Controversies of Concurrent India

Concurrent India, Helsinki Art Museum in Tennis Palace, 4.3. – 29.5.2011

Jenna Jauhiainen 31.3.2011

Currently there is an exhibition called Concurrent India in Helsinki Art Museum in Tennis Palace, and may I begin this review by saying, that it is one of the most interestingly varied exhibitions I have been to in a year or so. There are great, awesome works, and there are poor, blah sort of works in the mix. This piece of writing is all about exploring those awesome and blah, while hopefully arousing the dear reader’s interest towards some of the conflicts of values from which these works seem to stem from.

Works are displayed from nineteen different artists, most of whom are in their thirties. One of them is Archana Hande, whose world one walks into when entering the exhibition space. The room is painted deliciously red. On a separate altar stands a computer with access to a rather clever installation: a website called Arrange ur own marriage. The site had its premiere already in 2002, which explains its rather poor visual outlook. Nevertheless, with its ironic take on the matter, the work manages to lure one into facing a social practice, arranged marriages, which is up for elimination in contemporary India.

Pushpamala N.: The cloud battle (From the series Abduction), 2009. Photo: Clay Kelton. Copyright: Pushpamala.

The works in the next rooms are all about women and all the other subclass genders and non-genders of India. The great cartoonish works of Chitra Ganesh demand a lengthy look for the female warriors and brutal scenes portrayed, but for me they reveal more about his presence in the art circles of New York than they do on contemporary India.

Pushpamala N.’s strongly staged self-portraits, or “photoromances” as she calls them, unfold for me in a rather disturbing manner, perhaps because my eyes are conditioned by a different cultural background than hers. A close reading of the visual language of her images tells me nothing less than a story of a woman who is not here to express herself with aims of feminine liberation, but rather stands depicting her own fantasies of becoming melodramatically raped by a bearded warrior with a gigantic sword. She has probably aimed at showing “how things are” together with theatrical elements, and by doing that she is actually portraying herself as someone who enjoys the role of being dominated.

Photography is a sensitive form of art, not the least because there is a constant danger of falling into doing too documentary work lacking true artistic value. This is not the case with Pushpamala N. – she definitely has selectively re-created reality in her images to stand for something she herself wishes to portray. Too bad I am not into what she wishes to portray in the images on display.

Sheba Chhachhi’s black and white images of shadvis were my first encounter with such a class of women. They belong to the same group as sadhus, with the only apparent distinction of being female. This is what Wikipedia has to say about sadhus:

“In Hinduism, sadhu, or shadhu is a common term for a mystic, an ascetic, practitioner of yoga (yogi) and/or wandering monks. The sadhu is solely dedicated to achieving the fourth and final Hindu goal of life, moksha (liberation), through meditation and contemplation of Brahman. Sadhus often wear ochre-colored clothing, symbolizing renunciation.”

Women who go on to the sadhvi path come from all social classes, although usually they are widows. I guess it is necessary, yet difficult, to try to understand that in India a widow usually falls into a very low social status, a point of “living death”. For me it does not sound very uplifting that the only possible step from that point on is to thrive for enlightenment. Or actually, it does sound uplifting – especially considering that it is a rather common notion in interpretations of Hindu texts that women need to reborn as higher human beings with a higher status (i. e. men), before they can reach enlightenment. Shadvis appear to be true rebels.

The pictures show women bathing in Ganges while ritually giving away their past identities through changing their clothes into robes and shaving their heads. The sadhvi live outside the caste system, and without knowing much about the reality of it, it appears that becoming a sadhvi is an excellent opportunity for a woman in any social class to gain respect and step outside of the conventional roles their past caste laid upon them. I enjoyed very much the color pictures of Sheba Chhachhi, because in front of them I could try to stare into the eyes of a couple of shadvis and ask myself what lies behind them: a true quest for enlightenment or a thrive for social liberation. Or is it the same thing?

Sheba Chhacchi: Initiation Chronicle III (From the Series Ganga’s Daughters I), 2001-2007. Copyright Sheba Chhachhi.

The architecturally delightful upstairs of the Tennis Palace gallery space is dedicated mainly for artists representing documentary photography and the conflict between Pakistan and India. Neither of these are worth any of my words because of a general lack of artistic value in comparison to the very interesting installations at hand.

Valay Shende is not the most interesting sculptor for me, at least in regards to his skills in conceptualization. (Or how would I know? Maybe his works dive very deep for an Indian audience.) But he sure has mastered his materials. His work called The Suicide of Farmer Narsinglu Rukamawar directs all my attention to the beauty of the dining table as an object, although it is there to represent the rich who dine and spice up their dishes with shakers containing dirt from the farmed lands and ashes of the burned corpses of dead farmers. The other untitled work of Valay Shande aims to direct my attention to a lunch service provider totally unfamiliar to me, so instead I go completely nuts over his mastery on the material he uses: tiny clocks which make up a male bicycle courier. As a sculpture, it is simply stunning.

Jiten Thukral & Sumir Tagra: Escaped! …while I was cooking (detail), 2010. Courtesy Nature Morte.

The most interesting works in the whole exhibition come from a pair of artists hailing from New Delhi, Jiten Thukral and Sumir Tagra. The only difficulty I have with their works is that the two big paintings on display, one that stands on its own and an another one that works as a culmination of an installation room, are made partly with some digital crutches. This is always a disappointment for me because I love true mastery of painting as a skill of the individual.

Anyway, the installation room is like a dive to an exaggerated internal reality of an Indian woman. The two male artists have dived into the minds of those who have hoped for liberation and a ticket to happiness through an arranged marriage, preferably with a man who has gotten his higher education abroad. The insides of those minds are candy colored, with pictures of men in frames on the walls and table tops, with walls spotted with small, pink men and male chest pieces sticking out of those very pink walls, together with a general feel of extreme naiveness. The whole room culminates into the painting on the wall, though there is also a lot said with a smashed long white dinner table under a television screen airing visuals of, mainly, disappointed women. The painting is worth seeing in its beauty, and it appears to be speaking about the dreamworld of an installation room inside which one stands in, to be growing out of numerous homes blossoming from numerous flowers which float over sheer pastel colors. Outside of the installation room there is a wall filled with airplane windows showing various men flying away from the very naive dreamland described inside the room. Apparently quite often Indian men take the money provided by an arranged marriage and go on living their lives abroad, thus shredding the naive, traditional dream.

Without describing the painting and the installation further, you just have to go and see the works by Thukral and Tagra yourself, in order to share the dive into the minds of those women who naively wait for the world to be made ready for them.