Following the remarkable and rapid economic, social and cultural developments in India, Indian Highway was a timely presentation of the pioneering work being made in the country.
The culmination of extensive research across India, this group exhibition was a snapshot of a vibrant generation of artists working across a range of media. Indian Highway featured artists who had already made a significant impact on the international art world alongside emerging practitioners. The exhibition also included a special project curated by Raqs Media Collective.
Some of the artworks in the exhibition were selected for their connection to the theme of Indian Highway, reflecting the importance of the road in migration and movement and as the link between rural and urban communities. Other works made reference to technology and the ‘information superhighway’, which has been central to India’s economic boom. A common thread throughout was the way in which these artists demonstrate an active political and social engagement, examining complex issues in contemporary India that include environmentalism, religious sectarianism, globalisation, gender, sexuality and class.
To frame and contextualise the work by a younger generation of artists, new paintings were created specially for the Serpentine Gallery by India’s most acclaimed living artist, M. F. Husain. Depicting the history of India, the series was presented on a structure around the exterior of the building, purpose-designed by architects Nikolaus Hirsch and Michel Müller.
An exhibition conference took place on the 30th January 2009, exploring the theme of the exhibition, reacting to individual works and addressing some of the central theoretical concerns. Above all there was a focus, in the words of Saloni Mathur, on “a concern with the problem of the difference of Indian modernity, with mapping its distinctly colonial and/or postcolonial career and with uncovering the alternatives presented by marginal or subaltern groups to the totalising narratives of a dominant Euro-Western order and its bourgeois beneficiaries in the non-Western world.” Invited speakers included Suman Gopinath, Ranjit Hoskote, Sarat Maharaj, Sharmini Pereira, Kumar Shahani, Raqs Media Collective and Grant Watson.
To complement India Highway, the Serpentine saluted Indian cinema with a season of screenings at the Gate and Ritzy cinemas in Notting Hill and Brixton. Special previews of new films, together with classic titles, offered a curious audience the chance to view India through the eyes of Indian directors. The films shown were: Mithya (Rajat Kapoor, India 2008, 110’, cert tbc), Quick Gun Murugan (Shashank Ghosh, India 2008, 97′, cert tbc), Mughal-e-Azam (K. Asif, India 1960, 173’, cert tbc), Ghajini (A. R. Murugadoss, India 2008, cert tbc), Water (Deepa Mehta, Canada 2005, 115′, cert 15), The Warrior (Asif Kapadia, UK 2001, 86’, cert 12 ), A River Called Titas (Ritwik Ghatak, India 1973, 158’, cert PG), Bhavantarana (Kumar Shahani, India 1991, 63’, cert PG), Days and Nights in the Forest (Satyajit Ray, India 1970, 120’, cert PG), Two Daughters (Satyajit Ray, India 1961, 114′, cert tbc), Rang De Basanti (Rakesh Omprakash Mehra, India 2006, 120’, cert 12A), Pather Panchali (Satyajit Ray, India 1955, 115’, cert U).
Bangalore-based artist Ayisha Abraham (born 1963) creates experimental films that examine narratives of identity, memory and history, representing their inherent complexities by intercutting dislocated images and sounds. Her film One Way, 2007, profiled the life of a Nepali immigrant working as a security guard in her home city, the busy hub of India’s high-tech trade.
Ravi Agarwal (born 1958) combines social documentary and environmental activism in his films and photography. He focuses particularly on the marginalised sectors of society within New Delhi’s rapidly developing landscape using images of the street, people at work and in labour. More recently, the artist has examined his personal relationship to the environment, such as in the series Immersion. Emergence – 24 Images, 2007, where he explores his relationship to New Delhi’s Yamuna River by recording himself wrapped in a shroud by the riverbank.
Nikhil Chopra performed a site-specific work especially for the Serpentine, living and working at the Gallery from 10 to 12 December 2008.
Raqs Media Collective, formed in 1992, comprises Jeebesh Bagchi (born 1965), Monica Narula (born 1969) and Shuddhabrata Sengupta (born 1968). Their work locates them on the intersections of contemporary art, historical enquiry, philosophical speculation, research and theory, often taking the form of installations, online and offline media objects, performances and encounters. The Collective have exhibited widely in international exhibitions and recently curated The Rest of Now and co-curated Scenarios at Manifesta 7, 2008.
Sheela Gowda’s (born 1957) process-based practice, which includes paintings, drawings, sculptures and installations, blurs the boundary between fine art and craft. Her materials are chosen for their symbolism. Substances such as cow dung, incense, threads, fibres and ceremonial dyes are used as subversive political statements, which straddle their everyday presence both in urban and rural India. This history of manufactured found objects, such as tar drums and plastic sheeting, recycled by India’s migrant workers, is further extended towards a nuanced reading.
Sakshi Gupta (born 1979) recycles scrap materials, often with industrial origins, to produce sculptures that transform the meaning of the materials to provoke spiritual contemplation. This emphasis on materiality results in an evocative and ephemeral lightness and fragility. Through this engagement with material weight, Gupta’s works can be understood as a commentary on the contemporary world – highlighting the shift from the economics of heavy industry to the weightless age of information and technology.
Shilpa Gupta (born 1976) uses digital media in the form of online art projects and video environments fused with sculptural and photographic elements. Gupta often invites the participation of viewers in her work, using interactive technology to examine themes such as consumer culture, desire, border and territory vis a vis the internal experience of ‘difference’.
Subodh Gupta (born 1964) uses found objects that are recognisable icons of everyday Indian life – stainless-steel kitchenware, bicycles, scooters and taxis – and elevates their status to art works. Working across a full range of media, he draws on his own experience of cultural dislocation, through migration from rural to urban areas, and highlights the threat to the traditional way of life resulting from India’s rapid modernisation.
N. S. Harsha (born 1969) is celebrated for reworking Indian miniature painting as a platform for a powerful social and political commentary. His large-scale and intricate canvases depict a multitude of figures all animated in unison and wittily combine details from everyday Indian life with images drawn from world events. His practice also includes sculptures, installations and community-based collaborations.
M. F. Husain (born 1915) is one of India’s most respected artists. He started his career in 1937, painting hoardings for the popular Bombay cinema. As a founding member of the avant-garde Progressive Artist Group in 1947, Husain was anxious to forge a new vocabulary in Indian art and he created a new style in painting, which was a brilliant synthesis of tradition and modernity. He continues to produce colourful and provocative canvases, incorporating themes from Indian religion, history and culture.
The practice of Jitish Kallat (born 1974) combines painting, photography and collage as well as large-scale sculpture and multimedia installation. His work reflects a deep involvement with Mumbai, the city of his birth and derives his visual language from the immediate urban environment – ‘the dirty, old, recycled and patched-together fabric of urban India’. Wider concerns include India’s attempts to negotiate its entry into a globalised economy, housing and transportation crises, city planning issues, caste and communal tensions and government accountability.
Amar Kanwar’s (born 1964) poetic and contemplative films explore the political, social, economic and ecological conditions of the Indian subcontinent. Interwoven throughout are investigations of family relations, sectarian violence, gender and sexuality, philosophical and religious questions, and the processes of globalisation. His multi-channel video installation The Lightning Testimonies, 2007, incorporates accounts of sexual violence at moments of conflict in the history of the Indian subcontinent.
Working across sculpture, photograph and painting, Bharti Kher (born 1969) explores issues of personal identity, social roles and Indian traditions but also, from a broader perspective, 21st-century issues around genetics, evolution, technology and ecology. Kher uses the bindi as a central motif in her work to connect disparate ideas. The bindi transcends its mass-produced diminutiveness and becomes a powerful stylistic and symbolic device, creating visual richness and allowing a multiplicity of meanings.
The works of Bose Krishnamachari (born 1963) range from multi-coloured abstractions and realistic figurative paintings to mixed-media installations, examining ideas including cultural history, memory and canonisation. His installation Ghost/Transmemoir, 2006-08, explores themes of impermanence and transition in the city of Mumbai.
Nalini Malani (born 1946) first received international acclaim for her figurative and politically charged paintings and drawings that raise issues of race, class and gender. In the 1990s, her practice began to encompass video art, multi-media installation and the use of shadow play. She sources subject matter from different histories and cultures, including episodes from both Western and Eastern literature and myth.
Formally trained as a sculptor, Kiran Subbaiah (born 1971) works in a range of media, including assemblage, video and internet art. A common approach of his practice is the subverting the form and function of objects, through which he questions the relationship between use and value, highlighting contradictions inherent in everyday life. Irony, deadpan humour and a crude aesthetic provide Subbaiah with simple binaries – functional/defunct, action/reaction and cause/effect to tease out his ideas and observations.
Tejal Shah (born 1979) works in video, photography and performance. Her work is primarily concerned with issues of gender, sexuality, class and politics, such as the video I Love My India, 2003, which focuses on the ignorance and lack of understanding of the genocide against the Muslim minority in Gujarat in 2002. In the video installation What Are You?, 2006, the artist critically deals with historical and social constructs of gender and focuses on India’s Hijra (transgender) community.
Dayanita Singh (born 1961) is best known for her photographic portraits of India’s urban middle and upper-class families. These images of people working, celebrating or resting show Indian life without embellishment. Her latest work such as Blue Scenery Series, 2006-08, has concentrated on depictions of places. The dissemination of her photography as mass-produced and disposable objects such as wallpaper, books, calendars and postcards is a driving force of her recent practice.
Ashok Sukumaran (born 1974) and Shaina Anand (born 1975), an architect and a film-maker are co-founders of CAMP, a collaborative venture linking independent artistic research and software-based activities at ‘infrastructural scales’ in Mumbai. CAMP is a continuously changing acronym, thereby repopulating the remit of its own activities. Together and with others, the artists examine the forces between individuals, communities and technologies, producing inventive projects with media such as electricity, cable TV, CCTV, film and the internet.