Theses Doctoral

Forms of Despair: Postmodernist art in metropolitan India

Johal, Rattanamol Singh

This dissertation develops a history of experimental art emerging in India in the final decades of the twentieth century. It addresses the turn to video, performance and mixed-media installation – conceptually driven, circulation friendly, critical artistic modes – by artists who share a generational consciousness, shaped in part by their class position and metropolitan location. My arguments are constructed through a historical and formal analysis of significant transformations in the works of two Bombay-based artists, Nalini Malani (b. 1946) and Rummana Hussain (1952- 1999), between the mid-1980s and the early 2000s.

This post-Emergency period is marked by the spectacle, symbolism and horror of the Babri Masjid demolition (December 1992) and numerous instances of targeted violence against minority communities (1984, 1992-93, 2002). The coinciding legislative passage of economic liberalization (1991) also had far-reaching implications, including a decline in state dominance over culture and artistic patronage. I contend that these dramatic shifts in the market, media and art institutional landscape catalyzed the development of postmodernist art practices. As artists like Malani and Hussain confronted the limitations and failings of their postcolonial, cosmopolitan imaginaries, their artistic responses were driven by the affective and reflexive tendencies of despair and melancholia, enlivening radical praxis in the face of derailments and lost causes.

My work problematizes the notion of rupture that has often been deployed in discussions of these artist’s trajectories, referring to the transition from conventional formats of oil painting and sculpture towards expanded media experiments⁠. This study examines both specific shifts and underlying continuities in the formal and conceptual registers of the practices in question, while situating theoretical debates around postmodernism, feminism, periodization and artistic generation in the context of India.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Art History and Archaeology
Thesis Advisors
Alberro, Alexander
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 26, 2022