SALEM — When India emerged from the shackles of colonialism in 1947, modernism was at its height in the West. Art was abstract — about paint, surface, gesture, and composition, with sparse room left for local details, pictures, or story.
Not so in India. “Midnight to the Boom: Painting in India After Independence,” the lush, bustling new exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum, portrays Indian art of the mid- to late-20th century as being as steeped in Indian traditions and vernacular as a steamy cup of chai. It showcases the museum’s collection of 20th-century Indian art, the deepest of any in the United States.
India gained independence at midnight on Aug. 15, 1947, after nearly two centuries of British rule. The exhibit traces Indian painting from that precipitous moment through the economic boom of the 1990s. It moves from modern art through the anything-goes era of postmodernism and toward the more conceptual, technology-driven era of art in the 21st century. It draws a taut picture of conflict and synthesis.
As independence dawned, Indian artists recognized the urgency and vitality of the relatively new language of abstraction — it could open up or flatten the pictorial illusion of space, fracture forms, and offer a wildly inventive image of emotion and inner life. They grappled with modernist issues of painterly construction, color, and surface.
But they had other issues to contend with, on and off the canvas. They had stories to tell about their culture and their experiences, but how could they tell those stories with abstraction? Their task was to integrate being modernists with being Indian.
“Midnight to the Boom” guest curator Susan S. Bean, working with the terrific collection that Chester and Davida Herwitz left to the Peabody Essex in 2001 — one of the most significant collections of Indian art outside India — has assembled a juicy exhibit, organized across three generations of artists, from towering figures such as M.F. Husain, whose career spanned more than 60 years until his death in 2011, to artists achieving international success today, such as Nalini Malani and Atul Dodiya.
Here and there, Bean, the museum’s former curator of South Asian and Korean art, places an artist’s work in context with what inspired it. S.H. Raza’s “Udho, Heart Is Not Ten or Twenty,” the most striking juxtaposition here, was made in 1964. Rhaza was in his 20s when independence came.
The painting hangs between a Cézanne and a 17th-century Indian miniature. Raza adheres to the hot-ember palette of the miniature. His borders, with text along the top, mimic that form. Yet inside those borders, his brushy daubs, so like Cézanne’s, depict the shadow of a landscape around an explosion of built-up, shimmying gestures, color coalescing into form.
Raza’s paintings are largely abstract. Those from the 1980s sizzle with tone and flicking gesture within defined geometries. But most of the work in “Midnight to the Boom” boasts lively figuration and narrative.
Tyeb Mehta, another of the first-generation artists, often used jagged diagonals to break up his scenes, in which flattened figures intersect like puzzle pieces. That diagonal isn’t just a compositional device. It’s a lightning-bolt picture of the partition between India and Pakistan at the time of independence, during which millions were displaced or killed, and of the schisms that followed between Hindus and Muslims.
The generation between “Midnight” and “the Boom” came of age as the high-flying ideals of a young sovereign nation collided with the realities of conflict and divisions within Indian society. Paintings here veer deep into storytelling. Gulammohammed Sheikh deploys tangy, shimmering hues, shifting perspectives, and adroitly convoluted space in his triptych “Passing Angel, a Life, Summer Diary,” taking color and composition hints from Mughal court paintings and 15th-century Sienese murals and altar pieces.
Art circles back on itself and eats its own tail constantly, as artists funnel the tricks and discoveries of art history to meet their own demands. In the West, at times, that can be a closed circle — art about art about art.
In India, the larger culture has provided as much fodder as art history. For his weird, gleaming paintings, Manjit Bawa appropriated mythology. The god in “Dharma and the God” has six arms and three faces (the Hindu goddess Kali and the god Shiva are often depicted with multiple arms), and sits astride a weeping, one-legged bull, against a flat ground so red it’s rapturous. The pale forms appear ghostly, yet fleshly in their intricately described volume. The bull — Dharma, the embodiment of order — teeters on his last leg.
The youngest artists here, born around the time of independence and in the decade after, also tackle social issues. Sudhir Patwardhan places us at a slightly lower perspective than the stolid people in his painting “Ceremony,” as they erect a funeral canopy in a Bombay shantytown. The perspective ennobles the characters.
Atul Dodiya pushes beyond the canvas in “The Flood in Dhaka,” made on a commercial shutter used to pull over a storefront at night, designed so a viewer might lift one painting up to find another behind it. Made in sepia tones, the backing depicts the ravages of a monsoon. On the shutter itself, a portrait of social realist filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak, some of whose films explored the lives of the displaced.
Like a pivot in the dead center of “Midnight to the Boom” hang drawings by Nasreen Mohamedi, a spare series unlike anything else in the show. The exhibit brims with jewel tones and searing narrative. Mohamedi’s delicate, architectural abstractions of tilting planes in space provide a cool mint palate cleanser to the curry and masala of the rest of the exhibit. These diagonal forms might suggest something of the character of a people colonized for so long: watchful, careful, oblique, clear but indirect.
A still point in an onrush of an exhibit, Mohamedi’s drawings are a key addition, a reminder that while so many Indian artists have utilized their art to make sense of the world around them, some turn inward rather than outward for inspiration. Art takes all kinds.Cate McQuaid can be reached at email@example.com.