CSA Event

DANIEL HERWITZ, UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN The Framing of the Past in Four Generations of Modern Indian Art

May 5, 2011 - 6:00pm



Encina Hall Central, CISAC Conference Room (2nd Floor), 616 Serra Street, Stanford (limited meter parking in front)



Daniel Herwitz received the Ph.D. in Philosophy from University of Chicago in 1984, and has been teaching at the University of Michigan since 2002. He is the author of "The Star as Icon," Columbia Press, October, 2008, "Key Concepts in Aesthetics," Continuum Press, 2008, "Race and Reconciliation," University of Minnesota Press, 2003, "Making Theory/Constructing Art: On the Authority of the Avant-Garde," University of Chicago Press, 1993, and "Husain, Tata Press in India," 1987. He has also published "Midnight’s Diaspora: Critical Encounters with Salman Rushdie," a book of essays co-edited with Ashutosh Varshney of the University of Michigan for UM Press, November 2008, "Action, Art, History: Critical Engagements with Arthur Danto," Columbia University Press, March 2007, edited with Michael Kelly, and "The Don Giovanni Moment," Columbia University Press, edited with Lydia Goehr, Columbia University Press, 2006.

Herwitz won a National Book Award in India for "Husain." He was Mellon Fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center (1991-2) also courtesy of the ACLS, and Andrew Mellon Visitor Scholar at the University of Cape Town (2010). He has been invited to be a Fellow at the Australian National University during 2012.

Current projects include "Live Action Heritage," a book of six chapters about heritage in colonial/Victorian times, and the moral, artistic, social and political urgencies around global rewritings of the past into a heritage today. Chapters range over Africa, India and the United States. They consider the logic or grammar of “live action heritage” and treat this as a window into art and politics. Teaching interests in Comparative Literature include graduate seminars on Literature and the Other Arts, Literature, Memory and Trauma, and Literature and Philosophical Aesthetics.

The Event

Lecture by Daniel Herwitz, Director of the Institute for the Humanities and Mary Fair Croushore Professor of the Humanities, University of Michigan.

Herwitz event image


Sangeeta Mediratta, smedirat [at] stanford [dot] edu
or (650) 725-8150

Refreshments will be served.


Classics proclaim a world, which then solicits a context. And the collection on exhibit in Roots in the Air, Branches Below: Modern and Contemporary Art from India is one of classics. Four generations of work on paper make their appearance in this collection: from Jamini Roy's delicate and nostalgic "mediaevalism" composed (in the manner of book illumination) at the late moment of British colonialism to the "pink silly bubbly and naughty" postmodern of Rina Banerjee with its refined whirl of masala (spice) and ever postmodern desire to eschew the big picture. That big picture was framed by the Progressive Artist Movement in 1947, at the moment of the birth of the Indian state: To produce a modern art worthy of the experiment that would be modern India, India the state, the conflagration, the whirl of differences and intensities, the vast project of remaking a vast portion of the subcontinent into an Indian one. The terms of that project included reframing the panoply of the past into a singular and secular whole cloth, available for appropriation by each and every artist in their capacity as an Indian citizen (with a similar claim over what was now being re-scripted as the national past). They included grafting elements from the modernisms of (what was then called) "the west" (Cubism, German expressionism, abstraction, etc.) with appropriations from the past and of live tradition and ritual so as to generate new ways to acknowledge the whirl of the Indian street and society and assimilate this vast subject to the terms of the national adventure.

The Progressives and their associates are featured prominently in this exhibition, their meditations on time and its layering of sculpture, cloth, architecture into ruination and imagination, their blending of popular and elite, their recasting of the space of painting out of past traditions and also urban intensities, their monumental desire to capture a subject as vast as the new India. Such traditions and intensities are refracted through the glass transparencies of Subramanyan, proclaimed in Husain's Chinese equine furies, empathized in his mother series and also the semi-abstractions of Ram Kumar, excoriated and acknowledged in the uncompromising diagonal splits of Tyeb Mehta, rendered into dreamlike beauty in the intimate reveries of the fragile Ganesh Pyne, made musical in the Ragmalla paintings of Sayed Raza with their homage to French abstraction.

What links these four generations into a story is history, but more specifically a series of frames through which in varying degrees of success each generation seeks to build the past into the hovering presence of their art. This is because the past has always lived so deeply in Indian culture, but also because of its castigation and attenuation under the long arc of British colonialism. The past at once retained a live presence in popular ritual, visual culture, text and reci