Why Indian Artists Should Stop Looking To The West For Validation | Verve Magazine
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July 16, 2016

Why Indian Artists Should Stop Looking To The West For Validation

Text by Madhu Jain. Illustration by Farzana Cooper

Why do critics, curators, collectors, artists and historians in India tend to judge a work according to the dictates of the Western canon?

When The Guardian art critic dumped Bhupen Khakhar’s paintings in the same category as that of ‘second-rate British artists’, there was much agitation amongst the art cognoscenti in India about his unequivocally dismissive review of the late artist’s retrospective, which recently opened at the Tate Modern in London. The gauntlet thrown by the frequently acerbic but astute Jonathan Jones stung and caused quite a flurry — like setting a cat amongst pigeons. But his reaction, one which we might initially be offended by, also raises an important question: why do so many Indians continue to look to the West for validation — nearly seven decades after Independence?

Why do art critics, curators, collectors, artists, art historians and lovers here tend to judge a work according to the dictates of the Western canon? Why must the opinions and whims of art writers, museum curators and institutes in London, Berlin, Paris or New York matter so much? In a perceptive post on social media, Waswo X. Waswo, the Udaipur-based American artist, makes a cogent point about the need for and confidence in ‘India’s own history of modernism’.

Bestowing importance
The American artist’s remedy is really quite simple, and doable. Prestigious art museums with good infrastructures in place would be able to carry out the vital task of bestowing ‘importance’ on contemporary art and artists in India, discouraging the seeking of stamps of arrival and approval and being at the ‘mercy of outsiders’. I totally agree with Waswo.

Moreover, these museums would also, I believe, be more alert to nascent trends and art movements. Well-curated exhibitions at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) — New Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru — have already made the contemporary art scene more vibrant. Private museums like the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in Delhi and Noida, and an increasing number of art galleries in our metropolitan cities can also play a crucial role in creating an Indian (and even a Subcontinental) canon — and provide the much sought-after validation.

Well-researched and illustrated art catalogues produced by Delhi Art Gallery, amongst others, have already begun to archive part of the ‘history of modernism’. In the past decade, two editions of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, with its increasing international presence, have already instilled confidence in the contemporary art scene in the country. Hopefully, the third one starting this December will be even more stimulating under the stewardship of Sudarshan Shetty.

Meanwhile, away from the buzz of art fairs, biennales and auctions, something exciting and necessary is happening in national and state museums. The National Museum in New Delhi has long been like a frumpy debutante at a ball, dressed in yesterday’s fashion — a wallflower at the party. But over the last few years, a few of the galleries of the stately, domed sandstone building in Lutyens’ Delhi seem to have been visited by the good fairy with a wand.

The gallery exhibiting bronze sculptures from the Subcontinent, including a few spectacular Chola bronzes, has been completely transformed — from the ceiling to the floor. The sculptures have come into their own in their new home, the more precious amongst them placed in beautifully designed glass ‘cages’. The labelling is lucid and informative, unlike the previous tacky plaques. Unobtrusive seating and subdued but efficient lighting now allow visitors a more immersive experience.

The rather large gallery, which housed the recent, impressive exhibition about Zoroastrians — The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination — also underwent a metamorphosis. For a brief spell, a visitor could well believe that she had been transported to the British Museum in London. Perhaps, its former director, Neil MacGregor, who was briefly a consultant at the National Museum, is a catalyst for some of these changes. Apparently, the gallery housing the miniature collection of the National Museum will soon get a facelift.

The transformation is on. Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya in Mumbai has new galleries, including The Gallery of Himalayan Art; and several other museums are being renovated elsewhere in the country.

International presence
However, all this really amounts to tinkering. If India really wants to make its presence felt internationally in the world of art and museums, it needs to take some bold and giant steps. We need breakout architecture for museums, as in other countries. In a risky move, the French government asked Piano-Rogers to design the Pompidou Centre, which exhibits modern and contemporary art, in Paris. The glass building with its brightly coloured innards on the outside is almost as iconic a structure as the Eiffel Tower — and a magnet for visitors. Portugal commissioned American starchitect Frank Gehry to design its contemporary art museum in Bilbao — Guggenheim Museum. Initially, it was the unusual design of the building that brought in the visitors. A few of China’s new museums for contemporary art have startling architecture — the buildings themselves look like giant abstract sculptures.

Several museums have gone forward by mixing the old and the new innovatively. A museum showing modern art in Toronto is a curious hybrid: a glass-fronted building emerges out of the old museum, a brick structure. The French with a delicious touch of insouciance placed I. M. Pei’s glass pyramid in front of the grand Louvre.

The Indian government is too timid. It lost a chance to make a bold architectural statement when it made an annex for NGMA in New Delhi. The babus got cold feet and rejected all the innovative proposals in favour of an almost-clone of the existing structure. They didn’t dare break the Lutyens mould. Had the buildings of our museums for contemporary art been more audacious and outré, artists would be more inclined to seek their seals of approval here.

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