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South Asia’s organic brand of Modernism
Tanushree Bhasin  7th Sep 2013

An early famine sketch by Zainul Abedin

s part of a five day public lecture series held at Jawaharlal Nehru University last week, US based artist and academic Iftikhar Dadi introduced his audience in India to his thoughts on Modernism in Muslim South Asia. the circumstances of the rise of Modernism in South Asia were drastically different from the those in the West and, therefore, it developed as a completely independent and original category. In his book on the same theme, Dadi has previously suggested that modernism developed in opposition to Western tradition. However, in South Asian countries, the Modernist movement was far more complicated since they didn't have any established artistic institutions to rebel against. Consequently, Modern artists of postcolonial South Asia felt the need to come up with a language of their own while simultaneously referring to the Modernism of the West.

Dadi chose to trace the trajectory of three Pakistani artists who were, in different ways, seeking to define a new subject, one that was not necessarily committed to the nation. "Many theorists seem to suggest that a move in the direction of Modernism happened as a result of state repression of nationalist and Left-leaning artists. I argue against this for I think there were a number of other forces at work in the immediate post-Independence period and after," said Dadi.

Picking three Pakistani artists — Zainul Abedin (1914–76), Zubeida Agha (1922–97), and Shakir Ali (1916–75), Dadi elaborates on the construction of this post-national Modernism which was embedded in the socio-political realities of those years. Zainul Abedin, Dadi suggested, seemed to be caught between a need to create an authentic Bengali modernism while simultaneously being pulled towards depicting social problems in the 'realist' style. His works highlighted the plight of the rural folk of east Bengal, at the same time questioning the nation i.e. the dominance of the state of West Pakistan. "He seemed to be caught between this modernist agenda and his need to represent the famines, cyclones, genocide and eventually the Partition, realistically," Dadi added. This dichotomy is visible in his Realist works like The Struggle, The Famine Sketches, Nabanna etc. which dealt with contemporary issues, while in works like Two Santhal Women, Two Faces, and Way to Quaid's Grave his Modernist aspirations come through quite clearly.

These artists saw something positive in the Modernist project and its development cannot simply be a question of the repression of Left culture and politics being repressed. — Iftikhar Dadi

Zubeida Agha's work was starkly different from Abedin's, in the sense that she made no attempt to engage with the political and most of her art remained quite abstract. "She seemed to be articulating a different kind of subjectivity. Her fascination was with the urban landscape, music, architectural shapes, and with the phenomenological and experimental. She worked with bright colours and created twisted and organic looking shapes that seemed to be disjointed," Dadi explained. Looking at her work one can't help but feel slightly uneasy, as visually her art does have a haunting and estranging quality. "This is crucial because Modernism has a lot to do with disenchantment and oppression as a result of which the artist begins to retreat into herself, something that can be seen clearly in Agha's work — it is non-political and very private," added Dadi.Image 2nd

Shakir Ali presents an interesting example of how South Asian modernity was being shaped. "He had, at some point, been associated with progressivism and even wrote Leftist literature, but eventually he began to move away from Realism and towards Modernism wherein romanticism became an integral part of his style. So he would take up socio-political issues but interpret them in abstract and personal ways," he said. The Dark Moon, Woman with Bird in Cage etc. represent his existential questions about ideas, forces and events much larger than himself.

Dadi, fundamentally argues that this confusion led to the creation of a new Modern Islamic art, in which traditional 'Islamic' artistic styles and ideas were rejected and redefined. "These artists definitely saw something positive in the Modernist project and its development cannot simply be a question of the repression of Left culture and politics being repressed," he said. In their art then, one can clearly see how modernity left its impact on the individual's inner state.

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