The editorial brief from the Asia Art Archive, asking me to write on how organisations and institutions outside India are constructing histories and simultaneously representing contemporary India and its art, left me perplexed and worried. Where does one locate 'India's' agency in self-representation? Is India, as for centuries, still being constructed and consumed by (neo) imperial powers? This nagging question repeatedly surfaced as I kept trying to write this essay. Who had the right to represent and what then are the implications of this brief?
Any question around the issues of representation of Indian art finds an automatic starting point in the Western academy. Much bashed, yet still shamelessly Orientalist in its quest for the Other, the Western academy is today challenged from both within and outside. A quick Google search — the only option from my 'Third World' position — shows that even today, courses, conferences, and the juggernaut of the American academy remain fixated on the pre-modern, the 'classical', the civilizational.1 If indeed there is an interest in the modern and the contemporary, this curiosity and 'desire for knowledge' remains focused on the popular — on the glitzy world of Bollywood, 'cheap' calendar prints, and the 'exotic' 'art' of the bazaar. If courses, conferences, and academic publications are symptomatic of the West's larger interest in its 'Other', contemporary art from India does not even figure in this discourse.2 And, of course, archives, as handmaiden to the project of knowledge making (for good or for bad), reflect this predilection. Not surprisingly, an analysis of the online documentation provided by the two primary U.S.-based archives of South Asian art — the John C. and Susan L. Huntington Archive and the Digital South Asia Library — reflect a disproportionately high focus on pre-modern art. Of course, there are a few (allegedly) representative images — a Husain, a Souza, and a Tyeb Mehta — standing in for the modern and the contemporary!
However, I cannot afford to privilege the American academy as having the sole 'right' to represent India today. The post-1990s economic boom, the software bubble, and the emergence of a South Asian diaspora in the West are playing important roles in the re-casting of Indian art. As Rajeev Sethi, a leading promoter of Indian art notes, [e]very successful economy needs a tangible celebration'.3 In the recent past, modern art has suddenly become a symbol of success and self-confidence. Perhaps, because art adds value, in terms of wealth as well as image, the nouveau riche has (now) recognised art as a commodity, a product for investment. 'People want icons that you can show off — you can't put stocks and shares on your walls', Sethi further observes. While, on one hand, pressure groups created by today's self-confident diaspora are resisting the American academy's 'right' to represent India,4 on the other hand, the fruits of globalization have opened up horizons for 'Contemporary Indian Art'. Not surprisingly, the strategic and commercial interests shown by the industrially advanced 'global' communities in newly liberalised India have had a cultural resonance on the manner in which 'contemporary Indian art' is produced (at home) and consumed (abroad).
Returning to the editorial brief, what then are the (imagined or real) implications of this changing socio-cultural scenario in the archiving and construction of Indian art abroad?5 At the turn of the century, three important texts were generated which specially took up the project of representing objects of Indian art and (to various extents) also of representing the cultural context of production. I am referring here to the 'Bombay/Mumbai' exhibition at the Tate Modern, curated by Geeta Kapur, 'Edge of Desire', a show curated by Chaitanya Sambrani, and Made in India, a documentary by Madhushree Dutta, commissioned by and based on the curatorial note for 'New Indian Art: Home Street Shrine Bazaar Museum', by Gulammohammed Sheikh. In recent times, these have been the most significant showcasing/representations of objects that participate within the aesthetic discourse framed by notions of art, India, contemporaniety, politics and aesthetics.6 Though the aesthetic discourse shaping the most recent trends in contemporary Indian art claims to have located the aesthetic discourse in the zone of multi-polarity, a close analysis of the 'Edge of Desire', 'Bombay/Mumbai' and Made in India, shows this multi-polarity (only) within a neo-liberal multi-cultural framework.
This recent surge in the display of contemporary Indian art, framed through neo-liberal multi-cultural politics, within the context of 'Western' museums, is perhaps not coincidental. Powerful art brokers based in the U.S. and global institutions like the Asia Society and the Haus der Kulturen der Welt have, in their own ways, opened up a discursive space for the display of contemporary Indian art in the 'West'. Simultaneously, the rising capital force of the Indian diaspora has meant that international auction houses now take Indian contemporary art seriously. Bonham's, Christie's and Sotheby's regularly hold auctions dedicated to contemporary Indian art, with global attendance and earnings in billions of USD. Thus, in the early 2000s, when Indian contemporary art crossed the million-dollar mark, market analysts announced with a great flourish that 'finally' Indian art had come into being. There is an urgency to problematize any easy celebration of such 'coming into being'. Is this 'coming into being' then decided, on one hand, by the market value of a select few and, on the other hand, by a few exhibitions in the West that claim to be a serious stocktaking of the country's contemporary cultural heritage? These shows assert a traversing of conventional divides between the urban/fine and folk/tradition, between the high and popular. Claiming to represent the socio-political transformations in India, these exhibitions attempt to address contemporary political, social, and environmental realities.
India, like Asia, has multiple discursive values within itself. Therefore questions of authenticity would lead one to dead-end mirages. Acts of representation will always be the result of discursive relationships between the locations of the represented, re-presenter and the re-presentational context. The 'emergently dominant'7 embodiment and representation of India is that of a demography fast getting caught in the winds of late capitalist progress, riding the shoulders of a large neo-liberal middle class that operates from cosmopolitan cities to colonize the heartland. To provide 24/7 power supply to Mumbai, a suburb goes without power for about 6 hours a day and a little deeper into the hinterland, the population faces the psycho-social trauma of poverty-driven suicides spreading through the farmlands. It does seem that the poor, peasant, and the proletariat as categories have fallen out of fashion, and with that these 'residual' categories seem to have lost the right to be 'talked to' or engaged with, contributing to a collapse of the 'local'8 as a point of consideration.
Contemporary India is thus a highly fragmented identity, with steep socio-economic disparities and pockets of conflicting religious/ideological nationalisms. As contemporary neo-liberal straits are increasingly taking a neo-humanist (post-capital humanist) direction, global art institutions and agencies are becoming participants in these manifestations of continuities, totalities, constants, quantities and accumulations, evolutions, fields (disciplines) and Hegel's 'spirit of the age'. The title, 'Home, Street, Shrine, Museum', Gulammohammed Sheikh's curatorial project (conceived as a part of 2002 Manchester Commonwealth Games), is both seminal and metaphoric of the manner in which cosmopolitan India is imagined. It is significant that neither 'Home, Street, Shrine, Museum' nor 'Edge of Desire' showcase (re-present) fragment constituents of India like the North East; the large tracks of Naxal-prone heartland in which the Maoist insurgency influences visual hegemonies; the extreme Dravida ideological movement; or even the moderately extremist artistic movement known as the Baroda Radical Painters and Sculptures Association. Inclusions and exclusions will always happen and though these pockets are extremely important (the northeastern and Maoist counter-hegemonies territorially occupy nearly 40% of India), as Santosh S. recently pointed out, one needs to recognize the upper-class/caste cosmopolitan bias that informs these 'forgettings' and hence inform the representations of contemporary India.9 And of course, as an art historian, I find it perplexing that the harbingers of 'India Poised' and 'India Shining' have conveniently forgotten a larger history of equally important global art shows and political concerns that have marked much of Indian art from the 1920s.10
As much as it is problematic to employ monolithic assumptions in constituting the idea of India, one similarly needs to fragment the notion of 'abroad'. For the purpose of this thematic, Euro-America (and in recent times the Far East,11 with its constellation of art collections, dealers, institutions, and galleries, remains the key player — and thus frames my definition of 'abroad'. It is this 'abroad' that I wish to fracture.12 While up until now my paper seems to suggest that Indian art inhabits a specific art world — that of Asia Society and the New York power brokers — a closer look further complicates this picture. Apart from the 'blockbusters' mentioned above, Indian art is now being consistently shown in private galleries across Europe and the U.S.13 One notes that the artists and artistic practices that are promoted and consumed through these private galleries provide a distinctly different view of contemporary Indian art. It is interesting that artists, for example Samir Aich and Shuvaprasanna Bhattacharya, whose works dominate the global consumption of Indian art through such galleries, are never represented in these 'blockbusters'. I raise this issue not to valorize Samir Aich and Shuvaprasanna Bhattacharya but to question the omissions in shows that carry the claim of 'serious stocktaking' of India's contemporary visual heritage. Is it that these artists are considered to be functioning outside the socio-political definitions of taste, progress and other such cultural concept-metaphors defined through the hegemonic ambitions of a neo-liberal India?
This picture gets further complicated if one looks at Indian art promoted by Euro-American collectors such as Espace Louis Vuitton (France), Daimler Chrysler (Germany), and Ralph Burnet (U.S). The jarring slippage between the record-breaking names on the auction circuits (mostly early post-Independence modernists casting their own interpretation on Western masters such as Picasso, Modigliani and Rothko) and the artists who are today enjoying maximum visibility in international art residencies and spectacles (artists working with notions of 'new art') speak volumes in the reception of contemporary art. Why are the major collectors of early post-Independence modernists necessarily of Indian origin while it is the Euro-American collectors who promote the younger generation working with 'new art'? Is the diaspora then relatively 'conservative' in its aesthetic discourse? And why is it that corporate Euro-America prefers 'new art' from India? Though these questions cannot be answered without further in-depth research, it does allow for a disrupting of the possibility of an easy narrative of the West's construction and consumption of Indian art.
In recent years, the world has been moving away from its long relationship with Euro-America centricism to a polycentric play of hegemonies, and it is this movement that has created space for 're-worlding'. Within this polyphony of contestations over global hegemonies, East Asia is fast emerging as a new centre (a new 'West'?). This shifting hegemonic balance has resulted in major Asian institutions like the Asia Art Archive and the Arario Gallery showing an interest in contemporary Indian art. The 2006 exhibition 'Hungry Gods' at Arario and the recent appointment of an Asia Art Archive research post for India are early indicators of this growing interest. Although this trend is too recent to be historically analyzed, even here one sees a predilection for 'new art' — an interest shared with Euro-American corporate collectors. Yet again, there are new imaginings of India, art, and contemporaniety that are informing institutions outside India and their attempts at constructing contemporary Indian art.
1. This is not a diatribe against the American academy nor is it an attempt to posit it as representative of the 'West'. I merely use the American academy as an example — perhaps an exemplar.
2. The 'West' today does not merely signify a geographic location, but rather is a metaphor for certain ideological constellations which arise out of a 'superior' position certain hegemonies claim and are bestowed with.
5. Being an art historian located in India, my paper does not claim empirical understanding of the actual functioning of either the Western academy or the new institutions interested in contemporary Indian art. Rather, this is an attempt to understand the politics and problematic of the 'outside' constructions of Contemporary Indian Art from the perspective of an 'insider'.
6. Any aesthetic discourse seeks to locate high art as a vehicle for aesthetic and ethical elevation. This is in continuation of the Kantian belief that art, not science or philosophy is the road to ultimate truth. It is true that there have been serious disrupters within these continuities and contemporary notions of ethics and aesthetics are significantly removed from Kant's assumptions of them. However, both these notions still stay rooted in complex webs of power and hegemonic articulation. Significantly mainstream art theory and art practices have not been able to engage with the question of 'value' except through an engagement with the evaluation of the (new) ethical(s) and (neo) aesthetic(s) elevation provided to the subject through the viewing/participating experience.
7. The terms 'emergent', 'dominant' and 'residual' in this paper are drawn from Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature, London, Oxford University Press, 1977.
8. It is common to argue that dichotomic polarities are out of fashion, moreover, nation states have been proven to have been constructed and hence in many arenas they have ceased to exist. In such a situation if one seeks to revisit the 'global' 'local' dialogue using contemporary Indian art as a case study, then the positioning of the 'local' suddenly seems to be on fleeting grounds. With 'localities' now being trans-geographic, it is increasingly becoming difficult to position the 'local' within the 'global'–'local' debate. On the other hand, the 'global' is well positioned. It is clearly trans-geographic; it claims for itself a cosmopolitan identity and by and large subscribes to a lifestyle where differences in space, time, gender, caste, sexuality, and race tend to collapse. It is this collapsed (constructed) identity that casts itself in a postmodern universalism, and which can increasingly be called neo-liberal.
9. Santosh S., presentation in panel titled 'Art and Subaltern Politics: Focus on Dalit Discourses' at symposium 'Elective Affinities, Constitutive Differences: Contemporary Art in India', New Delhi, 2007.
10. Partha Miter, The Triumph of Modernism: India's Artists and the Avant-garde, 1922-47, London, Reaktion Books, 2007, for this 'forgotten' history of early to mid 20th-century global cosmopolitanism.
11. The Far East is sometimes used synonymously with East Asia, which may be defined in geographic or cultural terms as to Russia's East, and including central and coastal China, Taiwan, Japan, both North and South Korea, the Philippines and Vietnam, as well as the states and cultures of the rest of Southeast Asia.
12. I draw my arguments from earlier scholarship on ways in which the 'Occident' as a category needs to be problematised. For example, Dipesh Chakrabarty. Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, Princeton, Princeton University Press. 2000.