contribution to these debates.

What obstacles did you face in this project? What turned out better/easier than you expected it would?

At the time I began my research (2006-2007), India was in the throes of an art market boom. As I worked in archives and museums, the landscape for displaying and viewing art was changing rapidly. Sleek galleries sprung up; art fairs, auction houses, and dealers burgeoned; artists exhibited work in relatively new biennales from Sharjah to Singapore. I was observer and participant in an art world that felt very distant, visually and conceptually, from the artists’ studios and art schools that are the subject of Worldly Affiliations. My interest in modernism, widely believed to be a defunct or failed project, provoked curiosity and confusion at art openings and academic seminars, where the contemporary—the very new, the just now, the up-to-date, the au courant—was the rage. Yet I was also struck by how contemporary artists referred constantly, even compulsively, to a history of modernism to make sense of their present.

The past two decades have been a period of rapid transformations in the art world and Indian society, and I often felt like the ground was shifting beneath my feet even as I was trying to relate a history. In the years that I researched and wrote Worldly Affiliations, many of the artists and intellectuals who are its subject passed away. That passing—what I call “a sense of flux and a sensation of vanishing” in the book—became a part of the story I was telling. K.G. Subramanyan, the only living artist discussed at length in the book, died in 2016.

On a positive note, the growth of interest in modernism in India and other nonwestern and postcolonial societies was unimaginable when I started work on this book. In 2016, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Tate Modern in London hosted major retrospective exhibitions, Nasreen Mohamedi and Bhupen Khakhar: You Can’t Please All, of modernist artists from India. In 2017, the Centre Pompidou in Paris will organize a retrospective exhibition of Nalini Malani’s work. Such exhibitions have created new audiences for modernist art, and generated new scholarship on Indian artists who were little-known in the West during the twentieth century. My hope is that this work brings the art and ideas of postcolonial artists alive for scholars, artists, and critics who did not know them before.

What is the most interesting story or scrap of research you encountered in the course of working on this book?

Working on this project confounded and transformed my notion of an archive. As I write in the book, the archive of modernism in India was everywhere and nowhere in particular. I found the archive in museums and galleries, buildings and gardens, almirahs and godowns, calendar art and contemporary art, films and photographs, individual and collective memory. Looking for that archive took me to the offices of the Archaeological Survey of India in New Delhi and to the exhibition of File Room by the photographer Dayanita Singh at the Venice Biennale in 2013; to a photographic archive in Kolkata and a Nehruvian-era steel town in eastern India, designed by the American architect and Gandhian Joseph Allen Stein; to a dusty almirah at the Maharaja Sayajirao University in Baroda and a performing arts center in Lucknow, built in 1961 to honor the poet Rabindranath Tagore. I was often interpolating between art and life in order to fashion an archive—not what I had in mind as I began this project as a doctoral student at Berkeley! My training had been with books, papers, electronic resources, inanimate artwork, and above all, dead people. It afforded little preparation for the work I would do in India: cold-calling, visiting, waiting, and wandering.

What are the works that inspired you as you worked on this book, and/or what are some other titles that you would recommend be read in tandem with your own?

My book is a part of a wave of new art historical scholarship on nonwestern and postcolonial modernisms. I found Elizabeth Harney’s In Senghor’s Shadow (2004), Iftikhar Dadi’s Modernism and the Art of Muslim South Asia (2010), Ming Tiampo’s Gutai: Decentering Modernism (2011), and Joan Kee’s Contemporary Korean Art (2013) particularly useful to think through the relationship between modernism, nationalism, and cosmopolitanism.

I was inspired by Tapati Guha-Thakurta’s and Partha Mitter’s pioneering scholarship on modern Indian art, and the art-critical models of William G. Archer’s India and Modern Art (1959) and Geeta Kapur’s Contemporary Indian Artists (1978). The artists I discuss were gifted writers of poetry and prose, and their writing as well as that of their contemporaries, including Octavio Paz, Mulk Raj Anand, Richard Bartholomew, Gieve Patel, Gulammohammed Sheikh, Adil Jussawalla, and J. Swaminathan, has been a source of ideas and energy. Rebecca Brown’s Art for a Modern India (2009) and Karin Zitzewitz’s The Art of Secularism (2014) provide invaluable and distinctive perspectives on the period and practices that are the subject of my book. Recent literary histories such as Laetitia Zecchini’s Arun Kolatkar and Literary Modernism in India (2014) and Anjali Nerlekar’s Bombay Modern: Arun Kolatkar and Bilingual Literary Culture (2016) take up figures, themes, and problems comparable to those of Worldly Affiliations.

My book has been reviewed with Chika Okeke-Agulu’s Postcolonial Modernism (2015) on modern art in Nigeria as exemplifying a new approach to global art history in The Comparatist, and alongside a set of new books on cosmopolitan art worlds in The Art Bulletin, including Roberta Wue’s Art Worlds: Artists, Images, and Audiences in Late Nineteenth-century Shanghai (2014) and Pedro Erber’s Breaching the Frame: The Rise of Contemporary Art in Brazil and Japan (2015).

What are you working on now?

I am writing a book, The Art of Dislocation: Conflict and Collaboration in Contemporary Art from South Asia, which examines how collaboration has emerged as a hallmark of contemporary art in South Asia and a critical response to globalization since the 1990s. Through close study of artworks from India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, I analyze how artists have responded to conflicts—defined along religious, ethnic, caste, linguistic, classed, sexualized, and gendered lines—over place by embracing a collaborative practice of art that engages and departs from existing models of site-specificity and social action theorized by critics and art historians. Drawing on scholarship in history, anthropology, geography, and feminist studies, I discuss the emergence of a critical regionalism in South Asia despite and perhaps because of formidable barriers to cultural exchange within and between nation-states in the region. Whereas Worldly Affiliations traced the coming together of a national art world, The Art of Dislocation accounts for its dissolution and reconstitution under the conditions of contemporary globalization.

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