Burden of identity?

Mixed Media


Seeking Refuge: Uday Pandit’s  ‘Single Room’ from fibreglass, wood and acrylic.

The story of Indian art today is mirrored in the story of Subodh Gupta — the hype, the press, the auctions, the international galleries (in his case not just the ones that specialise in Indian art) and the stupefying price tags. He is a child of the worldwide art boom, which in its Indian manifestation takes a queer shape.

Almost anyone with business acumen can become an art dealer or gallerist here — a formal understanding of the arts is not a pre-requisite. The monies are not in proportion to the sales and neither has spurred any real development of the arts on the whole. There are few good schools, government patronage, guidance or opportunities for students outside the metros and Baroda maybe. And there is hardly any cutting edge criticism. Even a Gupta is known more for his rates rather than a critical appraisal of his work.

Fortunately recession is cutting through a lot of the hype. The need for sustainable development in art is more clearly apparent now than ever. ‘East Village’, an exhibition of nine artists from Bihar curated by Gupta is most significant in this context. Gupta wants to provide them with the kind of opportunity that launched his own career.

Restricting his choice to his home state raises issues of identity and ‘roots’ that have been the bedrock of his work. The sculptures that made him famous combine a honed formula of the local and the global — a formula that is crucial in the growth of other art forms as well, be it writing, theatre or cinema. The modern Indian artist, writer, filmmaker is often engaged in developing an idiom that will imbibe from the past and present, east and west just enough to remain in vogue and relevant.

Stereotypical objects from common Indian life; more importantly objects Gupta grew up with, kitchen utensils, squat stools, even cow dung, are his materials of choice. Unlike Duchamp who questioned the meaning of art critically with his ‘found’ urinal, Gupta uses slick unsoiled surfaces, intending to create art that is beauteous, (in whatever way beauty has come to be understood by modern art after its dissociation with its traditional sense, which has long since been appropriated by mass media). He also does not, unlike Koons, profess his art has no deeper meaning.

It is likely then that he is as keen to represent his state as he is its young artists. My first memory of the word Bihari is from a Kishori Amonkar bhajan, (Mharo Pranaam Banke Bihari ji) that would play on my father’s record player. As I grew older I came to identify the word with our road trips to UP via Bihar and then with my chauffeur. I didn’t notice when it morphed into a term of degradation, interchangeable with uncouth but I do remember parochial parties in Maharashtra turning it into a word for poor unwanted migrant.

If history has the ability to alter definitions, art is capable of redeeming them. The Bihar of Gupta and his chosen artists is lovingly represented. They employ a range of media from oil, acrylic, fibreglass, glass, metal, wood, photo print to video and even books to thread together their interpretation of the times they live in.

Vidhan Kumar’s series feature cutouts, shadows and signs from rural politics and public life. Shailendra Kumar’s prints celebrate the cacophony of Chatt puja; Rajeev Ranjan’s Dadi Maa Ka Achaar reproduces jars now empty or brimming with definitive objects from our age of electronics, politics and violence; Arvind Kumar Singh lines up ominously backlit, cut up Panchang calendars to evoke the anxiety of terror post 26/11 and Rajesh Ram’s sculpture cuts open the helpless misery of the migrant worker. Crime, politics and issues of development, now synonymous with the state are noticeably on the fringes of these works that focus more on recalling images the artists grew up with.

Rahul Gupta’s videos use textbook illustrations, snakes and ladders and cheap plastic dolls to dwell on nostalgia and philosophy. While in another frame, Rajesh Ram delightfully imagines a popular Kabir doha (couplet) visually. These are sounds and sights that have shaped the minds of generations and are disappearing from the urbanscape slowly. And much as they are a tribute of these artists to their hometowns, they link up with memories of growing up in pretty much any part of India — making an unlikely case for the coherence of its idea of unity.

The result is a collection of visually appealing works that is not entirely evolved in terms of individualised expression or refinement, but strikes an immediate emotional chord, atleast for the local viewer. Their representation of memory and society is potent enough to make the one reconsider supposed certainties and caress the meanings of ordinary things from a time past when the distinction between the ordinary and the extraordinary was insignificant.

The styles confirm more or less to a larger idea of contemporary art that has silenced the debate on the direction modern art has taken. There is a long route ahead of any sort of iconoclasm or even a powerful global discourse for these artists but there is a reassuring reminder in their beginnings — the truth about this country need not remain mangled by political rhetoric and historical text; it can heal free in personal history, memory and art.

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