Iftikhar Dadi


On his book Modernism and the Art of Muslim South Asia

Cover Interview of March 25, 2012

In a nutshell

My study looks at the emergence of modern art among Muslim South Asian artists by examining in some detail the work and intellectual concerns of a select number of artists from the 1920s to the present.  These artists are usually associated with Pakistan, but I situate them within a narrative of transnational Muslim South Asian modernism, rather than viewing them within a national art history. The book looks at the development of art with respect to issues of “tradition,” “Islamic art,” and “modernism” during the era of decolonization to the present.

The idea of tradition embraces intellectual and cultural resources of the Persianate cosmopolitan world of the Mughal Empire since the sixteenth century.  It also encompasses the reformist movements allied with the rise of print culture that flourished in the wake of the Indian Mutiny of 1857, and sought to shape Muslim life in India by religious and educational reform, and by modernization of Urdu language and literature. “Tradition” further included the rise of progressive cultural politics in South Asia during the 1930s, and the growth of literary journals and criticism.  Urdu poetry and literature further provided many of the artists with imaginative tropes.  Tradition also partially encompassed the rich iconography of Hindu and Buddhist South Asia.

“Islamic art” was clearly a key facet of tradition the artists wrestled with.  The term usually refers to artistic practices over a specific geographic area before the advent of modernity.  But this definition is not indigenous to Muslim intellectual history; it is a categorization that developed in nineteenth- and twentieth-century European orientalist art-historical scholarship.  The term is clearly catachrestic, referring neither to purely religious art, nor to art made exclusively by Muslims, while excluding art made by Muslims in the modern era and also in major regions such as Southeast Asia.

The artists in my study “decolonized” “Islamic art via their artistic practice, by selectively reworking threads and fragments of classical Islamic art into modern formulations.  “Islamic art” was available to these artists as received and lived practice in some cases, but as a result of modern scholarship, it was also furnished to them in discursive articulations.  Beginning in the 1920s, artists reworked fundamental categories that characterize the study of classical Islamic arts—architecture, miniature painting, ornament, and calligraphy—via the formal and procedural openings afforded by transnational modernism.

It must be reiterated that modernism itself drew upon artistic practices of the non-West, in which “Islamic art,” the decorative arts, and primitivism in general have played a foundational role—these crossed paths complicate questions of originality and derivativeness by defying any simple ascription of linear causality and temporality.

The artists’ work in my study also needs to be set in relation to the larger rubric of decolonization, as it made a certain type of claim to a “national” art.

However, the “national” in modern Muslim South Asia since the late nineteenth century is a highly fragmented and overdetermined concept that cannot be neatly captured in a concise definition.  The later nineteenth century witnessed the growing awareness by Muslim intelligentsia of their minority status in India, and led to the rise of Muslim identity in relation to wider pan-Islamic ideas.

Artistic practice therefore adopted a studied distance from Pakistani nationalism, and largely eschewed direct identification with it.  Even in cases when the artist was patronized by the state, the addressee of the artwork was hardly ever the nation in a simple sense.  Rather, artists availed of the opening towards reflexivity and articulation of an alternative aesthetic universe offered by modernism, and simultaneously also investigated transnational cosmopolitanism modalities in early modern and modern South Asian Muslim culture.  It is striking that all the artists I study also devoted considerable efforts to establish new institutions, by publishing journals, creating exhibition spaces, teaching, and running art foundations.

One needs to underscore the powerfully affirmative potential of modernism itself in fostering new imaginations during the decolonizing era.  Modernism needs to be understood to reference cultural production that is experimental and reflexive, inhabits new patronage arrangements, seeks new audiences and venues, and is generally concerned with exploring the predicament of the subject in modernity by drawing on a ruined tradition. The artists I have examined in my study undertake that project, and they do so not primarily as “national” figures but as participants in a framework of a networked, cosmopolitan imaginary. In this sense, the book marks a partial break with the model of national art histories.