Traditionally, winter is the season for art in India. As the weather becomes pleasant and there’s a nip in the air, galleries start running packed shows. But the pandemic seems to have upended our known world. The gallery ecosystem in India (and across the globe) has adjusted to the new normal by turning to the digital space. Changes are afoot not just in how art is presented but in artistic visions. While some artists continue to look inwards, others grapple with contemporary realities, including the rise of right-wing forces, feminist struggles, and themes of grief, loss, and pain.
We have rounded up the top emerging contemporary Indian artists who are engaging with present realities in new and interesting ways.
Anybody who has studied the history of spaces, walls, buildings, and surfaces knows how intrinsically these mute architectural elements are related to human trauma and violence. One is reminded of the walls of Jallianwala Bagh, where a British officer opened fire on an unarmed crowd; the cloisters of Auschwitz, where poisonous fumes exterminated thousands, and the giant skeletal remains of a building in Hiroshima that survived the atomic bombing. But these spaces are just not amphitheatres of mourning, loss, and violence but also those of resistance and the triumph of the human spirit.
Artist Puja Mondal explores the materiality of the surface as a template for examining power and resistance, especially in the context of the rise of majoritarian politics in India. In her recent exhibition, Instincts of Resistance, Mondal uses walls as a visual motif of institutions that have withstood marks of violence - bullet holes, scratches, and suchlike. We don’t see the violence being played out, but these empty spaces speak volumes of human cruelty, high-handedness of state power, and institutional atrocities.
The recent police crackdown on educational institutions, allegedly at the behest of the Hindu, right-wing government, are alluded to in several paintings in barely couched visual metaphors. In We Shall Witness the Day that Has Been Promised, a woman holds a parchment looking listlessly at the viewers. She bears a striking resemblance to the mother of Najeeb Ahmed, a student who mysteriously disappeared from a university hostel in Delhi, allegedly after a scuffle with some members of a right-wing student group. The title of the painting is directly lifted from revolutionary poet Faiz Ahmad Fiaz’s Urdu poem, Hum Dekhenge (We Shall Witness), which became a war cry of students against the state and the police during the recent protests against India’s controversial, anti-minority Citizenship Amendment Act. In another work in the same series, a couple of street singers sings most probably songs of resistance even though their heads remain stuck in cages.
The human body is central to the feminist project of Nabanita Guha. But it is not the romanticized body of the female nude we see in Western art or even the voluptuous, fetishized bodies of the Hindu goddesses in Indian temple sculptures. Guha’s body has been stripped bare to muscles, sinews, and veins. Her works are not anatomical plates that one sees in medical books; rather she wants us to see what it is “to be” in this state of being.
If the feminist struggle has been to make patriarchy see the worth of women and the demand to be seen beyond the body, Guha turns this logic on its head. By stripping the body of its epidermal covering, she wants us to think of the body in its bare, biological, anatomical state. Guha’s luminous paintings do not bear semblance to an actual human body. Rather, the interior of the body is prised open as a fragmented slice.
Agrawal is an emerging contemporary Indian artist who explores what he calls the “human-machine creativity continuum.” Taking the help of emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence and computational creativity, Agrawal explores the duality of the current state of human existence that is caught in a limbo between the natural and the artificial, the physical and the digital.
Agrawal begins his artistic process by curating a large number of landscape paintings from WiKi Art to train his AI. The output captures a dreamlike imagination of landscapes – setting sun, misty mountains, crimson skies. He adds subtle motion to these images to highlight the blurring of the digital and natural realities. He then takes the opposite direction, creating physical copies of these AI-based artworks. The final product is a juxtaposition of the digital and physical that highlights our current state of being where we are constantly sucked into the digital reality while desiring the material. He is only one of the seven international artists to have showcased his works at the world’s first AI art show.
Themes of grief and the ways in which humans process that grief are central to Dodiya’s work. She works in abstraction but uses tangible materials – discarded objects, industrial waste products, personal possessions, even detritus from the previous works. Dodiya is interested in how one negotiates loss via personal excavation. Places, objects, and materials all have meanings as these commodities carry personal history. Her solo exhibition at Experimenter, Kolkata, Stone is a Forehead, was inspired by Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca’s haunting elegy, Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejias, a young bullfighter fatally gored in a match. Reflecting on the themes of loss and mourning, the exhibition presented paintings in a muted colour palette as well as installation pieces featuring wooden planks propped up against the wall with their rectangular forms being mirrored in the paintings.
What do we understand when we think of monsters? For the layperson, it might evoke images of a Gothic novel, or folklore heard at bedtime. But monsters serve an important social function. Etymologically derived from the Latin words monstrare, which means to demonstrate and monere, which means to warn, monsters embody the psychological and physical characteristics of what we humans find difficult to understand and acknowledge.
For Rahal, who is one of the most talented contemporary Indian artists working today, these monsters come in the forms of mythical beings, cyborgs, fossilized creatures, and mutated figures. They could have existed in the distant past or they might exist somewhere in the future. But somehow, through Rahal’s artistic imagination spanning paintings, installations and AI videos, these creatures have slipped through the interstices of the time-space continuum to inhabit our present. Keeping in consonance with the true meaning of monster, Rahal grotesque creatures serve important artistic functions. Sometimes, they question the logic of the caste system in India, at other times, they explore how old, plural myths are fused to form the unitary political mythology of present-day fascism.