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Curious affair between East and West

india Updated: Jul 06, 2006 17:25 IST

It's a good time to be an Indophile in US with interest in everything Indian being on a high and everything from clothes and cuisine to crafts and cricket having travelled across the borders.

While we can definitely laud India's progress in the last decade, and in a place like the Bay Area, places, programmes and people promoting Indian clothes, customs, cuisine or crafts are abundant, yet it is in comparison with China that we fall short.

With a sense of palpable pride, I used to point my eight year old to kurtis, skirts, jewellery etc in big and small plazas and showed her the Made in India label, but I soon got a reality check when browsing through the aisles of big and small plazas and reading the labels, she started regularly commenting: "How come most of the things are made in China." Without going through the intricacies of macro and micro economies, I tried to tell her: "China has a lot of people." Now she comments back: "So does India." I am caught. I can't argue. We have not kept pace.

It's a significant observation not just from the holistic perspective of the image of a nation but also from the perception of a representative of the future generation. I presume it is best to adopt a world identity and not be cringed by country or continental constraints.

When I heard about an exhibition of the Curious Affair Between the East and the West at the Asian Art Museum, one of the largest museums in the west devoted exclusively to Asian art, I thought of going not just from the perspective of an art connoisseur but also as a parent with an intent to showcase the rich history of my land of origin and the interaction between nations.
The latest exhibition at the Osher gallery of the museum featuring more than seventy five paintings, ceramics, furniture, and other decorative arts drawn from Bay Area collections and the museum's own collection made in Great Britain and some European nations, United States, China, India, and Japan is titled A Curious Affair: The Fascination Between East and West. The art on display showcases the interpretation of this long term and long distance relationship by the artists of yore.

Though the interaction between the orient and the occident has not only involved the mercantile and intellectual commerce but colonialism and conflict, the focus of the exhibition is on the influences of Asian art on European decorative arts and vice versa, the use and adaptation of imported Asian art objects in European contexts and Asian and European artists portrayals of each other. The other interesting deduction by historians about the art of the previous centuries is that artistic interpretations were based less often on direct observation and more on book illustrations and images on imported luxury objects and that confusion abounded on both sides as citizens tried to figure out and grasp from hearsay and personal experience, the differences between the various European and Asian cultures.

It is interesting to see the physical features or characteristics of clothing that were used in either region to signal the nationality of foreigners in artworks. The works also reveal that not only were people and places difficult to decipher but the origins of products were as confusing. Lacquer and porcelain were among the most important of the Asian products that Europe craved and that want spurred the ever increasing commercial contact between the regions. In the context of these ancient and priceless treasures one also realises that globalisation is an old phenomenon. It's only the scale and the nature of goods that have changed.

Another interesting observation by the academicians is that though Europeans knew something of Asia from travellers' tales, book illustrations, and theatrical presentations, reality did not always constrain their fantasies. For example, on display is a 17th to 18th century British bureau cabinet featuring a detailed mélange of fanciful elements: a warrior brandishing a spear, deer serpents arching over a gateway, impossibly tall and elegant gentlemen and giraffes sauntering by.

By the 1770s, British artists visited India, but for the next hundred years, few other artists travelled to each other's homelands. Indian miniature painting featuring a woman wearing a high waisted dress and turban fashionable from about 1795 to 1820 sitting by a little European table could be a portrait, but is more likely to be an Indian painter's interpretation of a fashion illustration of that period.

Self-presentation is another interesting artistic result of the interaction between Europe and Asia. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Indian princes, Meiji emperors of Japan and King Chulalongkorn of Siam, presented themselves in European style uniforms with European style medals.

As evident in a 1906 portrait of Sir Mahbub Ali Khan, Nizam of Hyderabad by Moujdar Khan, on display, they assumed one of the conventional stances of the day: leaning on a piece of elaborate furniture making use of a universally understood visual language of wealth, status, and power.

History definitely is a great mirror to the future.