Big-ticket exhibitions of modern Indian artists are on the rise in top museums and galleries abroad. On view are the works of MF Husain, FN Souza, Arpita Singh and A Ramachandran, to name just a few.
On September 14, New York’s Asia Society Museum opened a large exhibition called ‘The Progressive Revolution: Modern Art’ in a New India. On display are 80 works of the six founding members of the Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG) — Husain, Souza, SH Raza, KH Ara, HA Gade and Sadanand Bakre — and their close associates Tyeb Mehta, Ram Kumar, VS Gaitonde, Akbar Padamsee and Mohan Samant.
This glittering multi-starrer art show is not a one-off India-focused event in New York. A forthcoming show of hemp, ceramic and bronze sculptures by Mrinalini Mukherjee has set off excited discussions among local art lovers. The Talwar Gallery in the city, meanwhile, is showing a second instalment of Singh’s abstracts.
New York has for some years now been displaying the works of high-profile Indian artists. In 2016, Met Breuer (the Breuer building of the Metropolitan Museum) marked its opening with a definitive show of abstract artist Nasreen Mohamedi. Two years earlier, the Guggenheim Museum had exhibited Gaitonde’s works.
It is not just the big names that are under the arc lights. This year, a relatively younger artist from Karnataka, Ranjani Shettar, showed her works at the main Metropolitan Museum, New York. The Met has also acquired her installation Seven Ponds and some Raindrops for its permanent collection.
Shanay Jhaveri, curator of South Asian modern and contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum, says several major international museums and institutions are organising retrospectives of Indian artists and acquiring their works for their permanent collections.
“More concerted efforts are being made to rethink received art historical narratives, which have been oriented towards the West,” he says, pointing to the increased presence of Indian artists at Documenta 14 (held in Europe) and other “paradigm-shifting exhibitions” such as ‘Post War: Art between the Pacific and the Atlantic’, in Munich.
Indian art is increasingly the subject of serious primary research at universities, he says, adding that there is also a growing interest in the work being made in South Asia. “Platforms like Kochi Muziris Biennale, Dhaka Art Summit and Serendipity Arts Festival are crucial in making this work known to a wider audience,” he says.
The institutional interest is not sudden, of course. Deepak Talwar, founder of Talwar Gallery, New York and New Delhi, credits it to the increased exposure of Indian artists at international venues, particularly due to the long-standing efforts of galleries, especially those located in the West.
Nearly 13 years before the Mohamedi show opened at the Met Breuer, her works first came to the West at his New York gallery, he says. He loaned or assisted in the presentation of her work at 27 institutions so that curators in the West would get to know her art. Shettar is another of the Talwar Gallery artists finding recognition in the US.
So, who is financing these major shows, which involve millions of dollars in insurance, transportation, display, publicity, publication, curatorial and design costs? The Reliance Foundation, for one, is a big patron. The Kiran Nadar Museum of Modern Art has extended generous support, too. Overseas art foundations and galleries such as Talwar and Aicon in NY and Vadehra Art Gallery are helping. The names that crop up in the ‘thank you’ lists of museums include the business tycoons Nadars, Jindals, Godrejs, entrepreneurs Purnendu and Amrita Chatterjee, and art collectors Rajiv and Payal Chaudhri.
However, there seems to be a tilt towards a certain kind of modern Indian art. Indeed, Dr Zehra Jumabhoy, co-curator of the PAG exhibition at the Asia Society Museum, goes so far as to say that the PAG has come to be seen as the “quintessential Indian Moderns”. In India, however, debates have raged about the nature of modernity since the 1960s.
Almost as a counter to the concepts of modern and contemporary in the New York museums, the Cleveland Museum of Art earlier this year mounted ‘Homage to the Setting Sun’, a large oil painting of a lotus pond at sunset, by A Ramachandran. Curators Sonya Rhie Mace and George Bickford wanted to show the influence of traditions on the artist’s language and they put up the painting among sculptures from Bharhut and Sanchi. The painting is on view till November.
Talwar and Jhaveri believe the shows are attracting western audiences. “More New Yorkers are looking at Indian art seriously,” says Amal Allana of Art Heritage Gallery, Delhi, while Sonia Ballaney of Vadehra Art Gallery adds that the shows are having “a great impact”.
The art market is certainly feeding off the hoopla surrounding the landmark shows. Christies’s September New York catalogue has gone to town with PAG artists, many of whom have been money-spinners at auctions. The focus on them has taken on a new edge, what with the Asia Society Museum show happening almost simultaneously.
But there’s a caveat of cautionary. The art of one visual culture does not always translate well into another. Remember how the Bhupen Khakhar exhibition at the Tate Modern in London was savaged by The Guardian art critic a couple of years ago? Nevertheless, the international exposure opens up great possibilities for Indian art.
Ella Datta is an art historian and critic
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