EXHIBITION - A New Vanguard (Sep 16-Oct 16, 2009) :

The Cultural Turn and the Political Takes:

A short history of Contemporary Indian Art

By Santhosh S.

The socio-political and economic reconfiguration of the World in the last few decades has brought together an unprecedented situation of chaos and confusion. The diversity of this chaos and confusion in multiple fields of production, consumption, dissemination etc. has posed challenges to our conventional understanding of the words and worlds around. It was a period of turmoil and anticipations; a period of re-ordering and de-ordering. The collapse and disintegration of the mighty communist empire of USSR, the end of Cold War era, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the emergence of USA as the sole centre of world affairs had a wide array of impacts across the globe. These massive events that occurred in the history of the West altered the political geography of the world in a substantial manner. Most of the intellectuals across the world recognized it as the end of communist utopia and the final victory of capitalist economy. A sense of apocalypse loomed over the intellectual world where epiphanies of ‘end' manifested as the centre of discourses. This aspect is evident in many of the intellectual productions of this time, like Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man (1992) and the far-reaching impact of this apocalyptic imagination in Samuel Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations (1993). The 1990s also witnessed the emergence of new vocabularies such as ‘terrorism', ‘terrorist network' and so on. However, these vocabularies no longer remain mere words. Historically, the language of violence has always played a crucial role in the changes that have occurred in the political arithmetic of the world. It was part and parcel of the language of both oppressions and resistances against them. In the last two or three decades, the history of our political and social geography displays how these vocabularies have attained a different semiotic location of their own. One has to view this new phenomenon in the context of the ‘clash of civilizations' thesis propagated by right-wing Euro-American intellectuals such as Prof. Samuel Huntington.1 Excessive dissemination of naming such as ‘global terrorist network' requires rigorous critical scrutiny in this context. The enemy of the ‘civilized world' is named as a global terror network which is linked to nameless other such networks with tentacles across the world. The significantly dangerous part of this naming is that, in the name of effective ‘global governance' and issues related to the security of nation-states, many states are/were able to identify with such naming of their own political dissidents, anti-state activists, and the cultural, ethnic, sexual, racial and religious minorities. This was a name with a powerful global constituency. And most states recognized that this was a name with infinite possibilities for local manipulation. India has been no exception.2

The global impact of this reconfiguration of the world manifested across and around the world in the form of neo-liberal policies and the establishment of a new global economy widely known as the process of globalization. As many theorists of globalization have already observed, globalization was not a mere economic phenomenon but more crucially a cultural reconfiguration as well. The technological advancements in the communicative apparatuses had played a crucial role in this reconfiguration of culture. Unlike the cosmopolitanism of the modernist era, this new ‘global citizen' of the so-called post-Marxian age had come into being through/in the virtual realities of the internet. On the other hand, capital interest of the multi-national corporations and the widespread privatization of national resources had altered the conventional understandings of the boundaries of the nation-state as well as posed severe skepticism about the centrality of nation-state in the lives of its citizenry subject.

There are wide varieties of impacts globalization has had on its citizenry subject; but the primary objective of this essay is to critically analyse its manifestations in the field of cultural production. More specifically, the primal focus of this essay would be to enquire into its impact on the artistic production and the way in which it had altered the realm of visual culture in postcolonial India in the last two decades. Like many nation-states in the world, the collapse of socialist utopia had left a deep impact on the socio-political and cultural climate of postcolonial India. On the one hand, the nation-state had moved away from the Nehruvian ideals of public sector economy towards the process of large-scale privatization and liberalized economic policies. On the other hand, this initial period of liberalization policies also witnessed the emergence of more consolidated right-wing political formations under the canopy of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Even though there were no substantial differences in the economic policies adopted by the government led by the Indian National Congress (INC) – the oldest political party in India – from the late 1980s onwards and the newly emergent BJP, the latter invested heavily on the cultural anxiety created by the liberalizational policies. The primary strategy of BJP and its paternal body, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was to create and propagate a new unified Hindu identity through the revival of a homogenized cultural past. The propaganda consisted of projecting Hindu cultural past as being under threat from outside forces; and a protection of the purity of this culture being projected as the binding duty of each Hindu subject. The result of this form of cultural nationalism has been the production of cultural and religious Others who are branded as the threat to national integrity. The root of this anxiety can be traced back to the rapid ‘Westernization' of popular life and culture through the process of liberalization. Strangely and strategically, these anxieties have been translated into the construction of the Muslim minority as the primary threat to Hindu subject and culture. My proposition here is that, even though the liberalizational policies had played a significant role in this production of anxiety, the root cause of the anxiety has been derived out of the emergence of newer political subjects and the assertion of their constitutional rights in the public sphere. The implementation of the Mandal Commission Report (1993) was a real catalyst in the production of these newer political subjects. The presence of these newer political subjects in the public sphere made visible the internal othering process of the Hindu social system based on caste hierarchies. This had created a panic among the majoritarian Hindu political groups and the result of it was the fabrication of Muslims as the external threat to Hindu sovereignty. This surrogate othering of Muslims was the Hindu fundamentalists' last attempt to bring back the dissenting ‘lower castes' communities into the Hindu (read Brahminical) fold.

In this process, history became an open battleground of ideologies in the public sphere and there were substantial efforts to reinterpret history to suit the agendas of Hindu cultural nationalism. The rectification of historical ‘errors' became the primary slogan of cultural nationalism and the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992 by cadres of the Hindu nationalists was a byproduct of this process. My objective here is not to give a graphic account of the political process of the demolition of Babri Masjid but rather to critically elaborate upon the way in which visual culture had played a crucial role in the propagation of Hindu cultural nationalism. For instance, the backbone of this political movement was the construction of an iconic imagery of epic character Rama as a historical figure and an ideal ruler. A homogenized image of a masculine, virile, upper-caste, male body of Rama became the insignia of this movement. This image functioned as the focal point of mobilization of masses towards right-wing cultural nationalism. More crucially, the televised version of the epic Ramayana further actualized and contemporized this narration in a significant manner. This highly popular televised version of the epic not only homogenized this epic narrative tradition but also had created an emotional atmosphere and background for the consolidation of the Ramjanmabhoomi movement.3

The demolition of Babri Masjid had a great impact on all aspects of public life in India and is widely considered as a crucial moment in the history of post-independent India. It had raised crucial skepticisms about the secular credentials of the nation-state and also raised multiple critical responses towards the nature of secularism in India.4 This event polarized religious communities and also led to major-scale riots. There were attempts from the artists community to critically intervene into the communal polarization of Indian polity by bringing together the elements of heterogeneity of Indian culture as well as upholding the spirit of secular values. The most significant initiative in this direction was the landmark protest exhibition in the wake of the demolition of Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992 by SAHMAT (Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust).5 The group's exhibition titled Hum sub Ayodhya, (Faizabad, Uttar Pradesh, 1993) was vandalized by the same Hindu fundamentalist forces and had created a national stir and debates around questions of the role of creative community in the political battle.

This brief introduction to the socio-political condition and turmoil of India is aimed at bringing out certain specific characteristics of the postcolonial Indian nation-state, the reverberation of which was felt in the cultural sphere as well. One can describe these two decades as an era of disillusionment. The disintegration of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin wall (1989) brought a sense of apocalypse to the utopian dreams of the Left. Although as a nation-state India was never solely ruled by the left parties, the domain of culture had been largely influenced by leftist ideologies. Leftist belief in egalitarian society, idealism, secular values etc. had attracted many of the cultural practitioners into this ideological fold. Even though very few of the practitioners have had direct affiliation with the leftist parties, this ideology's presence in the field was immense. For instance, a liberal leftist collective like SAHMAT has affiliations with communist parties and still holds a considerable amount of influence among artists communities. However, the reason behind evoking this affiliation is to state that many Indian artists, because of their leftist leanings always perceived the market forces in a very skeptical manner. In fact, Indian art always had a love-hate relationship with the market despite the fact that it was a not a hot commodity in the market until mid 1990s. To a certain extent the arrival of financial globalization had altered this ideological geography of postcolonial Indian art. Indian art suddenly became a major investment destination and the surplus of money that this shift brought into the artistic field demands critical analysis.

Like in the case of any other field, this excess of surplus capital had a wide variety of impacts on the artistic field as well. On the one hand, this surplus capital led to a great amount of spectacularization of the artistic products and on the other hand, this financial phenomenon facilitated many artists to explore certain linguistic aspects which were unimaginable before. Similarly, this new economic phenomenon had paved way for the surge of private gallery systems. This development systematized/professionalized the artistic production and field and concurrently many of the new gallery systems through their indiscriminate promotional activities dismantled the qualitative structure of the field. Within the span of a couple of years, the indiscriminate mechanisms of exchange made many of them self-annihilating agents and had heavily damaged the symbolic fabric of the field.

One of the other developments which has taken place in the history of the field is the emergence of new modes of artistic practices and genres. This development was largely a byproduct of technological advancements, especially in the domain of communication/information. The emergence of these new modes of practices such as New Media Art, Video Art and Digital Art has offered a critique of mediumistic practices and they also attempted to self-define themselves as the departing forces of conventional art practices. These decades also experienced the widespread presence of photography as an artistic medium. However, a critical analysis of this shift reveals that in most of the instances, this act of diversification more or less remained an extension of existing practices. Many of the works belonging to this new mode of practice were also structured around modernist aestheticism; and the knowledge production around this mode has largely functioned within the discourse of technical and aesthetical perfectionism. Or in other words, the parameter of critical discourses about this new mode of practice has largely subscribed to a technical formalism. The reason behind this critical observation is that the democratic potential of these modes of practice is not adequately explored by many of their practitioners. It is not to argue that there have been no attempts but to indicate that the process of democratization is largely contained due to the systemic impulses of many of the practitioners. Many practitioners of these mediums like Nalini Malani, Navjot Altaf, Sonia Khurana, Shilpa Gupta etc. have used this medium to make socio-political and aesthetical critiques. Nalini Malani's re-take on Raja Ravi Varma's imageries was a significant instance of an aesthetical critique. Similarly Sonia Khurana's engagement with the question of human body in her works like Bird also offers a critique on normative aesthetics. Even though largely mediated through a certain form of modernist aestheticism, Navjot Altaf's political commentary on the Gujarat genocide (2002) in her three channel video installation Lacuna in Testimony reveals another dimension of this mode of practice. Shilpa Gupta's works were also largely structured around political commentaries and sarcasms and her interactive mode of installation practices undoubtedly seek critical attention. Many of Kiran Subbaiah's works mark a definitive linguistic break within this mode of practices. By using humor and sarcasm as a performative and interactive subversive tool, his works offer an altogether distinct linguistic trajectory.

One of the interesting facets of New Media practices in India is that most of the artists working in this field are trained in mediums such as painting and sculpture. Moreover, most of them have been established in the field as painters or sculptors well before they have ventured into this new enterprise. Many of them work concurrently with both the mediums and at times club them together in many of their exhibitions. For instance, artists like Nalini Malani, Navjot Altaf and Vivan Sundaram use sound, video, lights projections, texts, drawings, sculptures and many other found objects for their installation projects. On the other hand, Ranbir Kaleka, Nalini Malani and Vivan Sundaram also attempt to bring certain linguistic/aesthetical aspects of painting in their photographic and video works. As trained and well established painters (even though Vivan Sundaram almost left easel paintings) their photographic and video works displays their fascination towards the surface details and some of their works are projected on the painted surface itself. This intersection of multiple linguistic trajectories attempts to cultivate unconventional visual sensibilities as well as alternative ways of seeing works of art in a newer historical context. Moreover the last two decade also witnessed the emergence of photography as a powerful medium. An Indian photographer like Raghu Rai is known to the artistic world through his documentary photography and his works on the Bhopal gas tragedy elevated him as the emblematic figure of Indian photography. But in the last two decades, photography had attained a distinct artistic status both through the so-called ‘artistic photography' as well the digitalized versions. Photographers like Dayanita Singh, Sunil Gupta etc. brought in a new dimension to the photographic imagination of the field. The digital technologies and the advancement in printing technologies enabled many artists to engage with photographic images in a much more fluid manner. Through the act of juxtaposing images within a single frame or through the digital manipulation of surface and imageries, many artists/photographers have attempted to bring forth unconventional meanings out of many ‘ordinary' images. Another trajectory of photographic imagination of contemporary Indian art is marked with the works of N. Pushpamala. Pushpamala's re-take on the ethnographic as well as historical imageries is translated through her recreation of those recorded images and events by metamorphosizing herself as the protagonist of those images and events. The success of her works relies largely on the degree to which she approximates those imageries in her photographic recreations.

The remarkable point here is that unlike in the West, despite the critiques and skepticism about the commodity nature of mediumistic practices, many important initiatives and attempts had taken place within the realm of mediumistic practices itself. Many artists have further explored the potentials of these mediums notwithstanding the understanding about their historical burden. For instance, the refusal to abandon a medium like oil painting and the exploration of this medium by significant artists such as Gulammohammed Sheikh, Bhupen Khakhar, Sudhir Patwardhan, Nalini Malani, and Nilima Sheikh among others poses significant questions about the complex history of the arrival of this medium in the subcontinent. In this context, I would argue that this refusal by Indian artists to abandon these mediums unlike their Western counterparts has its roots in the postcolonial dynamics of Indian art. One of the reasons for this departure can be traced back to most of the Indian artists' fascination towards the narrative idioms in visual arts. By constantly reinventing the potentials of multiple narrative idioms, many of the artists had managed to engage with the historical complexities of their respective times. While Gulammohammed Sheikh had attained a breakthrough by the citations of multiple miniature idioms and languages along with politically relevant thematic choices, Bhupen Khakhar had reinvented the narrative potential of Indian popular art to move away from the tyrannical presence of the classicizing gaze. By forefronting the question of minor sexualities, he further destabilized the pseudo-moralistic fabrics of modern Indian art. Sudhir Patwardhan, on the other hand had reinvented the potentials of objective (empathetic) realism by acts of subverting its semantic constitution; and his constant engagement with the urban working class communities had produced a different tonality to his work. However, my attempt here is not to provide each of their linguistic achievements in a nutshell but to illustrate the heterogeneity of the narrative idioms of Indian art.

Many of the artists of later generations have also made substantial contribution to these figurative/narrative trajectories of Indian art. The works of painters like B.V. Suresh, Surendran Nair, Atul Dodiya, Rekha Rodwittiya, Anju Dodiya and sculptors like K.P. Krishnakumar, N.N. Rimzon, Alex Mathew, and Anita Dubey among many others rightly illustrate this aspect. Moreover many of these artists' works also have socio-political comments and critiques. Many of them have had affiliations with artists collectives such as SAHMAT and some of them were members of the short-lived Left collective – Indian Radical Sculptors and Painters Association (roughly between 1988 to early 1990's). Even though most of them have had no direct affiliations with political parties, the usage of multiple narrative/figurative linguistic strategies has enabled them to traverse their pictorial and political concerns. All of these artists are also vocal critics about fundamentalist forces and many of their works directly critique this growing social menace. B.V. Suresh's paintings and videos offer a powerful critique on the hegemonic structures. His recent works in the aftermath of the Gujarat genocide in 2002 was one of the instances of this sort. By traversing the borders of abstraction and figuration, and also through their multiple cross-references in visual and literal idioms, his works speak volumes about the inhuman character of majoritarian politics. Surendran Nair's works, through their excessive literary and visual cross-references along with the construction of new visual/verbal symbolisms offer a re-take on classicism on the one hand and political sarcasm on the other. Similarly the works of most of the artists mentioned above deal with the politics of language through their take on realism, popular culture and various other narrative idioms and also by exposing the potential of materials as well as the language of politics through their careful thematic deployment.

Some of the artists from the next generation also inherit this legacy and their works engage with multiple socio-political issues and concerns. K.K. Muhamed's constant critical engagement with the structures of power and dominance in his paintings, T.V. Santhosh's critique on multiple forms of violence and terror in his paintings and sculptural installations, Riyas Komu's take on the systematic othering of Islam by the West and his engagement with the dilemmas of the Left and working class through his sculptural installations and photographs among many others artists of this generation illustrate this point. It is imperative to mention here that many artists of contemporary Indian art have directly engaged with some of the crucial socio-political issues of Indian polity. A detailed account of all these endeavorers are beyond the ambit of this essay but it is significant to mention some of the works which have opened up new critical discourses. N.N. Rimzon's sculptural installation Far Away From Hundred and Eight Feet (1995) for instance has a clear reference to the way in which caste hierarchy was organized and operated in Hindu society. The number in the title indicates the distance the people of ‘lower caste' origin had to keep from the Brahmins according to their position in the caste hierarchy. Similarly, an artist like Savi Sawarkar also raises this question of caste oppression in his highly polemical works. From the generation of young artists, Lokesh Khodke's works also deal with this aspect of Indian social life. An artist like Zakkir Hussain through his complex visualscapes and their intersection with graffities offers a powerful language which betrays the logic of dominant aestheticism and thereby engages with the politics of the ‘minor'6 in a substantial manner. Taking cues from the language of realism and popular visual culture, an artist like K.P. Reji engages with the communitarian aspect of the working class lives and make a dent on the developmental politics of urbanism. The primary intention behind these random observations is that many contemporary Indian artists engage with the question of the relationship between art and politics not merely through their thematic choice but mostly through their active partaking in the politics of visual language. Or in other words, their significance has to be recognized through their works' ability to constantly deconstruct the dominant linguistic and aesthetic canons.

Despite there being a growing anxiety about certain unhealthy market practices, Indian artists have not managed to institute any sustainable platforms against this phenomenon. This absence also indicates the disappearance of critical establishments and in this context, the state of art historical and critical practices of contemporary Indian art seeks a critical reassessment. Art critical practices in India more or less remained a supplementary factor of market economy. With a few exceptions, most art writing in India has hardly engaged with the wider socio-cultural ambit of artistic practices. Unfortunately, most of the private gallery systems also constructed the impression of catalogue writing as a ritualistic practice and further projected it as a space of flat appreciation and neutrality. The mainstream art magazines on the other hand contributed to the production of the auratic existence of artists and art. Despite the fact that there has been more than a decade long gap since the closure of the journals like Art and Ideas there are hardly any platforms which invite rigorous critical and historical scrutiny of Indian art practices. So also, except few serious curatorial initiatives like Geeta Kapur's Place for People, Century City: Bombay/Mumbai,7this critical practice of curation more or less remained celebratory occasions and a mere affair of putting together few artists under one canopy. Academic interests in curatorial practices still remain a supplementary programme and no institutions in India offer any curatorial courses. The lack of critical/historical apparatuses and their failure to develop conceptual understandings about the field of artistic production and the works of art themselves have created aporias which in turn have severely damaged the intellectual dimensions of Indian art.

Unlike in the previous decades where Indian artists' works were showcased occasionally in international galleries, in the last two decades we have witnessed a distinct phenomenon of the production of a category called ‘Indian art'. It is widely acknowledged as part of the newly found confidence of India as an economic and political power. This newly found confidence has certainly helped Indian art to come out of the derivative discourses of colonial modernity. But the productive outcome of this confidence is more than contentious. In most instances, this confidence is translated into works of art as a process of spectacularization or as a form of native/regional exoticisms. Ironically, the so called postmodern craving for alterity or what Francois Lyotard phrases as the craving for ‘new uncontaminated streams' has also played a crucial role in the production of ‘Asian art' in general and ‘Indian art' in particular. The internationalization of Indian art is largely an outcome of the process of globalization and the neo-liberal economic order. In that sense, the surge of international exhibitions and the attention that Indian art has attained in international auctions is a double-edged phenomenon and qualitative assessments of this phenomenon is a burning necessity for the field to survive and retain its symbolic capital. The tendency in art circles to assess the worth of an art work or an artist through the mere framework of auction prices is undoubtedly a deplorable act and the reestablishment of semantic and critical potential as a framework is the need of our times. Private galleries as an integral part of the system need to show more maturity and democratic impulses in order to create a field which is open to experimentations and critical interventions. The revisit to the basic principle that art practices are active part of knowledge production and the reassertion of the fact that artistic production has a large role to play in the democratization process of civil and political lives may unravel the fallacies which constitute the notion of Indian art in international arena.

The author would like to thank Sneha Ragavan for her critical suggestions.

SANTHOSH S. did his graduation in Art History and his Post Graduation in Art Criticism, at the Department of Art History and Aesthetics, Faculty of Fine Arts, The M. S. University of Vadodara and is currently pursuing his PhD in the same department. He is also a member of the visiting faculty for the stream of visual studies at School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.


  1. Samuel Huntington's initial ideas came out in his article titled ‘The Clash of Civilization' in the summer 1993 article in Foreign Affairs and later he had developed his arguments in his book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order in 1995. To understand the far reaching political implication of this book see Edward D. Said's article ‘Clash of Ignorance' in 2001.
  2. This argument has resonances with Arjun Appadurai, see Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger, Seagull, Calcutta, 2007.
  3. See Sheldon Pollock (ed.), ‘Ramayana and Political Imagery, in The Journal of Asian Studies 52, no.2, May 1993, p. 261-297. Also see Arvind Rajgopal, Politics After Television: Hindu Nationalism and the Reshaping of the Public in India, Cambridge University Press, 2001and Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia, Edited by Paula Richman, University of California Press, 1991
  4. For a detailed discussion see Rajeev Bhargava (ed.), Secularism and Its Critics, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1998
  5. SAHMAT or the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust was founded in 1989 following the murder of prominent cultural activist, Safdar Hashmi on January 1, 1989. SAHMAT is made up of writers, painters, scholars, poets, architects, photographers, designers, cultural activists, and others standing by the causes of democratic and pluralist spirit of creative expression and uphold values of secularism and cultural pluralism.
  6. The word minor is used here in a Deleuzean sense. See Gilles Deleuze, ‘Language: Major and Minor', in The Deleuze Reader, Columbia University Press, New York, 1993, pp. 145-165.
  7. This exhibition is curated by Geeta Kapur and Ashish Rajadhyaksha. Century City: Art and Culture in the Modern Metropolis, Bombay/Mumbai, 1992-2001, Tate Modern, London, 2001.

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