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Awake After Midnight

Modern Indian artists looked westward after Partition, away from the nation. An exhibit of two periods of avant-garde Indian art juxtaposes their work with contemporary artists, who ask how India can awake as a nation.

By Arnav Adhikari

In Indian artist Akbar Padamsee’s 1970 film Syzygy, a line flickers on the screen, bending, turning, and multiplying, giving the impression of form for a brief moment before breaking apart into another constantly morphing figuration. One moment the shapes feel kaleidoscopic in complexity and at another they radiate a rhythmic comfort, a ticking of time balanced against the movement of history. An animated series of Padamsee’s geometrical sketches, Syzygy—the Greek word for two forces that are ultimately related in their opposition—is an unassuming projection that silently occupies a plush, dimly-lit room of the Queens Museum in New York as part of the exhibition After Midnight: Indian Modernism to Contemporary India, 1947/1997. The show, recently extended until September 13, ambitiously attempts to distill the Indian avant-garde into two distinct, yet intricately connected historical moments for the nation: post-Independence and post-globalization.

Padamsee, who was born in Mumbai in 1928 and studied painting at the JJ School of Art (a prestigious haunting ground for many Indian artists at the time), is considered a pioneer of Modern Indian painting for his explorations of volume, space, and color. He was also an early experimenter with the mediums of photography and film. Here, Padamsee’s work is featured in an enclosed section of the exhibit alongside art by the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group, a collective of like-minded painters from across the country of which Padamsee—like some of the other artists in the room—was not technically a member, but was very closely associated with in the post-Independence era.

An enclosed gallery space in the Queens Museum featuring the work of the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group and fellow Modernist painters. Photo by Hai Zhang.

Against the overwhelming rise of a nationalist ideal and the fractured, engulfing violence of Partition, the Progressive Artists’ Group came together in the year of India’s freedom from the British. They worked towards cultivating an aesthetic that broke away from political discourse and the social realism that preceded them. Instead, they turned toward abstraction, mixed-media experimentation, geometrical patterns, and a self-referential materiality of the canvas that echoed, in philosophy and form, the abstract expressionism of the West. While the Progressive Artists’ Group lasted for only about nine years, they created a strong foundation for Indian Art that would situate them within a broader global landscape. For them, looking outward and westward liberated their work from the trappings of a uniform aesthetic; their work veered away from the inescapable questions of nationalist identity in a newly-formed nation and the traditional, romanticized representations of India that characterized the Bengal School of Art before them.

The Progressives’ desire to move to an international stage is quietly reiterated multiple times in the gallery’s wall texts, which mention the influence of Rothko and Newman on Vasudeo Gaitonde’s amorphous, subdued canvases and the Baconian motifs in Tyeb Mehta’s disfigured human apparitions. And of all the international audiences, New York seems to have been the most captivated by the group. Not only are New York-based galleries and private collections the source of all the works in the room, but every single artist on display in the Moderns section spent a significant, foundational period of their careers here, most of them funded by Rockefeller Fellowships—a huge cultural force in the early years of the Cold War. While the influences of European cubism, post-impressionism, and abstract expressionism hang heavy in the Moderns room, it seems impossible to remove these works entirely from the dialogue of Independence and Partition that root them so distinctly in India.

"News of Gandhiji's Death" by Krishen Khanna.
“News of Gandhiji’s Death” by Krishen Khanna, 1948.

Krishen Khanna’s News of Gandhiji’s Death upends linear perspective, colorfully capturing in vivid blues and oranges the hysteric frenzy of a nation gripped by the news of the deified icon’s death. In Rape, M.F. Husain, who is no stranger to controversy in his paintings—his depiction of Hindu goddesses in the nude led to his forced exile to Doha and London, and the surrender of his Indian passport—analogizes the stultifying political climate in 1970 to the dehumanization of the female body. The fact that Rape precedes by a year the tense national emergency imposed by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi as well as the war with Pakistan, makes the symbolism eerily sentient. Souza’s Reclining Nude, from his Black Series, pictures a barely discernible pregnant woman in a thick, shadowy impasto that evokes a heavy pessimism and the violence of Partition.

Ultimately though, the Moderns collection, displayed in a room that is cordoned off from the rest of the exhibit on the Museum’s main floor, seems to bear a distinct air of exclusivity, where the weight of historical events becomes a burden rather than a parallel commentary. It ends up feeling more like a display of work to be auctioned, meant for a cursory walk-through and not necessarily an immersive experience. How do we make sense of these artists who happen to have come together in 1947, and are collected in the same space for their links to New York City? How do we find meaning beyond historical relevance in the Progressive Artists’ Group, whose works fall under the unfortunate pressure of an exhibit that insists on not being a survey, but is essentially titled after an unshakeable historical moment?

The discomfort that art from India should inadvertently represent a national aesthetic is one that the exhibit seems conscious of, but is ultimately unable to avoid. As Rebecca Brown writes in Art for a Modern India, “The Progressives offered not a single new direction for Indian art, but rather a pivot around which various artists, critics, galleries, and collectors could redefine what it meant to be Indian and modern in the post-independence context.” Perhaps this is why the most interesting part of the Moderns section ends up being not the paintings themselves but instead an installation collage of avant-garde multi-media work by the Progressives, inspired by their explorations in New York.

Untitled, 1969 by F.N. Souza
One of Indian Modernist painter F.N. Souza’s early experiments with chemical emulsions on paper, on display at the Queens Museum. Untitled, 1969. Chemicals on paper, 13 1/8 x 10 3/8 in. Collection of R L Fine Arts, New York

On either side of a red structure that stands like a lightning bolt in the center of the room are video, photography, and painting projects that veer away from traditional oil-on-canvas. Along one edge, Souza’s early experiment with chemical emulsions on paper proudly declares itself as the “World’s First Chemical Painting,” while Krishen Khanna’s black and white photo constructions of birds hover like shadows from a Hitchcock film on another. Padamsee’s Syzygy lingers in one corner, while MF Hussain’s combinations of nude photography with painting hang on another side. There is a moment in Hussain’s’ 1967 film Through the Eyes of a Painter (which won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival), where the camera follows an umbrella as it tumbles and rolls through the ruins of a Rajasthan fort, jumping off the edge and dancing gently onto the surface of a stepwell, inspiring both a strange entropic comfort as well as an underlying paranoia that echoes the precarious question of identity post-Independence. However, where the Progressives lack a sense of immediacy and relevance in their enclosed space, the contemporary works in the exhibit almost seem to explode it.

If, in this immediate context of post-Independence nationalism, the Progressives ask the question, “How can India awake to the world?” then the contemporary works—representing the globalization of the art world that swept across the country almost fifty years later—reconfigure this idea more reflectively, asking, “How can India awake as a nation?” The art of the contemporaries is spread far and wide across painting, photography, mixed media, and installation art, as well as across the physical expanse of the museum’s main hall, corner rooms, and even the permanent New York Panorama installation. The works here seem more concerned with unraveling the highly tangled thread of what Indian identity has come to mean, choosing diverse forms to spark a conversation that feels raw, and almost volatile with political implications. However, what makes the contemporary works so powerful is not so much their link to modern social justice issues facing the nation, but rather what lurks beneath: a paranoia of the individual’s place in the nation.

Are You Awake? by Tushar Joag
Tushar Joag’s Are You Awake? includes a collection of audio recordings of Mumbai residents responding to the ideas of sleep, sleeplessness, and waking. 2013. Bed, headphones, books, and wall text. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Hai Zhang

Tushar Joag’s multi-media piece Are You Awake? is a synergy of these ideas; alongside a full-size bed mounted diagonally on a wall in the museum’s main hall is a collection of audio recordings of Mumbai residents responding to the ideas of sleep, sleeplessness, and waking. In 2013, Joag charted a route from Nariman Point in South Mumbai to Borivali in the North, asking people living between these two points to participate in a telephonic exchange that he would then record. Are You Awake? captures voices across ages and languages, through monologues and conversations, each beginning with a name and an aural time-stamp, seizing a moment with a voice. The responses range from a man’s childhood nostalgia for the peaceful, incomparable rest he found in his mother’s lap, to a woman whose concerns about waking up spill into an uneasiness for future generations of Indians, particularly women. She is worried that her generation, growing up in the newly-formed nation, has left nothing more for those to come.

A little further down the wall from Joag’s installation is a work that stands at the heart of the exhibit and its juxtaposition of histories and sensibilities. Jitish Kallat’s Public Notice (2003) is a sculpture-based installation that materializes the entirety of Jawaharlal Nehru’s speech on the even of India’s Indepedence in the form of burnt adhesive lettering. The words from Nehru’s “Tryst With Destiny” are tattooed into the surface of a mirror across four panels, forcing the glass to warp and bend under the heat. Kallat created the work the year after the 2002 Gujarat riots when communal tensions sparked unprecedented violence, as thousands of people—mostly Muslim minorities—were injured, killed, and engulfed in flames. Public Notice is a disturbingly immediate piece not only because it recalls the violence of Partition that contextualizes the work of the Progressive Artists’ Group, but also because it suggests the reflection of an India under the rule of a Hindu nationalist government, led by a Prime Minister who has been widely accused of having actively turned a blind eye to the Gujarat riots when he was the state’s standing Chief Minister.

The threat of fascism and communal violence looms large over much of the other works on display in the contemporary section. Anita Dube’s wall installation, The Sleep of Reason Creates Monsters, forms the vague outline of a profile and spells its title with a multitude of little, bright enameled eyes that stare back at you eagerly. Shilpa Gupta’s 1278 unmarked is a collection of 1,278 etched marble slabs that lean on each other like fallen dominos, symbols for the thousands of unmarked graves of those who have died in Kashmir. The highly contentious region has been marked by state violence, terrorist insurgency, and military occupation almost as long as India and Pakistan have been independent nations. Economic inequality, perhaps the nation’s most pressing concern today, is also an important theme for the likes of Sheela Gowda, whose sculpture Blanket and the Sky recreates a typical slum shelter using flattened tar drums for walls and thick blankets inside that give the faint impression of a home within. Sharmila Samant’s public art project and video piece MrigaajalThe Mirage (2011), examines the inequitable distribution of water across Mumbai’s neighborhoods, inviting artists, NGOs, activists, and geologists to explore the role of water as an indicator of the city’s excess. If many of these artists are searching for equitable justice between communities, then there are also those who are negotiating the individual self in the context of the contemporary Indian experience. More specifically, where the individual lies in the overwhelming—and often consuming—environment of a rapidly growing urban India.

Public Notice by Jitish Kallat
In Public Notice by Jitish Kallat, the words from Nehru’s “Tryst With Destiny” are tattooed into the surface of a mirror across four panels. He created the piece a year after the Gujarat Riots. 2003. Burnt adhesive on acrylic mirror, wood and stainless steel, 5 parts, 78 x 54 x 6 in. each. Shumita and Arani Bose Collection, New York. Photo: Hai Zhang

According to Art Historian Partha Mitter, whose research focuses on the connections between Indian art, national identity, and its presence in the West, modernist nationalism was sparked by an “interplay of the global and local space in the urban space of colonial culture.” This gave rise to what he calls the “hybrid cosmopolis,” a space where an intellectual dialogue between colonial learning, its language (English), and traditional culture was allowed to interact and benefit from each other. If New York provided for the Progressive Artists’ Group a cosmopolitan, post-colonial space where these interactions between art and identity could play out, then the contemporary Indian artists on display in the exhibition are much more drawn to the post-global urban sprawl of Mumbai and Delhi. In Strikes at Time, a film by Delhi-based conceptual art practitioners Raqs Media Collective, we follow the routine of a construction laborer that runs simultaneously alongside the found text of a worker’s diary. Whistling drones and chiming static weave in and out of meditative shots of the city, while some texts appear listing daily grocery expenses, and others breathe more philosophically, reading, “Thought produces fallout/ The finer it is the more dangerous.” Another muses that “beyond the summit of the world is more world.” The timelessness of these undulating existential inquiries are punctuated by contrasting images of somnolent daily life and the textual refrain, “Sab kuch sadharan hai” or, “Everything else is ordinary.” Strikes at Time creates a dissociative experience of a directionless urban drift, one that points to both the individual as well as the mass migration of rural Indians, flocking to burgeoning cosmopolitan hubs to become construction workers and manual laborers.

This simultaneity manifests itself again in DeStuffing Matrix, a nine-minute film installation set in the South Indian port-city of Kochi that is projected onto four separate screens. Each channel is a fixed shot that captures the rigmarole of global trade at its micro level, in which warehouse employees stuff the back of trucks with seemingly endless boxes of clothes, spices and pharmaceuticals—boxes that will travel everywhere from the UAE to Russia. There is a hypnotic quality to the feeling of plenty that comes with watching this Tetris of commodities, broken only by hilarious moments in which the laborers barely escape a tower of falling boxes, or joke with each other, reasserting a playful humanity in the matrix of a mammoth, globalized nation.

title of piece here
Destuffing Matrix by CAMP is a nine-minute film installation that captures global trade at a local level in the South Indian port-city of Kochi. 2012–2013. 4-channel video installation, 9 min, sound. Courtesy of CAMP. Photo: Hai Zhang

This sense of drift in the individual stands out with the installation of Nikhil Chopra’s works, which blend nationalist questions against a contemporary context in the most physical sense. Chopra’s projects, many of which often involve him walking through city streets embodying his alter-ego Yog Raj Chitrakar, literally sparks movement in the audience, forcing us to walk along the perimeter of the permanent New York City Panorama installation at the museum. Measuring 9,500 square feet, the Panorama is a 1:1200 scale architectural model of New York City that requires its viewers to move around a walkway to view it in its entirety. Faced with a humongous model replica of New York City, and seeing pictures of Chopra walking through its streets in the ambiguous garb of an imaginary Indian King is altogether strange experience. Amongst a series of photographs, time-lapse videos and slideshows (which the artist refers to as Memory Drawings) is one performance piece in which he drifts through Mumbai dressed as a colonial official, with the hat, moustache, and even the awkwardly ballooning olive shorts. Chopra’s conceptualist approach is reminiscent of Baudelaire’s flaneur, the passionate wanderer of the city who gathers experience haphazardly through a meandering urban drift, embodying the psychogeographic space between physical experience and the elusive sense of self.

After Midnight manages to stretch widely across history, artists, and mediums, creating interesting connections between the “flowing spaces” the art occupies, as the curator, Dr. Arshiya Lokhandwala puts it. Yet, in my conversation with her, she was adamant about rejecting any direct link between the works of the Modernists and the contemporaries, insisting that the show is not meant to be a national one in any way. Both sections are instead “independent exhibits in dialogue,” she told me. The question then begs, why make an arbitrary connection between two periods separated by fifty years at all, particularly under the consuming shadow of a distinctly national moment? Lokhandwala though encourages—perhaps unintentionally—these juxtapositions in the show. She tries to move away from the binary of national versus international (confusing given that the exhibition itself seems divided into these two realms) and instead chooses to inquire into the nuances of the national within the international, the local within the urban, as Mitter would perhaps point out. In the end, Lokhandwala confessed to me, “I’m not interested in the audience, I’m interested in art history,” a view that is maybe narrow given the exhibit’s placement in New York and its proximity to a large community of Indian-Americans in Queens. Or maybe it is teasingly intelligent, leaving the viewers to create their own threads across works and histories, recognizing the burgeoning presence of India as a complex, challenging, and engaged actor in the world of contemporary art.