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Around the galleries

Fifty years of modern art in India

— June 2015

Associated media

Sheela Gowda (b. 1957 Bhadravati, India) Blanket & the Sky, 2004. Tar drum sheets & blanket. Collection of Thomas Erben, New York. Photo by Hai Zhang, Courtesy of the Queens Museum of Art

Susan Noyes Platt reports on a major retrospective at New York’s Queens Museum of Art

‘After Midnight: Indian Modernism to Contemporary India 1947/1997’ at the Queens Museum of Art 8 March – 28 June 2015

Pioneering Mumbai gallerist and curator Dr Arshiya Lokhandwala rejects predictable clichés about art from India in ‘After Midnight: Indian Modernism to Contemporary India 1947/1997’ at the Queens Museum of Art. The title, refers, of course, to Salmon Rushdie’s novel Midnight’s Children, about the nightmare of the Partition of India and Pakistan. In this exhibition, though, the primary theme is dialogue, the dialogue among artists in India and between those artists and global art, during two eras, that of the ‘Progressive Artists Group’ who emerged after Independence in 1947, and that of a generation who emerged 50 years later in the midst of globalization.

The two generations overlap, of course: many of the older artists lived into the 21st century. The project of this exhibition is to demonstrate that continuity and conversations with global art is a continuing project in India.

The first generation of modernist artists reacted against the nationalist traditions in India created primarily by the Tagore family in the context of the Indian Independence movement. They embraced international modernism. The first gallery of ‘After Midnight’ presents some of these works by artists as V.S. Gaitonde (recently the subject of a stunning retrospective at New York’s Guggenheim), Tyeb Mehta, Akbar Padamsee and F.N. Souza. These works came mainly from private collections in New York, resulting in only token representation of these major artists. 

Experimental films, photographs and archival catalogues enriched the presentation of the ‘Progressive Artists Group’. Several of these artists worked in New York City in the late 1960s on Rockefeller fellowships.  From this era are three films, a completely abstract work by Adbar Padamsee, Syzgy from 1969–70, a film in which the artist animates his abstract drawings. In stark contrast, Tyeb Mehta’s film Koodal immerses itself in physicality, the killing of a cow and a slaughterhouse along with mobs of people in the streets of Bombay. Finally M.F. Husain’s film Through the eyes of a painter presents the physical reality of India, but as an aesthetic concert of images that embrace visual contrasts of the land articulated by a soundtrack of Indian music.  

These three films present the first stage of avant-garde filmmaking in India. All three pursue distinctly different approaches from the realism of modernist cinema giant Satyajit Ray, for there is no story, no actors, no dialogue, only imagery.  The archival materials document the artists’ active professional life in India, notably with the gallery Chemould Prescott Road, which still supports avant-garde art in India.

The second half of the exhibition expands unpredictably almost like a treasure hunt: a few works occupy three traditional gallery spaces, then the show sprawls out across vast walls in a central atrium, erupts under a staircase, with a work by Asim Waqif using recycled packing cases, then moves to the observation walkway for the 1964 Panorama of the City of New York. It concludes in three more traditional gallery spaces.  The contrasting spaces disrupt the usual continuity of one square gallery after another and likewise our thinking. It reminded me of being in India, where scale shifts drastically from, for example, the human scale markets in Old Delhi to the overwhelming scale of Edwin Luytens’ late colonial city scape.

In one small gallery, a two-screen video, Strikes at Time, by the Raqs Media and the interior of a bus with mythical guardians on one screen, and, on the other, night-time views of a worker going to his job. We experience the ordinariness of the worker’s life, unpredictably animated by the magical and the supernatural.

Destuffing Matrix, a video by CAMP, addresses globalization in: four simultaneous projections of loading and unloading global products, interspersed with documents, bills, and lists of contents, tell the story of global commerce, of consumerism, of perpetual movement of goods. Sharmila Samant’s Mrigajaal – The Mirage focuses on the local in a single channel: a water diviner locates water, and exposes unequal water distribution between rich and poor neighbourhoods in Mumbai.

Continuing the theme of boats and water, a traditional South Indian fishing boat filled with pots and pans, as well as bundled possessions, suggests a life in transition in Subodh Gupta’s What does the vessel contain that the river does not? The title invokes a poem by Persian Sufi mystic Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī that suggests that the universe is contained in a single soul. Placing the boat in a gallery monumentalizes the ordinary and suggests the universality of everyday experience. It enshrines a way of life that is disappearing.

Also in the atrium is Jitish Kallat’s Public Notice 2003, recording the inspired words of Nehru’s ‘Tryst with Destiny’ speech delivered just before independence. But the stencilled letters of the words of the entire speech, written in glue and then burned on rippling mirror panels, evoke both the hopes of that moment, and their ruins, as Independence led to so much violence. They are barely readable.

Placing videos of the urban performances by Nikhil Chopra on the walkway above the New York City Panorama created an inspired intersection. As we watch Chopra as Yog Raj Chitraker in New York City or on a 15-mile traverse of Mumbai, during which he changes his clothes from impoverished to aristocratic according to his surroundings, we understand that the urban experience is that of observation of the other.

‘After Midnight’ was framed by two major sculptures/installations. In the entrance lobby is Sheela Gowda’s Blanket and the Sky, built from tar drum sheets. The metal sheets get flattened for road paving in India, then are recycled as the material of temporary shelters. As we thrust our heads into the opening in Gowda’s columnar structure, we see cut-out square huts and cavities of the same metal, a squatters’ village. We are giants looking at the small people, the centre looking at the periphery, the oppressor looking at the oppressed. The darkness inside is lit only with pinpricks of light.

At the end of the exhibition, Atul Dodiya’s Three Brothers consists of three empty wooden cabinets, painted with squares of colour that suggest Suprematist abstraction, each with a photograph: a victim from the Nazi holocaust, a person in the agony of the Partition, and a ghostly, faceless worker, a representation of a late painting by Malevich at the tragic time when Stalin was cracking down on the avant-garde in the Soviet Union at the end of the 1920s.  Above the cabinets are framed photographs of skeletons – humans, dinosaurs and animals – in museum cases (the ‘skeleton in the closet’).

Dodiya frequently comments on the process of museum viewing in his work, but rarely so specifically. In Three Brothers, he emphasizes that museums freeze horrific catastrophe as relics. A photograph shows a businessman plummeting to his death on 11 September 2001, silhouetted against the modernist stripes of the tower.  The destruction of the World Trade Center has led to thousands of deaths not only at the time, but also continuing to the present in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. Dodiya here equates it to the Holocaust, the Partition and the death of the avant-garde in the Soviet Union. He expertly layers politics, metaphor, and formalism.

‘After Midnight: Indian Modernism to Contemporary India 1947/1997’ presents the reality of the sophisticated dialogue of contemporary Indian artists with global ideas of modernism, postmodernism and contemporary issues from the late 20th century to the present.  


Susan Platt
Art historian

Background info

There is a forthcoming catalogue for the exhibition,After Midnight: Indian Modern and Contemporary Art, 1947/1997. Contributors include: Rakhee Balaram, Rina Banerjee, Akeel Bilgrami, Rebecca Brown, Luis Camnitzer, Doryun Chong, Iftikhar Dadi, Salah M. Hassan, Geeta Kapur, Arshiya Lokhandwala, Saloni Mathur, Naeem Mohaiemen, Parul Dave-Mukherji, Vidya Shivadas, Shuddhabrata Sengupta, and Ajay J. Sinha)

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