In contemporary Indian art, the idea of a mythical past emerges as one of the most contested terrains. If under the national modern, a golden past was often invoked via the mythic imaginary, contemporary artists return to it in an ironic mode that often narrows the gap between utopia and dystopia.
In this paper, I will juxtapose the modern and contemporary revisiting of the past as either a lost golden age or a melancholic condition that has uncanny affinity with the present. No revisiting of the past can overlook the question of temporality but there are very many kinds of temporalities. The one that I will take up as a parallel concern holds disciplinary implications for the periodisation of modern and contemporary art in India. How different is temporality that artists address in their practice from that of art historians and art critics when they designate moments as modern and contemporary?
When Sheela Gowda revisits Mahabharata creating a minimalist allegory in Draupadi’s Vow, it marks itself differently from a more joyous celebration of the epics in M F Hussain’s Sita and Lakshmi. However, in more recent art practice that has witnessed an archival turn, evocation of the past is necessarily mediated by other representations and invoked through a new temporality. The past is not some fictitious realm that can be imagined in a spatial continuum as interpreted by some early modernists like Raja Ravi Varma but pieced allegorically out of fragments and the materiality of the medium. Apart from deep ambivalence and disenchantment towards the idea of a golden past, many contemporary artists’ engagements with the past see a possibility of a new take that is as much about the present as about the past. Once the artist enters the realm of performance either through self-insertion or other performers, the ground of representation profoundly changes and the line between the subject and object of representation gets blurred. Any concern with authenticity of the representation of the past is replaced by entangled temporality and a new mode of representation in which self-fashioning and masquerade override fixities of identities.
The notion of golden past opens up the question of temporality and in the history of modern Indian art, it captures its key dynamics and its differences from modern western art. Intertwined with the temporality informing art practice is that of periodisation that concerns historiography of art raising the question of comparativism between how modern and contemporary art are periodised in India in relation to the Euro American art historiography. Given the fact that modernism in India emerged under the aegis of colonial modernity, the very periodisation of modern and postmodern art must follow a different trajectory than that in the west. If the birth of modern art in Europe was predicated upon the death of history painting and the rejection of the allegorical (Owens, 1998: 329) modern Indian art was born and nourished out of historical imagination with allegory as its abiding means. How the past was imagined as history and myth by modern Indian artists varied across time but the impetus to start from ground zero that drove modernist art practice and art discourse in the west was absent under colonial modernity.
In the course of plotting an overview of the changing relationship between Indian artists’ engagement with the past since modernity, let us consider the problems of periodisation of modern Indian art. On the account of the emergence of modern Indian art from colonial modernity, western theories of periodisation lose explanatory potential in the Indian context. Take, for instance, Boris Groys’ definition of modern, postmodern, and the contemporary in the west: the modern projected itself towards the future, the postmodern looked back at the past through a deconstructive gaze, and it was only the contemporary that steadfastly stared at the present (Groys, 2008: 4). When modernism came to be practiced by Indians, the past haunted their imagination and tradition played a key role in their appropriation of Euro American models of modernism- often, the staging of the past and tradition rescued them from the charge of derivative modernism. In this light, it may not be out of place to assert that the arrival of the postmodern in India preceded that of the modern, which derives its historical validity from colonial modernity.
'Golden Past': Some Contemporary Moves
In the following section, I will focus attention on artists whose practices are informed by a host of changes brought about by the liberalisation of the Indian economy and the arrival of the media culture. Globalisation also brought to the fore the inadequacy of the national modern as a paradigm, making artists aware of the unevenness of modernity, most visible in the gap between the rural and the urban. It is not surprising that it is via ethnography that many contemporary artists refashioned their self-descriptions to confront the new reality of globalised India (Kapur 2000: 377). Photography clearly emerges as a compelling medium to explore the interstitial spaces between the cities and the town, high culture and popular culture and the masculine and feminine codes of performativity and abidingly, tradition and modernity. In these complex negotiations, what gets further thrown up as a corollary is the aestheticisation of the spectacle or its rejection through a more prosaic and almost an arte povera emphasis on the materiality of expression.
The sudden intrusion of western media during the 1990s coincided with the rise of religious fundamentalism that became most visible with the unprecedented popularity of ancient Indian epics that beamed into people’s homes as televised serials, first of Ramayana and then Mahabharata.
To many middle class Indians, access to past mythologies and epics came about through the visual culture of Amar Chitra Katha comics that were translated into English and vernacular languages. These comics, hugely popular even today, narrated past exploits of legendary characters from classical epics through graphic illustrations. If the media generated fascination with the mythology of the past at a time when fear of cultural invasion from the west was felt acute, Indian liberalisation witnessed a reverse aspiration with the wide proliferation of call centers in urban areas. Mimicry—speaking like an American—became almost an occupational need for call centre workers.
It is this cultural hybridity that the contemporary artist Navin Thomas invokes when he deploys the cartoon format from popular media and stages an incongruous confrontation between the traditionally dressed gods and goddesses with contemporary technology of information. Taking from the popular language of Amar Chitra Katha, Thomas uses speech bubbles to let the divine beings speak a contemporary language: technology makes a direct inroad into their spaces and even it transforms their traditional iconography as all the faces sport the parrot like beak—an emblem of mindless communication in a globalised world carried out by a call centre cyber coolies who feel compelled to speak in a foreign accent. The golden age comes under the shadow of technology in an anachronistic setting where the gods and goddesses incongruously inhabit a world ruled by technology.
Another contemporary take on the golden past takes the shape of photo-performance, a genre popularised by N Pushpamala around late 1990s. Neither a pure performance nor photography, photo-performance aids this artist in mounting a theatrical interface between the past and the contemporary. Collective memory is the stuff out of which Pushpamala mediates a feminist critique of the ‘golden past’ by corporeally substituting her own body for the mythical Sita of Ramayana, the exemplar of an ideal woman in her ‘Abduction Series.’ Combining photography with performance, she glances backwards into the nation’s visual archives that still circulate in the realm of the popular. Her turn to the popular visual culture sets her apart from the traditional Indian modernist’s valourisation of the classical past as uncontaminated by a colonial presence. Her route to the golden past was thoroughly mediated by the calendar icons of gods and goddesses that lead her to Ravi Varma, one of the first Indian painters to adopt oil painting in the style of academic realism.
It is through citation that she revisits goddesses created by Ravi Varma a century ago and places herself in their role as a spectacular embodiment. Situated in the interspace between the popular and the elite, her act of appropriation is not strictly postmodern in Boris Groys’ sense, as the images of goddesses do not belong to a past. They may be traced back to the past of Ravi Varma’s time but as copies they are also part of the contemporary popular visual culture and a repository of public memory. In their search for the pre-modern past, the cultural nationalists had bypassed the real of the popular which had negotiated with the technology of mechanical reproduction and already developed a set of genres and performative gestures captured for instance, in studio photography or popular cinema.1
Pushpamala’s archival work in her art practice once again helps us to draw attention to the disjunction between the way the realm of the popular informs periodisation of modernism in the west and in India. If in the west, the postmodern moment arrives with the appropriation of the popular, the readymade and photography and what Craig Owens called the return of the allegorical (Owens, 1998: 318), the Indian modern could never sever ties with the historical, given its emergence under colonial modernity.
By drawing from B grade Indian films, which in turn, may be taken to draw from Ravi Varmaesque paintings, her ‘Abduction Series’ enacts mythology out of clichés which, when strung together, create a caricature of patriarchy embedded in the story. This series draws from Ramayana, the story of Rama, an ideal king who after winning his abducted wife from the villain Ravana, later renounces his wife to prove his sense of duty to the state. Pushpamala, taking the place of Sita, so totally succumbs to the role of hapless heroine of Ramayana through theatrical gestures that the distinction between Rama the hero and Ravana the villain is eroded. Whether Ravana overpowers her will by adduction or Rama expels her from his Kingdom after rescuing her from Ravana, Sita is robbed off her agency and reduced to being a foil against which Rama’s greatness is projected.
If Sita has attained the status of an archetype of an ideal wife, Draupadi emerges in Sheela Gowda’s installation sculpture as the return of the repressed of a strong woman neglected by history.
Draupadi, wife of five Pandava brothers, emerges in Mahabharata as a powerful presence whose humiliation by Duryodhana was avenged by Bheema, one of her five husbands. When Draupadi was disrobed by Duryodhana in royal assembly having been won over in a game of dice, she had taken a vow to have him killed and to wash her hair in his blood. A minimalist installation of long tresses of Draupadi dripping with blood invokes the macabre event both literally and metaphorically, blasting open the traditional narrative through the minimalist synecdoche of Draupadi’s tresses of hair. Not only does this counter-reading of a familiar epic supply a feminist thrust, Gowda stages a materialist aesthetic through her use of thread and hooks, gesturing towards artisanal skill associated with such unconventional sculptural material.
A more dystopic narrative of the golden past finds expression in Sheba Chhachhi’s photographs in the ‘Initiation Series’ that brings to view the daughters of Ganges, a traditional euphemism for Hindu widows.
Working on documenting lives and histories of women in India, Chhachhi chanced upon these women who had renounced their past identities to be part of a new community of ascetics. Despite their heterodox view of patriarchal Hinduism, they continued to perform initiation rites that draw from conventional Hindu ritual practices but for the new purpose of creating an alternative community and a new identity. These photographs point at Chhachhi as an ethnographer raising the larger questions about the ethics and politics of representation. Far from using an anthropological lens, Chhachhi reconciles her outsider status by living with them over a period of time and allowing these women ascetics agency in how they wanted to be represented. Capturing the ordinary women as photographic images, Chhachhi poses a challenge to the nationalist selective reading of the past of the mythological heroines to reclaim a ‘golden Vedic age.’ (Sunder Rajan, 1993: 135).
If Pushpamala necessarily foregrounds her own body to parody the relation between the past and the present, Tejal Shah largely uses performance to give embodiment to other’s desires and fantasies. Here the status of the other is at stake not only as an epistemology and politics but also as aesthetics. It is not only a question of ‘what is being said’ and ‘who speaks for whom’ but ‘how it is enunciated.’ It is from her own experience as a lesbian that she constructs the bridge of solidarity with the hijra community. Through a long period of interaction with this community, she conducts an archeology of their long repressed desires only to have them enacted by the same people whose experiences she collects as a contemporary ethnographer. She poses as an artistic facilitator of the realisation of their fantasies. When these fantasies find a concrete manifestation, they partake of the same clichés and archetypes that constitute heterosexual desire putting, into question the otherness of hijra desire. It is here that tradition comes alive, feeding into the hyperreal. The hijra fantasy realised by Krishna and Yashoda as archetypal son and the mother brings to spectacular fruition the transsexual desire for ‘motherhood’ only to be fulfilled in a hyper real world of fantasy.
Yashoda is dressed as a Hindu bride in a red sari pointing out the moon to baby Krishna, a gesture that in itself reflects back on its own constructedness as a fantasy. However, the extent to which the fantasy can float outside national boundaries and have transcultural reference can be seen in Cleopatra on a Barge where a hijra ‘couple’ enhance their markers of sexuality in a parody of heterosexual love.
So far, we have explored temporality in art practice and art discourse as running parallel to each other. In the case of Raqs Media Collective, which consists of both the practitioners and theorists, the two temporalities converge in the installation The Reserve Army.
Paying tribute to India’s modernist sculptor, Ramkinker Baij, Raqs Media Collective set up their dialogue through discourse and artwork creating yet another form of entangled temporality. Their discourse is constituted of excerpts of Yaksha and Yakshi, the semi-divine guardians from Mahabharata; from A K Coomaraswamy’s Yakshas, A Hindu Primer by A V Srinivasan; and The Endangered Yakshi: Careers of an Ancient Art Object in Modern India by Tapati Guha Thakurta.
In other words, their discourse and practice acquire shape as palimpsests of citations both in the visual and textual registers.2
Traditionally, Yaksha and Yakshi were the guardians of wealth who were notorious for asking difficult questions of travelers to protect the hidden treasure. When Ramkinker was commissioned to make a public sculpture to adorn the portals of the Reserve Bank of India in the first decade of the formation of the Indian Republic, he chose the monumental images of a Yaksha and a Yakshi These two iconic images are taken by Raqs Media Collective as two gigantic question marks frozen in stone—‘How is money to be guarded?’ and ‘to what purpose?’ Below is their imaginary conversation with the legendary Yaksha that moves backwards and forwards in time:
The opening question is from Arnayaka Parva, Mahabharata:
Yaksha: Mrtah katham syaat purushaha?
When is the man as good as dead?
Yudhisthira: Mrto daridrah purushah.
A poor man is a dead man
Yaksha: What is more precious than gold, as worthless as a scrap of paper, heavier than stone, faster than the wind, slower than a turtle, lighter than a feather, as deadly as poison, and as welcome as a blessing?
Raqs: A bank note. Because it can be valuable and worthless. Because it can be sluggish and volatile. Because it can weigh you down with debt or set you free. Because it can kill you or save you and because it can kill you by saving you.
Yaksha: When money talks, who listens?
Raqs: The deaf hear, the blind see, the wise man goes mad, the mad woman goes to her senses, . . . misers become poets, artists become mathematicians, thieves pray, holy men babble . . .
In response to Ramkinker Baij’s Yaksha and Yakshi flanking Reserve Bank of India, the Collective created a fibreglass version of the same, ornamenting them with garlands made out of rupee notes and barbed wire waist bands. Substituting stone for fibreglass and sand, they bring the size down to human scale and remove them from their pedestals. As they multiply in numbers, they march as clones and their traditional roles of asking difficult questions get lost in exuberance and euphoria and they become mere instruments guarding the flow of capital. Staging a close proximity of the sacred and the profane, the mythical and the world of capital, they not only fuse temporalities but hollow out claims of a golden past and dreams of utopia.
By complicating temporality as an entangled terrain in which the past and the present engage each other in an intense dialogue, most of the contemporary artists in India discussed in this essay pose limits to the modernist interpretation of modernity. While the dominant narratives of modern art history and art writing cannot completely upturn temporality, contemporary art practice in India has radically questioned modernist dreams of progress and teleology through their critical detours to the past and tradition. If Appiah stages an encounter between the postcolonial with the postmodern in the context of contemporary African art (Appiah, 1997: 55-71),3 the ‘post’ in postcolonial and the ‘post’ in postmodern meet unexpectedly in contemporary art practice in India in multiple ways4—entangled temporality, entangled sexuality, and entangled genre. If the ‘golden past’ had a purchase for early modernists via cultural nationalism, contemporary artists deal a sharp blow to any utopist aspiration in a globalised world where even religion and myth find a new place as sites of seduction and spectacular consumerism.
1. Groys neatly divides the modern, the postmodern and the contemporary into temporally disparate categories while the popular visual culture in India freely crisscrosses the past and the present in its borrowings, upsetting any strict historicist appraisal.
2. Raqs Media Collective, "Yaksha Prashna / The Yaksha’s Questions" in Santhal Family: Positions Around an Indian Sculpture, ed. Grant Watson et al, M HKA, Antwerp, 2008, p 117–118.
3. Kwame Anthony Appiah underlines the different valence that ‘post’ bears in ‘postcolonialism’ and 'postmodernism.' If postmodernism involved space clearing and disjunction from an antecedent practice, postcolonialism in the African context puts into play neotraditionalism that both succumbs to the market and yet can register less anxious creativity and a different mode of postcolonial identity politics that resists essentialist ethnicity.
4. The Reserve Army by Raqs Media Collective stages the encounter between the postcolonial and the postmodern. Unlike in the context of African contemporary art which entails little space-clearing of modernist antecedents, here the space clearing is aimed towards the national modern evacuated of its former significance and Ramkinker’s revisiting of the Yaksha mythology re-annotated along the postmodern reference to the global capital.
Appiah, Kwame Anthony, ‘Is the Post- in Postmodernism the Post- in Postcolonial?’ in Padmini Mongia (ed.) Contemporary Postcolonial Theory. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1997, p 55–71.
Belting, Hans, ‘Contemporary Art as Global Art’ in Hans Belting and Andrea Buddenseig, 2009, (eds.) The Global Art World, Karlsruhe, Hatje Cantz.
Bouriaud, Nicolas, The Radicant, 2009, New York, Lukas and Sternberg, p 36.
Dave-Mukherji, Parul, ‘The Cult of the Goddess and the Cult of the Public’ in Iconography Now: Rewriting Art History, 2006, New Delhi, Sahmat, Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust and ICHR, p 35–49.
Groys, Boris, ‘The Topology of Contemporary Art’, 2008, in Terry E Smith, Okwui Enwezor, Nancy Condee (eds.) Antinomies of Art & Culture, Durham, Duke University Press, p 4.
Guha-Thakurta, Tapati, The Making of a New ‘Indian’ Art: Artists, Aesthetics and Nationalism in Bengal, c. 1850-1920, 1992, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, p 259.
Kapur, Geeta, When was Modernism: Essays in Contemporary Cultural Practices in India, 2000, New Delhi, Tulika.
Raqs Media Collective, ‘Yaksha Prashna/ The Yaksha’s Questions’ in Grant Watson et al (eds.) Santhal Family: Positions Around an Indian Sculpture, 2008, ed. M HKA, Antwerp, p 117–118.
Smith, Terry, ‘Introduction: The Contemporaneity Question’, in Terry E Smith, Okwui Enwezor, Nancy Condee (eds.) Antinomies of Art & Culture, 2011, Durham, Duke University Press, p 17.
Sunder Rajan, Rajeswari, Real and Imagined Women: Gender, Culture and Postcolonialism, 1993, London and New York: Routledge, p 135.
Owens, Craig, ‘The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism’ in D Preziosi (ed.) The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology, 1998, Oxford, New York, Oxford University Press, p 321.
A longer version entitled ‘Entangled Temporality: Contemporary Indian Artists and Their Retakes on "Golden" age' has been published in the series 'Studies in South Asian Art and Culture (SAAC)', Julia A B Hegewald (ed), 2012.
Parul Dave-Mukherji is Professor and Dean at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She holds a PhD from Oxford University. She has lectured in India, Europe, the USA, Australia, and Japan. Her publications include Towards A New Art History: Studies in Indian Art (co-edited), New Delhi, 2003; a guest edited special issue on 'Visual Culture' in The Journal of Contemporary Thought, 17 (Summer 2003); and InFlux - Contemporary Art in Asia, (co-edited) Sage, forthcoming. Her current research focuses on globalisation and art theory, contemporary Asian art, and comparative aesthetics.