Where The State Has Failed: A Cautionary Tale

Written by Suneet Chopra | Updated: Jan 26 2003, 05:30am hrs
I have often wondered why the state with all the resources at its command, the largest collection of contemporary art in the country and a host of obedient specialists at its service, still manages to put up the poorest showing possible of our contemporary art. The reason was more than clear at the showing of Pictorial Transformations, the exhibition put by the NGMA for the NRI jamboree organised by the Government of India recently. The exhibitions curators seem to have gone out of their way to represent Indian contemporary art as a mechanical hand-me-down from the most undistinguished colonial academic art and the Indian Kitsch it spawned, whether in the form of the Company School or the colonial Indian calendar art of Raja Ravi Varmas oleographs.

What our official experts fail to realise is that our contemporary art was a break with both colonial academic art as well as colonial oriental art. That is why when they try to put the two together they fail to harmonise. But still they continue to do it. To understand that we must also understand how the rulers of independent India, while using the anti-imperialist upsurge of the masses to throw out the British, made common cause with the pro-British princes and Zamindars and crushed the peasantry, resulting in a retreat from the anti-imperialist agenda of the national movement.

Indian Black Smith-1, a oil-on-plywood work by Jamini Roy
This retreat was not made by Indias artists. On the contrary, they celebrated events like the Telengana Peoples struggle against the Nizam of Hyderabad (who independent India re-imposed on the people as a Rajpramukh) and the Naval uprising of 1946 in Mumbai. So, the birth of our contemporary art cannot be seen in the bastardised or transformed version of colonial academic or orientalist art with an eye to the bazaar. It challenged their canons as in the figures of heads, abstract forms and awry landscapes of Rabindra Nath Tagore.

In works like Magician and Island of Birds of Gagnendranath Tagore, we can see early examples of the capacity of our modern artists to create a painterly surface not as a reference but as an end in itself, and of refracted light as creating volume on a two dimensional surface, respectively. Both these works are there in the exhibition, but in the corners of a corridor, with doors obscuring them. It is obvious that their historical importance is lost to the curators of the exhibition. These works, which open a dialogue with other contemporaries, like Matisse, Picasso, Klee and Kandinsky as equals, are ignored.

The same ignorance is visible in the inclusion of Nandalal Boses seminal Birth of Chaitanya (which shows a remarkable blend of contemporary composition and Bengal folk art) being thrown in insensitively with his other works that are revivalist and orientalist in character. Again, we are shown a painting by Ramkinkar Baij, but his Dali-like portrait of Rabindranath Tagore, with its tongue-in-check metaphor of the poet as a wayside shrine, lies in the lobby, away from the exhibition.

Jamini Roys powerful figure of a man with a hammer, Vivan Sundrams and Arpana Caurs monumental works of Delhis 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom, blending contemporary treatment of space and composition, with a radical presentation of events are missing, as is the work of Sudhir Patwardhan. Among the seminal abstractionists, Nasreen Mohammedi and Zarina Hashmi both merit a small space between two rooms!

This singular back of vision gives the impression that Indian contemporary art is descendant of colonial academic art and not a challenge to it.

What makes our contemporary art worth investing in today is not how it tumbled out of various bastard forms of colonial visual expression but of how it was one of the most powerful, broad-based and successful challenges to it in the age of decolonisation that has gone on even after the collapse of the Soviet Union with the end of Apartheid in South Africa.

It is one of the worlds best examples of decolonised art. To present it as the NGMA has done is like a broker palming off dud shares along with blue-chip ones to cover his losses.

One must understand that such practices discredit the broker and the market as well. Those who observe the stock market at present know this well. Maybe the promoters of dud art are less aware of the damage such exercises do. Let us hope they get that awareness and understand our contemporary art is original.

It challenges both academic and slavish representation of the colonial and pre-colonial past. It is modern and shares modernity with the contemporary art of the age of decolonisation from all over the world. That is why it stands its ground in the global art market as it does today. Any attempt to present it otherwise does disservice to it and the market it has carved out over the last two decades at least.