Art as a metaphor for India

Art as a metaphor for India

Aparajita Jain, Co-Director, Nature Morte, one of India’s leading art galleries, in a talk on Art as a soft power, says Art plays an important role in society because it is an indicator of “who we were, who we are and most importantly who we can be.”

Those unfamiliar with the world of Contemporary Indian Art may wonder how the above finds expression today in paintings, photography, sculptures, murals, graffiti, antiques, miniatures and installations which constitute the entire spectrum of visual art.

By looking at the works of three artistes, which Aparajita says are her favourites, I was amazed at the ingenuity of the artists in taking themes one can only describe as quintessentially desi, and exhibiting them to popular acclaim abroad.

Given below are three artists and their shows as exemplars of contemporary art:

Subodh Gupta’s exhibition at the Monnaie de Paris -

Showcasing the diversity of Subodh Gupta’s practice, the exhibition features iconic sculptures using stainless steels pots and pans, such as Very Hungry God (2006), for which Gupta is best known and cast found objects, such as Two Cows (2003), alongside very new works, like Unknown Treasure (2017) and the video titled Seven Billion Light Years (2016). While varied in material, the body of work is defined by the artist’s continuous exploration of ritual and spirituality in everyday life.
Subodh Gupta is mostly known for working with everyday objects that are ubiquitous throughout India, such as the mass-produced steel kitchen utensils used in virtually every home in the country. From such ordinary items the artist produces sculptures that reflect on the economic transformations of his homeland while acknowledging the reach of contemporary art and its ideas. While stainless steel is Gupta’s signature medium, he has also masterfully executed works in bronze, marble, brass and wood while dialoguing with found and manipulated objects that encapsulate multiple meanings and reflect on the circumstances of contemporary India.

As the kitchen is the centre of every Indian household, Gupta’s practice too is grounded in the quotidian pantry and it is from here that he reflects on not only personal practices, but also on how often intimate and seemingly insignificant objects and experiences can offer a glimpse into the cosmos at large.

Jithish Kallat’s show Here after Here at National Gallery of Modern Art Delhi-

Jitish’s vast oeuvre, spanning painting, photography, drawing, video and sculptural installations, reveals his persistent probes into some of the fundamental themes of our existence. His works traverse varying focal lengths and time-scales; from close details of the skin of a fruit or the brimming shirt-pocket of a passer-by, it might expand to register dense people-scapes, or voyage into inter-galactic vistas. Some works are meditations on the transient present while others reach back into history and overlay the past onto the present through citations of momentous historical utterances.

Thukral and Tagra: Bread, Circuses & TBD at Yorkshire Sculpture Park (ongoing)

Thukral and Tagra’s work invites people to wrestle with the issues faced by farmers in India through their immaculately conceived installation Bread, Circuses & TBD, which inaugurates The Weston Gallery in Yorkshire Sculpture Park’s (YSP) new building, The Weston. Known internationally for their highly engaging and profound projects that raise awareness of important issues in the world today, the Delhi-based artists continue their ongoing investigation into ‘kushti’, a traditional form of wrestling practiced across India and especially by farmers.

The artists have been interested in the act of kushti as a social construct, the coded vocabulary of sport and the playing field – in this case, the ‘akhara’ – since 2006, when they first began supporting the akhara community in Jalandhar, the hometown of Jiten Thukral. In their first wrestling project, Match Fixed (2010), the artists began to understand the intricate details of the lives, trials, and tribulations of the agricultural community. Their involvement has evolved to support the establishment of a kitchen, run by the families of farmers that have been affected by suicides in order to provide meals for their children.

Informed by their long enquiry into game theory, including their research into the Don Pavey Collection, held in the National Arts Education Archive at YSP, the central installation Farmer is a Wrestler is an interactive challenge that invites participants as players to try out seven traditional wrestling manoeuvres, echoing the game of ‘Twister’. Participants land on numbers, rather than colours, where each represents a trial faced by farmers in India, and across the world, such as global warming, suicide, agrarian distress, and drought. The participant gets to interact with the space to better understand and comprehend the hardship of this present-day situation. The exhibition shows the duality of the figure of the farmer as a wrestler, staging strategies for survival against a complex set of challenges. The work explores not only their psyche but the body and human form as a site for endurance and strength.

A huge and intricate painting in the shape of a wrestling arena is split into sections and shown on the gallery walls. The paintings are comprised of five layers, which link to the hardships and dire situations faced by the farmers in Farmer is a Wrestler, including wrestling figures inspired by the artists’ interviews with the farmers and their families; the crops and the associated activities vital to their livelihood; and a highlight, which gives emphasis to the issues under discussion.

The ongoing series title of ‘Bread, Circuses’ draws from the metaphor of the Roman arena as a stage not only for competition and for the display of sportsmanship, but equally as a mode of survival strategies and the earning of daily bread. It is a body of work that reflects on the lives of Indian people as affected by daily politics, society, and cultural norms. The YSP iteration ‘TBD’ (‘to be determined’), references the precariousness and uncertain future faced by Indian farmers and is represented by the white areas of incomplete canvas in the paintings.

Over the past few decades, farming and agriculture communities across the country have faced extremely difficult situations, living in poverty and oppression, with little or no control over their land or livelihood, leading to suicides. While there are constant protests and uprisings by farming communities, their pleas are often unheard by the government or go unnoticed. A tiny grain of sand or wheat becomes a metaphor that carries through the installation, sand being an element that is sacred for the akhara wrestler and wheat for the farmer.

This project aims to interrogate a larger set of political issues through the act and metaphor of wrestling, applying artistic agency to question the status quo but also offer hope.

Indian Art in context

The net worth of the Indian Visual Art market is approximately 250 million dollars. Seems like a lot? Not really. Neighbouring China commands 11 billion dollars from art.

Museums exhibiting these works attract large audiences abroad as compared to India. Aparajita compares Paris where three museums alone receive approximately 14.5 million visitors annually, to India where all the museums put together receive around 10 million visitors.

However, one can take heart that the international success of Indian artists, an increasing collector base, a rise in the number of curatorial galleries has helped the Indian Visual Arts industry make inroads into art markets abroad.

So how can India leverage her long history of art creation and promotion? What are the problems holding her back? Like everything involving culture, the main issue seems to be lack of Governmental support. “There is no institutional support in terms of government involvement. When we have museums and institutions it helps explain to people what art is. It becomes a place to go to with the kids and there is more awareness and support for artists. We have to start with awareness,” says Aparajita.

Aparajita, listed as one of the 50 icons of Indian Art by Platform, is on the board of the Delhi Chapter of YPO and is a founding member of the Harvard South Asia Institute Arts program. Her non-profit endeavour, Saat Saath Arts Foundation (SSAF), is a first-of-its-kind initiative built to catalyse international art exchange between India and the world. SSAF, working with the Rajasthan government, created the first permanent International Art Space in the state, at Nahargarh Fort.

She says when she began working in art she was constantly complaining, only focusing on the lack of everything when a friend told her to do something about it. “I began thinking, wondering and speaking to people. I spoke to economists, to advisors to policymakers to patrons and to other great thinkers on what it would take for us to get India on the soft power map. We have an amazing number of Heritage sites many of which are languishing that could be used. The ASI lists 3,650 sites and who knows how many are unlisted. The second thing was using the private public partnership model to further the cause of museums art and soft power in India.”

Aparajita along with two others, began an experiment to create India's first
Sculpture park in a heritage site. “However we had no funding and no site, only a deep desire and love for art in India. So we approached the Government of Rajasthan who were very willing. They showed us about 10 sites and we finally we chose a jewel called Nahargarh atop a hill on the periphery of Jaipur.”

It took them nine months from signing the MOU to opening India's first international sculpture park with 61 sculptures with 23 artists in a 500 year old fort funded by the CSR of over 12 companies. While proceeds from the ticket sales goes to the Government, the park saw a cross section of people visiting including school and college students, celebrities including Arianna Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post, as well as the local people. The Wall Street Journal mentioned this as a must-visit place in Jaipur.

Aparajita says more and more people should adopt such sites and create experience centers by infusing contemporary art into such places that were once bustling with life. They should then be put online and made to come alive with technologies like Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality so that they can reach the farthest corners of the world thus bringing focus on the intangible assets India has through her built tangible assets.

Aparajita is the co-Founder of New Delhi’s most avant-garde art space, Nature Morte along with Peter Nagy, and is now the Co-Director. Founded in New York's East Village in 1982 and closed in 1988, Peter revived Nature Morte in New Delhi in 1997 as a commercial gallery and a curatorial experiment. Aparajita says Peter was a very successful artist in New York and fell in love with India when he came for a visit. “He started discovering contemporary artistes who were doing really good work, but there was nobody there to show them. He decided to stay back and open a gallery so that there could be a conversation and viewing for these people. He is so successful because he is sincere, extremely committed to the cause and so good with his eye.”

Peter Nagy sums up it all up in an interview where he says that most Western curators are looking for a type of art coming out of India that corresponds to what is considered “progressive” art practice. “They are able to find such works in the practice of artists such as the Raqs Media Collective, Bharti Kher, Anita Dube, Amar Kanwar, Jitish Kallat, Sonia Khuranna, and others. Unfortunately, these curators (and also critics and gallerists) often approach Indian contemporary art with very little knowledge of India itself, so they tend to misinterpret or even ignore artists that may have great relevance to the Indian context but seemingly little to the international context. But, hey, cultural translation is one of the obvious pitfalls of the globalization of the contemporary art world.”

Nature Morte has become synonymous in India with challenging and experimental forms of art; championing conceptual, lens-based, and installation genres and representing a generation of Indian artists who have gone on to get international exposure.

Nature Morte was the first gallery from India to be included in important international art fairs (starting with The Armory Show in New York in 2005) and has participated in Art Basel, Fiac Paris, Art Basel Miami Beach, Paris Photo, Art Dubai, Tokyo Art Fair, Art Basel Hong Kong, Abu Dhabi Art Fair and Frieze New York, among others.

Nature Morte has also organized projects and exhibitions with international artists coming to India and combining their works with those of Indian artists to foster cross-cultural communications. Today, Nature Morte represents such well-known artists as Subodh Gupta, Jitish Kallat, Anita Dube, Mithu Sen, Bharti Kher, Imran Qureshi, Mona Rai, Pushpamala N., Seher Shah, Thukral and Tagra, Raqs Media Collective, and Asim Waqif, as well as others.

Aparajita says that Indian art has a lot of traction in America, but more and more Indian art is getting visible and credibility world over. “We had a survey between 2003 and 2005 which showed that people were keen on doing generic shows of India but now we are moving to in-depth shows of artistes. Right now we have three shows of our artists in different parts of the world. There is a fair amount of interest of Indian contemporary art abroad.”

Most of Nature Morte’s artists are “international artists and not necessarily only artists who have an Indian aesthetic. The idea in contemporary art is for people of Indian origin to become so international that people do not know where they are from. It is about how good the artist is and how many very good thinking artists a country can produce,” says Aparajita.