Protest, politics and Indian contemporary art

It’s always nice to have one’s byline in a publication they read, but in many ways, The Hindu is specially special. It’s stood for a serious, no-nonsense gravitas for generations. So to be in its op-ed pages is a good feeling. As a friend put it, “Ex-governors, professors, statesmen…and you. Vaav.” I feel thoroughly grown-up. For now, at any rate. 

Here’s the unedited version of the article on Indian contemporary art and political protest:

Let’s be honest: aesthetically, Siddhartha Karawal’s “Divine Cow” is not the most noteworthy bovine in the annals of Indian art. It is, however, perhaps the most manhandled one.
Last month, at the Jaipur Art Summit, Karawal’s “Divine Bovine”, consisting of a cow made of Styrofoam and a balloon, made the news. It was floating above the Pink City, minding its own business. Unfortunately, this offended some people. So the cow was hauled away by the local police. Who the offended were and whether they were feeling offended on behalf of cows in general or Karawal’s Styrofoam cow in particular remains unclear. We can only presume they’re the same people who garlanded and worshipped the once-floating, now-grounded cow when it was in police custody, and that its bovine honour was restored when the worshippers yelled “Gau mata ki jai!”
As it turned out, all those outraged by “Divine Bovine” were mistaken in their assumption that Karawal was poking fun at sacred cows. “Divine Bovine” was supposed to be a critical comment upon the way we mistreat cows in cities. Karawal wasn’t challenging anyone with “Divine Bovine”. If anything, he and the cow-brigade were essentially saying the same thing: show the cow some love.
What this ridiculous episode served to underscore is that an artist may create a work of art, but it is the viewer who completes it. If the one who sees it will not or cannot recognise the artist’s intention, then it’s hopeless.
Around the world, contemporary art is used to seeming incomprehensible. To perplex is almost a basic requirement — it’s the first step to ending up as thought-provoking. In addition to this, most modern and contemporary Indian art is politically bland, which makes it seem almost indulgent to some. Still, art’s ability to perplex may have saved some of our more talented artists.
For instance, in his video titled “Three Bullets for Gandhi”, artist Tushar Joag multiplied himself into three and arranged his avatars to look like the Lion Capital of Ashoka. Each Joag spat out bullets and fire. Some may only notice how handsome Joag looks in “Three Bullets for Gandhi”. Others will wonder about the violence and twisted ideals that the State embodies when Joag presents his carefully-inexact replica of the official emblem of India. Ahimsa, anyone?
Back in 2002, artist Shilpa Gupta peddled little bottles filled with red liquid on the streets and local trains of Mumbai. The bottles were labelled Blame and carried this inscription: “Blaming you makes me feel so good, so I blame you for what you cannot control – your religion, your nationality.” The curious performance was her way of responding to the US-led ‘war on terror’. By the time she was ready with her little bottles of Blame, the Godhra riots had happened and “Blame” felt more pertinent than ever. Imagine her performing “Blame” today, and I, for one, get the chills.
In 1994, Bhupen Khakhar painted a watercolour in which a seated man was cradled by another. Both are nude. The one who comforts the seated man is mostly blue-skinned. He has many arms and in one hand, there dangles a garland. In another, the blue-skinned man holds a lotus that is rising out of a discarded, green shirt. The painting is titled “How many hands do I need to declare my love for you?” It’s an exquisitely gentle and tender painting, glowing with sensual intimacy. However, a homophobe may be disgusted by it and if the person viewing “How many hands…” is itching to manufacture outrage, they can go blue in the face claiming Hinduism has been insulted.
Fortunately, few know of these works of art and fewer have actually seen them, which means both the art and the living artists are safe. Since Indian contemporary art has cultivated a reputation for being elite and its audience is at best described as niche, few see or talk about it. Add to this the deplorably outdated collections of modern art in most Indian museums. Net result: the chances of being seen are low and being misunderstood, lower.
Usually, an Indian artist becomes a topic of conversation when their works break records at international auctions or if their name is Maqbool Fida Husain. When Husain was first accused of obscenity and disrespecting Hinduism because he had painted Hindu goddesses as nude figures, it must have sounded like a joke. If traditional temple art is to be believed, these divine ladies aren’t particularly fond of covering up, after all. But the ridiculous turned first into embarrassment, and then miserable shame.
Court cases were filed against the artist. Violent protests, led by right-wing political activists, would mushroom every time his paintings were shown. There were numerous cases of serious vandalism, led by thugs believed to have political connections. The fear inspired by the anti-Husain brigade was so piercing that one gallery hid the fact that an upcoming exhibition included a portrait of his. It wasn’t even a painting by Husain. It was just a photograph of him.
Husain had his share of supporters, particularly in the art world, but outside, the detractors swarmed public opinion. People said Husain was courting controversy in the hope of staying relevant. None of them paid heed to the fact that he didn’t need religious sectarianism to stay in the news. If anything, the political ‘activists’ who led the charge against Husain were the ones riding on the coattails of his fame and reputation.
The Supreme Court would eventually dismiss the cases against Husain in 2011, but by that time, the damage had already been done. The eagerness with which Husain was maligned would make many in the Indian art arena less inclined to wave their aesthetic fists in the right-wing’s face. If Husain, with his charm, fame and media-savvy, couldn’t make himself be heard, then what chance did others have? Galleries couldn’t afford to have their premises vandalised. Artists couldn’t afford long-standing court cases. The Husain experience suggested that the well-behaved world of Indian art needed to add caution to its bag of tricks.
And yet, despite being studiously apolitical, Indian contemporary art has also been unwaveringly idealistic. It was born out the Progressives’ burning need to develop a distinctively modern and indigenous artistic identity. Since then, the art may be exhibited in cocoon-like galleries. It may be bought and sold by an elite that is frequently disconnected from average Indians. Still, within the private monologues and debates that characterize Indian contemporary art, our artists have also questioned social attitudes and criticized the establishment. Only they’ve done this subtly, with neither them nor their gallerists making any noise about the politics.
Sometimes the protests and idealism would be meshed in artistic imagery, like in the works of Navjot and Vivan Sundaram. Repeatedly, we’ve seen artists rally together to create collectives like Sahmat, Open Circle and KHOJ, which have offered insightful socio-political commentary. Sometimes the questions would be tangled in the dense but beautiful works made by the likes of CAMP and Desire Machine Collective. Performance artists like Inder Salim and Tejal Shah have long perplexed many with their strange and fantastic ways of exploring political issues. Recently, 400 artists signed a petition supporting the writers who returned their National Awards. Before you ask why they didn’t return anything, check how many Indian artists have been chosen for state honours. It’s a disappointingly tiny number.
Perhaps it is time for Indian artists and art to become less polite and more political. Perhaps it is time to abandon subtlety. But that’s only half the work done. If they voice their protests, will we hear them or the cacophony? If they create a work of political art, will we see their idealism or will we see only sacred cows?

Art: Shilpa Gupta, Nony and Dayanita Singh

I wrote a review for The Caravan of two photography books, one by Dayanita Singh and the other by her mother, Nony Singh. You can read it here

That’s a young Nony Singh in the photo, by the way.


There’s also this profile of artist Shilpa Gupta that I wrote a while back for Art Varta. I can’t seem to find a link for the article, so for those interested, the text is below.



Since she graduated from Mumbai’s Sir JJ School of Art in 1997, Shilpa Gupta has taken to the streets, built websites, sang songs, strung up fairy lights, handled cloth stained with menstrual blood – all to create art that will be striking to both a connoisseur and a casual observer. If there’s one word to describe Gupta’s style then it would be “unpredictable”. There’s no telling what the artist will pull out of her magician’s hat, but her forte lies in installations. Using a variety of materials that range from commonplace to specialised, Gupta creates pieces that are both visually striking and conceptually sound. Inventive, idealistic and poetic, Gupta’s art draws the viewer in, urging them to pause and spend a little time with the curiosity she’s created.  The best of her creations make the viewer feel like a confidante and as you stare, watch the work, it seems to whisper secret messages in your ear. Nothing is spelt out obviously and yet Gupta’s intent is communicated unfailingly.

Perhaps the most bewitching qualities of Gupta’s art is how it involves the viewer. It isn’t the technology or the technique that makes an impression, but the experience of having viewed the work almost as a collaborator rather than an objective viewer. Right from the beginning, drawing the viewer in has been Gupta’s primary objective – it’s telling that the URL for her first website was ‘’ – because there are messages she wants to convey. It perhaps wouldn’t come as a surprise that Gupta’s political ideologies are left-leaning and liberal, but the surprising part is how she chooses to articulate them in a manner that is thought-provoking rather than confrontational.  

One of Gupta’s early projects was titled Blame (2000). Gupta filled little bottles with simulated blood and labelled them “Blame”. The label had the following in small print: “Blaming you makes me feel so good! So I blame you for what you cannot control: your religion, your nationality. I want to blame you, it makes me feel good.” Gupta took a clutch of these bottles and peddled them on Mumbai’s local trains, where it’s common to see men and women selling everything from chopped vegetables to ear muffs. Even for Mumbai’s sangfroid, however, fake blood is an eyebrow-raiser. Some took the bottles from her out of politeness, a few refused; on one occasion, a woman grinned and winked at Gupta when she was about to get off the train. Gupta performed Blame all over the world. She revived the project in 2002, after the infamous Godhra riots in Gujarat, lending a sharper edge to the act of distributing Blame. Ostensibly, it’s a simple and unthreatening act: take a bottle from a slight, friendly-faced young woman; it’s for free. There’s no harm in it. But when you take that bottle from her, you become complicit in spreading Blame. When that bottle becomes yours, the words on that label can be attributed to you too. Think about what you’re doing, and the fake blood of Blame is the last thing you want on (or in) your hands.

Years later, Gupta would make Threat (2008-09). She imprinted the word “threat” upon bars of soap that were given to gallery visitors. In the gallery, each bar of soap looked vaguely brick-like. All of them were stacked to create a wall of soap. As a visitor, you could literally remove some threat by taking one of the bars. Use it and threat would soon melt away. Don’t use it, and the soap dries up and becomes useless. The futility of the increasingly popular political tactic of using fear as a control mechanism was simply but eloquently articulated using just a single word.   

It’s impossible to predict how a viewer will react, particularly when the agent provocateur in question is a work of art that’s determined to be subtle. When Gupta asked her female relatives and colleagues to give her pieces of cloth that had dried stains of menstrual blood on them for an art work, it was her aunt whose reaction proved to be the most memorable. The elder woman told Gupta that menstrual blood didn’t feel as dirty after she’d participated in Gupta’s project. In contrast, even though There is No Border Here (2005-06) – a series of works made using the yellow tape that is usually used to demarcate areas that are out of bounds for citizens – was inspired by strife-torn Srinagar, it ended up having greater impact among foreign audiences. When There is No Border Here was installed in Cuba, a stranger saw the work and was reduced to tears.


Despite the sophisticated ideas that characterise Gupta’s work, there’s an unpretentiousness to it. For example, in technical terms, Shadow 3 (2007) was unlike anything Indian contemporary art had seen attempted in a gallery. Visitors entered an enclosure and saw projected images of themselves, recorded on an unobtrusive camera that saw people as silhouettes. As a student, both in school and college, Gupta had been fascinated by science and computers. She continued studying computers and web-design even as a student at Sir JJ School of Art, thus presciently equipping herself to create works that discovered a delicate balance between contemporary technology and fine art. Shadow 3 turned the three-dimensional, multi-hued person into a faceless creature made of shadows who stood in front of a simple landscape of a few silhouetted houses. Now and then strains of sounds — temple bells, an azaan calling the faithful to prayer — could be heard. The shadow was recognisably your own and it moved as you did. If you stood still, it too was immobile. You took a step, and it followed you. The temptation to make silly gestures (a deer with your fingers, perhaps?) could only be resisted by the intensely esoteric. Most of us end up treating these shadows like an imaginary friend.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, a line appeared. It was straight, unwavering, like a particularly taut puppet string that in the world of shadows was connected to your silhouette. Your shadow now had a leash, and that wasn’t all. A strange, bulky shape started sliding down that line and came to rest when perched on your shadow’s back. You could dart from side to side or try any sudden movement, but that object wouldn’t be shaken off. And then, another object made its slow, inexorable way down the line, piling upon you imaginary baggage. Shadow 3 drew attention to the fact that there are certain things that stick to us because of the contexts to which we belong. Whether we wish to claim them or reject them, elements like religious identity become part of our perceived identity even if they are not actually representative. Thus, from a playful shadow self, you’ve become a Sisyphean creature who cannot escape the burdens that have no physical weight and yet manage to weigh you down. They are yours to bear and in a weird way, they become all the more oppressive because they’re imaginary. 

Over the past decade, there are a few leit motifs in Gupta’s work. One is the idea of identity as something that is difficult to pinpoint. Acutely aware of the gaps between signifier and signified, the shiftiness of one’s true identity is a subject that Gupta has explored repeatedly. Shadow 3 is one example, and another is Someone Else (2010-11), which was made up of steel etched books and shelves. All the books on these shelves were books published under pseudonyms because the writers felt more secure not using their own names. The steel covers tell you why the authors didn’t use their real names (“fear of disrepute”, “fear of disapproval” and so on) but no pages or books were inside. You can’t decipher anything about the writer’s identity from these covers. All you have is the fear that made them want to create an alter ego.

Anxiety ripples under the still surfaces of most of Gupta’s works. Whether it’s There Are No Explosives In This (2007), in which she wrapped things forbidden as hand baggage on flights in white cloth, or the untitled motion flap board that tells non sequiturs (2008-09), security in Gupta’s works acts as a front for something far more sinister. Gupta’s mistrust of a system that stereotypes people is quite obviously a reaction to the paranoia caused by Islamophobia, which has become an almost global epidemic since 9/11 and America’s ‘war on terror’. For her most recent solo show in Mumbai, Gupta arranged three sculptural installations in a way that created a poignant juxtaposition. The motion flap board with its cryptic messages was at one point of a triangle. At the opposite point was a metallic book that radiated heat and was literally too hot to touch. Forming the apex was Singing Cloud (2008-09), a massive, hanging sculpture made up of countless microphones that emit a garble of sounds – bird wings, piano, chanting and more. Singing Cloud was human experience unriddled by the politics and misconception that informed the other two works.

Gupta’s art isn’t realistic in formal terms, but her concerns are rooted very deeply in reality. For instance, she’s prodded at the campaign to create a sense of nationhood in works like Looking for Kurukshetra (2008), 100 Hand-drawn Maps of India (2007-08)and In Our Times (2008). All of them subtly point out the insubstantiality of many of the ideas that underpin our patriotic identity. There is no Kurukshetra to be found; the physical shape of the country is noticeably different in each of the 100 hand-drawn maps; and the presidential speeches by Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Jawaharlal Nehru must now be converted into song to relay hope. Among Gupta’s most poignant works are those inspired by Kashmir, like 100 Half Widows (2006), about women whose husbands are counted as missing.

Kashmir also inspired the There Is No Border Here series, which included a wall drawing with self-adhesive tape, that showed a waving flag. The drawing also had a few lines written into the flag:

“I tried very hard to cut the sky in half, one for my lover and one for me. But the sky kept moving…”

Gupta has used often used words with beautiful, poetic effect. Most recently, Gupta coined a simple but poignant line for a light installation. The installation was first placed near the sea in Mumbai and during the day, it was a bland metal frame. As the sky darkened to a luminous purple at sunset, the installation lit up to show a single line written in three languages (English, Urdu and Hindi): “We all live under the same sky.” The sentiment is simple and obvious – that there is more we have in common, despite the divides that are signified by the three languages. But there’s also a resonance to the lines Gupta wrote for There Is No Border Here. That sky that some had tried to cut in half reappears seven years later, still a sign of hope. In the crowded ugliness of modern Mumbai, where there’s always cacophony and hustling, Gupta’s light installation shone brightly, made all the more hopeful for the way passers-by stopped, stared and smiled at the work before continuing on their way.  


If you ask someone for a synonym for “art”, chances are they’ll toss at you a phrase like “difficult to understand” or, if they’re more irreverent or less polite, words like “weird” and “bizarre”. Humans have been making art for more than 2000 years, but even so, today in the 21st century, were’ no closer to a neat and comprehensive definition of art than we were in the age of cave paintings. If anything, the modern era has served to complicate matters more than ever. In addition to painting and sculpture, we’ve added photography, film, installation, performance and new media as artistic genres. It’s meant that anything and everything can be art and instead of making art more accessible, this shape-shifting quality has made art a little more curious in many people’s eyes. However, there is one quality that has remained a critical feature of anything considered truly artistic: its capacity to evoke wonder. In Indian contemporary art, one artist who has consistently created work that inspires this response is Shilpa Gupta.



The Mag This Week: Shilpa Gupta

If you’ve made it to Bandra and not gone to Carter Road, shame on you. Because Carter Road Bandstand has a lovely piece of public art by Shilpa Gupta, titled “I Live Under Your Sky Too.” There’s a little interview with Shilpa in today’s DNA and here are a few photos of the installation.


On Shilpa Gupta’s Someone Else

I’ve written about Shilpa Gupta’s new show, Someone Else, in my Sunday Guardian column. You can read it here. I love the dramatic headline: “Metallic library, books ablaze — Gupta shows art needs to be free”.

I enjoyed almost every work in Someone Else. Some made for decent pictures as well.

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List: 10 Unexpectedly Arty Raw Materials

This piece was first published in India Today.

While its appeal may not be quite as widespread as that of Bollywood, contemporary Indian art has its fans all over the world. Indian artists have been our cultural ambassadors, showcasing realities and fantasies of modern India in their works. As a toast to their inventiveness, here are 10 commonplace items that became fine art when they caught the attention of our finest artists.

1980s Enamel paint

Ask about the medium of most paintings, and you’ll be told oils or watercolours. If you’re looking atPrabhakar Barwe‘s paintings from the 1980s, however, there’s a good chance that you’re looking at synthetic enamel paint on canvas. Yes, the stuff that’s generally used on walls. Barwe thinned the gloopy enamel paint using turpentine and kerosene to make beautiful, delicate paintings in muted shades.

1995 Bindis

Indian women have adorned themselves with these cheap little stickies for decades but when Bharti Kher stuck the bindi on her sculptures and paintings, their value multiplied million-fold. Kher’s interest in the fashion accessory began in the mid-1990s. She was at a market when she noticed a stranger wearing a black bindi that reminded her of a sperm. Kher asked the woman where she’d bought the bindi, then went to that shop and bought its entire supply of serpentine bindis. It was, as Kher put it, her “supernova moment”. This year Kher became India’s top-selling female artist when one of her bindi works was sold for $1.5 million.

1996 Fake Eyes

You’ve seen them on statues of Hindu deities, looking kindly or angry, depending upon the deity in question and how the eyelashes and eyelids have been painted. Manufactured eyes have also been a regular feature in Anita Dube‘s art since 1996. A cluster of these unblinking synthetic eyes would spread over a wall in the gallery or encrust the surface of objects, like in the photograph C-Creature that shows hands covered with these fake eyes. Their unblinking gaze is tremendously unnerving and yet, it’s impossible to take one’s eyes off them.

1999 Bottle Caps

Does Coca-Cola remind you of saris? If yes, then you’ve probably seen Sharmila Samant‘s “Handmade Saree”, a gorgeous, unwearable creation made entirely of Coca-Cola bottle caps. Samant made the first Handmade Saree out of 1,800 bottle caps during a year-long residency. It cleverly talks about globalisation, exploitation of labour, commodification, notions of waste and value, the opposition between readymade and custom-made, threats to handicraft traditions and homogeneity, but without getting burdened by the gravitas of polysyllabic words.

2000 Metal Shutters

Generally when shutters come clanking down, it means the shop’s shut. Unless Atul Dodiya has painted on them. Then they become fine art. Dodiya first painted shutters in 2000 when he was asked to participate in an exhibition called Century City at London’s Tate Modern. He chose shutters as his canvas because he wanted to use something that was emblematic of Mumbai’s streets but would also communicate a sense of anxiety. The shutters were perfect because they’re fixtures in shops and the sound of them coming down was one of Dodiya’s sharpest memories from the 1992 Mumbai riots. Dodiya had an entire show of his shutter paintings earlier this year.

2003 Blessings from God

Many temples, churches and mosques have websites but only at could you download a blessing that was less divine and more fine art. In 2003, Shilpa Gupta created the website Visitors were invited to log in, choose a religion and then get blessings from the relevant religious authority. They could also download a certificate to prove they’d been blessed. The website was commissioned by Tate Online, the digital arm of London’s Tate Galleries, and was Gupta’s meditation upon religion and the divisive role it often plays in society.

2005 Mattresses

In 2005, Anju Dodiya exhibited her first series of paintings made on mattresses. The show was called “The Cloud Hunt”, which sounds like an aggressive form of daydreaming and explains where the mattresses fitted into Dodiya’s scheme of things. One would think the bulkiness of a mattress would make it an inelegant starting point for a painting but Dodiya transformed this sleeping apparatus into a wonderful canvas. Mattresses added a hint of three-dimensionality to the two-dimensional medium and were strangely perfect for Dodiya’s works, particularly when they explored themes of fantasy, sleep and night.

2006 Hawker Stalls and Sofas

This one’s a double whammy. In 2006, Tushar Joag came up with a brilliant contraption for hawkers being harassed into shutting shop by officials of the Brihanmumbai Municipality Corporation (BMC): theShanghai Couch. (The BMC had banned hawkers as part of its master plan to give Mumbai a makeover and turn it into Shanghai; hence the name.) The Shanghai Couch was a hawker stall that in a few swift, nifty moves could turn into a bright red couch. Because, as Joag pointed out, there wasn’t any law banning couches on Mumbai’s pavements.

2007 Rubberstamp

It’s impossible to find an Indian office that doesn’t have at least one person rubberstamping away. In Reena Saini Kallat‘s art, however, the rubberstamp is a sign of her disapproval of the state of affairs. Kallat first used rubberstamps to create portraits of missing persons in 2007. The custom-made stamps had names from missing persons written in 14 languages. Two years later, she used rubberstamps again in a series inspired by the Taj Mahal. Contrary to popular belief, there is a record of the names of the artists who worked on the monument, which Kallat discovered in an archive. She recreated some of the motifs of the Taj Mahal using rubberstamps that had the artists’ names on them.

2007 Steel Utensils

There are two places where you will almost always find steel utensils: in Indian kitchens and Subodh Gupta‘s art. Even as a moderately-successful painter, Gupta’s muse was steel kitchenware but it’s when he turned to installations that he became Indian art’s brightest star. His works have used tiffin-carriers, plates, glasses, serving spoons, bowls and every other stainless steel item you would expect to see in a middle-class Indian kitchen. Among the other items he’s turned into fine art are petroleum jelly, cowdung and the Ambassador taxi.