Refusing to judge the current exhibition at the Charles Saatchi Gallery by its rather gimmicky title – Empire Strikes Back: Indian Art Today – Sid and I decided to make it our Valentine's outing. And I must say it was fun. It had the works fo 26 different contemporary artists, which together presented a colourful mix of different genres: from small, delicate works to huge paintings and installations. It is ironical and a little sad that in all my years in Mumbai, I never came across an exhibition with such a huge, varied mix of contemporary Indian art as I did today in London.
However, I am as curious as Girish to know why did they bung in three Pakistani artists into the exhibition on Indian art? Was it because the curator simply thought that the term “India” can stand for the whole subcontinent? And even if it did – which it doesn’t – is he trying to say that there are only three artists in Pakistan producing the quality of work comparable to their Indian counterparts, and hence worth exhibiting in the space?
Another tendency that I find a tad troublesome is categorising foreign born and bred artists as Indian artists simply on the basis of their Indian lineage. One such artist is 28-year-old Ajit Chauhan, who was born in Kansas, US, and now lives and works in San Fransisco. The exhibition includes a work composed of 160 old record covers from the 80s (see above). Chauhan has painted over the faces on the covers, which was funny in a disturbing sort of way, but had no connection to Indian popular culture whatsoever. I don’t think his name rings a bell in India, he has never exhibited his works there, and none of his works that I came across over the web refer to India in any way – so why is he a part of Indian Empire striking back? At least, the works of Chitra Ganesh, Shezad Dawood, Schandra Singh refer to India or their own Indian origins in some way. But I can’t say the same of Yamini Nayar or Ajit Chauhan.
I have only been outside of India for two-and-half-years, but already I feel a little doubtful commenting on the daily politics and cultural happenings back home. The subjects are so complex and tied into so many everyday realities that unless I am experiencing them up, close and personal, I don’t want to pass judgments on them. And I am aware that the longer I stay out of India, the more tenuous my connection with the country will become. But in turn, I hope to build new connections and understandings of the cultures and people I encounter outside of India.
Just like I wouldn’t want to pigeonholed as some kind of representative Indian writer, if I am not living in India, I wonder how comfortable Chauhan feels being branded as a contemporary Indian artist.