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
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.