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Contemporary Indian and Pakistani Art: Basic Ways They Differ and Why


On 15 August, 1947 India was given independence from British control; at the same time East and West Pakistan, two wings of a new nation were carved out of the subcontinent. The creation of Pakistan was certainly promulgated by political and economic motives as well as those of religion, each acting upon the other. While these two countries became divided on many fronts—ideological as well as geographic— there remains significant cultural overlapping. The West Pakistan Punjab, for example, is continuous with the Indian Punjab—vital agricultural, industrial areas of each country. Within the rich and influential Punjab landscape, capital cities of both nations are situated. East Pakistan, which severed its tie from the western wing in 1971 and became Bengal. While Bangladesh contributed both artistic excellence and ideology to the art of Pakistan, this essay will focus on India and Pakistan—a cursory investigation of post-independence trends and characteristics that distinguish the art in each of these countries.

Before the partition of India, fads, movements, and trends spread across the subcontinent from Lahore to Bombay to Calcutta to Madras with a certain homogeneity. Government art schools propagated western techniques at these urban centres establishing uniformity of artistic production. Regional culture and aesthetics put a twist on the art, but it was more superficial than genuine. Wall painting from the Ajanta Caves induced a spate of Buddhist themes and Ajantan stylistic traits cropped up in paintings by Bombay and Calcutta painters. The Sir JJ School of Art, Bombay took students to nearby Ajanta Caves in the late 19th century and Calcutta College of Art student accompanied Lady Heringham on official trips to copy the paintings in 1910 and 1911. Early 20th century painting in Calcutta was dominated by Abanindranath Tagore’s quasi-oriental style known as the Bengal School. Jamini Roy popularised village and folk art, though he was thoroughly grounded in western techniques from the Government College of Art in Calcutta. In Lahore artists painted western style realism using oil and British watercolour techniques and painted in the Bengal School style as well. Though hardly different in technical approach from other centres, native Lahori Punjabis like Chughtai and Allah Bux used Islamic themes far more often than their contemporaries in Bombay, Calcutta or Madras.

A myriad of factors influenced the direction of artistic development in India and Pakistan after 1947. Geography, culture, politics, religion, history (especially the colonial legacy) contributed to similarities as well as differences in South Asian art. Religion, however stands out as the pervasive factor differentiating subject matter and ideology in the two countries. Pakistan was created to provide a nation for the Muslim minority within a Hindu majority. Though contemporary artists in Pakistan have no connection with Islamic fundamentalism, the religious (and by extension sociocultural) climate has made a subtle but undeniable impact on the production of its art.

An historical avoidance of sculpture in Pakistan may be the most obvious consequence of its Islamic status. However, an emerging awareness of the potential of three-dimensional form as public monument to glorify country and religion, is gradually reshaping the urban landscape and providing encouragement to the few artists who have started to make sculpture. Whereas three dimensional icons of Hindu gods are an integral, essential, fundamental aspect of the artistic milieu in India, Islam traditionally maintains an aniconic attitude against figurative sculpture. The recent addition of large public sculptures to mark key intersections are predominantly abstract, geometric monuments many of which allude to Islamic ideology. Zahoor ul Aqlak, Ahmed Khan, Mohammad Asif are exemplary practitioners. One exception to aniconic figuration is the war memorial near Lahore airport by Shajid Sajjad, which features a charging battalion of Pakistani soldiers accompanied by an army tank. Busts of Pakistan founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah merit considerable commissions for government offices. Private patronage, however, still lags and artists who specialise in sculpture can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Islamic influence on Pakistani art evidenced by an avoidance of sculpture extends to painting as well. Religious belief restricts thematic choices, which in turn, encourages acceptable and alternative themes. Depiction of nude figures in art, for example, is not acceptable, though oddly, a few artists did exhibit nude (or nearly nude) figures before Partition and occasionally up through the 1970s. AR Chughtai (d 1975) had a well-publicised exhibition in 1951 when his nudes (torsos only) were exhibited for the first time. Sadequain (d 1987) caused a riot in 1976 when his paintings wit nudes (and controversial socio-political subject matter) were exhibited in Lahore. Colin David is noted for his formalist studies of the female nude, but he has not been able to exhibit them publicly in Pakistan. His candid depictions of a nude or partially clothed female never reveal the features of her face, no doubt because the artist is interested in the woman as form within the composition rather than as an individual. Nevertheless, Colin uses his beautiful wife as a model and hiding her identity may be an unconscious response to a pervasive religious/cultural atmosphere (fig 1). Painting, drawing, or sculpting nude figures is not controversial in India, though eyebrows raised over nude studies done by Vesundra Tewari that some people believe were self-portraits (fig 2). Overheard at an exhibition —”why should a well-bred girl like this, expose herself in such a manner?”

If, in Pakistan, nude studies are discouraged—calligraphy is as emphatically embraced. It is well-known that the deeply religious 18th century Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb, copied the Quran as an act of sacred merit. Arabic calligraphy, the script of Urdu and several other languages in Pakistan, has religious significance since it is the script of the Quran. From the 1950s to the present, but most enthusiastically in the 1970s and 80s, calligraphy was encouraged and patronised by government as well as private organisations and individual collectors. Ismail Gulgee, a senior painter and internationally renown painter who established his considerable career in the early 1950s as a realistic portrait painter, turned his talent to expressive calligraphy in the early 1960s and continued to enhance his fame (fig 3). Artists in India have shown little interest in calligraphy as an art form, though nearly every painter in Pakistan has used calligraphy as a theme for some period of time. Young artists under 35, however, have not bothered as much with calligraphy.

Contemporary Indian painters make frequent reference to Hindu mythology as matter of fact or as social commentary. Best known for his unusual Krishna paintings, in this example (fig 4). Manjit Bawa depicts Siva on a one legged Nandi with an array of newly devised mudras. His paintings of other gods and goddesses give a representational and naive-looking village-inspired images of gods/goddesses and myths she learned as a child. Arpita Sing and Gogi Saroj Pal are among other prominent painters who make reference to religious myth and iconography in their work. In Pakistan, on the other hand, there are no gods or goddesses and religious subject matter is approached in a subtle even tangental way. While Persian painters saw fit to imagine the Ascension of Mohammed and several other events attributed to the life of Mohammad, contemporary Pakistani painters steer clear of this type of representation. Overt religious references are rarely attempted in contemporary Pakistani painting, although the daring, socio-political commentary painter, AR Nagori, used Sarasvati, the Hindu goddess of learning and the arts, to protest neglect even suppression of the arts in Pakistan. (See article on socio-political commentary in Pakistani art this issue). AR Chughtai painted Muslim heroes and heroines including the tenth century martyr Mansur al Hallaj.

Before partition (1947), Chughtai, Allah Bux, and a number of other Muslim artists painted themes from Hindu myth, but after the creation of Pakistan those themes were abandoned by all but the few hereditary miniature painters perpetuating the tradition of Rajput and Mughal painting.

History has played a many-sided role in influencing subcontinental art. Until 1947 artists were able to keep informed about the progress of their colleagues in other Indian cities across the country. Competition was keen. Annual, even biannual exhibitions were held all over India in Lahore, Simla, Bombay, madras, and Calcutta and points in-between. A spate of journals and art magazines illustrated art work from all over the country and heated debates over contemporary issues were closely followed from coast to coast. After 1947 borders were closed, personal travel between India and Pakistan was impossible and books and journals were no longer exchanged. Artists lost touch with one another. With the trauma of partition (largest ever exchange of peoples accompanied by massive riots, death, destruction of property) and the challenge of independence, artists of both countries were consumed by new concerns. Keeping up with the neighbour was low on the list.

Throughout India, artists were aspiring toward modernism. As early as 1942 there was the Progressive Artists’ Group of Calcutta, the Progressive Painters’ Association of Madras formed in 1944 and in Bombay the Progressive Artists’ Group organised in 1947. In addition to their modernist tendencies, as Geeta Kapur notes, they used “that epiteth (progressive) to refer to their specifically modern an sometimes leftist sympathies.” (Kapur: Tradition: 35) MF Husain and FM Souza exemplified contemporary artistic movements particularly Cubism and Expressionism; others like SH Raza Found inspiration in a freer abstraction. In the 1950s their closest ties were with the School of Paris and later with that of New York.

Pakistan painters, also seeking modern alternatives to pre-independence modes were more limited stylistically than their Indian neighbours. A modified Cubism introduced by Shair Ali swept the country throughout the 1950s. Ismail Gulgee diverted the trend to a Jackson Pollock like Abstract Expressionism in the sixties and thereafter, as in India, heads turned toward New York.

Though attracted by modern European movements, both countries were concerned with maintaining a sense of national identity. A considerable number of Indian painters derived inspiration from Tantric art (an esoteric form of Buddhist and Shivite mysticism) such that a neo Tantric movement came to be identified. GR Santosh is one of the exemplary proponents of this movement (fig 5). Pakistani painters looked to the distant past within their country’s geography to establish roots. Led by Leila Shazada (d 1995), artists painted themes from Indus Valley Civilization and from Gandhara. These were significant historic and cultural landmarks that artists could call upon to compensate for loss of other parts of their heritage. Monuments like the Taj Mahal that Pakistanis felt constituted the “real essence” of their heritage and identity were now in India. Chughtai seemed to have breathed the Mughal air into his watercolours of Jahangir, Nur jahan, the Taj at Moonlight and evoked pride and nostalgia with hundreds of Punjabi, Muslim, Urdu themes. Though revered at the highest level, artists avoided his romantic approach. Two themes—landscape and calligraphy—came to dominate the Pakistan art scene.

Though landscape is practiced in India, it does not constitute a sense of identity as it does in Pakistan. Punjab landscape painting, a movement initiated by Khalid Iqbal, is based on careful observation of the physical world. The artist’s finely crafted oil paintings on canvas are more subtle than those of his contemporaries. Summer Afternoon (fig 6) evokes the essence of the heat and desolation of uncultivated sections of the Punjab. While his contemporaries generally typify the scene by including a small mosque, a mud-walled village, a herd of buffalo, or other motif to mark the location, Khalid Iqbal is concerned with conveying a sense of atmosphere and particular geography of his region. Kikar bushes in the foreground, indigenous, pervasive Punjabi plants, add a touch of colour and value against the dry yellow grass in the foreground. If Khalid iqbal has shifted a tree here or there, added a bush or two, his landscapes are still plein air paintings, true to life. Paramjit Singh, on the other hand, the foremost proponent of landscape painting in India, creates luscious vignettes conjured from memory and imagination. His intensely coloured, highly textured visions are not meant to represent or identify the Indian landscape, although the artist may be extrapolating from the remembered vision of an actual site that impressed him. Paramjit’s red and green hillside (fig 7), an imaginative, personal vision done in the studio, exemplifies the metaphysical nature of Indian painting—a trait less common in Pakistani painting.

There have been three artists committed to socio-political commentary in Pakistan and each has ‘paid’ for his audacity. (see article on Socio-Political Commentary in Pakistani Painting, in this issue). Though I cannot think of any artists in India solely committed to social criticism, many include critical commentary within the repetroire of their ouvre. Artists in both countries have travelled abroad for exposure and higher education, but I think a larger percentage of Pakistani artists have master degrees from European and American colleges and universities than do Indian artists. Both countries have a national art organisation with regional branches in most major cities in Pakistan as well —Lahore, Karachi, Islamabad. There are more art school (colleges) in India, but Pakistan, of course, is a much smaller country. New, private art schools, however, are coming up in Pakistan’s cities.

Though no one can say art is more important or better in one country or the other, Indian art has captured more attention on the international scene. This may be in part, because India is more attention on the international scene. This may be in part, because India is more familiar to the outside world than is Pakistan. In the last few years there has been increasing contact between to two countries. Most notably there have been artistic exchanges. On two occasions students and faculty from the National College of Arts have travelled to India for the Trienelle — a spectacular, every third year, international art exhibition held in New Delhi. MF Husain, Gogi Saroj Pal and a few other Indian artists have visited Pakistan in the last few years. The old camaraderie and competitive spirit of the 1920s may never be a reality, but a new sense of regional friendship and belonging may evolve.

Marcella C Sirhandi

Oklahoma State University.



Fig 1.

Colin David, Nude, 24 x20” oil canvas, 1984, private collection.


Fig 2.

Vesundra Tewari , Nude, oil canvas, 19840 private collection.


Fig 3.

Ismail Gulgee Calligraphy, 30×36 oil canvas, 1995 collection of Ali Imam, Indus Gallery.


Fig 4.

Manjit Bawa, Siva, oil canvas, 1980s private collection.


Fig 5.

GR Santosh, Neo-Tantric Figuration 793/4 x 60 oil canvas, 1982, National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi private collection.


Fig 6.

Khalid iqbal Summer Afternoon, 19×25” oil canvas, 1986, private collection.


Fig 7.

Paramjit Singh, Pink Grass Among Bushes, 5ftx7ft oil canvas, 1985-86, Indian Foreign Ministry, Islamabad, Pakistan.


Author: Editor

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