EXHIBITION - Indian Contemporary Fine Art (Sep 09-23, 2001) :

A significant feature of this exhibition of contemporary Indian art, held at an international venue, is that it does not provide yet another neo-Orientalist tableau. The credit for this goes to the organizers. At the same time, we should note that there are larger and more complex technological and political forces at work here, which rescue the historical reality of the present from being dumped into the recycling bin in the name of presenting an 'image of Indian civilization'.

Among other things, this exhibition offers its viewers an entry-point into Indian art of the 1990s, a decade which acted as a window to a variety of hybrid artistic innovations. The frame of art had already been extended from high modernist painting to include assemblage, interactive sculpture installations and video art. As a result of this formal and conceptual art-historical leap, however, painting did not take a back seat. Rather, many sensitive painters rose to this challenge by experimenting within the confines of the two-dimensional painted space. Having realized that the task of redefining viewership codes was not the mandate of the installationists alone, they renewed their own vocabulary by responding more strongly to the ambient visual culture.

Although this exhibition does not represent any new media art practices, it does offer a range of painterly genres and styles from the figurative to the abstract, from the hyper-realist to the Pop. The paintings on display - which span the post-independence generations, from M.F. Husain and F.N. Souza to younger artists like Baiju Parthan and Jitish Kallat who belong to the cyber and the cable-TV generations - urge the viewer to confront both the continuities and the ruptures in Indian art practice. More importantly, we see a ghost image of the not-so-silent dialogue conducted by painters like Parthan and Kallat with the new media. Note, especially, Kallat's use of computer screens, the repetition of the central icon in different magnifications, and his employment of comic-strip bubbles as insets illuminating the leitmotif of the painting. The city of Mumbai, which is the artist's locus, is portrayed as an anarchic organism, its infrastructure turned inside out, its mesh of roads like a garland of dead flowers framing a pixilated screen (Travail at the Speed Of Light, (2001)). Trapped within the confines of this screen is the man caught and frozen, in mid-stride, in mediatic structures that function as no-exit zones.

Kallat's working methods emerge from a 1990s context, when economic liberalisation policies transformed the Indian economy and affected the social and psychological temperament of civil society. The structural adjustment programs pushed the already impoverished sections of Indian society into further penury, while giving rise to an increasingly consumerist middle-class-oriented economy. These fragmenting tensions are reflected in Kallat's recent paintings, which are choreographed from sources as diverse as that of a found newspaper photograph to a software menu. His works emerge from what I would call the cut-and-paste metabolism of our age. Of course this does not negate the artist's agency in fact I must emphasize that Kallat functions in this case as an active agent editing and transforming the fragments of the public sphere into a language of his own.

But we must remember that this growing databank of multiple sources, which range from high art to popular and mass culture, was initiated in the early twentieth century by the artist Gaganendranath Tagore (1867-1938), the nephew of Rabindranath Tagore. His paintings revolutionized the language of modern Indian art. His sources ranged from Japanese brush-style painting and Kalighat pats (paintings made on cloth scrolls), through Cubism and Futurism to newspaper caricature and political posters. One could consider him a postmodernist before his time. By the use of this term, I imply a cultural condition where the monolithic and potentially fascist orthodoxy of the grand narrative is opposed by the heterogeneity of the many little narratives. A deflationary critic of Indian reality, Gaganendranath Tagore's little narratives, produced in a range of artistic media, addressed all forms of decadence, social, aesthetic and moral.

Gaganendranath Tagore has been forgotten over the decades, but consciously or unconsciously, his curiosity about the world outside the studio and his use of unorthodox media were invoked in the different styles and art movements of subsequent Indian art, starting from the 1940s. Let us consider the works of M.F. Husain (of the Progressive Artists Group) and K.G. Subramanyan (who worked both at Santiniketan and Baroda). Formed a year after independence, the Progressive Artists Group included, apart from Husain, F.N. Souza, K.H. Ara, S.H. Raza, H.A. Gade and S.K. Bakre. Interestingly, although the PAG wished to create a language of modern art, their primary sources of inspiration were School-of-Paris artists like Rouault and Picasso. Paradoxically, after seeing the exhibition of 5000 years of Indian art held at the Viceregal Lodge in 1948, Husain allowed the voluptuous sculptural forms of the Gupta period and the strong colors of the Basohli miniatures to enter his canvases. The 'modern' was being fired in the crucible of the ancient, thereby revisiting tradition in a contemporary light.

As an artist of subaltern background in a nascent independent state (Husain earned his living as a cinema-hoarding painter), his paintings reflected the needs of the economically deprived polity in rural and urban areas. He interwove the rough and ready forms of folk toys with those of the more stylized miniatures, the plasticity of the Gupta-period sculptures with photo-realistic larger-than-life figures suggestive of cinema hoardings. Over the years, his formal language has grown highly stylized and linear but his narratives continue to express the robustly romantic folklore of the nation and the people at large: the good Samaritan, Mother Teresa, appears in his canvases, as does the Hindi film actress Madhuri Dixit.

Souza, on the other hand, was not interested in creating grand national or popular narratives. Although he was briefly a member of the Communist Party of India, and even exhibited his early paintings in working-class areas in the 1940s, he soon gave up on this political project when he realized that art was being reduced to a handmaiden of ideology. However, he continued to comment on social and religious hypocrisy with Picassoesque malignant black lines and multiple voyeuristic eyes.

Let us now shift to the Santiniketan of the 1940s. The artist K.G. Subramanyan, who studied under Nandalal Bose there, recalls that artists worked with craftspersons at this school, and the hierarchy separating high and low art was diluted. By the 1970s, Subramanyan had broken loose from the constraints of oil painting and started experimenting with unconventional materials like terracotta, wood and rope. Borrowing from the traditions of Kalighat pats, pichwais (paintings made on cloth, from Rajasthan) and glass paintings, he wove autobiographical elements together with humor and robust folk wisdom, inspiring a whole generation of painters and sculptors in Baroda to confront the challenges of an indigenous and intimate postmodernism.

Meanwhile, Indian women painters have also been experimenting with unorthodox formal techniques and are radically questioning the patriarchal norms of Indian society. Arpita Singh and Rekha Rodwittiya deal with the themes of violence and social oppression, in their own individualistic feminist modes. This is especially the case in Arpita Singh's paintings, where we find a many-armed goddess holding her head in weariness at a weekly market, like a harried middle-class housewife, or as a gun-toting goddess standing on a man lying in a deep reverie in Durga (1994). Here the goddess is portrayed as a James Bond figure ready for the kill. With this mock-ironic gesture, Singh humanizes her female deities, allowing them the latitude to be human: flirtatious, anxious, cranky and stubborn.

While Singh frees the female stereotype by a playful and subversive treatment of the figure, Rodwittiya's representation of the female body is iconic. With minimal, restrained gestures, the figures in Rodwittiya's paintings stitch, measure and suture, celebrating the female powers of nurture, creation and healing. Even when the figures are incarcerated within the hard geometries of patriarchal command, as in Play Within the Circle (1997), the emphasis is on female creativity, the woman as active agent who has control over her body and mind.

Baiju Parthan, who is a painter and a cyber-artist, also portrays his figures as icons. However, his icons, cyborgs and intermediary mythological species, function like hypertext in his work. As the viewer's eyes click open parallel realities, archetypal and contemporary, Parthan offers a third layer of reality: he proposes visions of the future. Engineered Fruit (1997), for instance, refers to the genetic modification of crops (this neocolonial phenomenon is being resisted and opposed by environmentalists and farmers in India), but it is also about the engineering of consciousness and spirituality. Parthan makes postmodern use of sacred icons like ritual fruits and shamanistic animals, by setting afloat different spheres of experience: we make fleeting but energizing contact here with the mythos and the logos of the new age technosphere.

Countering the virtual reality advances, Shibu Natesan initiates his own trajectory of hyper-realism, one that casts an almost hypnotic spell on reality. At a formal level, Natesan's complete concentration on the human figure gives rise to distortions like the foreshortening of a woman's foot or to a monumental view of women figures framed as if in a low-angle shot. At an ideological level, through his hyper-realist stance, Natesan examines the politics of figuration itself in an age when the human figure has lost all sanctity and has been reduced to an ironic pastiche, sometimes reduced to a clotheshorse, sometimes cloned in the name of technological progress. Ironically, even though Natesan creates almost searingly real figures, we witness a blurring of vision by which memory overlaps with history, and identities, both ethnic and private, become suspect. By creating this sense of aura around the human figure, the artist returns to the human figure its ability to generate a sacred mystery, compounded of awe and doubt, in the minds of the viewer.

It would be appropriate to end with Natesan's paintings because we are dealing, here, with a painter who is Indian by birth and now lives in Britain. This leads us to the question that Ranjit Hoskote asks at the end of his poem, 'Bloodlines, Songlines': "Is home where we start from, or is home/ where our journeys take us?" All the artists in this exhibition have asked themselves this question at one point or another. They have invented homelands for themselves, homelands that can be carried past the eagle eye of customs, across borders and lines of control, into ever evolving and ever renewed domains of attention.

Nancy Adajania
Editor, Art India
Mumbai, July 2001