Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 10, 2021
Saloni Mathur A Fragile Inheritance: Radical Stakes in Contemporary Indian Art Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019. 256 pp.; 64 ills. Paper $25.95 (9781478003014)

(An open-access version of this book is available at OAPEN: Open Access Publishing in European Networks.)

Early in her important account of Geeta Kapur and Vivan Sundaram, arguably the most significant critic-artist partnership to emerge in postcolonial India, Saloni Mathur characterizes her work as “an ongoing intellectual debt” (xii). The debt may be hers, but it is conveniently shared by everyone working on the history of twentieth-century art and criticism. Building on extended conversations and sustained archival research, Mathur considers Kapur’s writings between the years 1968, when she drafted In Quest of Identity: Art and Indigenism in Post-Colonial Cultures, with Special Reference to Contemporary Indian Painting, and 2019, when she revisited her theory of the avant-garde. Simultaneously, Mathur charts Sundaram’s progress from 1991, when he began experimenting with new media, to 2018, when the majority of his works were brought together, some in reconstruction, for major retrospectives at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in New Delhi and the Haus der Kunst, Munich. Though Mathur follows, in roughly chronological outline, two historical actors, she resists reinstating them as historical authors. Instead, her investigation—which is as much about contemporary art historical imperatives as about its protagonists’ careers—focuses on moments of fragmentation, recursion, and undecidability. The result is nothing short of a new model of historical thinking, a “radical time-consciousness,” that turns Walter Benjamin’s famous angel from history’s past toward its future (6, 43).

Mathur’s theory of history has two discrete objectives. The first is to reject civilizational discourses constructed by the colonial state (as described in her previous book India by Design: Colonial History and Cultural Display, University of California Press, 2007) and inherited by majoritarian nationalism: Kapur and Sundaram offer not unassailable identity but a “critical consciousness” open to failure that stays vigilantly “at work” (viii). The second is to offer alternatives to the Euro-American conversation about the relationship between art and the Left: Mathur’s gentle reminder to us about the radical avant-garde, contrary to debates about its failure or revival, is that it has been constructively at work in the third world. She mounts, for this reason, the efficacy of continual praxis as an alternative to Left melancholia at the same time that she rejects the superficial historicism of recent attempts to outline the “global contemporary” (182, xx, xi).

Mathur’s methodological considerations—the bases for her suspicion of the closed story—constitute her substantial introduction, “Radical Stakes.” Here she describes Kapur and Sundaram’s “affiliative” function as institutional facilitators and their critical openness to the multivalence of historical meaning. Together, these characteristics position their work as “resources for a continual becoming” (22–23). Multivalence, or the ontological undecidability that drives their practice toward the future, is not only their work’s effect but also its constructive principle (20), a claim she makes by introducing the critical device of the “retake.” Her cue here is Sundaram’s Re-take of Amrita (2001), a series of digital photomontages profiling fictive scenarios featuring his maternal aunt, Amrita Sher-Gil, a half-Hungarian, half-Indian painter central to narratives of Indian modernism. But “retake” also alludes to, following Hal Foster’s reading of the “neo avant-garde,” Sundaram’s constructive revival of Marcel Duchamp, channeled in a companion project, The Sher-Gil Archive (1995), for which Sundaram filled padded valises with photographs and ephemera from his family archive. Taking the subject of beginnings—local, familial, and genealogical through Sher-Gil; art historical, nominal, and avant-garde through Duchamp—as itself the deferred content of the work, Sundaram’s art is historical in Mathur’s open sense.

Three chapters are devoted to specific projects that develop Sundaram’s critical historicism. “Earthly Ecologies” attends to works in burnt engine oil and charcoal on stitched papers from 1991 that respond to the Gulf War (1990–91). Executed the same year India liberalized, these works, according to Mathur, anticipate a globally exhaustive neoliberalism to come. She argues that by deconstructing oil’s multivalent significations—as a medium for interiority in Western painting, a pretext for war, and a nonrenewable resource drilled from the earth—Sundaram establishes for it a speculative historicity. “The Edifice Complex” focuses on Sundaram’s History Project (1998), a three-month, site-specific installation at the Victoria Memorial museum in Calcutta, which Mathur accounts for through its afterlives (a video from 1999–2000, Structures of Memory, and a volume of essays and photographs, History Project, Tulika, 2017). Filling a colonial monument with its undoing, Sundaram deconstructs the “edifice complex” through canny deployments of material occasions fueled by “perpetual irresolution”: life-size dioramas of popular insurrections, including peasant uprisings and workers’ strikes; file boxes documenting the lives of anticolonial fighters; confrontational jute barricades (82, 94). In “Urban Economies,” the fourth chapter, Mathur turns to Trash (2005–8), Sundaram’s collaborative project with trash collectors in New Delhi, where discarded materials—lids, batteries, wires, tubing, figurines, canisters—were used to build a range of utopic landscapes and “barricades” that were then photographed. Indicating the failure of the metropolis and channeling the logic of a “salvage paradigm” (158)—an improvisational will to live that is both a constituent of the work (through the collaboration with the trash collectors) and its representative task (through the constructed landscapes)—Sundaram, Mathur suggests, destabilizes utopia without establishing an alternative (148–54).

The third chapter, “The World, the Art, and the Critic,” acts as an anchor for the book as a whole and is devoted to Kapur’s criticism. Kapur, though central to the study of Indian modernism, is understudied, and Mathur’s redressal, the first chapter-length treatment of its kind, is a heroic effort, beginning with Kapur’s master’s thesis (1968–69) and ending with her monumental collection of essays When Was Modernism: Essays on Contemporary Cultural Practice in India (Tulika, 2000; repr. 2020). Treating the essay form, following Theodore Adorno, as paradigmatic of Kapur’s flexible practice, Mathur positions her work as a “strong criticism” that does not forsake “beauty, provocation, or emotional connection” (99). Mathur is interested here, as she was with Sundaram, in unpacking the open historicism of Kapur’s writing—its ability to turn back on itself over time—and its “perpetual irresolution,” the construction of registers of tension and instability within the text.

Kapur, however, as a “historian-critic,” is a more intimate interlocutor for Mathur, who contends with this kinship genealogically (98). She describes the particular importance to Kapur’s writings of the artist and educator K. G. Subramanyan and the scholar and critic Raymond Williams. From the former, Mathur argues, Kapur inherits ambivalent parody and a future-oriented traditionalism. From the latter, Kapur borrows not only the title for her essay “When Was Modernism in Indian Art?” but also its charge, which is the refusal to leave history too fully in the past. Together, these figures inform Kapur’s “centrifugal” procedure, a method that sustains discourse rather than resolving it. Using readings of Kapur’s writings on Nasreen Mohamedi, M. F. Husain, and J. Swaminathan, this chapter richly narrates her criticism as a productive critique.

In the epilogue, Mathur develops Edward Said’s category of “late style,” characterized by fearless productivity rather than maturation, to theorize Kapur’s and Sundaram’s work from the 2010s to the present. She identifies eclectic self-awareness in works by Sundaram that thematize estrangement (Gagawaka: Making Strange, 2011–12), the mortal body (Postmortem [after Gagawaka], 2013), and historical memory (Memorial, 1993–2014). She also introduces Kapur’s recent curatorial and polemical output, including Aesthetic Bind (2013–14), a series of exhibitions organized at Chemould Prescott Road in Mumbai that offer multivalent, sometimes countervailing positions on “contemporary” Indian art in its encounters with death, citizenship, modernism, mass culture, and technology.

Mathur’s condensation of two difficult-to-summarize careers is a remarkable achievement, as is her rendering of the adaptability of cultural practitioners on the Indian Left. Her conscious decision to avoid Kapur’s writings on Sundaram (his History Project, in particular) and Sundaram’s projects that draw on Kapur’s writing (e.g., his Marxism in the Expanded Field: Geeta’s Bookshelf, 2000) is of methodological interest, and the book would have benefited from some elaboration. While they refuse the linear certainty of a historical consciousness, her methods maintain the historian’s rigor and, in their attention to specific practitioners, are a welcome intervention in a young art historical subfield that has so far told its story in broader strokes. Mathur did, however, help establish this subfield in the first place, and she retains her contemporaries’ interest in poststructuralism and Said’s post-Orientalism writings, as well as their commitment to the fields of political theory and anthropology. Though grounded in India, A Fragile Inheritance does not jettison the horizon of Euro-American modernism, particularly several art historians now associated with the October group, and it establishes crucial comparative ground in the disciplinary debate on the avant-garde.

Occasionally in A Fragile Inheritance, Mathur turns to the use of the possessive pronoun “our”: “our young critic” (102, 112, 124); “our protagonists” (161); “our practitioners” (184). In spare but sharp deployment, these instances read as a plea for faith in Mathur’s hopes for the future. If Mathur is overwhelmed by a quickly fading past (which enables, in part, the history she tells), she responds to that feeling by learning from her protagonists. Our protagonists. To return to Kapur and Sundaram is a radically generous and participatory act, an invitation to reimagine our limits by slowly going over things we thought we were ready to leave behind. Her admission of debt and of vulnerability as a scholar of open work (helpfully bolstered by the publication’s open access) is a lesson to us all: the work is to keep working.

Meghaa Ballakrishnen
PhD Candidate, Johns Hopkins University