Contemporary Indian Art

By Cohen, Andrew L.; Sirhandi, Marcella C. | Art Journal, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Contemporary Indian Art


Cohen, Andrew L., Sirhandi, Marcella C., Art Journal


How, then, is one to make any simple, summarizing statement... about so multiform a literature, hailing from that huge crowd of a country (close to a billion people at the last count), that vast, metamorphic, continent-size culture, which feels, both to Indians and to visitors, like a non-stop assault on the senses, the emotions, the imagination, and the spirit?

-Salman Rushdie, The New Yorker, June 23-30, 1997

As Salman Rushdie suggests, India is a vast heterocosm of multiple identities. This special section of Art Journal demonstrates that this is as true of its contemporary art as it is of its literature. As a result of the process of globalization and other factors, the heterocosm that is contemporary Indian art is presently opening itself up to multifarious identities, both Western and non-Western, outside of itself. This is why the question of identity in India is so problematic at this time. Artists who retain traditional Indian identities may be thought of as parochial and out of touch with Western fashions, while those who are too open to the West may be accused of sacrificing their traditional identities. Both tendencies, however, misrepresent contemporary Indian art, which is heterogeneous and open to difference.

Globalization has increased the pressure artists in India have experienced in the twentieth century to be both Indian (read traditional) and modern (read Western). Globalization is usually theorized in terms of assimilation and transformation or local resistance and subversion; yet, residual colonialist attitudes continue to muddle this theoretical framework. For example, drinking Pepsi in India is considered Americanization, while eating curry in the United States is simply experiencing ethnic diversity. Though at one time Pepsi was a sign of the West-and curry a sign of India-it is now more important to ask how these signs signify in the changed social, political, and cultural circumstances of this particular moment in history. In his article "Modern Indian Art: A Brief Overview," R. Siva Kumar discusses the ongoing dialogue Indian artists have had between Western artistic movements and indigenous traditions. At certain times, Western modes have been seen as the key to modernization, while at other times the need to be Indian meant privileging indigenous traditions. Only cultural chauvinism keeps one from seeing the beauty of transmutation.

Yet, the same forces that have accelerated the globalization of Indian culture-induding migration, the emergence of new communication technologies, and increasingly rapid international artistic exchanges-are undermining once dominant notions of cultural chauvinism and rigid paradigms of identity.

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