Consciousness of Indian art in the global contemporary

It is said that we live in different realities. These realities are made up of temporal divisions and spatial incoherence, far from celebration of a shared culture. They invoke historicity to mark the differences stark, and make them conflicting. The artist has the facility and creative impetus to subvert these realities. Employing different forms of address, the artist can question the creation and contrasts of nationalistic identities, relevance of borders, dislocation of individuals and celebrate the coming together of ideas, rejoice the sharing of experiences and revel in the differences of contemporary setting. The superseding of national boundaries in a globalised world proposes a new art history; at the same time contemporary Indian artists are articulating an Indian identity that does not fall into the traditional concepts of national identity. This essay looks at contemporary Indian art practice on the stage of global art.  What is the status of art and visuality in India in the the backdrop of global contemporary art? How do the artists navigate the historical consciousness to operate in the global art world?

Indian contemporary art has had various phases. The current one has its roots in the economic liberalisation initiated in 1991. The role of private and foreign investor was welcome and highly wanted. Its effect on the economy was reflected in the art market as well. Even though Indian artists had always been showing abroad, it was restricted to important museums in large cities. The opening of the market generated a new interest. Art galleries and auction houses along with academicians, critics and writers, started defining the important landmarks, movement and style in contemporary terms. The private collector, investor and curator was interested in knowing and understanding about Indian art history and art practices. These developments provided the artists an audience looking in the direction of India. Significantly, the opening of economy brought with it technologically advanced tools sooner and for wider consumption in the Indian market. Simultaneously the world order was also changing. Collapse of the Soviet Union, fall of the Berlin are the highlights that had repercussions in social, political and economic aspect spilling over to visual arts. These situations, in the backdrop of digital revolution, encouraged young artists to look for a new language and redefine existing practices.

Since 1990s, there has been a reconfiguration of the world where new forms of knowledge, aesthetic sensibilities, ideological agencies and historical reconfiguration have led the process of art making. With globalised condition of the contemporary world, transnational interdependence form our everyday experience. Contrary developments of postcolonial civil societies along with capitalist globalisation, forms transnational public sphere. [1] Common themes of the globalised world like migration, conflict, memory, archive/preservation,  are seen in various works. The artist is driven by what’s happening around, being more relevant to now than follow a style or tradition. The use of material has changed, presentation of the work is more experimental and references have expanded. These changes have also affected the audience. New patrons and interested audience, forge new relations with the art work; meanwhile artworks absorb multiple meanings and associations by methods of (re)appropriation and (re)contextualisation.

I will briefly look at the works of three Indian contemporary artists to examine their relations of the global and local. These artists don’t situate themselves in the Indian-ness of their art but in multiple contexts and practices nourished by diverse philosophies.

Shilpa Gupta works in digital, sculptural and installation media and draws from technological influences in our society. Taking post-digital as her reference point, themes of interconnectedness, terrorism, human rights along with gender politics, are her areas of interest. Images, moments and figures from the digital extending to the physical, her artworks query the contemporary world.

In Untitled (There is No Border Here) (2005-06), Gupta arranges self adhesive tapes, in form of a flag, in a text that talks about an indivisible sky and the irrelevance of borders for sky. Another similar work, There is no Border Here (2005-06), show tapes printed with ‘There is no Border Here’ put up across landscapes. Gupta’s questions around inclusion-exclusion, border and territorial claims easily travel through cultural contexts. Anxieties of the contemporary world aggravated with terrorism and socio-political instability, are expounded in these works. Gupta’s light installation work, I Live under your Sky too (2013), is the statement written in English and Hindi. Borders like language keeps an identity in place, but unlike language restrict assimilation and exchange.

Threat (2008-09) is an installation made out of soap bricks engraved with the word ‘Threat’. While showing the work, Gupta invited the audience to take one brick home, implicating the viewer in the role of a participant. By using ‘Threat’, the audience is diminishing its influence.

While growing up in the 1990s, Gupta was influenced by the changing political climate of India as well the technological advances that were enveloping the world. The digital media with its implication on communication and identity, has impacted the process of authorship and meaning making. Gupta is interested in querying the perception of the audience to create knowledge and memories to navigate the world. Her works apply to our modern world addressing common conditions.

Jitish Kallat works across a variety of medium, photography, painting and sculpture. His works interrogate his relationship to the city of Mumbai deriving the protagonists from the streets of the city and its urban milieu. The paintings of Rickshawpolis (2005-06) series,  present the sensorial overload of Mumbai city. The title refers to ‘rickshaw’, a vehicle dotting the Indian cities as cheap modes of transport. Referring to movement, migration, chaos and informal relationship with the city. The Greek word ‘polis’ forms the other half of the title alluding to the political and social relationship of the residents of the city.

Detergent (2004) by Jitish Kallat is a 15 feet text based work where Kallat has used the speech by Swami Vivekanand at the World’s Parliament of Religions on 11th September, 1893 in Chicago.  The speech talks of tolerance and universal acceptance. The date became synonymous with September 11 attacks since 2001. The work also addresses the danger of intolerance among religious communities in India, that has been on the rise since 1990s. The same speech by Swami Vivekanand was used in Public Notice 3 (2010) where the text was displayed as LED lights on the staircase of the Art Institute of Chicago. The text was illuminated in green, blue, yellow, orange and red, relating to the threat level issues by the Department of Homeland Security of USA. Peter Nagy, curator and galleries, talks of Jitish Kallat’s oeuvre in When Flesh Creeps, the Mind Boggles, “Mr. Kallat is of a generation which harbours no trepidations when acknowledging the impossibility of originality today, displays no hesitation to accept the derivation at the heart of all cultural products. The question, repeatedly put succinctly by Mr. Kallat’s works, is how to negotiate this terrain, availing oneself of polymorphous variety in order to construct potent critical comments or pithy arguments, all while displaying a stylish élan so as to entertain both luncheon partners and investment hunters.” [2]

Subodh Gupta works in various medium like painting, sculpture, installation, photography, performance and video. Growing up in Bihar, one of the poor states in northern India, his art is deeply embedded in the quotidian objects and scenarios of life. By using steel utensils, cow dung, traditional Indian food and rituals, he extrapolates the specifics of Indian middle class into a larger context for international audience, by linking forms with ideas. Unlike a traditional Indian artist occupied with introspection, Gupta’s art is placed in the precarious nature of his everyday environment [3]. His alphabets might be Indian but the language is universal.

Gupta’s work Bihari (1999) is a self portrait on a background smeared with cow dung and red light bulbs spelling out ‘Bihari’ in Hindi. Its use of material [4] and the political identity of Bihari [5], weaves his personal narrative not by questioning his identity but by celebrating his humble beginnings on the meta narrative of material, ideas and context. His work All in the Same Boat (2012-13) is a large boat filled with old kitchen utensils and electric ceiling fans. This work renders the relationship of oneself with food and family stories to migration, displacement and escaping the mundane.

Gupta’s work Very Hungry God (2006) was presented in the church of Saint Bernard, Paris, as part of the exhibition Nuit Blanche (2006), curated by Nicolas Bourriaud and Jerome Sans. The work is made up of steel utensils, ubiquitous objects in Indian middle class homes used for cooking as well eating, arranged in the shape of a skull. The Saint-Bernard church was significant as it was occupied by asylum seekers in 1996. The work was also exhibited in Venice at the Grand Canal outside Palazzo Grassi. With the context of skull in the Venetian culture, the work provided a cross cultural presence. The work embraces political meaning and even though it is situated in a particular context, its arrangement and form give new meaning.

The rise of Indian artist from early 2000 can be seen parallel to the rise of artists from other developing countries of the world in the backdrop of rise of international exhibitions including contemporary artists from developing countries as well as the increase in number of biennales in the south and the east. Germano Celant writes about Subodh Gupta’s rise since 2001, “…here he becomes, together with other artists from Asia, Africa and countries of Latin America, one of the leaders of a revolution, that finally shakes the privileged status of the centres of artistic power, from London to New York, which are forced to metamorphose into transient zones, segments of a traffic system of visual and plastic material moving across the entirety of the terrestrial globe.” [6]

The artists discussed above can be followed with a long list of artists from India, whose practice is occupied with myriad questions of contemporary placement. The artist, equipped with transnational language does not differentiate between local and global. These binaries of global peripheries are meaningless for the international artist. Their works carry a transportive quality, transcending borders, moving along different realities but speaking to all. However, the situation is different for a curator and writer in India. Translation of ideas are an important step in implicating the artwork in a larger context and that is where the responsibility of a writer and critic holds utmost importance. Gayatri Sinha, curator and writer based in New Delhi, says, “There are multiple vernacular modernisms in India which can be the source of art and sites of art production. These fields of references have to be translated for the metropolitan Indian and for the transnational. This is one of the biggest challenges for the Indian writer and curator.” [7]

For the global cultural domains, new areas beyond the post-colonial, Cold-war and East-West demarcations have to be discussed. Concept of ‘nth field’ proposed by Nancy Adajania and Ranjit Hoskote could be a starting point. The ‘nth field’ are zones of cultural and political possibility that arise from unpredictable encounters among diverse actors in the transverse spaces which are opened up by migration for dialogue and mutual curiosity.  nth field as a site for the staging of a transitivity of horizons, is a space where different kinds of cultural imaginations may engage one another in dialogue [8]. Thus it is but just the beginning towards formulation of Indian space in the transnational circuits, which remans premised on the global economy and a narrative grounded in a transcultural translation of contemporary art practices and forms.

This article is published in Russian in Isskustvo, December 2015.


[1] Geeta Kapur, Curating across Agonistic Worlds, ‘In Flux: Contemporary Art in Asia’. Editors: Parul Dave Mukherji, Kavita Singh, Naman Ahuja. Sage Publishers, 2013.

[2] Peter Nagy, When the Flesh Creeps, the Mind Boggles, ‘Jitish Kallat-Panic Acid’. 2005.

[3] Nicolas Bourriaud, Subodh Gupta, Globalisation and Me, ‘Subodh Gupta’. Published by Electa, 2009.

[4] Cow dung is widely used as manure in agriculture, biogas and cooking fuel in India. Cow is considered a sacred animal in parts of the country, the dung too is a symbol of purity and used in houses as thermal insulator in rural areas.  The practical and religious uses of cow dung make it an important substance in rural household.

[5] People from Bihar migrated to different parts of India, are a strong workforce. ‘Bihari’ is a derogatory term used for people who are from Bihar.

[6] Germano Celant, Subodh Gupta, ‘Everything is Inside-Subodh Gupta’. Penguin, 2014.

[7] As told to the author in an interview on 31st October, 2015.

[8] Nancy Adajania, ‘Global’ Art: Institutional Anxiety and the Politics of Naming, ‘From Here: Context and Internalisation. Photo Espana, 2012.