“Perhaps due to the diversity and depth of Indian culture, people carry many different images of India. Contemporary art can act as a common language to reveal the India beyond the images and to lead us to a greater understanding within, for there is something that transcends the diversity of images, a spirit that is contemporary and a presence that is universal, even in its Indianness, above all there is a sense of creative adventure that reaches out to something beyond the image, through the image, be it figurative or abstract.
This, I feel, is what captivated me – the glimpse of a window in the image, opening to a space beyond.” Masanori Fukuoka, Collector and Director, Glenbarra Art Museum
In a complex time when the numbers of currents affecting Indian society seem to multiply Indian art is confidently coming of age. Artists evince a deep awareness of globalization as the technology of communications makes mountains of data available, while they negotiate a unique, personal esthetic vision that strongly reflects their Indian cultural heritage. They grapple with the issues of how to express their Indian ethos; how to relate to international art idioms; and how to evolve an original “voice”.
One of the superstars of Indian contemporary art, Ravinder Reddy explores the traditional and the contemporary in both theme and material. Made from fiberglass and enamel paint rather than traditional materials such as clay, plaster and gold leaf, Reddy brings to his sculptures an eclectic mix of folk and kitsch, whilst thematically addressing the issue of maintaining reverence and adherence to tradition.
Every key private collection I visited during my stay had a Reddy or two. Even the superb Aman Hotel in Delhi greeted me with a Reddy head.
The high-impact work I saw around India was proof that if art is powerful enough in its form and substance it doesn’t quite matter where it comes from. And that is exactly what the quote at the beginning of this post from Masanori Fukuoka was describing: the enchantment of finding the universal in the particular, as in all good art.
Grabbing attention internationally are husband-and-wife Subodh Gupta and Bharti Kher who reinvigorate everyday Indian subjects and materials in eye-catching sculptures.
Describing himself as “the idol thief”, Subodh Gupta is one of the most exciting contemporary artists to have emerged in recent years. The man dubbed by The Guardian as the “Sub-Continental Marcel Duchamp” trained as a painter and went on to experiment with a variety of media.
His strategy of appropriating everyday objects ubiquitous throughout India and turning them into artworks that dissolve their former meaning and function, reflects on the economic transformation of his homeland, and relates to his own life and memories. Gupta transforms the icons of Indian everyday life into artworks that are readable globally.
Bharti Kher was born in 1969 in London. Relocating to New Delhi after studying painting in Newcastle, England, she likens herself to a well-intentioned ethnographer investigating her Indian culture. She is committed to exploring cultural misunderstandings and social codes through her art practice and delivers a very forceful reinterpretation of modern India.
Her work encompasses painting, sculpture and installation, often incorporating bindis, the forehead decoration worn by women in India. “Many people,” she has explained, “believe it’s a traditional symbol of marriage, but actually it’s meant to represent a third eye — one that forges a link between the real and the spiritual worlds.”
In “The skin speaks a language not its own” a slumped, life-size she-elephant’s considerable surface courses with white sperm bindi, and it took Bharti Kher 10 months to make. It was auctioned at Sotheby’s London last June for a record $1.2m and can be seen now at Delhi’s new private Kiran Nadar Museum.
Sotheby’s deputy director of contemporary art, James Sevier, called it an “icon” of contemporary Indian art. He said: “It is India’s identity in all its glorious complexities that is the hero of this masterpiece and the sculpture remains a beacon of India’s avant-garde scene at the beginning of the 21st century.”
To be continued:
Art and culture tour of India – Part 8:
Private Museums and Art Hotels