Locating Practice: Self Reflexivity

Locating the Indian artist, locating my practice

Indian contemporary art is as complex as the aesthetic, theological/philosophical, intellectual and practice frameworks that guide it. Indian artistic practices are also diverse and draw from different worldviews. Constructing the identity of the Indian artist therefore requires careful positioning of the artist within traditional, colonial, post-colonial, global postmodern and contemporary frameworks. Theoretical readings of the works of the art and artist profiles need to consider the diversity of frameworks they draw from.

Indian art, artists, and the varied creative processes of artistic practice today could be categorised as follows:


  1. The traditional Indian artist, working within the larger frame of theological and mystical worldviews.
  2. The traditional Indian artist, working with secular or socio-political frames.
  3. The traditional Indian craftsman, who continues to work within his/her paradigm, or has adapted his art for a changing paradigm, while holding his worldviews.
  4. The contemporary Indian artist who is self-taught or has emerged from some of the leading art and design institutes across India and abroad. These could be further understood in relation to the Indian diaspora, whose experiences are reflective of lived experiences in cultures they have adopted and adapted to, and who continuously create new exchanges and contributions in a cross-cultural frame.
    • Artists who create art for the sake of art.
    • Artists who focus on socio-political or ecological frames.
    • Artists who build from cultural-theological frames.
    • Artists whose work intersects socio-political, ecological, and cultural-theological frameworks.


My work is to be considered within the contemporary Indian frame intersecting with socio-political, ecological and cultural-theological frameworks. The research methods, principles of practice, and questions of form arise within this frame of practice. My training in the arts is rooted in several traditions. In my creative practice, the elements of art — line, space and form — are drawn from Indian aesthetic traditions. As a trained Bharatanatyam dancer, with over fifteen years working with this traditional art form, my roots of embodied practice also draw from cultural-mythological-mystical traditions of gesture, as well as space, line, and form in performative practice. However, I also draw from Western art, including Greek and Roman art, the Renaissance, romanticism, impressionism, expressionism, modernism, postmodernism, and conceptual art. However, the core principles of my practice, particularly the practice of mind and consciousness, draw from Eastern traditions of contemplative and reflective art practices and meditation, mystic traditions of poetry and philosophy, and Indian aesthetic philosophy. This provides a rich transdisciplinary exchange of knowledge frameworks as well as questions of form. Locating these questions of form within socio-political and ecological frameworks that are contemporary and relevant in India and within larger global ecological movements adds another layer to my practice. The following framework of research and positioning of the Indian artist therefore derives from one segment of artists and does not necessarily encompass Indian artists/art as a whole. 

A background to environmental art / eco art in India

Indian modern and contemporary visual and installation artists have looked at the ecological issues from different vantage points (Sultana, 2015). Here, a short survey of diverse kinds of thinking and practice in environmental art/eco art in India is provided to set the context. In the early period of nationalism, revivalism, and the rise of modern Indian art, art-making drew inspiration from the local environment — ideas that rose out of the Santhiniketan and Bengal movements. Later, artists like A. Ramachandran were drawn deeply to mysticism and beauty in nature, inspired by the simple life of Bhils and traditional representations of the lotus (they found a way to draw the essence of nature through the lotus as a symbol (Kumar, 2018)). Others, like Vivan Sundaram, address the consequences of mindless development, highlighting environmental degradation and its impact on the poor. 


Tribal artists and craftspeople, as they engage in contemporary art spaces, also bring the rich worldviews of the environment from their cultural paradigms, often showing usage of materials and practices in the consumerist world that can be ecologically responsible. Gond artist Bhajju Shyam’s work revels in the link between nature and self in metaphorical ways (Shyam, Bhajju, Sirish Rao, and Gita Wolf-Sampath. 2018). Kalamkari artists working with natural dyes raise environmental awareness in terms of production techniques, local ecology and health (Ranipeta, 2018). Artists who work within a scientific ecological paradigm and make scientific forays into conservation make use of wildlife art, photography and filmmaking. Some of them follow the path of early naturalists to discover their creative forms of expression. 


Issues of conservation, displacement, gender based ecological issues, environmental education, tribal knowledge systems, and several other contexts require careful study for artists to choose and work with these areas as their subject matter. The on-ground realities, geo-politics, livelihood issues, issues of ecojustice, human-animal conflicts, socio-economic challenges, policy, and legal issues are diverse and extremely context-sensitive. Different artists and designers choose to engage with these issues from different vantage points.


According to environmental artist and activist, Ravi Aggarwal:

"The idea of nature has deeply influenced the way we have seen and reacted to the world. Today, it is understood to have been the cause of the carving of nation state boundaries, cultural practices, or of migration and displacements. We are speaking of fundamental shifts [in our] understanding of how the world has been shaped and the role which the idea of nature has in its making, politically as well as culturally. The idea of what constitutes environmental art is in the making today" (Aggarwal, 2018).

The ‘traditional’ worldview: Critiques and personal positions

The ‘traditional’ worldview — as constructed during the colonial and nationalist periods — have been problematised for valorizing and glorifying the Vedic era and privileging Sanskrit and high-classical texts. Ananda Coomaraswamy's work and the work of other traditional scholars have also been critiqued for over emphasising the spiritual, mystical and metaphysical of Indian art and aesthetics without substantially acknowledging non-spiritual, secular, and socio-political frameworks, which are equally critical (Raphael,1977). Oral traditions, folk, and tribal narratives, while acknowledged by some scholars, have not been given equal importance and have been subsumed within the larger ‘Hindu’ tradition, imbuing these works with elitism. The revivalist movements also favoured classical traditions and knowledge systems, thereby privileging certain forms of arts and crafts over others. 


Overlaid with a nationalist agenda to rediscover identity and pride in a historic glorious past, narratives of a monolithic religious identity have also been constructed, without recognising plurality among diverse peoples who identify themselves as Hindu or who follow a tribal faith. In the vein of nationalist movements that evoked patriotic sentiment calling to common Hindu mythologies, gods and goddesses, and shared worldviews across the country, a politicising of the religion has continued to evolve. 


The issue of caste and the challenges faced by lower castes due to oppression by upper castes is also at the heart of a very strong critique against traditional frameworks, as the lower castes over a period of time were denied access to these knowledge frameworks or even sacred places of worship. 


In the current global climate, as several practices long-recognised within the Hindu tradition have been adapted across cultures, there is also a political promotion of yoga.


Classical traditional knowledge frameworks and aesthetics have been mobilised to construct a unified idea of the past during the nationalist and revivalist periods, as well as forming part of the political religion's ideologies, discarding plurality.


Each of these positions require a longer engagement to more fully acknowledge, counter, debate, and discuss, yet this is beyond the scope of the current exposition. 


I have considered the ‘traditional’ worldview (which includes Vedic, Brahmanical, Bhakti, and Shaivite traditions from the north and the south, as well as a combination of other systems that include the aesthetic traditions) from the lived practice and heritage in relation to my own upbringing and experience. This voice is also one of many voices that have been impacted by colonialism and socio-political arguments, where the epistemological and ontological questions that arise within these traditions are devalued or countered. My work takes the position that these traditions are continuous living heritages for many people, and are in themselves also native voices of India. They are thus one of the plurality of voices that must be considered for their epistemic and ontic value as knowledge traditions and not always/only in relation to socio-political critique. Narratives of power, privilege, supremacy, appropriation, and injustice are integral to the human condition and diverse cultural groups and religions/subsects of religions at all points through history.

I acknowledge this and the importance of reading traditional texts and considering the privileges at work while doing so. However, I am cautious in reading an entire body of work evolved over millennia only through such a lens, as diverse people have contributed to many of these texts, including people from lower castes. Also, the socio-political lens of privilege removes the opportunity to read the text through the lens of the mystic-philosophical, where distinctly different meanings emerge. Even within the ‘traditional voice’ are multiple voices, constantly in debate and discussion, deliberating upon their own respective ontology and epistemology. I therefore find it rather presumptuous to group these multiple voices under the larger umbrella of a singular ‘traditional’ frame. I choose instead to trace my own cultural positions through my intuitions and my exposure to lived practice, acknowledging the limitations of the same, while also pointing out that such work adds one more voice to the plurality.

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