Two large art shows featuring works by Indian artists have been held in London in the past one year. There was Indian Highway at the Serpentine Gallery in 2009 and The Empire Strikes Back at the Saatchi Gallery earlier this year.
Yashodhara Dalmia is the curator of the forthcoming show Indian Sub(Way), which will also be on view in London, and she feels it can be viewed in the context of its two predecessors. Featuring 18 artists from India, this show is more modest in scale and, according to Dalmia, revolves around the familiar subject of two Indias—the shining and the not-so-shining.
“We are on a highway, but a curvilinear highway,” she says, referring to the stark inequalities that characterize Indian society and that the post-liberalization era has thrown into greater relief. “This is what the artists are engaging in—the binaries of new India.”
The works, she says, “are non-didactic but critiquing the lack of attention being paid to the deprived”. An obvious example of this critique is the variation by Ravinder Reddy on his familiar female head sculptures. Painted a deep shade of blue, this one has the trademark large eyes, geometrical nose and thick lips, but there is a large sack resting on it, which could very well be from a construction site. Dalmia describes another work with an explicit focus on the contradictions of present-day India—Subh Labh by Anita Dube, which features Mayawati and her infamous garland made out of Rs1,000 currency notes. “There is melted wax on the (painting’s) surface, which makes it look like war-torn territory, with pitted black wax all over,” says Dalmia.
A similar sense of irony—almost a given when artists from the comfortable middle class choose the rich-poor divide as their subject—can be seen in many other works that will go on display. Gigi Scaria’s digital print shows a foreign city’s impressive skyline resting on the incomplete spans of a bridge that is clearly part of the Delhi Metro construction project. “The skyline happens to be that of Shanghai,” says Scaria. “It could have been any other city.” But the choice of Shanghai is telling, introducing as it does our large, overachieving neighbour to the East into the picture; one that is constantly held up to us as an example, especially in the field of urban infrastructure.
Urban shortcomings also figure in Atul Bhalla’s striking photographic composition titled Khari Baoli I. The baoli, or a step well, used to be a source of water for people but as Bhalla points out, it no longer exists in this particular Delhi neighbourhood. In its place we have the pyaou, or a water fountain, in a degraded and unclean environment that has been captured in the work. Water is Bhalla’s chosen subject and his other work, titled Water Gods, is a more meditative and painterly composition that plays on the image of women worshipping the sun along a riverbank.
This work is more about timeless India than inadequate India, and that could be said about some of the other works too—they represent the artists’ take on life and surroundings around them and only loosely adhere to the curatorial brief.
One example would be the suite of Gandhi watercolours by Sudhanshu Sutar, one of which shows him as a gardener. Dalmia says Sutar grew up in a village in Orissa and the local hero there was a gardener who caught hold of Nathuram Godse after he shot Gandhi. In Sutar’s imagination Gandhi and the gardener become conflated in the work titled The High Performance Intellect. As a symbol of India, Gandhi here transcends any ideology or viewpoint.
In these and other works by artists such as G.R. Iranna, Riyas Komu and Jagannath Panda, the scope and subject is often not restricted to the Indian condition, as it were.
Indian Sub(Way) will be on view at the Grosvenor Vadehra gallery in London from 21 September-9 October. For details, log on to www.vadehraart.com