‘India’ as a post-territorial conceptual entity in 21st century Indian contemporary art: from nationalism to globalization and beyond,


A survey of the evolution of the Indian contemporary art scene, examining the various stages of historical development of Indian modern art and investigating the complex theoretical frameworks empowering Indian contemporary art, as experienced in International & local venues in two recent significant exhibitions, expands  the idea of India in an international space of imagination.

The author examines the works of Indian contemporary artists to understand how the idea of India in the 21st century has been reciprocated through their practice in the international art context. The art historical backdrop is traced through various stages of socio-political changes that have shaped the Indian nation state of today. From the initiation of a modern art language in the 1930s during the colonial conditions and the gradual transformation of post-independence Indian Modern Art, the author investigates the alternative currents of the vernacular pop in 1960s, the rise of postcolonial studies & subaltern theory in the 1990s to the shifting paradigms with the advent of capitalist globalization. The two significant exhibitions of Indian Contemporary art that constitute this research are

1>    ‘The Empire Strikes Back: Indian Art Today’, at the Saatchi Gallery, London from January 29 to May 8, 2010.

2>    ‘The Indian Parallax or the Doubling of Happiness – Indian Contemporary Art from a Global Context’ , at the Birla Academy of Art & Culture, Kolkata, India from December 1 to December 23, 2012, curated by Shaheen Merali.

Nationalism and the rise of Indian  modern art

In the histories of Indian art, which are written initially by Europeans, who had tremendous influence on Indian writers as well, what is immediately encountered is the clash of taste. An example might be the leading authority James Fergusson, the creator of the chronology of Indian art & architectural history in 1876, he claimed that the chief characteristic of Indian art was that it was written in decay.[i] Among other themes, which  were even more fundamental, that deeply affected artists in colonial India, was the idea that art is universal, that there are clear rules of art, and that you know good art looks like, because the values of naturalism or verisimilitude were held to be universally valid .[ii]

In colonial India The British project of westernization was riddled with great contradictions in it’s ideology, which was predicated on democracy in England and despotism in the empire. As part of this westernization policy, in the first phase of colonial art ( 1850 to 1900 ) academic art was extolled. The central figure was Raja Ravi Varma, an artist who was greatly prized by the English, by the Indian aristocracy, and by the ordinary people alike. Varma’s history paintings were the first to imagine the nation’s past. And yet when the next generation of nationalists, the Bengal School painters constructed their cultural identity, they rejected Varma’s brand of naturalism, which they saw as slavish imitation, ingrained in the colonial psyche and the Victorian taste of colonial India, and that’s when they began to try to ‘recover’ pre-colonial art. So in this period, the Bengal School staked its claim to authenticity as they claimed –“Our subject matter is indigenous, therefore we are nationalists.” Thus the whole issue of authenticity became embroidered in the question of imitation and influence.[iii]

Back in the pre-colonial age, the Mughal empire under Akbar in the 16th century was one of the three of the greatest empires along with Charles V’s Spanish empire and the Chinese empire  (Britain monarchs were still sending emissaries to get trade concessions from Mughals).Now Akbar loved European painting and prized the illustrated Bible. When he received religious paintings as gifts he and his son Jahangir gave these to their artists to copy – which is how western art became an element in Mughal painting. Mughal art is actually a mix of Indian, Persian and European elements.[iv] But when the question of colonial power is introduced, then mixture or purity really became a judgmental issue. Colonial artists in India faced a distinctly modern predicament because the distaste for hybridity and the demand for authenticity did not just come from the European historians, but also from cultural nationalists who wanted something that would break away from academic art, and which would not be tainted with colonialism.

Rather than really producing traditional art the nationalist ‘invention’ highlighted the tensions between the naturalist outlook in colonial art and the search for the pre-colonial indigenous ‘decorative’ art. For a comparative analysis, as far as Mexican muralists were concerned, their construction of nationhood rested on a historical representation of Aztec culture, and some of it was also based on American Indian decorative motifs. But in terms of styles Diego Rivera’s work belongs within expressionism, as well as early Italian frescos.[v] But in India and Japan , in the early 20th century, as nationalists began to resist western cultural dominance – although Japan was never colonized – they still had to come to terms with it. Some, Japanese artists tried to go back to ‘Nihonga’, as a marker of identity. As evident in the works of Abanindranath Tagore, key figure of the Bengal school of art. in his vision of ‘Mother India’ ( Image 1 )or the ‘Death of Sahajahan’, the creation of an indigenous style becomes first priority, for his subject-matter was a historical interpretation of the Indian past through epics & mythology. Imbued with pan-Asian ideas, Abanindranath sought out selective affinities to Japan. Pan-Asian ideas, led by Rabindranath Tagore the Bengali poet, Swami Vivekananda the charismatic monk, and the Japanese art critic Okakura, asserted that all Asia was one, unified by its spiritual resistance to western materialism.

The first nationalist art movement, the Bengal School, began to lose steam by the 1920s. When Gandhi first came to the scene in 1921, he wanted people to boycott British Institutions,  political situation was changing very rapidly. By the 1920s the modernist canon had replaced the earlier classical canon. For the nationalist artists the site of the nation shifted from the ‘past’ to the ‘local’ – this was part of the emerging debate of the local & global. Folk art began to be appreciated and the nationalists turned to the so-called tribal people of India. The tensions of art and politics involved in this interplay between modernism, nationalism and primitivism was enormously important as a catalyst for a counter modern outlook. The ambivalent relationship between modernity, modernism and the primitive allowed Indian artists to to put forward anti-colonial strategies and thus fashion their national identity which they would not be able to do with academic naturalism. The objective of  abstract art was to create a flat two dimensional effect by emulating primitive & non-western art, which was of course also the aim of the Bengal school of the artists, who sought to go back to Indian decorative art. The historical experiences of European modernists and Indian nationalist artists were vastly different; but importantly all these artists were making a common cause against naturalism. The art of the Indian nationalist artists – the proponents of the Bengal school in the early 20th century was very similar in spirit to the art of Kandinsky and the abstract artists because European art didn’t necessarily meant naturalism, and that the transformation of forms of nature in the work was as common to ancient & modern India as it was to modern Europe. A crudely carved column of an Indian temple is as much animated by the same soul as any living modern work.

However, there was double bind for the Indian modern artists in the colonial period. on the one hand there was the demand to demonstrate competence in academic art, for which colonial artists were often seen as slavish imitators of the western influences, on the other hand. If they produce art that has no precedence in the west, it is seen as second rate modernism that is culturally impure or unauthentic. Gaganendranath – he was constantly experimenting within the Indian context initially, used pan Asian elements from Japanese to Indian art to construct a new ‘oriental’ art form.( image 2 ) Cubism provided him with another technology to create dazzling patterns, broken up objects and multi-faceted planes. In this way he created a fairy-tale world of imagination through cubism. This was something very different from cubism as originally achieved by Picasso and Braque, and proceeded in a way that is very different from the original intentions of Picasso and Braque in the Parisian context. It can be said that a kind of archeology happened in modernism, in which the artist in the studio & the curator in his museum had access to the art of the world. All artists in the west & non-west engage in this sort of archeologising, but the exercise is valorized differently. Even if Picasso uses African art, this has only a marginal effect on his achievement, or to put it differently, his artistic integrity is not compromised by such borrowings. But as it has been seen, poor Gaganendranath’s ‘hybrid’ cubism does not enjoy such luxury. It appears that borrowing needs to be considered differently. As with Picasso, so with Gaganendranath: both uses sources taken out of context, but they transform them in the light of their own need & experiences.

Looking at modernity as an intellectual search for alternative  to western empiricism, in philosophy from Nietzche onwards, there has been a radical questioning of western rationality, which challenges ideas of positivism and empiricism. This was also a consistent feature of modern non-positivist philosophy as it always comes back to the crossover between east & west, in Heidigger’s existentialism, or in Satre’s use of Buddhism. Above all, eastern philosophy provided an alternative to Cartesian rationality. It was the first serious challenge to the whole rationalist project of the enlightenment and in these east-west crossovers there were arguments that were later taken up in post-modernism and post-colonial thought. In the light of these global cultural exchanges on can question the transfer of artistic styles was not only an one way process.[vi] However, the concept of canon is still crucial in terms of how the impact of modernism on Indian artists is understood. Even today non-European artists are seen as marginal & peripheral, unless they are accepted within the European framework.

In conclusion it can be said that the core idea for the nationalists was to do with the creation of a new cultural self. The artistic strategy of the early Bengal school artists was based on historicism as they drew from pre-colonial art to deviate from the naturalistic academic approach promoted by the British colonizers. Gradually the focus was shifting to the local and the Indian artists found a common cause in the primitive approach of European modern art. The key figures of the early modern approach were Jamini roy, Ramkinkar Baij, Nandalal Bose, Amrita Shergill. In the post-independence era the modern art project continued through the works of artists in mainland India and also another group who travelled extensively to Europe. Among the post-independence artists who carried on the modern art approach successfully were M.F. Hussain, Tyeb Mehta, S. H. Raza, F.N. Souza, Jagdish Swaminathan , Sunil Das, Ganesh Pyne among others who continued as a parallel to the primitive approach of European avant-gardist formalism, seen through an oriental lens and often hybridized with Indian folk, tribal and pre-colonial influences.


Alternative developments in Indian art since the 1960s:

The alternative currents in Indian art which deviated from the pure formalistic modern approach could be traced back in the 1960s. In the post-war/ mid-century re-structuring of art & politics, the process of deconstructing the universal claim of modernism was profoundly shaped by the long struggle for decolonization and in turn gave rise to cultural alternatives. The new developments intended to reclaim art from its ontological bind with high culture.The advent of new subjectivities posed counter-claims as the claim of autonomy in art was complicated. Such developments demanded a revision of  historical status for terms such as ‘popular’ and ‘vernacular’ outside the western mainstream . One unique Indian artist of this era, Bhupen Khakar understood that the avant-garde is, in actual fact , produced precisely through contradictions between popular and high art codes. His conscious approach was to push the pop artist’s agenda for making counter-commodities and radical fetishes into a genre where an alternative representational agency manifests through a narrative form.[vii] However Khakar is not to be read as a local version of Anglo-American pop art, but in the more complex transcultural map, seen as metropolitan rather than western. Long before the development of theoretical discourse around nation and subject, Khakar’s practice can be termed as the archetypal post-colonial artist in his approach of establishing and inverting his relationships to the twin legacies of the colonial and the modern Indian art. He adopted ethnographic modes of a native painter and opened up local geographies with mock-mythic or allegorical narratives drawn from within the common culture acting almost like a double-agent.[viii]

Khakar’s practice was also a larger critique of the abduction of common culture into the national project in India which was basically a modernizing project constructed under the regimes of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. Driven by a reformist-realist principle and preferred representational style that homogenized differing ( linguistic, ethnic, class and caste) ideologies onto the national plane. Khakar acted as a catalyst in defining the legitimacy of local knowledge/common culture, and for staking a counter claim for an avant-garde based on marginal and eccentric sources. Scarcely aware of the actual political radicalism of the 1960s, Khakar in his canny way he was able to adapt the transgressive possibilities of the historical moment. His own practice can be characterized as an attempt to de-stabilize the priesthood of artists and their modernist aesthetics as it prevailed in India. Khakar gave his version of pop art a definite local meaning long before the ‘local’ gained currency as a binary correlate of the global. In creating his ‘Trade series’, he borrowed from the 19th century ‘Company School’ paintings[ix] produced by traditional painters for their imperial patrons who wanted to document the colonized subcontinent. His work also examined various small-time professionals of the indian middle and working class.( Image 3 ) He inserted himself into available iconographic traditions, but at the popular end of the spectrum. He played with the culturally produced scared images of the gods as well as the evolving national iconography of citizenship in the patriotic posters that valorized legendary figures ( Gandhi, Subhaschandra Bose, Nehru and the Dalit leader Dr. Ambedkar ).[x] In addition –  there were bazaar-style depictions of everyday life and common values – toiling farmers, soldiers, school-charts on civic life, baby heroes in grown-up roles, all presented as signifiers of the nation’s wealth and well-being-that amused Khakar greatly. He was also delighted  with the counter-stream of glamorous film stars and sports personalities – The performative excess of these celebrities still excites the modernizing ( and now globalizing ) consumer fantasies of the middle class. Assuming options that were available within the Indian visual regimes, Khakar looped the iconic presence of the protagonist – interchangeably himself and/ as the much reproduced ‘common man’. His strategy of adopting the surrealists and Euro –American pop manner to produced great discomfiture through a variety of near melodramatic narratives gave to the vernacular, within which the popular is lodged, the significance of a language overlapped  with the modern, yet distinct in its cultural and class affiliations. Positioning his imagery within the national representational map of edifying and seductive depictions using all of his wit Khakar saw them transposed in elite contexts, where paradoxically and inevitably, he exhibited his paintings. A Gandhian, he was bitterly against the homogenizing central command and its panoptic view of the modern nation state, that is to say, the Nehruvian model for India. He rather wishfully projected the lost ideal of a communitarian self-governance at the ground level and left it at that, at a part-mystical, part-social, that is to say, part- Gandhian allegory. The artist himself succumbed, but only grudgingly to the authoritative regime of the modern nation. He was able to remain relevant and lived a relatively un-alienated life till 2003, to see the transforming Face of India in favor of capitalist globalization.[xi] Khakar’s practice inspired his peers to engage in a dramatic rearrangement of the more conventional form of modern Indian art into a consciously eclectic alternative visual language since the late 1970s.

The impact of Postcolonial theory and Subaltern studies

Palestinian critic Edward Said’s key text ‘Orientalism’ published in 1978 worked as a catalyst in the development of  post-colonial studies. Two major post-colonial critics Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Homi Bhabha provided the framework of post-colonial critical theory in the late 80s and early 90s. The advent of theoretical discourse around nation and subject did more than altering the understanding of post-colonial art. The alternative developments since the 70s in the practice of artists like Bhupen Khakar could now be reevaluated under the light of a newly established theoretical standpoint. The rise of post-colonial studies empowered Indian contemporary art and in diverse ways informed the practice of a new generation of artists.

Through the key article ‘Can the subaltern speak?’ Spivak puts forward a theory that confronted the persistent constitution of Other as the Self’s shadow evident in the remotely orchestrated, far-flung, and heterogeneous project to constitute the colonial subject as Other. She accused the colonial project of asymmetrical obliteration of the trace of that Other in its precarious Subjectivity. Based on the critic of unequal distribution of power in the colonial and neo-colonial conditions subaltern studies raised the question of  he ‘politics of the people’ against elitism. Spivak pointed out the dominant foreign groups, the dominant indigenous groups on the all-India level as the elite and the demographic difference between the total Indian population and the ‘elite’ – as the ‘people’ or the ‘subaltern classes’.[xii] She further posited that, the identity of the ‘true’ subaltern group is its difference, the role of the intellectual is in tracing the alternative historiography of the subaltern to expand it’s knowledge of itself. Subaltern theory insists on investigating the politics of the ‘people’ in order to access their consciousness.[xiii] The theoretical framework provided by Spivak, situated the subaltern of imperialism in a position that can be compared to the notion of feminine as posited in opposition to patriarchy within deconstructive criticism.[xiv]

Homi Bhabha dissected the nationalist discourses of the nation as a continuous narrative of national progress in the light of changing realities of internationalism, multi-nationalism, or even ‘late capitalism’ to investigate the transformation and assimilation of cultural. In one of the major texts of post-colonial theory ‘Nation and Narration’ Bhabha agreed with  Hannah Arendt’s view that,-“the society of the nation in the modern world is that curiously hybrid realm where private interests assume public significance and the two realms flow unceasingly and uncertainly into each other like waves in the never-ending stream of the life-process itself.”[xv] Recognizing the shifts in the national culture leading to the possible generation of alternative constituencies of peoples and oppositional analytic capacities such as  youth, the everyday, nostalgia, new ‘ethnicities’, new social movements, ‘the politics of difference’, Bhabha posited that they assign new meanings and different directions to the process of historical change. Explaining the formation of a discursive conception of ideology from the most progressive development among such alternative positions, Bhabha echoed Volosinov’s claim of the ideological sign as always being  ‘multi-accentual and Janus-faced’.[xvi] Using the example of the familiar two-faced god, a figure of prodigious doubling, Bhabha interprets the nation-space in the process of the articulation of elements where “meanings may be partial because they are in medias res; and history may be half-made because is in the process of being made; and the image of cultural authority may be ambivalent because it is caught, uncertainly, in the act of ‘composing’ its powerful image.”[xvii]  He reiterates that the recognition of the performativity of language in the narratives of the nation, is essential in understanding Edward Said’s proposition of a kind of ‘analytic pluralism’. The cultural effects of the nation can be interpreted more effectively through such form of critical attention. Bhabha’s prescription for development in a collaborative tension utilizing the insights of poststructuralist theories of narrative knowledge such as textuality, discourse, enunciation, écriture, ‘the unconscious as a language’ were useful in comprehending the cultural conditions of the new India at the end of the 20th century, where, the ambivalent, antagonistic perspective of the cultural boundaries of the nation may be acknowledged as ‘containing’ thresholds of meaning that must be crossed, erased, and translated in the process of cultural production.

He further proposed that the boundary being Janus-faced the contradiction of outside/inside must always itself be a process of hybridity, incorporating new ‘people’ in relation to the body politic. Articulating his understanding of the international cultural context as a dimension both within the margins of the nation-space and in the boundaries in-between nations and peoples, Bhaba cited Frantz Fanon’s – ‘National consciousness, which is not nationalism, is the only thing that will give us an international dimension’ . He argued that It is this international, the anti-nationalist, ambivalent nation-space that has become the crossroads to a new transnational culture. Regarding the ‘other’ Bhabha stated that- “The ‘other’ is no more outside or beyond us; it emerges forcefully, within cultural discourse, when we think we speak most intimately and indigenously ‘between ourselves’.”[xviii] Bhabha also put forward a shifting notion of the center and the periphery in ‘Nation and narration’ as he stated that – “The margins of the nation displace the centre as he argued that – “The peoples of the periphery return to rewrite the history and fiction of the metropolis. The island story is told from the eye of the aeroplane which becomes that, ornament that holds the public and the private in suspense. The bastion of Englishness crumbles at the sight of immigrants and factory workers. The great Whitmanesque sensorium of America is exchanged for a Warhol blowup, a Kruger installation, or Mapplethorpe’s naked bodies. ‘Magical realism’ after the Latin American Boom, becomes the literary language of the emergent post-colonial world.”[xix]


Since it’s inception post-colonial studies has been among the most influential theories for analyzing the artistic production in post-colonial condition by contemporary artists in both mainland India as well as Indian artists of the diaspora. However, there has also been theories put forward in opposition to post-colonial studies by artists and theorists of southasian origin themselves. Proposing an alternative reading of the colonial legacy they posit that the struggle of the colonized for liberation is also for the liberation of the colonizer. When the colonized achieves its liberation, through its struggle against the colonizer’s attempt to maintain its colonial grip on its subjects indefinitely, it actually offers to the colonizer a gift of liberation. It’s a gift which when accepted restores the humanity of both, and brings them together in a humanized equal relationship.[xx] London-based conceptual artist, writer and curator Rasheed Araeen claims that the  postcolonial theories, instead of recognizing the modernity of the postcolonial subject and its creative ability to intervene in what are the legacies of colonialism, have in fact limited and controlled the choices and actions of the postwar artist by defining his/her artistic role and potential exclusively within the migratory and diasporic experiences, as they are still arguing on the basis of the colonizer–colonized relationship and its ambivalence. This situation, complicates the reception of the young “other” artist, who excluded from the paradigm of modernism and removed from its history, finds it difficult to intervene in what are historically determined structures, both of art production and legitimation? While young postmodern white/European artists carry with them the knowledge of modernism and its history, which provides them the dynamic for their present work, nonwhite artists have been denied the history of the modern achievement of their earlier generations in the West. Araeen states that, the issue here being of human equality in a liberal democratic society, it should be one’s basic right to express oneself in whatever way one chooses, with or without one’s cultural baggage. Nobody should dictate, prescribe, or create conditions that limit one’s creative actions. The historical responsibility of the postcolonial artist, both white and black, European and non-European, is to understand that the world is no longer the West’s colony. Araeen also added that the philosophical discourses which justified and legitimated the centrality of the European in modernism has collapsed and has no validity today. These discourses are still being used, under the disguise of new theories, by art institutions, art historians, and critics because of the global power of the West; they continue to look at the world and define it in the same old colonial way. Araeen proposes that the postcolonial artist must therefore challenge this colonial legacy; and only through this challenge can one intervene and transform this society into a truly postcolonial multiracial society.[xxi]

Post-colonialism to Globalization : 1990s and beyond

 The era of  the social experiment of “neoliberalism” in India since 1991, essentially defined as economic globalization, brought about the aggressive expansion and domination of free market capitalism coupled with an attack on the state as a provider of services and support for all people in a society. Often termed as post-colonial colonialism the force of the global market has gradually been transforming the new India reality drastically since the 90s with all its ramifications. The closely related question of “liberation” in economic, social, and cultural terms is central to the grip of contemporary global system of commodity capitalism– “empire” – expanding its reproduction via technological means. Naturally, since the post-colonial theory in of the ramifications of Globalization has become key issue of investigation among contemporary Indian artists and theoreticians. The meaning of the term globalization is to be understood in the concepts and problems of space, place, and ground – facets, conditions, and resources of human existence that have been underplayed in traditional histories of art and culture. Globalization is-

1 . Global production, distribution, and consumption of goods;

2 . Global electronic transfer and trading of capital and commodities;

3.  Rapid global air transport of people;

4.  Virtually instantaneous global communications systems engendered by internet, satellite, and computing technologies;

5.  Appeal of entertainers whose talents (e.g., singing and acting) are made globally available as products through public broadcast and other reproductive systems including film, TV, video, CD, and internet downloading modes.

Globalization’s core conditions since the 1990s has been the development of electronic and digital communications linked to innovative broadcast and private reception modes which differentiates it from the socio-economical and cultural “globalism” of the past within traditional art history. [xxii]At present it is still difficult to fully grasp the implications of the connectivity of globalization and the knowledge of it through electronic media. The awareness of global context and conditions has come to shape how artists now conceive, realize, manifest, and attempt to sell and in other ways propagate their works. In the 21st century art has also becomes a subsidized vehicle for national government and regional powers’ “cultural policy” directed towards a variety of socio-economic ends including “regeneration,” “reconciliation” and “social inclusion. [xxiii]Although  globalization implies the creation of a single system of art within the world, one that erodes pre-existing though still active localized systems, the art biennales, within a single network across the globe do not necessarily manifest a simple mechanism producing standardized art, ideologies of aesthetic value, or direct connection, indeed, to the wheels of global corporate capitalism. [xxiv]Collective, collaborative actions by artists – working with other agents in the art world, locally but also in global networks – are, intrinsically, a positive development. In the post 9/11 world of changing geopolitical conditions the notion of globalization complicates the artistic agency and the theoretical framework within which to analyze contemporary Indian art.

Study of other postcolonial conditions – Latin America

 Today’s Latin American nation Brazil, share various important economical and social characteristics with India. However, despite the differences, similarities stand out: the historical similarities in both having to fight for democracy, the socio‐political hierarchy within the two nations, the geopolitical stature shared as pivotal states, and above all the fact that about 50 per cent of their populations are in the process of emerging.[xxv] The development of Latin American art from the colonial times to the contemporary also shares many resemblances with that in Indian art it terms of the conceptual and theoretical issues related to the reappropriation of the colonized post and strategies for establishing aesthetic counter discourses in a globalized world.

As was the case with the British in India, the French artistic mission of 1816, which carried out its ambition of founding the first academy of the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and Algarve, in order to raise new world aesthetic and moral standards; thus, in addition importing a distinctively European model of instutionalization.[xxvi] The artists of the French Mission contributed to an iconography that would frame Latin America in terms of exoticism and  primitivism. The latter phase would constitute a second subalternization of Latin America, as both the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution were derivative in the history of Latin America and entered in the nineteenth century as the exteriority that needed to be incorporated in order to build the “republic” after independence from Spain and Portugal had been gained. Today the emerging global hegemon or ‘Empire’ – understood as the global market force of capitalist economy, gradually erodes the established political forms such as the nation state. The counter current of Latin American artistic production by the subaltern artist in the colonial and post-independence era was characterized in the exploration of Aztec iconography informed by a valorization of the notion of tradition.[xxvii] From the subaltern perspective, experimentations which combined formal aspects of modernism with pre-hispanic pictorial elements, ran counter to the European avant-garde. The practices in the post-independence era was marked by “irreverent syncretism” and “formal eclecticism” much similar to developments in post-colonial modern India. However the binary of the center and periphery still remain as the third world artists are constantly asked to display exoticism in their identity, to be fantastic – ‘to look like no one else or to look like Frieda.’ The relatively high prices achieved by Latin American art at the great auctions have been assigned to painters who satisfy the expectations of a more or less stereotyped Latin-Americanicity, able to fulfill the new demand for exoticism at the center.[xxviii]

Present day artistic practices in Latin America reveal traces of these counteractions in the self-reflexivity provoked by the subaltern sensitivity to its collusions with and interruptions of the center. Instead of approaching the current Latin American output as merely a synthesis of old and new world aesthetics, one has to take into account the field of tension giving rise a critical space that interrogates the interaction between the here and the there, the past and the present much like the development India. The Eurocentric canon of art history has stereotyped Latin American art as being ‘magical-realist, political, fantastic, baroque; a derivation of Anglo-European art history, a historical accident, an anachronism, an impure and sometimes comical attempt to copy the genuine original.’ The term ‘Baroque’ for instance, appears to be west’s master-signifier for all things Latin-American. While Europe had long overcome the trappings of the baroque, the New World was still exploring its iconography, giving rise to a mishmash of Portuguese, Italian, French, and Spanish baroque in the so-called ‘Barroco Brasileiro’ which continued even after the rise of avant-garde modernism. Tagged by the west as “baroque of the second power”[xxix] – such hegemonic misinterpretations in turn utilized by the contemporary subaltern artists to frame a counter-discourse. ‘Ultrabaroque was the title of the catalogue and the central theme of an exhibition of the work of a number of contemporary Latin American artists created at the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art and displayed in the US and Canada from 2000 to 2003. Ultrabaroque is an excellent example of parodic amplification of what Oswald de Andrade describes as ‘subversive recuperation and transvaluation of the colonial trope of antropofagia.’[xxx] Thus ultrabaroque should be seen more as an attitude rather than a style which is informed by a critical parodic stance.

 Analysis of two major recent exhibitions showcasing Indian Contemporary art

In the previous section the author has articulated the historical, social, political, cultural and philosophical  development of the Indian contemporary art scene by exploring the genesis of counter-aesthetics by the nationalists in the colonial period, to the alternative currents in post-colonial development and finally the third space consciousness in the era of globalization. By including a parallel observation of the development of post-colonial artistic production in Latin American contemporary art, the author has examined the application of subaltern theory in other post-colonial conditions in structuring artistic strategy and framing of counter-poetics. These findings constitute a comprehensive context in which to analyze the artistic production of a new generation of contemporary Indian artists. The author examines three recent exhibitions in significant venues to understand how such artistic intentions has been manifested in the works of these contemporary artists –

1>    ‘The Empire Strikes Back: Indian Art Today’-

Exhibited at the Saatchi gallery, London, this immense exposition included 67 pieces of work by Twenty six emerging and mid career Indian contemporary artists, all of them acquired by Charles Saatchi over the last three months, in 11 rooms. Saatchi, a millionaire collector and the owner of the gallery has certainly established his institution in the international art market and it’s power  is unquestionable. The exhibition thus represents the existing western dominance in the international system through which works of art are valued and exchanged. The artists included in this exposition were Jaishri Abichandani, Mansoor Ali, Kriti Arora, Huma Bhabha, Ajit Chauhan, Shezad Dawood, Atul Dodiya, Chitra Ganesh, Probir Gupta, Sakshi Gupta, Subodh Gupta, Tushar Joag, Jitish Kallat, Reena Saini Kallat, Bharti Kher, Rajan Krishnan, Huma Mulji, Pushpamala N., Yamini Nayar, Justin Ponmany, Rashid Rana, T.V. Santhosh, Schandra Singh, Tallur L.N., Hema Upadhyay and T. Venkanna. The counter-poetics of parody (as observed in previous discussion on post-colonial contemporary art) is evident in the attitude communicated through the title of the exhibition.[xxxi]

The large scale installation by Jitish Kallat, titled ‘Public Notice 2’ ( image 4) from 2007, The artist reproduces Mahatma Gandhi’s speech against the salt tax instituted by the British, in the early 30s  with 4500 letters shaped like bones. The overpowering visual construction through text acts as a reminder of human suffering and the strength required to win the colonial ruler. Making a clear reference to the Empire each unit of the text successfully narrates the history of violence where as the whole spreads a message of peace through the collective reading of the Mahatma’s speech.

‘Museum Without Walls’ (image 5), the piece by Huma Bhabha, is an eclectic hybrid of primitivism, contemporary architecture and a third element which can not be easily categorized. The  tribal masks and allusion of voodoo construction references the notion of primitivism which remains a  common factor between European modernism and Indian modern art.  Playing with ideas such as voodoos – and architectural models the artist attempts to develop a contemporary primitivism. However the existence of a third element – not solely primitive or modern,  could be observed through the concept of the ‘Third space’ of cultural hybridity proposed by Homi Bhabha as discussed before. This notion of ‘Third space’ is echoed throughout of the artistic productions exhibited in the show.

Subodh Gupta’s U.F.O (image 6), from 2007,a large scale construction with brass utensils examines human rights issues of basic necessities in the context of new India where the outside forces of globalization are changing the power relations inside and outside the nation state with the intoxicating sense of an economy producing ever more, ever faster. Gupta uses brass and still utensils in his installation which are very common in the Indian households across dominantly the middle class.

In ‘Killing Site’ (image 7), from 2008, Hema Upadhyay, reinterprets Mumbai’s dilapidated shanty towns upside down, as a critique of the relentless tide of urban development in the city which results in hidden consequence of socio‐economic inequalities19. The decorative fabric as the backdrop for the urban constructions alludes to the expanding textile industry in the region.

The subaltern speaks up in Tallur L. N, piece ‘Untitled’ (image 8), from 2007, A 3-dimensional construction comprising of a pile of black latex mattresses stacked on a hospital bed frame, inflating and deflating, to the sound of  inharmonious breathing . Dealing with the growth of poverty that continues to be an Indian reality the piece delivers an incredibly depressing sight and sign of the objects of social utilitarianism. Tallur’s piece is an investigation of the adsurdism existing in the traditional subaltern space, to magnify the agony of labour conditions in rural india  as compared to the new, American‐styled hyper‐real urbanization that represents accumulation of capital.

Through an excessively versatile combination of works by contemporary artists from both mainland India and diaspora contexts (such as London based Shahzad Dawood , New York based Chitra Ganesh among others) the exhibition echoes the subversive recuperation and transvaluation of the colonial trope of antropofagia.  From the post colonial to the globalization, as experienced in this  exhibition, the complexity of the Indian condition today is to  be understood by recognizing the  continuous hybridization of  existing hybrid cultures.


2>    ‘The Indian Parallax or the Doubling of Happiness – Indian Contemporary Art from a Global Context’-

Curated by Shaheen Merali, ‘The Indian Parallax or the Doubling of Happiness – Indian Contemporary Art from a Global Context’- at the Birla Academy of Art & Culture, Kolkata, India from December 1 to December 23, 2012 featured some of the contemporary Indian artists previously mentioned in the London exhibition. The venue, Kolkata ( previously Calcutta ) is almost a polar opposite of the Saatchi show in terms of venue as this Indian city was the capital of the British colonial India and the Bengal school of nationalist and early modern movements spreaded from this cultural capital of the pre-independence era. Seen through the post-colonial lens if London was the center of the empire then inevitably Kolkata constituted the binary opposite of the periphery in the art historical  context of the Indian art. The artists included in the exhibition were –Sheba Chhahhi, Ramen Chopra, Vibha Galhotra, Prabir Gupta, Jitish Kallat, Reena Saini Kallat, Chittrovanu Mazumdar, Manish Nai, Mithu Sen, Hema Upadhyay.

Sheba chchhi’s ‘The Trophy Hunters’ ( Image 9 )  is a meditative 3-dimensional time based piece  in which two moving image light boxes, consisting of a series of transluscent and transparent layers are juxtaposed with wooden stools and weaving implements. One of the pair of light boxes akin to an illuminated scroll, weaving images of architecture, kings and conquerors into the interstices of the Jamawar shawl. Chachhi uses the earstwhile royal garment to narrate a spiraling story histoy of invasion, violence and synthesis. The other juxtaposes two texts by writer Sonia Jabbar, one that reflects on the history of the AK-47 with vignettes of the continuing quotidian violence of the north Indian controversial state of Kashmir. When viewed the works take on a startling dimensionality as the layers merge in and out of each other to create an almost a cinematic aesthetic. The extreme slow movement of the transluscent screens evoke a meditative experience as it references a cosmic time.

‘Construction De[Con]struction [Re]construction ( Image 10 )by Vibah Galhotra is a timer controlled kinetic work that creates a dense urban jungle consisting of smaller versions of real estate apartments made with fabric with photographic print  on them, instantaneously blowing up and collapsing through the pneumatic system and air compressor. Critiquing the real estate boom in the advent of rapid urbanization in the globalized new India her work focuses on the construction or deconstruction found in the negotiated environment of the constantly changing urban atmosphere.

Probir Gupta’s  reflections on the Indian Identities in a post-independent Indian context are informed by extensive research and multi-layered in construction. The installation ‘We are in the same boat together brother (Synagogue)’( image 11 ) consisting of fibreglass sculpture, photographs, cloth, metal, film projection and bamboo structure is  the artist’s reflection on the Jewish diaspora in India. ‘We are in the same boat brother’ is a song ny Paul Robeson a black musician, later on translated and sung by a leftist musician singer Dr. Bhupen Hazarika. An assemblage of texts, objects, sculpture, structure and photographs with a video, speak about a sublime co-existence, considered as normal in any other form of sharing.

In the single channel video projection ‘Synapse’ ( Image 12 )Reena Saini Kallat collaborates with an optician in order to replace texts used for eye- test with the text from the constitution of India. As seen in this piece Indian citizens of different class, gender and age from various social backgrounds read and mis-read the letters as they unconsciously go through the official constitutional text. This piece is in line with her practice that examines officially recorded or registered names of people, objects, and monuments that are lost or have disappeared without a trace, only to get listed as anonymous and forgotten statistics.

Using compression techniques Manish Nai experiments with dimensions, materials and textures in his untitled piece (Image 13) comprised of used clothes. His sculptural propositions made with the clothes of his wife and two year old son can be seen on the one hand as family portraits. Through a material investigation the old clothes tell stories of gender, age and lifestyle to conjure a collective portrait of the new Indian social reality.[xxxii]

The notion of hybridity is very much present in the works as the artists who engaged in  eclectic visual experimentation that at times utilizes traditional crafts to takes on the complex idea of traditionalism and on the other hand assimilates external influences to write a third text. The influence of subaltern theory is evident in the subject and objects explored. To the the local audience the  extent of hybridity at times appears alien as it also happens to the western gaze in the international venue. Thus the works by these new generation of Indian artists (most of them under the age of 40) situates themselves in a liminal space.


In this survey The author has examined historical, social, cultural, political and philosophical developments in Indian post-independence art to comprehend the shift in contemporary conception of India. Expanding India as an entity outside the territorial boundaries of the nation state in the international space of imagination, through the development of unique language the new generation of Indian contemporary artists seek what Homi Bhabha proposed as the third space. Transforming gradually through the long journey from the nationalist to modern through post-modern and now within the dialectic space of globalization the Indian contemporary art is an eclectic mix of complex artistic agencies that is more than the counter-poetics of the post-colonial gaze. In conclusion it can be said that, there has been a lot happening in the Indian contemporary art scene since the first decade of 21st century. Many Indian modern and contemporary artists getting sold for record prices at the major western auction houses, contemporary Indian artists participating in many major biennials / international collaborations and awarded with international art prizes. The rise of the Indian contemporary art can be seen as being benefitted from the economic growth of India and China with growing global interest in contemporary Asian art. The first major national contemporary art fair at the capital New Delhi now completing its third year, the first ever Indian pavilion at the 54th Venice biennial in 2012 and most recently in 2013 – India’s first major Biennial – the ‘Kochi Muziris Bienniel’ taking place –have been markers of growth for the contemporary Indian art scene.

Image list:

  1. The saffron clad goddess Bharat Mata ( Mother India ), a painting by Abanindranath Tagore
  2. Temple – Vernacular Cubism by Gaganendranath Tagore.
  3. Man with a Bouquet of Plastic Flowers. Bhupen Khakhar, 1975,Oil on canvas. 175 x 140 cm
  4. Public Notice 2, Jitish Kallat,  2007, 4479 fibreglass sculptures, Dimensions variable
  5. Museum Without Walls, Huma Bhaba, 2005, Clay, wire, wood, Styrofoam,89 x 63.5 x 86.4 cm
  6. U.F.O. , Subodh Gupta, 2007, Brass utensils, 114 x 305 x 305 cm
  7. Untitled, tallur L.N. , 2007, Inflatable bed, silicon, latex rubber, medical cot and forceps
    275 x 280 x 160 cm
  8. Killing Site Hema Upadhyay2008, Acrylic, gouache, dry pastel, photograph on paper, aluminium sheets, resin, 183 x 122 x 61 cm
  9. The Trophy Hunters, Sheba Chhachhi, 2008, Installation with 2 moving image light boxes, Duratran print, wooden stools
  10. Construction De[Con]struction [Re]construction, Vibha Galhotra, Timer controlled kinetic work, fabric, onumetic system and air compressor 96X132 in (approximately) 2012
  11. We are in the same boat togather brother ( synagogue ), Fibreglass sculpture, photographs, cloth, metal, film projection, bamboo.
  12. Synapse, 2011, single channel video projection, Duration 09 mins 32 secs,
  13. Untitled ,Manish Nai, 2012, Used clothes, 7.4 X 7.4 X 7.4 in

1 The saffron clad goddess Bharat Mata  -Abanindranath Tagore.1

2 Temple – Vernacular Cubism by Gaganendranath Tagore 2

3 Man with a Bouquet of Plastic Flowers. Bhupen Khakhar, 1975,Oil on canvas. 175 X 140 cm3

4 Public Notice 2, Jitish Kallat, 2007, 4479 fibreglass sculptures, Dimensions variable4

5 Museum Without Walls, Huma Bhabha, 2005, Clay, wire, wood, Styrofoam,89 x 63.5 x 86.4 cm5

6.U.F.O. , Subodh Gupta, 2007, Brass utensils, 114 x 305 x 305 cm6

7  Untitled Tallur LN7

8 Killing Site, Hema Upadhyay 20088

9 The Trophy Hunters, Sheba Chhachhi, 2008, Installation with 2 moving image light boxes, Duratran print, wooden stools9

10 Construction DeConstruction Reconstruction, Vibha Galhotra10

11We are in the same boat togather brother, Fibreglass sculpture, photographs, cloth, metal, film projection, bamboo.11

12 Synapse 2011 single channel video projection Duration 09 mins 32 secs12

13Untitled ,Manish Nai, 2012, Used clothes, 7.4 X7.4 X7.4 in13

[i] Mitter, Partha. “The great wave of cultural nationalism.” In Art and nationalism in colonial India, 1850-1922: occidental orientations. Cambridge [England: Cambridge University Press, 1994. 226-227.

[ii] Ibid,10.

[iii] Mercer, Kobena. “Reflections on modern art and national identity in colonial India.” In Cosmopolitan modernisms. London: Institute of International Visual Arts ;, 2005. 33.

[iv] Mitter, Partha. “Prologue.” In Art and nationalism in colonial India, 1850-1922: occidental orientations. Cambridge [England: Cambridge University Press, 1994. 13.

[v] Mercer, Kobena. “Reflections on modern art and national identity in colonial India.” In Cosmopolitan modernisms. London: Institute of International Visual Arts ;, 2005. 36.

[vi] Ibid, 30.

[vii] Mercer, Kobena. “The uncommon universe of Bhupen Khakar.” In Pop art and vernacular cultures. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press ;, 2007. 111.

[viii]Ibid, 112.

[ix] Ibid, 113.

[x]  Ibid, 116.

[xi] Ibid, 122.

[xii] Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Can the subaltern speak?.” In Can the subaltern speak?. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1988. 26.

[xiii] Ibid, 27.

[xiv] Ibid, 28.

[xv] Bhabha, Homi K.. “Introduction.” InNation and narration. London: Routledge, 1990. 2.

[xvi] Ibid, 3.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Ibid, 4.

[xix] Ibid, 6.

[xx]  Harris, Jonathan. “Art and Postcolonial Society .” In Globalization and Contemporary Art. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

[xxi] Ibid.

[xxii] Harris, Jonathan. “Introduction.” InGlobalization and Contemporary Art. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

[xxiii] Ibid.

[xxiv] Ibid.

[xxvi] Armstrong, Elizabeth and Victor Zamudio-Taylor, eds., 2000. UltraBaroque: Aspects of Post-Latin American Art (San Diego: San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art). 105.

[xxvii] Olea, Héctor, 2004. “Version, Inversions, Subversions: The Artist as Theoretician,” in Ramírez 2004: 443-453.Pacheco, Marcelo E., 1999. “Parody and Truth Games” in Ramírez 1999: 90-120.

[xxviii] Mosquera, Gerardo, 1992. “The Marco Polo Syndrome: Some Problems around Art and Eurocentrism” in Third Text, 21 (Winter 1992/93): 35-41.

[xxix] Armstrong, Elizabeth and Victor Zamudio-Taylor, eds., 2000. UltraBaroque: Aspects of Post-Latin American Art (San Diego: San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art).4.

[xxx]  Ibid.

[xxxi] “The Telegraph – Calcutta (Kolkata) | 7days | Eye on England.” The Telegraph – Calcutta. http://www.telegraphindia.com/1100207/jsp/7days/story_12076357.jsp (accessed March 6, 2013).

[xxxii] From personal notes in conversation with the artist.


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