It was in the late 1950s that the Indologist-archaeologist Herbert Hartel’s tryst with modern Indian art began. He first landed in Mumbai in 1958 to document key architectural sites of ancient India, including Bharhut and Sanchi, for the Museum für Indische Kunst in Berlin—then the only museum dedicated to Indian art, outside of India. This turned out to be quite an adventure, taking him on a journey through the subcontinent, all the way to Afghanistan. 1966 saw him undertake excavations in Sonkh, near Mathura. However, while he was studying ancient artefacts for the museum, Hartel also began a personal exploration of the world of modern Indian art during stopovers in Delhi and Mumbai. He began to engage with artists such as M.F. Husain, Biren De and Laxman Pai, forming lifelong friendships with them.

In 1965, as the founding director of the museum, he acquired some of the most significant works for the institution, such as neotantrist creations by De, Pai’s evocative portrait of Jawaharlal Nehru, Satish Gujral’s paintings of Partition, Krishen Khanna’s early works, and more. In hindsight, the collection is unique not just because it features some of the most important names in Indian art, but also because it showcases a diversity of styles. Now, after decades of having been acquired, these artworks are back in the spotlight as part of Hello World. Revising A Collection, an exhibition which casts a critical gaze on the Western-centric approach of the Nationalgalerie in Berlin.

The show, with works by over 250 artists, includes critical chapters on artistic practices from countries such as Mexico, Indonesia and Japan. The India chapter is called Arrival, Incision: Indian Modernism As Peripatetic Itinerary, which includes the works acquired by Hartel. It has been curated by Berlin-based Natasha Ginwala. “I was cautious not to turn this into a biographical story of Hartel, but to explore the grains of interest in Indian art in Germany at that time," she says. To highlight this interest, Ginwala is showcasing an abstract diptych by Satish Gujral, titled Christ and Prophet, and works by De and Ram Kumar, brought in by Hartel in the 1960s. “It provides a backdrop to the Western audiences to comprehend abstraction in the Indian context, which was a result of an understanding of ancient architecture, religion and Tantra," she says.

Keeping in sync with the overarching curatorial theme of Hello World, the Indian chapter too, focuses on cross-cultural exchanges from the 19th century onwards. One of the figures that stands out in this section is Rabindranath Tagore, who made six visits to Berlin between 1921-1930. It was during his third visit, that his work was showcased at Galerie Ferdinand Möller. These caught the interest of Ludwig Justi, the director of Nationalgalerie. “Tagore donated five of his aquarelle works as a gift, and wrote a letter as well, expressing gratitude to the German nation for welcoming him. However, these works were seized to be destroyed by the Nazi regime, as part of the cleansing agenda. We have tried tracing information about these in the archives and are showing certain prints of those works," she says.

The chapter also represents unique phases in artists’ careers. This was the time when Pai was in Paris and Avinash Chandra the first Indian artist to be shown at Documenta 3, in 1964. “A lot of artists could also be seen travelling to the US for different reasons during the post-war periods—one of these being the Rockefeller fund," says Ginwala. For instance, Krishen Khanna, the first Indian recipient of the John D Rockefeller III Fund Fellowship, chose to travel to the US through South-East Asia. En route, he visited Japan, where he got inspired by the Sumi-e style of ink wash painting and Zen Buddhist calligraphy. “When we think of Khanna, we think of figurative works. But here are abstract paintings in vivid reds, such as Forest Fire. Also, during the same period, some of his works, such as A Graph Of Pleasure And Pain, which were shown at the Charles Egan Gallery in New York, were acquired by the Museum of Modern Art. This links Indian modern art with that moment of international collection building," she says.

Hello World. Revising A Collection is on view till 26 August at the Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin.

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