SALEM — 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 that 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. “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.
The range of Indian art in this period is suggested by two paintings at the gallery entrance, “Man” by M.F. Husain from 1951 and “The Bombay Buccaneer” by Atul Dodiya from 1994.
The former sets Rodin’s famous “Thinker,” who is a black man in this version, in a setting crowded with human and divine Indian figures.
While Husain’s thinker holds an example of Indian art, in the form of an ancient bas-relief, the painting draws its use of color and composition from modern art.
“It works as a kind of tale about what it’s like to be a creative artist in the new India,” Bean said, “with this swirl of chaotic, conflicting East and West, ancient and modern, divine and mortal, all of these kinds of conflicts and challenges Husain had to work with.”
Dodiya’s work, by contrast, borrows from commercial sources, depicting the artist as a gangster in a movie poster for an Indian action film.
He wears mirror sunglasses with a different figure reflected in each lens: the modern Western artist David Hockney, smoking a cigar, in one and modern Indian artist Bhupen Khakhar in the other.
“They also, each of them in their own way, dealt with this divide between high art and low art,” Bean said. “They were looking to make the ordinary extraordinary in their work.”
In his mixture of commercial and fine art, East and West, Dodiya is like Husain in deploying a wide range references, from across time and cultures, to define the role of a modern Indian artist.
Such “cosmopolitan dialogues” between cultural and historical sources are a central feature of most of the works in the show, Bean said.
To make such dialogues explicit, the exhibit features six “juxtapositions” between an Indian artist and a painter who inspired him or her.
One pairing shows the influence of New England’s Andrew Wyeth on Bikash Bhattacharjee, who like many Indian artists focused on the human figure, Bean said.
As in Wyeth’s work, Bhattacharjee’s image of a woman riding in a rickshaw with a large gas canister is realistic, but touched with mystery.
“We hope that by emphasizing these cosmopolitan dialogues, we’re also helping people who are just getting to know the art of India figure out how to connect to it,” Bean said, “how to make this art part of the art worlds that they bring in their heads to look at the exhibition.”
If you go What: "Midnight to the Boom: Painting in India After Independence" When: Feb. 2 through April 21, Tuesday through Sunday and holiday Mondays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Where: Peabody Essex Museum, 161 Essex St., Salem Admission: Adults $15, seniors $13, students $11. Members, youths 16 and under, and residents of Salem, free. More information: 866-745-1876 or www.pem.org