Geeta Kapur, What's New in Indian Art

What's New in Indian Art : Canons, Commodification, Artists on the Edge


What is new in India art is that its certified locus is under siege from all sides and its older canons do not hold.
The dominant canons during the century have had to do with Indian nationalism : a common agenda of cultural reconstitution during the period of decolonization. The Indian national state when it comes into existence in 1947 serves to realize the aspiration for a secular democracy.
In the first canon the artist's symbolic sovereignty, now delivered to the actual historical context of an independent nation, is sought to be subsumed and reinvested into a responsible task of representation. This is representation of the people which may include the representation of mythology, of saints, of peasants and the working people. A socially rich figural art which includes real identities through styles of realism and ironical identities through an expressionist masquerade, dominates the Indian art scene to this day.
This is the trajectory of national/modern high art which has been in the making for nearly a hundred years in India. By the cumulative effect of national responsibility, followed by state hierarchies, a peculiarly restraining moral aesthetic of a new middle-class comes into play. What is remarkable is that this is easily transferred to a consumer scale when the art market, in tune with the overall move into marketism, develops at a national and global level. At this juncture, a contained universe of symblolic imagery is the more amenable to commodification. I am suggesting that social conformism leads to market pragmatism in the late and declining stages of national economy and nationalist culture.


The rhetoric at the beginning of the commodification of Indian art is still emphatically national/indigenous: ethnographic distinctions continue to be valorized. Out in the actual art market people sentimentalize over national idealism, holistic vision, etc. In the postmodern context this terminology provides a marker of cultural difference, simultaneously serving the taste for ethnology and variegated forms of consumption.
The globalizing Indian bourgeoisie and the NRIs (Non-Resident-Indian) constitute 90% of the buyers. This upwardly mobile middle-class is for the first time testing its identity vis a vis the world. Both need the national/Indian slogan to shore up their self-image, consumer status and cultural confidence. They need moreover the liberalized state to provide the infrastructure from which they can obtain institutional advantages.
The new breed of galleries and collectors make a coup. There were around a dozen commercial galleries in all of India at the end of the 1980's; there are more than two hundred today. This is a moment of transition where the virtual evacuation of the state is already under way and liberalization of the economy is the declared agenda of every successive government. There is at this time a judicious stepping in of international auction houses: in 1987 Christies entered the Indian art scene; Sothebys came in in 1989, and they have dealt with Indian art almost every year since then.
With New Delhi's National Gallery of Modern Art opening its doors to private collaboration there is a similarity of purpose between the state and the market. What is heavily pressed in matters of culture – democracy – also comes to mean something for everything in the commercial suppliers jargon.
There are galleries that have a stake in the new and are getting shows curated that are manifestly unsaleable – found objects, photographs, installation, performances. The new is now competing for visibility.
Precisely because there is now a defined field of art production sporting full four generations of artists; precisely because there is an institutionalizing of art activity and a commercial viability layered on top of national sentiments; there now emerges the cardinal question of twentieth century art – what is an art object? There is in India a late introduction of irony and the beginning of a conceptual display of art as thought, as language, as reflexive act.

International Curating

What is helping the dressing up and dismantling of India art today is precisely the fact that other solidarities besides those of the nation, the state, and national culture, are becoming possible. Curatorial intervention from abroad does two things at once : it introduces different, sometimes tendentious, and over-determined, agendas of western/international art. On the other hand it breaks the hold of amateur vanities and prejudices of cultural bureaucrats at home.
International curating at its best foregrounds issues, ideologies and languages for examination and display; peer pressure across the globe prods artistic intent, and levels of praxis.
The agendas of the west in the new scenario of globalism – which has to now include the south circuit of postcolonial cultures – remains bemused nevertheless. It often appears retarded : there is either overdue respect for self-referential iconography or an aversion to what is considered alien ethnicity of the non-western cultures.
The Euro-American establishment can still only assimilate non-western art on manifestly ethnographic terms, keeping the option open to reject it precisely on those terms. On the other hand, Asia/Africa/Australia, not to speak of Latin America, look for a new formalism, an extension of language on the basis of cultural difference and political urgencies which, because of the shared history of the 20th century (via capitalism/imperialism), implicates the artists in global questions : of location and the appropriate forms of political redress from their vantage point. These artists, living in societies riven with contradictions, ask for synthesizing universals, for visionary and vanguard initiatives.
The importance of regional networks is growing; there is a politics of place accompanying globalization. This increases the sense of identity as well as the bargaining capacity of the participants. With more and more region-specific exhibition venues and networks, what they say and show in the cosmopolitan galleries in say New York or Cologne decreases in importance and urgency. What is the hierarchical significance of the western venue/menu at Venice and Documenta, when there is also Sao Paolo, New Delhi, Foukuaka, Havana, Johannesburg, Brisbane et al, poised to snatch away the avantgarde. This may be the nemesis: the postmodern trick of displacing traditions from their context can now be replayed on terms of the southern avantgardes.

Artists on the Edge

There are certain fronts in the Indian art scene where the questioning is most evident. I now proceed to show a selection of work by artists who I believe to be working at the edge and pushing the parameters.
In synoptic terms these artworks can be broadly categorized:

  1. Representational subversions
    K.G. Subramanyan, Bhupen Khakhar, Arpita Singh, Nalini Malani, Pushpamala N.
  2. New iconography
    Ravinder Reddy, N.N. Rimzon, Surendran Nair, Atul Dodiya, Savi Savarkar.
  3. Basic materials/festish objects
    Mrinalini Mukherjee, Navjot Altaf, Sheela Gowda, Subodh Gupta, Anita Dube, Sudarshan Shetty.
  4. Public spaces/installations
    Vivan Sundaram, Rummana Hussain, Nalini Malani.


Far from suggesting a literal or even symbolic representation of social (as against national) identities such as those of gender/class/caste and region, new art in India needs to suspend any direct address towards the social. As a critic I am looking for an equation between a renewed formalism and history. For a conceptual shaping of social energies in their transformative intent. We know that it is in the moment of disjuncture that an avantgarde names itself and recodes the forces of dissent into the very vocabulary and structures of art.
With the upheaval fo this nation and its severely divided polity, there is art at the edge – of community, nation and market, and it differs from western neo-avantgardes in that it has as its referent a civil society in huge ferment. It has a political society whose constituencies are redefining the meaning of democracy, and it has a demographic scale that defies simple theories of hegemony so that the national cannot be so easily replaced by the neat new equation of the local/global, nor even perhaps by the exigencies of the state/market combine as in so many ASEAN and other east Asian countries.
Is there a substantive aspect to cultural differences within a changing India? How do production values supersede the demands of conservative elites, avid consumers, as also conventions of third world radicalisms established elsewhere to relate meaningfully with the radicalisms immanent in the social terrain at home? How do we recognize the avantgarde in India?