Positions in Contemporary Indian Art
"Indian Highway", "Chalo! India" or "The Empire Strikes Back"—a large number of major exhibitions have testified to an increasing western interest in contemporary Indian art. The Deutsche Bank Collection has long been committed to the art of the subcontinent. Since 1995, the main branch in Mumbai has presented a comprehensive collection of the works of important artists from the country. Mumbai-based gallery dealer Ranjana Steinruecke provides insight into the developments in contemporary Indian art for ArtMag.
||When artistic director Jan Hoet invited Bhupen Khakhar to participate in documenta 9 in Kassel in 1992, he (Khakhar) was the first Indian artist to show at this prestigious event. In 2001, the solo exhibition of Atul Dodiya, Bombay: Labyrinth/ Laboratory, curated by Ranjit Hoskote for The Japan Foundation in Tokyo and featuring 40 of the artist's works, was another memorable occurrence. This was before the world opened up. A decade (or two) later, when showing in Kassel or Venice, Basel or Shanghai became part of the daily diet for artists from the subcontinent, it is still the intimately curated exhibition—one that seeks out the individual—that holds the most allure.
Bhupen Khakhar (1934-2003) belonged to the second generation of post-Independence artists in India, who together with contemporaries Gulam Mohammad Sheikh, Sudhir Patwardhan, Nalini Malani, and Jogen Chowdhury amongst others, evolved a mode of address that was specific and localized in its interests and concerns. (The moderns who preceded them had formed the Bombay Progressive Artists' Group in 1947, paving the way for the development of a more independent art scene in India).
Khakhar often combined pop culture with high-art aesthetics to address issues of class, gender, and sexuality in middle-class India. His modest-sized paintings of the Trader series of the early '70s—depictions of the common man trapped in an unremarkable existence—gave way to narrative inventions and later frank portrayals of homosexuality, a theme rarely addressed in Indian art at the time. A retrospective of Khakhar's work was held at the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid in 2002 and subsequently at The National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai in 2003.
Belonging to the generation of artists that followed immediately thereafter, Atul Dodiya (b.1959) came into prominence with his very first solo exhibition held at Gallery Chemould in Mumbai in 1989; he continues to be one of India's foremost artists to this day. Dodiya's work—with its inherent heterogeneity—defies easy readings. Autobiographical narratives focusing on the perpetually interesting theme of the family, the collective fantasies of popular culture, and Indian national politics are layered and re-worked. For Dodiya as for many of his contemporaries—amongst them Dayanita Singh, Aji V.N., C.K. Rajan, and Jyothi Basu—the craft in art, a total understanding of the medium, continues to play an intrinsic role alongside content. In our Post-modern times, the Indian tradition in the plastic arts, which made for an anxious relationship with artistic Modernism, puts the contemporary Indian artist at an advantage—so genetically adept is he or she at traversing the contradictions and roping together the sundry difficulties of present-day living.
A case in point is Aji V.N. While many artists of his generation are turning somersaults to create ever more complicated installations, Aji V.N. creates works using the most economical of means. With only black charcoal on colored paper, Aji crafts medium-sized images that achieve a verisimilitude hovering between photography and scientific notation. Astonishing in their details, to call these works simply "drawings" would not do justice to the luminescence and uncanny touch the artist imparts upon his medium.
The collages of Hyderabad-based C.K. Rajan, with their cut-and-paste of images gathered from newspapers and magazines, also have a formal beauty about them, a delicacy and precision; at the same time—in an avant-garde tradition of collage—they function as an incisive tool for political commentary.
In 1992, Deutsche Bank entered the scene in a big way, buying for their head office in India the impressive turn-of-the-century Baroque revival villa built by Sir Ratan Tata. They acquired some of the most sought-after names in Indian art to house works in it, including Tyeb Mehta, Syed Haider Raza, Ram Kumar, Bhupen Khakhar, Sudhir Patwardhan, Atul Dodiya, and Ravinder Reddy amongst others, building up a comprehensive collection that spanned three generations of modern and contemporary Indian art—inaugurated in 1995 by board member and visionary of the Bank's art concept, Dr. Herbert Zapp.
More recently, Deutsche Bank acquired the work of renowned Indian photographer Dayanita Singh for their corporate headquarters at the towers in Frankfurt, which are slated to reopen soon after being redesigned. Singh is one of the most accomplished and influential photographers of her generation. A solo exhibition of her work was held in 2003 at the Hamburger Bahnhof—Berlin's museum for contemporary art—and in 2008 she was awarded the Prince Claus Award by the government of The Netherlands. Amongst Singh's most acclaimed works are the series Myself Mona Ahmed (1989-2001)—in which she photographed the eunuch Mona and her changing world over 13 years, and Privacy (1992-2002), in which she turned to her own world to photograph friends and their families. "I gave them images that affirmed family, at a time when its structure was changing from extended to nuclear family, against the backdrop of a very closed society suddenly opening up to the world markets. The family—the pillar of Indian society—being our only social security."
Singh is one of several contemporary Indian artists born in the 1960s and 1970s, together with Amar Kanwar (whose seminal work The Torn First Pages is currently on view at the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin), Subodh Gupta, Jitish Kallat, and N.S. Harsha, who are represented by leading international galleries. On the other hand, artists of the Indian diaspora—Rina Banerjee, Chitra Ganesh, Zarina Hashmi, Aji V.N., and Raqib Shaw amongst them—are gaining new prominence back home. A growing professional gallery scene in the major cities—Mumbai, Delhi, Calcutta, and Bangalore—helps bring it all together!