Indian artists have earned a place at the international high table where the idea of ‘making art’ has changed forever.
The circus really grew up between 2000 and 2009, as far as contemporary Indian art is concerned. The market, which had previously existed largely in the modes of dream, hope and aspiration, suddenly became a reality during this decade. While Indian art may not have aggregated a significant share in the global art market in these nine years, it has been identified as an area of potential growth. The activity of auction houses such as Sotheby’s, Christie’s, Saffronart and Osian’s has motivated galleries to acquire momentum and bear greater risks in their choice and positioning of artists.
But the most influential actor on the contemporary Indian art scene during this decade was not an auction house but a gallery, which opened with the avowed intention of transforming the rules of the game—as, indeed, it did in the span of a few short years. Bodhi Art, which at its peak had centres in New Delhi, Mumbai, Singapore, New York and Berlin, was the first Indian art gallery to achieve a global presence on a grand scale. It re-calibrated all the benchmarks in terms of exhibition practice, the presentation and branding of artists, and the development of a knowledge infrastructure to accompany and amplify the advances being made by Indian artists.
While other prestigious galleries, including Bose Pacia, Nature Morte, Vadehra, Sakshi, Chemould and Pundole, had also extended their practice transnationally in various ways, the Bodhi phenomenon triggered off a widespread reassessment of capability and a refinement of benchmarks within the Indian gallery system. Bodhi’s subsequent retreat, in the face of the global recession, should not erase its transformative contribution.
The boom in the Indian art market, while it lasted, was a mixed blessing. If it attracted a legion of investors (no bad thing), it also attracted the attention of the speculators (a curse). The subsequent collapse and slow resurgence of the Indian art market has prompted an exodus of the speculators, sobered up the investors and dented the credibility of the interlocking mechanisms of gallery and auction sales. However, these upheavals have also had a curious, unexpected and entirely welcome effect: They have brought back a more serious kind of collector as well as opened up the domain to a wide viewership that may never acquire a work but will extend its imagination through contact with the visual arts. This new viewership, with its hunger for knowledge, now supports a variety of informal platforms and nascent institutions, such as Jnana-pravaha in Mumbai and the Religare Arts Initiative in New Delhi, around which a new community of viewers is certain to develop.
Between 2000 and 2009, even as Indian artists became more active globally, at the intersection of the worlds of the international biennale, the high-profile museum and the global art market, there emerged a class of international artist of Indian origin, so to speak. Dayanita Singh and Subodh Gupta, in their very different ways, exemplify this class, both remaining firmly anchored in the transitional and complex society of their birth yet moving fluently and eloquently through the circuits of an emerging globality.
In parallel, a number of Indian curators, critics and theorists also began to work increasingly in the global system. This twin advance, artistic as well as discursive, has helped effect radical transformations of practice. As more Indian artists are invited to exhibit at international biennales and triennales, they are empowered to develop new forms of practice, unrelated to the gallery circuit. During the last decade, artists based in India have shown at the highest level of the global art system: Two editions each of the Documenta, the Venice Biennale, the Gwangju Biennale, and numerous other periodic exhibitions have hosted Indian artists, including Dayanita Singh, the Raqs Media Collective, Ravi Agarwal, Amar Kanwar, Sheela Gowda, Subodh Gupta, Atul Dodiya, Riyas Komu, Jitish Kallat, Sudarshan Shetty and Shilpa Gupta.
As we traverse these routes, the very idea of what it means to “make art” has changed. In the post-historical Babel of forms, concerns and installation strategies that we see in Indian art today, art is no longer confined to the making of products that may be consecrated as “art”—a range of practices, including social projects, public art and so forth, have opened up during the last decade. The expansion of material horizons has produced a receptiveness and attentiveness to alternative approaches, enriching contemporary Indian art practice immeasurably. We are travelling inexorably through a terrain that is post-historical, post-media, post-style, almost post-India: a place peopled by ambidextrous, shape-shifting artists.
Atul Dodiya articulates his resistance to the cultural politics of the majoritarianism through rhetorically charged paintings and elegiac sculpture-installations. Jitish Kallat plays off the reverberations of textuality and the punch of the visual in his paintings and sculptures. Subodh Gupta mobilizes vast sculpture-installation ensembles, paints and works in video and performance. Bose Krishnamachari generates large-format abstractions, organizes social projects that transform the gallery into a library, convenes groups of artists into snapshot exhibitions, and proposes his lifestyle as an ongoing claim-in-performance. Baiju Parthan paints mammoth diptychs in a distinctive code that resists reading, but exhibits digital-interactive works that invite the viewer-user into the unpredictable realm of virtual reality.
Ranbir Kaleka’s paintings are abundant with expressionist joyousness and melancholia; his video-projection works are contemplative in their stillness, centring us in the phenomenology of motive, gesture and afterthought. Surendran Nair savours the intimacy of elliptical narratives but also tackles monumental paintings dedicated to the symbolic figure of the colossus. Sudarshan Shetty treats his moving-part sculptures as engines of revelation, giant toys whose conception of play is as serious as a game of life and death. Nataraj Sharma commits himself to paintings in which autobiography is transmuted into allegory, but also to graphic works that run the gamut from architectural meditation to gestural abstraction.
Bringing playful idiosyncrasy and astute political awareness into play, Ram Rahman, Ravi Agarwal, Gigi Scaria, N.S. Harsha, Krishnaraj Chonat, Avinash Veeraraghavan, Sarnath Banerjee and Sumedh Rajendran attest to the complex cultural and political predicaments of globalization-era India— through a varied interplay of elements, including projection, sound, animation, the graphic novel, the digital collage and the installation.
Artists such as Shilpa Gupta and the Raqs Media Collective work almost entirely with digital, virtual and discursive media that are almost spectral in form but no less effective. For these artists, the philosophical idea or the political crisis is no longer merely content. It is the material from which they fashion their video-based installations or interactive environments. The exhibition is no longer a showcase of works for the passive delectation of viewers. Rather, it is a proposition, an argument, a conversation that transforms the viewer into an interlocutor. These are ways of engaging with the public urgencies of a planet threatened simultaneously by militarization, terror, ecological catastrophe, deepening sectarian rifts and the closing of the formerly liberal mind.
Such strategies mark a major shift from the model of exhibition practice—and the corresponding artistic attitude—that dominated the Indian scenario between 1947 and 2000. In that period of self-conscious modernism and gradual postmodernist exploration, the relationship between artists and viewers was tense, with the artist standing aloof and presenting the art work as a finished image, with a take-it-or-leave-it air. Indian art has now become far more willing to engage with its viewers, even in its most enigmatic or ludic avatars.
Ranjit Hoskote multiplies his time between poetry, cultural theory and curating exhibitions of contemporary art.
(The article with images can be found at the Mint website)