Contemporary Indian Art: A Question of Method

By Sinha, Ajay J. | Art Journal, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Contemporary Indian Art: A Question of Method


Sinha, Ajay J., Art Journal


This is artistic rapture's most difficult negotiation with the agora of interpretation, for in order to ensure the survival of art, its authenticity or autonomy has to be partially erased.

-Homi K. Bhabha1

With a recent groundswell of interest in contemporary Indian art in academia, museums, and galleries in the United States, one must ask, What is "contemporary" about it? I use a relationship drawn by Homi K. Bhabha between the 11 aura of art" and the "agora of interpretation" to explore this frequently asked question and to address a problem of method involved in our asking it. In his essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," Walter Benjamin relates a work of art's singular appeal to the viewer, its aura, to a preindustrial history and laments its loss in the age of photography and reproduction. For Bhabha, who is also concerned with the loss of aura, the crisis relates to interpretation, not history. Bhabha attempts to restore what he calls a difficult boundary between the sensuous presence of a visual work and the literary negotiations about it in interpretative narratives, characterizing the experience of the work's silent presence at that boundary as artistic rapture.

The urge to validate Indian art of the late twentieth century places it at the boundary of interpretation with which Bhabha is concerned. I will map this boundary in the first part of the essay, hoping to redefine it in the second. Among South Asianists in U.S. universities and museums who are increasingly pressed to consider this new and uncertain area of acquisition, the question of validating contemporary Indian art invites skepticism. In order to justify its avant-garde status, they search for its difference from progressive art movements in the West. Discouraged by its references to mainstream modernism, they inscribe it as derivative of that with which they are more familiar.2 Indian art criticism has offered two apologies to such a pervasive, Eurocentric view. One is made in terms of eclecticism, a pluralistic defense based on the principle of free borrowing and synthesis of various cultures, which in India includes Western art as well as India's own traditions.3 The second, more recent one claims the authenticity of India's contemporary art by discussing "alternative modernisms," thereby attempting to restore in India some of modernism's original edge as a heterogeneous counterculture within Europe's bourgeois culture.4 in the age of postmodernism and multicultural ism, the search for India's authenticity has expanded beyond the nationalistic positions of Indian art criticism. In the United States, the pluralistic argument provides a new framework for interest in contemporary Indian art by adapting it to the discourse of minority cultures, which has gained ground in the United States with migration, the success of feminism, and U.S. liberal politics.5

The ambitious traveling exhibition Contemporary Art in Asia: Traditions/Tensions, organized by the curator Apinan Poshyananda, which opened at the Asia Society Galleries, the Grey Art Gallery, and P. S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in New York in fall 1996, provides the best available frame in the United States in which to explore the authenticity and validity of contemporary Indian art. The exhibition earned global recognition for breaking through the norms for viewing and evaluating contemporary art from the Third World. Its tremendous value was to bring attention to recent urban art from India and other Asian countries, usually dismissed as an anomaly by critics searching for Asia's authenticity in the history of its premodern art.6 The exhibition succeeded in pointing out the anomaly as a major oversight in our critical thinking. Its definition of what is contemporary in Indian art therefore provides a good index for our question of interpretation.

Traditions/Tensions presented the art of five Asian nations as a product of the economic and political relations that link them to contemporary global culture. …

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