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‘Indian Highway VI’ makes way into the city of Beijing
The rapid and dramatic development in India’s socio-political situation during recent years is definitely among the defining turn of events of the new millennium, even from a global perspective. The country’s constantly evolving, complex scenario is often compared to China’s own emergence as a world superpower, and rightly so. A vibrant generation of Indian artists now works across a range of artistic media from painting, sculpture, and photography to installation and video art, reflecting on the country’s role as an important player within the global economy. However, knowledge of India as a country, its people, culture and its vibrant creative landscape has been rather slow to take root in its powerful neighbor.

In this context, the fact that ‘Indian Highway VI’ finally makes way into the city of Beijing is a huge development. The group exhibition travels to various cities, not necessary as the original version, but as a unique collaborative effort with the respective hosting museum. The impressive showcase flags just some of the more ambitious and more concerted efforts to present Indian art to global audiences. It serves as a powerful platform to provide viewers as well as potential buyers, a big picture and good introduction to art from the emerging art powerhouse of the world.

In the form of a road movie across 3 continents (Europe, South America, Asia), each stage along the ‘Indian Highway’ is the occasion for a totally new episode. The exhibition theme, modern and contemporary art representative of a whole subcontinent, is reinterpreted each time to fit changing venues, make room for new works and satisfy curatorial whims. In a way, the show does a bit more than just travel; it takes a new spin with every stop that it takes. The grand showcase of contemporary Indian art is now being hosted at The Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA). Opened in 2007, it’s a not-for-profit art center that serves a global Beijing public. Founded by collectors Guy and Myriam Ullens Located right at the heart of the 798 Art District. Through a wide array of exhibitions and programs, it promotes the development of the local artistic environment, showcases the latest in domain of art, design, and other allied fields.

Underlining the significance of this monumental development, an accompanying note to the show elaborates, “It brings together the work of over thirty artists spanning a wide range of media and subject matter. Much of the work explores social and political issues key to the Indian situation, including environmentalism, religious sectarianism, gender, sexuality, and class. The arrival of this international touring exhibition in Beijing will mark the most comprehensive presentation of contemporary art from India ever seen in China.”

The culmination of thorough research done across India by curator-duo of Julia Peyton-Jones and Hans Ulrich Obrist, Serpentine Gallery directors, and Astrup Fearnley Museum director Gunnar B. Kvaran, the exhibit features artists who have made an impact on the international art scene alongside emerging talented practitioners - Jitish Kallat, Subodh Gupta, Sudarshan Shetty, Bharti Kher, Amar Kanwar, Tejal Shah, Dayanita Singh, and Nikhil Chopra. Each one of them deals with specific social and human issues.

It was in December 2008 that the traveling show found its first home in Serpentine Gallery in London before it unwound in Oslo, then in the Danish city of Herning, and later in Lyon before moving to Rome’s MAXXI contemporary art museums. One of the highlights was a 25m long stainless steel installation by Subodh Gupta. It featured cooking utensils peculiarly stacked on shelves. Jitish Kallat’s ‘Autosaurus Tripous’ (2007), a skeleton model of a rickshaw, ‘prehistoric’ vehicles was also widely applauded. At a broader level, the highway’s impact on and importance for movement and development is core theme of this exhibition series. Its title also refers to technology and the information superhighway that has played such a crucial role for India’s financial boom and for the development undergone within the nation’s art scene in recent decades.

Summing up the importance of this whole exercise, Margherita Stancati of The Wall street Journal had mentioned in a news report: "The traveling show’s Very Big Picture is a good way to give people–and potential buyers–a first introduction to Indian art. An art critic who reviewed the London show, for instance, openly admitted that before then he had never even heard of either Mr. Gupta, the star of India’s contemporary art scene, nor of M.F. Husain, the Modernist painter who is widely considered the country’s greatest living artist. The chances are this is the case for most other visitors too.

“Questions can be asked about the very concept of country-specific shows in general. Sure, knowing an artist’s background can help place the work in context, but it can also get misleading. Does someone like Bharti Kher, born in London, necessarily have more in common with other artists from India than she does with Damien Hirst? There’s another risk involved in an India-only show: that the 'Indianness' of the work on view (think bindis, rickshaws, tiffins etc) may not only overshadow–but perhaps also take precedence–over intrisnic artistic merit. Some did argue this was the case when the exhibit opened at the Serpentine, indicating the works selected engaged overtly with their Indian identity to make it more palatable to a Western audience.”

However, on the positive side, the show has become more coherent than when it first was launched: not only are the artworks on view strictly contemporary but its focus on themes like urbanization provides it a much sharper edge. It’s indeed an ambitious and meticulously arranged traveling show that carefully maps contemporary Indian art trends. And by the time ‘Indian Highway’ finally reaches New Delhi, the capital city of India, it is bound to get even better.