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At the entrance to the Seattle Art Museum’s (SAM) exhibition City Dwellers: Contemporary Art from India, visitors found themselves standing face to face with the father of the Indian nation and one of history’s most fervent critics of Western material culture. But in Debanjan Roy’s India Shining V (2008), the earphone-wearing Mahatma was covered from head to toe in shiny red automotive paint and had his eyes fixed firmly on an iPod screen. The title of the piece makes direct reference to the eponymous slogan used by India’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) during the 2004 general elections to bolster confidence in India’s economic power. But the sculpture also conveyed more nuanced, site-specific meanings, inviting viewers to reflect on the prominent role Indians and Indian Americans have played in transforming the Seattle area into one of the largest technology hubs in the United States.
If in 1990, Seattle’s King County registered an India-born population of just over four thousand, by 2013 this number had swelled to nearly fifty thousand, including both India-born and Indian American residents. This emigration, which has not only impacted the county’s demographics but also contributed to its rising socio-economic status, has been driven by the hiring needs of companies such as Microsoft and Amazon that are headquartered in the area. The connection between the growth of Seattle’s South Asian community, its technology industry, and Roy’s Gandhi with an iPod functions, however, beyond the level of metaphor. Indeed, all of the artworks on display at City Dwellers were drawn from the expansive contemporary art collection of former Microsoft executive Sanjay Parthasarathy and his wife Malini Balakrishnan who moved to the Seattle area in the early 1990s on the cusp of America’s dot-com boom.
A special kind of curatorial confidence and vision is required to turn a show drawn from a single collection into an innovative exhibition. Catharina Manchanda, SAM’s Jon and Mary Shirley Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, has both. Adopting the Indian city as a conceptual framework for the show, Manchanda brought together works by twelve India-based artists that explore themes of displacement, belonging, identity construction, performance, mobility, and the negotiation of tradition within the context of urban growth and globalization. Of the forty-four works on display, forty-one were photographs. Yet the focus on a single artistic medium was counterbalanced by the remarkable diversity of the exhibition’s photographic images, both in terms of content and genre. Portrait, performance, and urban landscape photography as well as digital photomontage were each well represented by artists Dayanita Singh, Pushpamala N., Dhruv Malhotra, Jitish Kallat, Manjunath Kamath, and Vivek Vilasini. In the case of Subodh Gupta’s Untitled [Train Station] (2003) and Untitled [Taxi] (2003-6), the inclusion of photographs reframed an artist known for his large-scale sculpture installations.
Manchanda organized City Dwellers at the museum’s main building in downtown Seattle, where its modern and contemporary Western art is displayed, instead of at the smaller Seattle Asian Art Museum situated off Seattle’s main tourist circuit in a residential part of the city. In this she addressed the conceptual divide between Western and Asian art, whereby Asian contemporary art practices are often criticized for being either too Asian (and therefore not modern enough) or too modern (and therefore not representative of a purportedly more traditional Asian society). Manchanda installed the photographs in three discrete spaces, each corresponding to a different facet of urban life: to the open, public spaces of the city; to the private or domestic sphere; and, finally, to liminal or marginal spaces that are neither fully public nor fully private.
In the largest of the three galleries, two flashy sculptural works installed in its center opposed the more self-reflective photographs that punctuated its perimeter. Scooter (2007), by Mumbai-based Valay Shende, joined India Shining V to simultaneously critique and celebrate the new consumption patterns and material desires of India’s growing urban middle class. The scooter—or two-wheeler, in Indian English—was constructed entirely out of large gold-plated disks and installed in the middle of a very large, round platform. Thus was the gilded scooter re-presented to viewers as an object of admiration and worship—a status that it holds in India where cars, machines, and other significant household goods are regularly blessed and consecrated by Hindu priests.
The self-assured urbanism of Shende’s piece was called into question by surrounding images, including a quartet of colorful photographs from Nandini Valli Muthiah’s Definitive Reincarnate (2003–6)and selections from collaborators Pushpamala N. and Clare Arni’s Native Women of South India: Manners and Customs (2000–4). In both series, performance plays a central role in destabilizing various hegemonic representations of Indian society and India’s religious and cultural traditions. Muthiah’s photographs, which she endowed with an easily recognizable cinematic effect through the use of movie-set lighting, depict the blue-bodied god Krishna in a variety of urban settings. In both Hindu mythology and mainstream cinematic culture, Krishna, the eighth incarnation of Vishnu and hero of the Bhagavad Gita, is characterized as a seductive, playful, and valiant god. In Muthiah’s images, however, he appears downcast and tentative; in The Arrival II (2006), for instance, his gaze swims among orderly columns of dusty red brick that pave the ground below him, fully detached from the tinsel and bright lights of the modern urban environment he is shown inhabiting. The god has regained his composure in Reassurance (2006), the last image of the series, yet this profile shot also calls attention to thick, drawn-on sideburns that expose the playacting and pretense behind his masculinity.
Native Women derives its critical edge from the artists’ meticulous restaging and recreation of scenes from colonial ethnographic photography, nineteenth-century oil paintings, South Indian films, police mug shots, and Western documentary photography in India. In each image Pushpamala N. performs the role of female protagonist, and in doing so, unsettles the original images’ claims to objective knowledge and truth about the human subjects they represent. In Toda, she stands in front of a checkered backdrop and rests her right forearm on the type of metal measuring device that the British once employed in ethnographic surveys. Two hands can be seen on either side of the frame working to keep the backdrop taut, a deliberate inclusion that underscores the constructed nature of this image and, by extension, the artifice and racism that underpinned the practice of colonial-era ethnographic photography. The artists present similar arguments in other images, including Circus, which subverts the authority of a U.S. photographer’s romantic vision of Indian circuses as “a poetry and a craziness that are still uncorrupted, and honest, and pure.” These are the words Mary Ellen Mark used to describe her 1989–90 documentary project on Indian circus performers. But Circus, in which a stone-faced Pushpamala N. appears in a frilly yellow leotard flanked by two circus girls captured in a midair jump, proposes a radically different way of viewing the performance of Indian women and girls in the circus. In it, one does not see unadulterated purity or timeless traditions, but rather feats of strength, stamina, and the sacrifice of a carefree childhood.
Just beyond the threshold between the main gallery space and a second, more intimate room, a white sculptural cast of a man seated on a chair disappears into a white wall. Untitled (Self in Progress) (2001) is a two-part creation by Alwar Balasubramaniam that explores many existential layers of presence and absence. The introspective mood set by Untitled was reinforced by a suite of sumptuous black-and-white portraits from photographer Dayanita Singh’s Ladies of Calcutta (2008) series.
Dressed in fine silk and cotton saris, tailored jackets, and floor-length evening gowns, Singh’s mostly upper-class female subjects (many belonging to Kolkata’s artistic and business elite) pose either alone or with relatives in the most intimate quarters of their resplendent homes. Here viewers see India’s famed sitar player, Jaya Biswas, in her spacious drawing room, standing in an elegant white cotton sari in front of a fabric divan upon which her instrument softly rests. In another photograph, Kuhu and Mother-in-Law (1999), polished teak furniture, family photographic portraits, and European-style oil paintings of Indian subjects bear silent witness to an affectionate, intergenerational embrace between two unlikely female companions. The force of Singh’s portraiture lies precisely in its treatment of objects of everyday use such as furniture, appliances, framed photographs, and devotional tools as material extensions of personhood and essential facilitators in the performance of kinship relations. Whereas much of the work in the first gallery highlighted India’s unabashed materialism, Singh’s portraits, taken not in the luxury penthouse suites of Mumbai’s Bollywood stars but in the colonial-era mansions of Kolkata’s old-moneyed elite, evoke a deep, nostalgic affection for the Bengali intelligentsia and the society and culture of the old imperial capital.
The third gallery of City Dwellers was a transitional space—a narrow corridor providing passage both out of and into the exhibition from two adjoining gallery spaces. Forbidding, surreal nightscapes from Dayanita Singh’s Dream Villa series (2010) and Dhruv Malhotra’s Sleepers series (2007–12) occupied the left side of the corridor. While both artists played with the city’s artificial-light sources to create jarring images of the urban environment after dark, it is Malhotra’s work, which focuses on pavement-dwellers’ creative appropriation and negotiation of their built environments, that most directly addressed the exhibition’s theme. His sleeping subjects, photographed unawares, take their nightly repose in full public view in the most public of places: on the manicured lawn of a highway greenbelt, the scaffolding platform of a construction site, and on top of an improvised bed that cannot escape the glare of a residential housing unit’s floodlights.
On the opposite wall, three photographs from Sooni Taraporevala’s Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India (1985) provided a poetic contrast to the scenes in Singh and Malhotra’s work. In them, Taraporevala observes moments of contemplative communion between men belonging to India’s minority Parsi community and city life in Bombay. Thus, in The Man in the Sola Hat, she captures a neatly dressed man in a khaki jacket and matching brimmed hat walking along the city’s embankment. With his back turned to the camera and folded umbrella in hand, he stares at the horizon beyond the harbor waters. A sliver of a young man’s body peaks out, elbow first, from the right side of the frame; he is standing on the embankment itself, only few feet from the Parsi gentleman. Yet whatever the young man is doing there, he does not disturb the tranquility of Taraporevala’s main human subject.
In its thematic selection and placement of artworks, City Dwellers remained equally attentive to the divides and contradictions between the inner, subjective experience of the Indian city by its residents and its outer forms and public manifestations. While modest in scope, the exhibition succeeded in introducing visitors to a wide range of contemporary Indian artistic practices that speak to the complexity and dynamism of social, cultural, and economic life in India today.
PhD candidate, Department of History, University of Washington