Postmodernism: Recent Developments in Art in India

by Atteqa Ali
Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, 2000

The political climate in India has been volatile in recent years. The hard-line Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was in government during 1998-2004. Ongoing tensions with Pakistan escalated to the brink of nuclear war in 2002. At the same time, India is a growing democracy with a population reaching a billion. Indian mass culture has also expanded, as its commercial film industry, known as "Bollywood," becomes the most productive in the world. Some artists take inspiration from or appropriate actual elements of local mass culture; some also address current events in their works.

A few artists and art critics in India have begun to conceptualize their unique position in international contemporary art. They question Western modernist ideas such as formalism from the standpoint of working in a post-colonial society that has recently emerged from beneath the shadow of a Western power. In fact, India is at the forefront of postcolonial critique, with theorists such as Arjun Appadurai, Homi K. Bhabha, and Gayatri Spivak emerging from its shores. With the blossoming of art and theory in the South Asian country, artists and writers increasingly find an international audience and, indeed, many of them settle outside of India.

Among them is Anish Kapoor, an Indian by birth who lives and works in England. He creates sensual and spiritual works that are best described as sublime, evoking both pleasure and discomfort. The intense colors he uses recall the radiant hues one encounters in Indian mass culture and Hindu festivals.

Untitled: From 15 etchings portfolio, 1996
Anish Kapoor (British, born India, 1954)
Etching; Sheet: 20 1/8 x 23 in. (51.1 x 58.4 cm); plate: 11 3/8 x 14 3/4 in. (28.9 x 37.5 cm)

Kapoor is known for sculptural installations that create an environment in which the viewer's body and mind are transformed by the subtle power of color, shape, and light. His portfolio 15 etchings, which contains the work illustrated here, provides a similar sensorial experience, with its sensual surfaces and rainbow of deep hues. Kapoor works with a minimalist vocabulary of clean lines and forms, even though the resulting installations are generally massive in size. Born in Bombay, Kapoor has lived in London since the 1970s. In 1991, he won the prestigious Turner Prize, the top award in England given to visual artists.


Like Kapoor, several artists have adopted the installation format. Rummana Hussain's installations are contemplative spaces in which the viewer is soothed into reflecting on turbulent topics like religious strife, illness, and feminism.

A Space for Healing, 1999
Rummana Hussain (Indian, 1952–1999)
Installation comprising metal implements, PVC poles, cloth, plastic objects, gold paint, vermillion red paint, and sound; dimensions variable
Estate of Rummana Hussain
Image courtesy of the artist's estate

This was Hussain's last work before her death due to cancer. Appropriately, in this installation she brought together the shrine and the hospital. A Space for Healing was a soothing, contemplative environment meant for both spiritual and physical healing. Yet it also included disturbing elements—domestic metallic items like forks and scissors made menacing by the rust growing on them. Referring to her own struggle with illness, the installation also raised the issue of her minority positions as a Muslim and woman in India. In the 1990s, Muslim-Hindu tension reached an unforeseen height that resulted in a mass persecution of minority communities.

Although they are also concerned with social and political themes, Nalini Malani's installations are almost the opposite of Hussain's sensual spaces. Malani confronts the viewer with an overload of images and sounds about such issues as nuclear war and Hindu-Muslim tensions.

Remembering Toba Tek Singh (Installation view Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, Australia. 2002), 1998
Nalini Malani (Indian, born 1946)
Installation with video projection on walls, 12 monitors with video clips, tin trucks, quilts, and Mylar flooring
© Nalini Malani, Bombay

"Toba Tek Singh" refers to a story by one of South Asia's greatest writers, Sacadat Hasan Manto. Taking place a few years after the partition of India and Pakistan, an insane patient keeps asking where his hometown of Toba Tek Singh is located. He wonders whether it is in India or Pakistan. He never receives a satisfactory reply. When he is sent from India to Pakistan in an exchange of mental patients, he collapses in the no man's land between the border of the two countries in search of his home. The story is a poignant expression of the sense of loss and uprootedness experienced by thousands of migrants who were forced to leave their homes for a new nation.


Nilima Sheikh uses miniature painting—perhaps the only contemporary artist in India to adopt this format—to examine ideas about craft and tradition. Her tent-like installations take her paintings out of the context of a small, intimate setting. Like Sheikh, Vivan Sundaram first practiced painting; more recently he has worked on large-scale installations. He uses layered historical references to discuss contemporary conditions such as war and sectarian violence.

Ravinder Reddy, in his sculptures, also invokes history, in particular ancient sculptures of yakshi or fertility figures. Reddy's voluptuous statues, however, exist in the contemporary moment because of their vibrant hues made from car paint atop a fiberglass base. But more so, the wide-eyed women are reminiscent of popular Hindu festival sculptures used today.

Appayamma, 2001
G. Ravinder Reddy (Indian, born 1956)
Image courtesy of the artist and Walsh Gallery, Chicago

Reddy's sculptures of full-bodied women or mammoth heads usually have an otherworldly gaze. Their unblinking eyes stare blankly out into the space inhabited by the viewer. Framed by elaborate hairstyles, the eyes are outlined with a thick, black line in the characteristic way of ordinary Indian women. Ravinder's works can be read as both religious icon and the everyday Indian woman.

Raghubir Singh's colorful photographs of everyday life in Indian metropolises are also enmeshed in the contemporary moment. However, photography has a long history in India; it was introduced to the Indian subcontinent only a few years after its invention in France in the 1840s. Singh's color photographs invoke India's history while capturing the country's present.

Taxi Driver and Pedestrian Argue, Chitpur Road, Calcutta, 1987, printed 1991
Raghubir Singh (Indian, 1942–1999)
Chromogenic print; 10 x 14 3/4 in. (25.4 x 37.4 cm)
© Raghubir Singh

Born into an aristocratic family in Jaipur, Singh lived and worked in Paris, London, and New York, but his lifelong subject as a photographer was the vibrant culture and landscape of modern India. With its emphasis on visual surprise and spontaneity, Singh's work belongs to the tradition of small-format street photography pioneered by such artists as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank. Unlike many of his European counterparts, however, Singh worked exclusively in color, often composing his images with a graphic complexity akin to that of Mughal miniatures. Singh's prolific career was cut short when he died in 1999 at the age of fifty-eight.

Worshipper and Smallpox Goddess, 1988
Raghubir Singh (Indian, 1942–1999)
Chromogenic print; 9 15/16 x 14 3/4 in. (25.3 x 37.5 cm)

In this work, Singh captures the popular votive figures used by Hindus today in festivals, ceremonies, and homes. The photograph provides an interesting comparison with the work of Ravinder Reddy, whose sculptures are influenced by votive figures of this type.

Bazaar through Glass Door, Bombay, 1989
Raghubir Singh (Indian, 1942–1999)
Chromogenic print; 9 15/16 x 14 7/8 in. (25.3 x 37.8 cm)
© Raghubir Singh

In this view of a busy intersection through a plate-glass window, Singh vividly captures the surging energy and functional mayhem of Bombay, India's "Mayanagri", or City of Wealth.

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