History, as Benedict Anderson puts it, is the necessary basis of the national narrative. However, the history constructed by the British for the Indians and the one constructed by the Indians for themselves are vastly different and this is where art comes in. Art has always served more than an aesthetic function. It is also a means of expression, of constructing identities and ‘imagined communities’. It is interesting to note how often the British brought to the fore either religious or highly sensuous depictions in art, completely ignoring everything else, constructing India as the promised exotic land – the land of mysteries, of elephants and snake-charmers, of a thousand tongues and even more gods. Theirs was an India where a much married Radha frolicked with an unmarried Krishna, where a Brahma with five heads ruled the heavens from his lotus seat, where kings lived in their forts that were almost magically carved out of stone and where tigers seemed to outnumber men.
However, the art created by Rabindranath Tagore and his brothers Abanindranath and Gaganendranath, and others like Raja Ravi Varma resulted in the search and revitalization of representations of Indian cultural history and spirituality, a search that was not expressed through the artistic techniques developed by the foreign rulers, but by reviving indigenous techniques and material. They refused to accept a western way of art and took to integrating Japanese styles and spectacular interplay of light and shade. Even as they were building the nation through their art, they were also revisiting themselves and thereby, in a certain poetic sense, creating another nation – a nation that wasn’t what they saw, but what they hoped it would become.
Anupama Madam presented the opportunity of exercising the critical and post colonial learnings of the English Honours class of 2015 and guided them to see how art could be used as a tool for nation building. Overall, it was a very fruitful Saturday where we revisited all our texts except while the texts in our class were made of paper, these were made of clay, canvas and dreams.