Unlike Western modernisms of the 20th century that rejected the narrative in favour of the self-reflective artwork, India has had a strong tradition of figurative, narrative painting that goes back several decades. The exhibition Horn Please - Narratives in Contemporary Indian Art, shown at the Kunstmuseum Bern during September 2007 - January 2008, attempted to follow the journey of the narrative over three decades, from the 1980s to the present, by tracing certain ‘critical’ moments in Indian art – moments of both assimilation and intervention – through which a particular kind of narrative was constructed.
By representing scenes from everyday life, fictive happenings, mythology and satire as well as autobiographical, societal and historical material, the contributing artists will reflect an India that has changed economically, politically and socially over the last three decades.
Bhupen Khakhar, Fishermen in Goa
The points of departure are the exhibitions Place for People (1982) and Question and Dialogue (1987) of the Radical Painters and Sculptors Association. Both these moments serve as reference points only to try to capture what followed until today, across time shifts and media, breaks and continuities.
The Place for People exhibition in 1982 was put together by a group of artists Jogen Chowdhury, Bhupen Khakhar, Nalini Malini, Sudhir Patwardhan, Gulam Mohammed Sheik and Vivan Sundaram, based in Baroda mainly, but with their links in Bombay, Delhi and Shantiniketan. This was, at that moment in time, a significant exhibition because it brought into focus new ideologies of narration (formulated almost as a manifesto by Geeta Kapur) and narrative paintings that appropriated the vernacular and the global, drew as much from traditional styles as it did from the West and told everyday stories without resorting to the monumental or the iconic.
Gulamohammed Sheikh, Looking for Layla, from
"The Mappmundi Suite, 2006-2007. Digital Collage
for videoprojection. Courtesy of the artist
This move was in turn rejected by the Question and Dialogue (1987) exhibition constituted by what came to be known as the Kerala Radical group. This short-lived collective was formed on the lines of left-wing political activism through what they saw as alternate art practices. Narratives were condensed into gestures that emphasized the political, the humanitarian and the social. Everything international, commercial and Western was rejected by the artists in this group who included Krishna Kumar, Alex Mathew, C K Rajan and Anita Dube, who was also the "chronicler" of the movement.
Horn Please revisits some works and writings from these seminal exhibitions, juxtaposing them with current works made by the same artists, and place them alongside the works of much younger artists, for many of whom the exhibitions referred to might be of no significance whatsoever. By representing scenes from everyday life, fictive happenings, mythology and satire as well as autobiographical, societal and historical material, the contributing artists will in turn reflect an India that has changed economically, politically and socially over the last three decades.
Nilima Sheikh, Firdaus V
Horn Please tries in its own way to bring together the multiplicity and diversity of art practice around the well-defined, the ambiguous and sometimes fragmentary narratives told through painting, sculpture, photography, photomontage, video, animation and installation work. The exhibition also shows how people who do not come from a primarily artistic background bring in new types and styles of narratives and how a number of women artists began using the narrative in different ways in new media work.
Horn Please was curated by Bernhard Fibicher, curator of contemporary art at the Museum of Fine Arts Bern and Suman Gopinath, independent curator and partner/director of Colab Art & Architecture, Bangalore, India. A catalogue in German and English was published and distributed worldwide.
Read Patti Marxsen's review of the exhibition here.