Am I Indian, Bihari, male, heterosexual? Or Indian, Gujarati, female, homosexual? Do I drop my labels or wear them with pride? How do public postures inform my work, will I one day be seen as an ‘international’ artist from a truly cosmopolitan milieu? Where do I fit on the grid of globo-local in a shrinking world? These are some of the obvious questions that today’s contemporary artist is struggling with.
As artists move beyond the first thrill of being sited at international art fairs and gaining access to premium institutions world over to the more serious business of moving beyond clichés. “I don’t think I can relate myself to elsewhere as much as I can relate myself to so-called Asian socio-cultural roots. I was born in this region and have been sharing the atmosphere,” says artist Arunkumar H G whose rural background inspires his art, centred on the image of the bullock and the cow. Arunkumar’s installations recently featured in an exhibition at Bangkok’ Gallery Soulflower.
Another cow-crazy artist who announced his presence with cow-dung smeared canvases and ritual baths in the sacred animal’s droppings is Bihari Subodh Gupta. While he’s moved on from cows to steel utensils, his work screams ‘India’ from miles away. Christie’s representative Ganieve Grewal believes: “Gupta is popular because he’s so contemporary but with a strong Indian ideology”. While Sandhini Poddar, an assistant curator at the Guggenheim, believes in time “an artist will not have to flaunt his ethnicity or talk only from a local perspective. With an increased understanding of issues pertinent to Asia, the expression will become more nuanced”.
A perfect example of this is Praneet Soi’s work recently displayed at Project 88 that looks at issues of globalisation and terror. At no point in the show does Soi talk about being Indian. On the other hand, an artist like Sharmila Samant, also an alumnus of Rijikis Akademi in Amsterdam where Soi studied, considers herself to be an artist from India. Her works like Local Cola, a kiosk selling lemon juice in old coke bottles, directly talk of the tussle of the global and the local but she does not see this identity as finite or pigeonholing. “Why can’t we look at the larger picture? If Benazir Bhutto is assassinated, or if there is a severe drop in temperature in Mumbai, it’s because of larger ecological changes. Everything today is a world issue. Why be narrow-minded and look for labels that help you identify, consume and digest,” says Samant. She explains her stance in Local Cola it’s not just about coke being a global brand but it’s more about the destruction of existing cultures or local flavours. “Even if one looks at the hype about the so-called ‘Indian artist’, it’s all because there is a lot of money in it. Frankly, it’s all a little disenchanting,” she adds.
While Samant reflects the sentiments of other radicals who aren’t happy with the system, there are others who believe that
India is finally getting its due. “It’s about time that Indian art was priced more globally. While one can critique larger issues, being global and internationally acclaimed is an important part of being Indian,” says artist Chintan Upadhyay.