Turning to the Goddess: Anachronism, Secularity, and the Late Style of Tyeb Mehta and K. G. Subramanyan
At nearly the same late-1980s moment, two of the most important artists of India’s twentieth century, Tyeb Mehta (1925–2009) and K. G. Subramanyan (b. 1924), turned to the goddess as a subject for painting. Although Mehta and Subramanyan represented different strands of Indian modernism, they had both hitherto largely limited themselves to secular subject matter. This essay accounts for the significance of their goddess turn by discussing it as an example of late style, as theorized by Edward Said. It finds in these paintings the intransigence, anachronism, and negative intervention championed by Said, but also a critique of the secularism that he argued was the root of late style. Mehta and Subramanyan’s intervention came at a crucial moment in Indian art history, as modernism began to be undermined by a rising group of narrative painters supported by the critic Geeta Kapur. The older artists’ embrace of the religious image sits uneasily in Kapur’s influential narration of post-colonial Indian art history.
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