“The Time for Minor Narratives Has Come”: Curator Gayatri Sinha on the Next Wave of Indian Artists

One of the most striking things about last month’s India Art Fair was that passion rather than politeness ruled, even in the unlikeliest of places. Unforgettably, at a panel forum on the snooze-worthy subject of "The Post Colonial and the Curatorial,” leading Indian curator and panellist Gayatri Sinha shook things up by confessing she was bored with the whole concept of post-colonialism, asking whether it was time for the curatorial community to move on — a feisty call in a country born out of one of the greatest anti-colonial struggles in history.

Sinha is one of India’s most influential curators, and she is certainly not uninterested in history. In fact, with the 2010 exhibition and book "Voices of Change" she did her bit to define India's first generation of contemporary art stars, those like Jitish Kallat, Subodh Gupta, and Bharti Kher, whose works have revolutionized the way we see India. But she believes that we now need to look elsewhere. "Once I had done [the "Voices of Change" show] it was if the page had turned. Those artists had been historicized, even as they continue to do brilliant work, and I wanted to move into investigating newer and more ironic voices who are more representative of the way India is at the moment.”

Some of these voices can now be heard in Sinha’s latest exhibition "Cynical Love — Life in the Everyday," which runs through August at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in New Delhi. The show is an extension of an ill-fated exhibition Sinha co-curated at Shanghai’s Pearl Lam Galleries last year, which aimed to introduce these new voices to the art scene of India’s neighbor and great rival, China. When these two powers interact things often end badly, and so it turned out in that particular instance: A number of the Indian works were held up in Chinese customs and the show ended with many of the exhibits still in their packing cases.

ARTINFO recently talked to Sinha about the new voices she had discovered for her show, looking beneath the national fabric, and Indian artists' attempt to come to grips with China.

Tell me more about the "newer and more ironic voices" of Indian art that you want to introduce to a wider audience now.

I want to show voices which are not so much part of the grand national narrative, but rather the minor narratives. There is a national fabric that is being maintained, but there are also these unexpected forces of energy, these kinds of bursts of energy under the bedspread, as it were, which are not being factored into the national mainstream or the national narrative. I’m deeply interested in these, in the smaller narratives and works. Given India’s current economic condition and its very engaged political scene, I think the time for minor narratives has come. The artists’ works I am interested in now are intense, edgy, ironic, witty, and sensuous. I want these kinds of voices to travel outside India.

What kind of artists are we talking about?

I am talking about, for example, an artist like Mithu Sen. She was educated at Visva-Bharati University in West Bengal. This university was founded by Rabindranath Tagore, India’s first Nobel laureate and a believer in Pan Asianism.  Tagore founded this visual arts school to promote the idea of Indian-ness. The idea was to nurture a very different methodology to the British imperial style and in art it saw a return to works on paper, Indian-style painting, the exclusion of oil on canvas, and a respect for the national art tradition. In that sense it leads to a kind of epiphany for the national movement in India. Anyway, Mithu comes along much later but she has still imbibed that kind of training.

You have to remember that nationalism is not a dirty word in India. It is associated with the freedom struggle and from the 1910s up until at the least 1960s or 1970s the idea of Indian-ness went through many periods of revision and investigation, and represented a deliberate breach from the colonial period. In that pan-Asian moment a celebration of China and Japan was very strong as well.

So you see in Mithu’s work many of the tropes of Persian and Chinese painting — the mountains in the distance, the scroll form — and tied to these she concerns herself with specific, historical, but also rather ironic details. Tea comes from China to India and opium of course travels from India to China. And so she illustrates some other Chinese imports too — the Chinese bicycle, the Mongol horse. Like all of her generation (she is around 40), she is quite ironic in her approach.

Her work to me seems quite joyous.

It is joyous. But that again is very Indian — the mood of celebration even in the face of huge adversity, and simultaneous with the adversity. It’s very Indian.

I’m interested in what you say about Indian artists’ use of Chinese iconography, but it seems to me the engagement between the two countries culturally today is actually very small.

China is a striking absence in the Indian cultural mindset. It’s as if the Himalayas really are some huge road-bump preventing cultural interface. And I’ve been very struck by this, very struck by the lack of any cultural and intellectual interlocutors between China and India. It’s only now that people are almost simultaneously starting to think about it — the time has come.

There is also a rapid growth in outward-lookingness in India. Both China and India were closed societies until very recently. China until the late 1970s, India until about 1989, and now there is this great outward flow, not just in terms of diaspora and money and investment abroad but also in terms of confidence. There is more Indian confidence and inquiry. And art is really at the end part of this outward cultural flow. Look at what cinema did in the '50s and '60s and literature did in the '80s and '90s for the world’s understanding of India. Art has done that in the 2000s.

But in terms of China, we are just starting — previously almost all cultural interaction with China has been mediated through the West. Even now I would read about China through a Western interlocutor, through a Western critic. And yet at one time, at the turn of the last century, there was this Pan Asianism between intellectuals in China and India and Japan that was anti-colonial. But of course the two great wars and the revolution in China put a stop to that.

So in India there are flashes of interests in China in the culture — Chinese gymnasts, or Chinese toys — but then a thousand years ago there was an intimate relationship between the countries along the Silk Road. Chinese contemporary art is of great interest in the Indian art scene though.

Is that a genuine interest do you think or a fascination with its commercial success?

I guess there is a global pattern developing — basically wherever China goes India follows five years later! (laughs) Whether it’s museum shows or curated exhibitions, China has "been there, done that" and then five years later India comes along. And nobody really minds in India about that because India really globalised about 15 years later than China.

It’s interesting when you think about the Western reception of Indian art: It in some ways is more accessible to Westerners, because of the use of English and the familiar iconography.

Indian art, more than Chinese, is also intense, edgy, ironic, witty, and sensuous, and these all seem to me to be very English attitudes too.

What about some other artists you would like to introduce?

Another interesting artist (also a woman) is Lavanya Mani. She is young, in her 20s, and she has developed this method of painting where she grinds her own colours and she washes the cloth she paints on in the local river. In that sense her painting has a totally pre-colonial feel, but then as a post-colonial artist her work is very much about globalisation and trade and economic movements.

So in a work like "Paisley" it is all painted with these handmade dyes as if she were working in the pre-1850 period. It's very beautiful. And it shows a Knave of Hearts sailing what could be a Chinese junk with a paisley sail. But then you see the sail is all decorated with war planes, and there's an opium poppy growing out of the boat like a chimney propelling the boat. And of course the symbolism is that the Knave is the Brit who engineered the whole thing, and drugs of course lead to war, not just in the 19th century but today. It's funny, in a work like this you see how much India and China are embedded in each other's histories in a way that isn't often acknowledged.

This kind of embedding and also blurring of the lines between high art and craft, studio practise and craft practise, is a very notable thing in contemporary Indian art practise.

What about the work of Ranbir Kaleka, who is an older artist but one whom you have been quite associated?

Kaleka has been creating a kind of work that blends painting and video since the early 2000s. In the past he has been a very successful painter but to make this kind of bridge between painting and video, this kind of medium, I don't think I've seen anything else quite like it. You get this kind of quality, which is maybe an Indian quality, in his work that there is no closure, it is kind of a looped imagination that Indian creative artists (writers as well) have. And the nature of this looped imagination is really what his work is about, the idea that beneath the mundane, the engagements of the mind continue to flow all the time, it's like a river of thought. So you see this painting of a man sitting quietly in a domestic setting, but then suddenly you see this moving video that animates his thoughts. Kaleka's work is really rich. It is multi-layered. An aesthetic layer, which is immediate, and then there are other layers if you want to stay and look, and they will unfold for you.

Speaking of multiple layers, there are also in Indian contemporary art these rich photocollages like the ones by B.M. Kamath.

Yes, in digital collages like "Familiar Music from the Old Theatre" you see this cacophony of imagery. The main theme is the burning of books, but among this theme you have this ironic referencing of all these international styles that are invading our landscape now, like the French style that is now mass produced in our markets, side by side with an Indian temple setting, and then the whole work seems to be sited in a building that is not quite finished, which is very much what the Indian landscape is like now. There are buildings upon buildings upon buildings and none is quite complete. It's a stunning work, with a use of color that is very assured.

But in all these different works you can see how far we are moving away from [Subodh] Gupta. It’s already another generation. And as a curator I think it's important to move beyond.

Friday, February 24, 2012