Chalo! India

Southeast Asian art is an eyecatcher for most Europeans

On The Town | Maria Fracesca Hernandez | November 2009

Up the steps of the glistening, minimalist Essl Museum, a life-size reclining elephant in stone fills the space. Overhead, a giant spiral of confetti-like colored dots, a chain of the bindi marks Indian woman wear on their foreheads. A flurry of color, the colossal pachyderm by artist Bharti Kher sets the tone for Chalo! India, a remarkable exhibition showcasing the vitality of contemporary Indian artists, and introducing the rich culture of this electrifying and exotic nation.

With both economy and population booming, India is a country in motion. Call-centers receive more business from abroad than ever before, international consumers are growing ever hungrier for the tastes of Bollywood and onion bhajis. At the same time, the country continues to face pressing problems, extensive poverty, illiteracy, disease and environmental decline.

Contrast and contradiction permeate Indian life and thus are also a prominent theme in the works featured here. In one installation by Krishnaraj Chonat, a Jacuzzi tub and binoculars comment wryly on India’s uncertain future amid economic success. In another, Jitish Kallat laments the supplanting of the rickshaw by the modern taxi-cab, with a larger-than-life rupee whose "heads and tails" bear quite literally India’s two faces. In Anant Joshi’s display windows, super-hero action figures face an assault of razor blades, a depiction of both the glamour and violence of new city life. A more light-hearted installation of toy model airplanes and outsized chocolate drink bottles by Thukral & Tagra, stirs memories of childhood in a room with patterned wallpaper, suggesting the longing of many young Indians for the West.

In one room, Untitled (shadow 3) by Shilpa Gupta pulls the visitor directly into the installation, as a back light throws one’s shadow across to the far end of the bare room.

Countless dark forms of inchoate shape and without origin drift along the wall, latching onto the visitor’s silhouette. When another visitor enters, these shadows dislodge to devour the silhouette of the new arrival. Amusing, perhaps, but there is also a chilling undertone of the futility of seeking escape.

For Chalo! India, curator Akiko Miki assembled sculptures, paintings, sketches, comics, photographs and sound recordings that capture an overview of contemporary Indian art.

The pieces express distinct cultural differences embodied within this vast country, from New Delhi in the north to Bangalore in the south. The prevailing themes however, are shared: the conflict between India’s accelerating quest for modernity without abandoning its cultural heritage, against a backdrop of severe social inequality.


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