The wittily named Empire Strikes Back: Indian Art Today exhibit opens at the Saatchi Gallery on the 29th January. Given the gallery’s relatively recent opening, it’s done well in putting together an exhibit of this importance. Again, maybe that’s no surprise as Saatchi is a name synonymous with power and influence on the art scene. With patrons such as Chanel and a gloriously well designed space in Duke of York’s Square off Kings Road - this definitely comes across as a slick operation.
This exhibit brings together the works of established and emerging artists from India today. Its aim being to give these artists an international platform; it recognises India as gloriously plentiful in artistic talent, but perhaps suffering under the weight of its own political and economic growth as ‘the world’s largest democracy’. There are of course thriving art scenes and vibrant cultural threads in cities such as Delhi and Mumbai - and it is these threads that the exhibit imports.
The works of art combine an arresting, humorous and tragic blend of themes that are depicted in various media. Most of them are largely collections of modern paintings, with some very inspiring sculptural pieces and installations. Of the many interesting galleries in the show, the first is perhaps the most haunting. Jitish Kallat’s Public Notice 2, 2007 references Mahatma Gandhi’s speech prior to the Salt March in Dandi. It is a large written piece – with each of the characters of the alphabet made out of bone-like models – spanning the entire dimension of the gallery wall. With these instructions of civil disobedience – your mind runs through what it must have been like on the day of the march. There is no punctuation, so the piece runs like a stream of consciousness – easing you into a receptive state of mind – ready to commence with the rest of the exhibit.
Subsequent works appear aesthetic in shape, form and style and it almost begins to feel like you’ve walked into the Tate Modern (where they were running an Indian special). This is of course a compliment – only to suggest the works appear to be of a unified standard which we’ve come to expect of ‘modern art’. Of course each artist has their own story to tell – but some of the works are more successful at stopping you in your tracks than others.
Two of the most telling works in the show are by the artist Huma Mulji. Arabian Delight, 2008 depicts a life-sized taxidermy camel being stuffed into a large suitcase and Her Suburban Dream, 2009 shows a buffalo with her neck stuck in a concrete water pipe. Both pieces represent animals in a disruptive or somewhat unnatural state of being. The immediate implication being that these works are perhaps allegorical explorations of ecological and environmental chaos in India. A further reading also suggests that it’s the country’s culture which is in effect being suffocated at the expense of its growth. Most of what we perceive in the west as being ‘Indian culture’ is a like a caricature of what it actually is, in that we’re not experiencing the word on the street – but are instead watching Bollywood films or admiring intricate fabrics. I can’t help but be strongly reminded of the rapid industrial growth that took place in Stalinist Russia – for which the price was immense. Even though India isn’t going through an exact replication of these circumstances – there are remarkable similarities in this digital age. Jitish Kallat’s Death of Distance, 2007 – for me, is one of the more provocative pieces reflecting this idea. It is asks the viewer to put emotional and customary value on one rupee. A large rupee model is placed isolated on the floor of the gallery. Adjacent to it on the wall, there are five pictures. The pictures tell two stories – super imposed on-top of one another. Depending on where you stand – you get glimpses of each narrative. The first tells us of the launch of ‘one rupee a minute’ telecom rates. The other tells a more chilling story of a girl who committed suicide because her mother couldn’t afford one rupee -needed to buy lunch. Immediately, I think of the work of Thomas Hardy – the unfolding of harsh realities amidst a growing expansive Britain – and in India, we have something starkly similar.
Overall, the exhibit is unique, simply on the grounds of thematic variety. You are taken into a sometimes dark and sometimes colourful world of modern reality; with shadows of hidden colonialism, industry, environmental damage and social change. However, why I found the exhibit personally enjoyable was because it reminded me of a time when I used to create art. Having gone to a predominantly Indian school, when we created art it was indicative of our immediate cultural environment – and for the first time since then – I’ve seen an exhibit which takes me back to a familiar state of mind.