India has always been known as a great trading nation. In ancient times, it was famed far and wide and had a rich cosmopolitan culture. Indian artists assimilated the different influences which came over the ages from China, Greece, Persia and other places. Since ancient times, the purpose of the Indian artist has been to give viewers a glimpse of that which is more important – the life of the spirit, the life within. Indian paintings have always presented a view of the underlying harmony of all of creation and took viewers away from the concerns of the material world.

It goes without saying that traditional India art had evolved continuously over the centuries. However, it was during the 18th and 19th centuries, that this continuity was broken. Many art historians believe that after the invasion of the colonials, there was fallout in the permanence of the ancient Indian art. In the last hundred years, there was a wonderful balance between the social needs of the paintings as well as individual expression. This balance got disrupted ever since the colonial period, where the old ateliers were broken. The new forms that came into existence did not have a historical past, which left the painters in a limbo. On one hand, artists did not have a system by which to formulate ideas and forms and on the other hand, as an individual although he felt a strong need to express himself, at the same time he was uprooted because there was not a past or tradition to go by.

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries brought fundamental changes in the political, economic and social life of India. European dominance was established in all aspects of life. Vastly different influences of culture and art came from far away shores and new examples were set to be emulated by the Indian people. The British wished to have endless drawings and Indian paintings to take back home with them. They were keen to buy Indian art. They wanted to understand the culture and traditions of the people whom they now ruled. Paintings and drawings were found to be very important tools to capture the culture and ways of the richly diverse people of India. For the making of vast numbers of drawings, paintings and prints, European artists took on Indian apprentices and assistance.

Along with other educational institutions, art schools were set up to teach Indian artists the Western manner of painting. The style of academic realism of Western art became a norm to be appreciated and emulated in India. The hub of artistic activity in Bombay (present-day Mumbai) was the J.J. School of Art headed by John Griffiths. Griffiths and his students undertook a major project of painting reproductions of the Ajanta Murals over a period of 12 years from 1872 to 1884. They were greatly inspired by the magnificent tradition of ancient Indian paintings.

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The Bengal school headed by Abanindranath Tagore tried to formulate a new national aesthetic which was based upon the styles of ancient and medieval Indian paintings. This was a complete change from the Western academic style of painting which was being taught in modern art schools. There isn’t a way in which the new art movement completely rejects the academic past and purely labels are as something derivative, colonial and something which is not of any aesthetic merit. What Abanindranath and his first phase of students were trying to do was really rebuild a new nationalist art but they were still largely concerned with ways in which to break out the Western academic mode and build what they considered an idealistic spiritual art. With Abanindranath’s movement, there is an equal emphasis on building an artistic collective because he wanted to build a school. He felt that the project of a new national art could not be achieved by a single person. It required a whole movement and it required a following. That becomes a kind of paradox that the success of the movement relied so much on the dissemination of a certain stereotype of what was then kind of highly applauded as true Indian art, but that also became the main weakness of the movement that it became repetitive and formulaic.