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February 1, 2013

Indian and modern

New exhibit showcases India's art movement in the 20th century

For visitors accustomed to seeing ancient, but not modern Indian art in museums, the new exhibit at Peabody Essex Museum should be a revelation.

Featuring 70 works by 23 painters, “Midnight to the Boom: Painting in India After Independence,” represents three generations of painters who have emerged in India since 1947.

The show may also be an eye-opener for members of the art establishment, who often think of modern art as happening only in Paris, London or New York, said Susan Bean, guest curator of the exhibit.

“We are now in the middle of a very energetic, global conversation in the art world and beyond about the 20th century in art,” said Bean, who was previously curator of South Asian and Korean art at Peabody Essex. “People are looking around the world, and they are seeing that modernity was happening everywhere in the 20th century, all around the world, and that India had a very energetic art movement.”

Modern Indian art had its origins in the first half of the 20th century, Bean said, before emerging in its second half in a “golden age” that is covered by the show.

This age began with the country’s independence from Great Britain, which became official on Aug. 15, 1947, just after 12 a.m., the “midnight” in the exhibit’s title.

“At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom,” said India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, in a recording that plays on a videotape at the gallery entrance. “A moment comes, but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, and when the soul of a nation long suppressed finds utterance.”

The boom referred to in the title would follow decades after Nehru’s speech, when economic liberalization brought prosperity to the country’s middle and upper classes.

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