Multiple Modernisms One component of this philosophy is the structure of modernism. Until recently, modernism as a particular period and set of values and attitudes in art has been synonymous to European and North American modern art. Modern art in other regions of the world was often overlooked altogether, dismissed as derivative, or received limited consideration and contextualization. The concept of multiple modernisms is a relatively recent and nascent field of art historical research.5 Shaped by and open to myriad influences, Subramanyan pioneered a distinct concept of modernism as it pertained to the Indian context.6 Instead of accepting modernism as particular to Western art, he identifies the underlying conditions that led to the development of a modern form of art, which could be applied to any context. He explains that modernism in general developed as a result of profound changes in values and working conditions introduced by new technology and contact with foreign influences that were very different than existing traditions. It was a coming together of the world and the resulting critical evaluation of these bodies of knowledge.7 For example, while industrialization contributed to the development of modernism in Europe, Subramanyan notes that Indian modernism developed as a result of British colonialism. An increasingly industrializing Britain introduced very different political, social, and aesthetic perspectives and practices into its more traditional village-based colony.
British colonization dramatically changed the traditional structures of Indian society, disrupting and often destroying them. In art, instead of propagating craft and court painting traditions and their aesthetic values, the British introduced European academic realism in the European-styled art schools they established in India in the 19th century. Confronted with new standards, some Indian artists adopted “modern” naturalistic techniques of chiaroscuro and perspective; others looked back to the past for inspiration; and some tried to synthesize the modern and the traditional. In the process, notes Subramanyan, Indian artists developed their own distinct modern art as they reacted to the foreign influences that countered indigenous forms and practices.
Introducing these ideas in the 1960s and developing and discussing them throughout his career, Subramanyan identified an alternative and broader concept of modernism, one disengaged from a Euro-centric view of history. Thus, Subramanyan anticipated and helped inform recent proposals of “alternative” or “multiple” modernisms. Using the language of Western art, he redefined modernism according to his own experiences and expanded its definition, making it more inclusive and applicable to other contexts. His concept of modernism is one that evolves in different places at different times, under varying contextual circumstances, and, by its very nature, has many forms that are eclectic.