Perambulating the Bounds

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Contemporary Indian Art in Berkeley

If you are in the Bay Area between now and September 16, check out the show of contemporary Indian art at the Berkeley Art Museum, Edge of Desire. This show was at the Queens Museum last year, and now that I’ve finally seen it I’m starting to run across references to the people in it.

As you would expect, there’s fascinating stuff to look at. You run across vernacular traditions treated as an equally valid path to contemporary expression as artists from more conventional art school preparation, like pieces by Manu and Swarma Chitrakar, who are members of the Patua community in Bengal. This is a formerly nomadic group that developed a narrative style of painting and the members of this group traveled around painting to make a living. The pieces here include a poster about the war in Afghanistan and a scroll summarizing the highlights of the movie Titanic. There are some great crossovers with pop culture, like Cyrus Oshidar’s mock small-goods stand which serves as an elaborate frame for a video monitor running Indian MTV filler spots that are pretty hilarious.

What struck me was how political so much of the art is. Communal violence between Hindus and Muslims looms large, especially the destruction of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya and subsequent riots (like a big piece by Vivan Sundaram that takes the figure of one dead body and builds a kind of shrine around that. You also see the figures of India and Pakistan’s founding (Nehru, M. and I. Gandhi, Jinnah) appearing as powerful mythical characters with an ambivalent legacy of violence, cruelty, and neglect in the politicians who have followed and in the political and bureaucratic structures they created. It is strange to realize that a new country, although also a very old one, creates these instant icons from a heroic era that has just occurred. In a longer established political entity the founders recede into a historical past that is safer because it is further past. India and Pakistan are roughly in a position analogous to the U.S. of Martin van Buren relative to our founding.

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