The Art of Pregress and Strife; Contemporary Artists Wrestle with Modern India

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Byline: Vibhuti Patel

Outsiders may know India as the land of outsourcing and curry, yoga and Bollywood films. But a startling insider's view is currently being revealed in "Edge of Desire: Recent Art in India," a two-part exhibit that opened recently at New York's Asia Society and the Queens Museum of Art (through June 5, then on to Mexico and, finally, to India). On display are 80 provocative paintings, sculptures, photographs, installations and videos by 38 artists--some established, others emerging--who have witnessed unprecedented political, social and economic upheaval in their homeland in the past decade.

They have a lot of ground to cover. During the 1990s religious fundamentalism killed the cherished secularism of Jawaharlal Nehru, liberal economic reforms began to dismantle 50 years of state controls and an "open-door" foreign policy replaced Nehru's nonalignment. Overnight, television and advertising became influential, consumerism ran rampant, globalization eroded old values and violence erupted everywhere. Not surprisingly, Indian artists reflected these realities in groundbreaking works. The result is a show replete with anguish and irony, wit and cynicism, whose works use traditional forms to express modern themes.

The show is organized into five sections, two at the Asia Society and three in Queens. At Asia Society, the viewer enters a gallery overpowered by a billboard-size triptych with the ironic title "Tomb's Day," which consists of three Bollywood-style paintings centered around the iconic Taj Mahal. The foregrounds of the first two feature full-size portraits of Vladimir Putin and his wife, and Bill Clinton with his daughter, Chelsea (both presidents visited India in 2000). But in the third, an exotic Indian magician hovers over the "Tomb," making it disappear--perhaps representing artist Atul Dodiya's fear that the real India is in danger of vanishing. Nearby, cut-outs of national heroes like Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru and Sardar Patel ride aboard the "Freedom Bus," an installation inspired by a sixth-grade history book. The artist, Nataraj Sharma, alludes cynically to their unfulfilled democratic ideals by placing a rusty megaphone atop the bus. He may also be slyly referring to the Hindu nationalist government's rewriting of the country's history books.

Not all the works were pre-existing. …