Towards the end of the nineteenth century, a stronger connection was established between art and nationalism. Many painters now tried to develop a style and started the search for a national art that could be considered both modern and Indian. What could be defined as a national style?
The Search for a National Art: The art of Raja Ravi Varma:
Raja Ravi Varma was one of the first artists who tried to create a style that was both modern and national. Ravi Varma belonged to the family of the Maharajas of Travancore in Kerala and was addressed as Raja. He mastered the Western art of oil painting and realistic life study but painted themes from Indian mythology.
He dramatized on canvas, scene after scene from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, drawing on the theatrical performances of mythological stories that he witnessed during his tour of the Bombay Presidency. From the 1880s, Ravi Varma’s mythological paintings became the rage among Indian princes and art collectors, who filled their palace galleries with his work.
Responding to the huge popular appeal of such paintings, Ravi Varma decided to set up a picture production team and printing press on the outskirts of Bombay.
Here color prints of his religious paintings were mass-produced. Even the poor could now buy these cheap prints. A different vision of national art. In Bengal, a new group of nationalist artists gathered around Abanindranath Tagore (1871-1951), the nephew of Rabindranath Tagore. They rejected the art of Ravi Varma as imitative and westernized and declared that such a style was unsuitable for depicting the nation’s ancient myths and legends.
They felt that a genuine Indian style of painting had to draw inspiration from non-Western art traditions and try to capture the spiritual essence of the East. So they broke away from the convention of oil painting and the realistic style and turned for inspiration to medieval Indian traditions of miniature painting and the ancient art of mural painting in the Ajanta caves
They were also influenced by the art of Japanese artists who visited India at that time to develop an Asian art movement. We can see a combination of these different pictorial elements in some of the new “Indian-style” paintings of these years.
After the 1920s, a new generation of artists began to break away from the style popularized by Abanindranath Tagore. Some saw it as sentimental, others thought that spiritualism could not be seen as the central feature of Indian culture.
They felt that artists had to explore real life instead of illustrating ancient books, and look for inspiration from living folk art and tribal Designs rather than ancient art forms. As the debates continued, the search for a national art also progressed. New movements of art grew and styles of art changed.