Emilia Terracciano, Art and Emergency: Modernism in Twentieth-Century India

Emilia Terracciano, Art and Emergency: Modernism in Twentieth-Century India (London: I.B. Tauris, 2018), 281 pp.

Emilia Terracciano begins her book, Art and Emergency, by invoking Walter Benjamin’s “angel of history,” that emblematic, though still extremely enigmatic, motif that lays bare the fiction of history as progress. Where we perceive the past as “a chain of events,” wrote Benjamin famously, the angel, which he derived from a watercolor by Paul Klee, “sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.”(Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Hannah Arendt (ed.), Illuminations, trans. by Harry Zoh (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), p. 257.)

Terracciano embraces this Benjaminian vision of history—its trenchant critique of historical progress, its challenge to the teleologies of historical materialism, and its powerful sense of a debris-strewn present—to sustain her highly focused investigation of twentieth-century art in India. Of particular concern for her, she states at the outset, is “how Benjamin borrows Klee’s watercolor to do the work of history on the point of collapse. Could it be that art moves in when politics fail?”(p. 2) The answer is undoubtedly yes, and the book represents an extended argument that supports and affirms this encouraging proposition. Asserting a politicized role for art, and by extension, art historical interpretation, that is at once both utopic and tragic, and derived from the fallout of catastrophes past, the study probes the relationship between aesthetics and politics within the specific contours of twentieth-century India. Bringing theorists of European modernity, most notably Benjamin and Giorgio Agamben, into a decisive encounter with subaltern historiography and postcolonial thinkers such as Dipesh Chakrabarty, Geeta Kapur, Frantz Fanon, Homi Bhabha, and Nasser Hussain, Art and Emergency is conceived as a determined intervention, one that boldly seeks to prod and unsettle conventional histories within the field.

For Terracciano, “emergency” is an all-embracing term that serves as “the principal concept for political crisis and for artists’ responses or prophecies of crisis.” (p. 4) Frequently interchangeable with tragedy, violence, and states of exception, Terracciano further proposes, in the book’s introduction, that emergency “must be torn apart” (emphasis in original, p. 4). To this end, she adopts a set of strategies inspired by Benjamin, designed to assert the fragment, dissolve the totality, and disrupt linear chronology through counter-narrative acts. Accordingly, each of the three chapters in the book focusses on an individual artist—Nasreen Mohamedi, Sunil Janah, and Gaganendranath Tagore—who are at odds with the national idiom in one way or another, and who embody forces of protest and dissent during concrete periods of historical crisis. Such conditions of emergency are conceived as “historical boiling points” in which the latent violence of colonial rule and post-colonial authoritarianism comes to the fore in a particularly devastating way.

Thus, the Partition of Bengal (1905), the Jallianwala Bagh massacre (1919), the Bengal Famine (1943), the Partition of the subcontinent into the two new nation-states of India and Pakistan (1947), and the literal “Emergency” declared by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in the post-Independence period (1975-77), all figure prominently in the various chapters of the book. The artists and artworks selected did not merely live in and through these historical events, they also, according to Terracciano, “opened up perspectives of resistance and escape from subjection, offering possibilities for utopian renewal.” (p. 11) Thus, at the core of the study is the idea that power, in the form of historical violence and injustice, can be “countered and re-imagined through the art forms discussed.” (p. 11) Art emerges as both a witness to a fragmented twentieth century and as an empowering response to the most devastating conditions that humanity has been made to endure and remember.

Chapter One begins by reversing the conventional chronology and foregrounding that which is nearest in historical terms . It addresses the non-figurative abstract art of Nasreen Mohamedi (1937-1990), and encompasses her painting, photography, and works on paper. Mohamedi was an artist who, in Terracciano’s words, “maximized the minimal in her graphic movements, tracing line after line on paper with quiet, resolute compulsion.” (p. 20) The chapter examines Mohamedi’s embrace of abstraction in the 1970s within the controversial climate of the Emergency (1975–77), in which for almost two years democratic rights and freedom of speech were suspended under Mrs. Gandhi’s order, and coercive methods imposed by the state. It also positions Mohamedi’s turn to abstraction against the polemical pitch for figuration being asserted by her friend, the art critic Geeta Kapur, at the time. That the latter’s polemic was directed against the dominant discourses of American abstraction, on the one hand, and the commercialization and institutionalization of Hindu Neo-Tantric art, on the other—rather than Mohamedi’s quiet tactics of pencil and line—remains somewhat unrecognized in Terracciano’s account, resulting in a slightly distorted antagonism between the artist and the critic. Seizing Roland Barthes’ concept of “the Neutral” which, in his terms, is the “thought and practice of the nonconflictual” that is nevertheless bound to struggle and existential strife—Terracciano also extends her engagement to Kapur’s penetrating posthumous essays on the artist in a way that helps diffuse this problem of a false opposition. Attending to Mohamedi’s interest in Sufism, Arabic calligraphy, the writings of the French pied-noir writer Albert Camus, and the artist’s repeated returns to the landscape of the desert, Terracciano argues that in the end Mohamedi’s practices of abstraction “resist classification and narrative capture” and generate “powerful forms of (un)belonging and politics” that unsettle the fixed closures of nationhood and Partition. (pp. 67-68)

Chapter Two takes up a very different historical figure, Sunil Janah (1918-2012), the documentary photographer and member of the Communist Party, best known for his photojournalistic work in India during the 1940s. Invoking Ariella Azoulay’s theory of the “civil contract” of photography, Terracciano shows how Janah’s heart-wrenching photos of hunger and destitution caused by the Bengal famine, which claimed some three million lives in 1943, helped to mobilize empathy and fuel resistance to the injustices of colonial rule. She further contrasts this body of work with the “phantasmagoric aesthetics” of colonial photography (the phrase is Zahid Chaudhury’s from his 2012 book, Afterimage of Empire: Photography in Nineteenth Century India), which damagingly transformed the victims of famine into macabre sets of genres and types.

By additionally juxtaposing Janah’s eye-witness photographs with Cecil Beaton’s romanticized portraits of Bengali laborers—which she dubs “famine chic”—; with the intimate Bengal famine drawings of the South Asian artists Chittroprasad Bhattacharya and Zainul Abedin; and, finally, with the politicized assertion of the fasting body by Gandhi during the nationalist struggle, Terracciano attends to the subtle rejection of colonial stereotypes encoded in Janah’s frequently theatrical visual strategies. Janah’s famine images, she argues, represent one of the first attempts in the history of modern India to “expose the plight of refugees and visually inspire resistance,” mobilizing a mass public through visual media. (p. 116) Moreover, Janah’s later industrial commissions for Nehru’s government and his idyllic renderings of tribal life that secured his professional success after Independence would be, in the author’s terms, “haunted by the ghosts of the famine .” (p. 76) The chapter thus goes far to illuminate Janah’s underexamined pictures as well as the visual archive through which his photographs gain their meaning, and it provides astute insights into the complex relationships and seeming discrepancies between his very different bodies of work.

The third and final chapter turns to the Bengal School painter, Gaganendranath Tagore (1867-1938), an outlier within his famed artistic milieu in colonial era Santiniketan. The latter was the site of his uncle, Rabindranath Tagore’s, radical experiments in anti-colonial education and aesthetics and a primary locus for the emergence of modernism in India at the beginning of the twentieth century. Gaganendranath stood at odds with the primevalism and romantic historicism that preoccupied other Bengal School painters, inhabiting instead a uniquely urban sensibility based in humor, caricature, social critique, and, eventually, the European technique of analytical Cubism. Terracciano presents the “sweaty, saggy and flatulent” (p. 128) subjects depicted in Gaganendranath’s lithographs and drawings as “sly allegories” (p. 143) that reflect the deep ironies and vulgar excesses of colonial relations at the threshold of their unraveling. His characters are savage figures, she explains, that “often appear as though speaking from the stomach. Their mouths, guzzling and gobbling, disclose beastly teeth, which sink memorably into the viewer’s consciousness.” (p. 126)

Terracciano further links a series of lithograph images and print albums produced by the artist between 1915 and 1917 to the history of Lord Curzon’s Partition of Bengal, a brutal effort to suppress the emerging spirit of anti-colonial rebellion, and explores in an original way Gaganendranath’s embrace of French philosopher Henri Bergson’s theory of laughter, published in English in 1911. Her analysis then extends to another body of work produced by Gaganendranath in 1921 in the wake of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre of 1919, in which British troops opened fire on unarmed civilians, killing hundreds. Following these harsh despotic acts, Terracciano argues that Gaganendranath’s “laughter turns to horror” (p. 130) which found expression in formal terms as a series of “graphic screams.” (p. 164) The chapter thus exposes the artist’s edgy journey from the excesses of hysterical laughter to the depths of pessimism and flat-out contempt. In Gaganendranath’s subsequent experiments with Cubism, Terracciano suggests, this uneasy combination of pathos and hysteria “formally erupts,” resulting in a “detonation expressed in the blasting of forms” and radical uncertainty about the future. (p. 177) Interestingly, this reading of the Bengali artist’s embrace of Cubism departs from Partha Mitter’s influential account, which had among other things highlighted the problems of mimesis and derivation within the narratives of global modernism that Gaganendranath’s acts of borrowing entailed. Terracciano’s interpretation, by contrast, appears to displace the notion of the “triumph” of the Indian avant-garde at this juncture in favor of a more combustive, anti-teleological framework based on the absence of a logic of arrival and history’s ongoing destabilizing effects.

Overall, Art and Emergency is a conceptually ambitious study based in extensive original research and a meticulous relationship to the visual archive. The book also builds upon recent scholarship in a synthetic manner, and works to advance the discourse of modernism in India by subjecting it to intellectual provocation and broader theoretical discussion. The writing, although at times uneven, offers spirited readings of frequently underexamined works and is at other times,—especially in the case of Janah and Tagore, penetrating—even revelatory. While Terracciano acknowledges her debt to the critic Geeta Kapur whom she describes as the author of “the most compelling and authoritative study of modernism in India,” and envisions Art and Emergency as seizing “the gauntlet Kapur throws down,” she also claims to “put pressure on Kapur’s nationalist paradigm,” and the “militantly forward-looking teleological historicism” of Kapur’s own account of modernism. (pp. 5-6) The latter point, to my mind, does not sufficiently grasp the complexity of Kapur’s leftist historical consciousness and the anti-teleological imagination of a certain legacy of post-Marxist thought, more broadly speaking. If anything, Terracciano’s own strategy of chronological reversal is methodologically aligned with, even derived from and inspired by, Kapur’s radically antichronological text, When Was Modernism (2000), which was similarly given to combustive maneuvers and “disjunture and difference,” geotemporally defined. Indeed, there may be more common ground here than Terracciano allows for. However, as is the case with all strong texts, these are notes of disagreement that arise from the serious and substantive nature of the project as a whole. Art and Emergency is ultimately a passionate and stimulating contribution to scholarship that will challenge its readers to reevaluate the entanglements between art, politics, history, and the future from within the urgent conditions of our times.

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