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The Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, Massachusetts, holds the most important collection of modern Indian art outside of India. Works now on view in a new exhibition explore how Indian artists grappled with identity during and after revolution. More than 100 paintings, sculptures, photographs and personal correspondence trace the history of India — from its colonial period through its independence in 1947 — and the rise of a vibrant modern art movement.

Artists helped define the country following the Indian Independence Movement. They developed a visual language that was uniquely Indian and were inspired by the specificity of their cultural experience as well as in their personal struggles, ambitions and dreams. 

“These works represent a time when Indians began to visualize themselves as modern artists grappling with swift societal and cultural change,” observes Siddhartha V. Shah, PEM’s Curator of South Asian Art. More than 60 paintings from PEM’s Chester and Davida Herwitz Collection, including works by M.F. Husain, Tyeb Mehta, and Nalini Malani, explore spirituality, conflict, urbanization, poverty and the role of revolutionary women in establishing a new nation.

Among these works is Husain’s Mahabharata series of paintings, which reimagines the historic Sanskrit epic through a modern lens. An accompanying digital frieze tells the story of the battle between two factions of the same family, brother against brother and cousin against cousin. Husain looked at the myth as a metaphor for India’s Partition. If any of these concepts of identity and inclusion seem all too familiar to Americans today, Shah says that is no accident.

The original vision of India was of unity in its diversity, says Shah, much like the United States. “But the reality today is a greater feeling of division,” he says. “We at PEM have a responsibility to keep these conversations going, especially as stewards of this important collection.”

For more information, visit pem.org.

South Asian Art continues at the Peabody Essex Museum (East India Square, 161 Essex Street, Salem, MA) through October 1, 2022. 

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