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The Challenge of Indian Art:
An Introduction to its Possible History
|by Ashish Nangia|
What is art? Is it a purely utilitarian object with some trappings of decoration, or is it pure aesthetics which has absolutely no purpose whatsoever than to appeal, rather hedonistically if you will, to the senses?
This is not to say that there have not been laudable attempts at chronicling South Asian art. One of the earliest modern historians of Indian art was Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy. Living in Ceylon during British colonial times, Coomaraswamy did much to inscribe meaning to Indian art and architecture within the Western imagination. For Coomaraswamy, there was no art, or meaning in art, unless one understood the principles that guided its creators. Without an understanding of these principles, Indian art became simply a collection of strange looking gods, fanciful sculptures, and apparently misshapen forms. It took his interpretation of Indian art as a predominantly religious and spiritual work to make the Westerner begin to appreciate art, painting and sculpture especially Hindu art on a basis comparable to that of its Western contemporary. 
But if making Indian art comprehensible to the Western observer is one of the challenges that faces the writing of a South Asian art history, what is perhaps even more serious is the way that Indian art is often appended as a subsidiary culture to the grand narrative that is the history of Western art. This grand sweep of history from the Pyramids to Picasso, has a very definable center, consisting of the Western Renaissance and its allied movements. To this center all other movements, all other cultures must adhere and spring from. Thus a survey course in art in Western schools, till very recently at least, ran somewhat like the following :
This introduction will also avoid dividing Indian art into dynasties, avoiding narrow divisions such as Gupta art, Hellenic art, Islamic art, and so on. The reason for this is that art in the Indian subcontinent was as much a product of traveling groups of artisans rather than dynastic or kingly patronage. This is the reason why Hellenic art, for example, can be found in South Asia just as much as Greece, why Persian influences mix with the Hellenic in Kushan art, and why Rajasthani schools of painting and Mughal schools borrow so much from each other to create a composite picture of miniature painting.
The second facet of this introduction is its geographic sweep. Indian art I purposely avoid for the moment the word South Asian also includes within its ambit influences from, and outward impulses to, geographies of the world as diverse as Indonesia, Thailand, China, Japan, Persia and Central Asia. This series will attempt to bring these diverse influences, where possible, under question and examine the truly continental nature of ancient and medieval Indian art, as also the global influences that modern Indian art has imbibed, as also the ways in which a globalized, connected world has influenced the production of art in South Asia. It is only by stressing upon the global nature of South Asian art that we can perhaps make the jump from treating this subject as an offshoot of the world history of art, to a synchronous event in world history that is as connected to its global cousins as it is indivisible from them. This approach would be proper, as it is no longer possible for the serious student or professional of art or cultural history to remain within a narrow confine of cultures, continents or time periods.
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