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Beyond Anish

The Britain-based artist's homecoming isn't the only one. Several artists of Indian origin are here this winter. Amitava Sanyal reports.

art and culture Updated: Dec 06, 2010 16:34 IST
Amitava Sanyal

All three of them trace their roots back to India. All have been nurtured by artistic establishments abroad. Their works are multi-media and multi-referential. And in the season the most famous artist of Indian origin, Anish Kapoor, is having his grand homecoming show, they too are putting up their first solo shows in the country of their origin.

But how much of 'India' is there in the works of the trio?

Nandita Kumar - who was born in Mauritius, had her early studies in India, and is now based in New Zealand - says, "When you are away, you start building illusions in your head about India." So her last few years have been about "individuation", about "breaking away the identities I'd gathered and travelling inwards, within the body".

At once daring and dream-like, the 25-odd works for her upcoming show Let the Brain Fly are about travelling along the nodes of a brain. It's a charged emotional mindscape in which the identities are placed beyond several layers of paint, varnish, photos and disembowelled electricals.

"I'm collaging the world," says the 26-year-old who trained in experimental animation in the US, a course that was partly made possible by her savings from a tele-marketing job.

Curiously, collaging also helps Uday K Dhar see his own world. In his frames you find collages scanned, printed and then painted over with pencil, crayon, ink and oil. The 52-year-old gay artist, whose family shifted to New York from Patna in 1971, says his life itself is a pastiche in which the edges don't always bleed onto the underlying surface.

This son of a doctor first studied architecture at Columbia University and practised in New York and Berlin before changing his passion for painting into his profession. Apart from obvious Hindi references among the 16 works he made this year for the upcoming show, his Indianness is there in his drawing style.

"I tried to develop a style of moving the hand based on alpona (rangoli) techniques," says the non-resident Bengali.

Such obvious Indianness is absent in the coruscating photos, paintings or books made by Vijai Patchineelam. And with good reason. Patchineelam, born to a geo-chemist father from Rajamundry and a Brazilian oceanographer mother in Rio, says he got to do more things Indian while on a residency in Texas, US seven years ago than at any other time.

Now enrolled for his Masters at Stockholm's Konstfack University, the 27-year-old says with a soft Portuguese accent, "It's only now that I am getting exposed to Indian artists like Satyajit Ray and Nasreen Mohamedi."

At the end of his third trip to India (he showed in 2008 at the Bombay Art Gallery, but doesn't consider that a solo), Patchineelam says he is getting to know better his relations in Hyderabad - thanks to Facebook.

Out of India and back
Whatever their inspirations or instruments, the trio has been welcomed warmly in India by peers, gallerists and curators. But in the countries they call home now, their Indianness earns both welcome and unwelcome attention.

Kumar says she was told off by one of her guides at Auckland's Elam School of Art for being "too Indian". Patchineelam says his "exotic name" attracts attention, but adds sarcastically:

"In a world where everyone is so focused on selling himself, it's alright."

And Dhar, who has called New York home since he was 12, doesn't liked being herded into "shows of Indian artists" in the US, a trend that gained volume in the 1990s.

Alka Pande, who curated Dhar's show, has also curated 'India awakens', a group show now open at the Essl Museum in Vienna. Among the 34 artists she chose for that are Indians settled in the US, UK and Singapore. "Today's art is 'trans-art' - it crosses borders," says Pande.

But not for everyone, not always. Shaheen Merali, an artist and curator based in the UK and Germany for 40 years, says the West is just about waking up to contemporary art from India.

But he turns the lens on the art community in India, too: "US-based artists such as Chitra Ganesh and Rina Banerjee are showing in India now, after 15-20 years of practice... It's thanks partly to the curatorial spate in India."

Avni Doshi, an art historian and curator based in New York and Mumbai, says, "[Barring exceptions] it is difficult for artists of South Asian origin to do any kind of work without the word 'diaspora' being attached to them in some way."

But the art world itself is now trying to push away the use of identity tags as a curatorial crutch. AIOs (artists of Indian origin) will have to wait till that dawn to see the greener grass clearer.