Paris-Delhi-Bombay makes for a long flight any way you look at it.
Visitors to the Centre Pompidou in Paris next week will have Satyajit Ray’s eponymous heroine from his 1964 film Charulata staring down at them coquettishly. Charu is an awe-inspiring, hyper-real painting from veteran Indian contemporary artist Atul Dodiya’s 2006 solo exhibition at Delhi’s Vadehra Art Gallery called Saptapadi: Scenes from Marriage.
It will share space with works such as Draps-peaux hybridés (sheets-skins hybrid), 2011, by French artist ORLAN, who brings together years of experimenting with body modification in this piece, in which the “skins” of the French and Indian flags seemingly become one.
But Paris-Delhi-Bombay, which opens on 25 May, has little to do with urban exploration, as the title might suggest. The grand exhibition is meant as a “multifaceted megacanvas”; an exploration of Indian society by Indian and French artists. It caps two years of cultural exchange between India and France, and is the third in a series of big-ticket art shows that reference India: Indian Highway VI at the Musée d’Art Contemporain in Lyon that opened in February and Monumenta 2011, Anish Kapoor’s show at the Grand Palais in Paris that opened last week.
Femmes du monde: Atul Dodiya’s Charu. ©Prakash Rao
The scale of the project is immense. A team at the Pompidou has worked for close to four years with a long list of art historians, curators, sociologists, political scientists, philosophers and anthropologists from both countries. Analyses and reports prepared by the scholars were then sent to select artists, a majority of whom worked on special commissions. A 348-page catalogue accompanies the show.
The 30 artists from India cover a broad spectrum—from veterans such as Subodh Gupta and Ravinder Reddy to the younger, and quirkier Nikhil Chopra, who works with performance art, and Tejal Shah, who explores queer theory through her practice. The 18 artists from France cover a similar spectrum, going from the legendary 64-year-old ORLAN to younger contemporary art successes such as Camille Henrot.
While Alain Seban, Pompidou’s president, believes the show is necessary because “with globalization we are seeing not only the proliferation of centres of artistic production, but also the possibility of inter-cultural dialogue”, many works do not speak the same language. Curators Sophie Duplaix and Fabrice Bousteau (who curated Chanel’s now infamous travelling Mobile Art Pavilion) seem to eschew a strong curatorial vision in favour of scale.
The curators were concerned that an India that had fascinated generations of European artists from Roberto Rossellini to Louis Malle had disappeared from the imagination of contemporary artists. And so, most of the French artists who’re part of the show were picked because they had never visited India (many did to prepare for this show)—so they could lend to it a “freshness of eye”.
While essays such as “India at the Dawn of a New Millennium: Cultural Diversity and Socio-political Tensions” by Christophe Jaffrelot, French political scientist and South Asia expert, frame the research, the selection of artworks seems to have little to do with contemporary analyses. Take, for instance, popular French artist duo Pierre et Gilles, who will be showing kitschy depictions of Hanuman, Ram and Sita which reflect their “fascination for the aesthetic of popular Indian culture, Bollywood film posters and religious icons”. Or the colourful paintings of another French artist, Fabrice Hyber, in which Indian divinities such as Shiva resemble monsters for the Western world, since their codes differ.
Videographer Fabrice Launay, who was hired by the Pompidou to document the visiting French artists and a few of the Indian artists at work, says that while some of the French artists came to India with a streamlined idea, some came with the naivete of tourists. Paris-based Philippe Ramette went on an unplanned travel spree for weeks, and at the end decided to recreate—with a twist—the bronze statues of historical figures that dot Mumbai.
A painted photograph by French artist duo Pierre et Gilles (2010). ©ADAGP Paris, 2011
On their part, the curators did work with several complicated demographic filters to streamline the show. Indian artists between the ages of 35 and 60 were picked because they belong to the generation that grew up in the 1960s—the first to make its mark in the world following the country’s liberalization in the 1990s. Exceptions were made for those such as Nalini Malani, born in the 1940s, because she has updated her practice over time.
Not all the curatorial commissions were successful though. Kiran Subbaiah, a 2011 finalist at the Skoda prize for contemporary Indian art, was asked to create work but declined. “As an artist, it’s not my job to respond to research reports,” he says over the phone from Bangalore, where he lives and works. An existing video titled While the mouth is still full will now be shown.
Atul Dodiya had the reverse conundrum. He says he’d offered to create works for the show but didn’t get a response from the organizers. He is confused about the artworks selected for the show: Charu will be shown alongside a dark political artwork that comments on dowry deaths, Mahalaxmi (2002).
“I know it’s a lengthier process but I prefer one in which the curators and artists discuss what they will show...”When we speak, a week before the show’s opening, Dodiya isn’t clear on the show details. He doesn’t even know that French artists are part of the same exhibition.
In his catalogue text, Paris-based art historian Deepak Ananth writes that “a certain idea of India” is probably what will come to mind to viewers visiting this exhibition. He takes the title from the name of Italian novelist Alberto Moravia’s account of his 1961 trip to the subcontinent with the poet Pier Paolo Pasolini. Both wrote distinctly different accounts of the same trip: Moravia’s, a nuanced, elegant analysis, and Pasolini’s, a restless impression. Ananth suggests that one can choose any lens to view India. This exhibition, it seems, steers clear of choosing one.
Paris-Delhi-Bombay will run from 25 May-19 September at Centre Pompidou, Paris.