The subcontinent shows its heart

'Chalo! India' at the Mori Art Museum explores the country's contemporary side

by Jeff Hammond

Over the last decade or so, India has gone through unprecedented change, from largely missing out on the advances of the 20th century to rapidly becoming a leader of those in the 21st. But while the fragmented media coverage of the country hails its successful IT and biotechnology industries, it also suggests a country of poverty, disasters and secular and religious conflicts. So what is India really about, and is it even possible to understand the country?

“When you talk about India,” says Miki Akiko, chief curator at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, “people think of the technological boom on one side and the spiritual side on the other; or on one side, the rich, and the other side, the poor. But there are a lot of people living just like us, having similar problems, similar hopes and dreams.”

Miki is curator of “Chalo! India,” a new exhibition at the Mori Art Museum that focuses on contemporary art from the country. “There is a lack of information about contemporary Indian culture,” she says. “The idea is for visitors to the show to get an idea of today’s India, its society and people, through the artworks. The exhibition aims to give people a different perspective, a different vision.”

With “Chalo! India,” the Mori continues to introduce the contemporary art of often overlooked regions of the world to Japanese audiences — a theme established with previous exhibitions such as 2006′s “Africa Remix,” and “The Elegance of Silence: Contemporary Art from East Asia” in 2005. Like these shows, “Chalo! India” faces the challenge of finding a way to present the art of people of varied backgrounds, languages, religions and lifestyles.

“I am not trying to make a ‘survey show,’ as I could only go to four cities, and India is so huge and so diverse,” Miki says. “But among all this diversity, maybe you can get some idea of India.”

Miki has visited the country a number of times over the last two decades or more, with recent trips specifically taking her to Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore and Vadodara for research for the current show. The results are the 100-plus works by 27 artists, or artist-groups, chosen for display. But why an exhibition of this type now?

“Although in the mid-’90s you could see an interest in contemporary art from India, it was not yet the timing to do that kind of important exhibition,” she explains. “But over the last seven or eight years, with the emergence of a younger generation of artists, and also with the economic situation, the whole art scene in India has become more diversified. We thought it was important to present the artistic scene of India at this moment, and it was possible to do it on a large scale.

The exhibition opens with an Indian icon: the elephant. However, the elephant in the sculpture “The Skin Speaks a Language Not Its Own” by Bharti Kher, unlike the proud standing elephant figures made for the tourism industry, is depicted in a crouched position, leaving it open to interpretation as to whether it is in the process of standing up or falling down — India on the rise or an India exhausted from its rapid transformation.

Transformation is a key theme explored by many of the artists here, whether through a one rupee coin chosen as a symbol of both development and poverty, or images of the nation’s modern-day founding father, Mahatma Gandhi, given an irreverent makeover. Even some of the countless tons of garbage that India generates daily has been turned into bright artworks.

One installation suggests the darker side lurking behind Mumbai’s colorful image as typified by its Bollywood movies; another maps the Pakistan- India border onto the female form.

“The artists are looking at their surroundings with a critical eye — their changing societies and environments and the cityscape,” says Miki.

In his installation “The Coracle,” for example, Krishnaraj Chonat turns a Jacuzzi, a popular status symbol of India’s rising middle classes, into a boat, apparently adrift on the open seas of India’s uncharted future. Atop the fragments of Indian architecture and other rubble in the Jacuzzi sits a pair of binoculars, to help navigate the course. Contemporary art such as this, long considered by art teachers and critics in India to be inferior to traditional painting and sculpture, is now gaining ground.

“What I’ve seen through my different research trips there is that there are few public museums in India, in terms of contemporary art,” Miki says. “But now there are even commercial galleries funded by private companies, which is very important for artistic production. Also, I have heard that in Bangalore there are companies related to IT and biotechnology organizing workshops inviting both scientists and artists.”

While the viewer is forced to decipher by themselves the symbolic intentions of the objects used in an installation such as “The Coracle,” Jitish Kallat’s “Autosaurus Tripous” may elicit a more visceral reaction. The Mumbai-based artist has fashioned the shell of a three-wheeled taxi rickshaw (once ubiquitous on Indian streets but now slowly disappearing) out of what appear to be animal bones. Inspired by a 1993 terrorist attack in the multicultural city by Hindu extremists, it may perhaps be all the more vivid in the light of the atrocities that occurred there after the exhibition opened. Anyone who has traveled in an Indian auto-rickshaw will be familiar with the driver’s cry of “Chalo!” (“Let’s Go!”), which gives the exhibition its name.

“The title is very friendly, it’s not about ‘Me’ and ‘The Other,’ ” says Miki. “Also ‘Chalo!’ suggests movement. Foreign companies are looking at India, after China, as a money tree, and the presence of Indian art is becoming stronger in the international art scene. It also has the idea of crossing borders and moving forward. It is amusing as a metaphor for different dynamisms.”

“Chalo! India” is at the Mori Art Museum in Roppongi Hills till Mar 15.; 10 a.m.-10 p.m. (Tues. 10 a.m.-5 p.m.); admission ¥1,500. For more information, call (03) 5777-8600 or visit www.mori.art.museum