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Major international shows that present contemporary Indian art
A solo show of unconventional artworks by renowned artist duo, Jiten Thukral and Sumir Tagra, is being hosted at Art Plural Gallery, Singapore. The two, widely recognized and appreciated in the international arena for their unique creations, have been treading unusual artistic territories for close to a decade. Influenced by life and trends in all their diversity, their humorous albeit provocative oeuvre appeals to an aware global audience because it addresses universal themes related to identity, change and consumerism. Their paintings, sculptures and installations address the realities of Indian society in particular, mirroring aspirations, expectations and fantasies of common people. The prolific duo looks to juxtapose graphic design with peculiar high art references, fusing clichés of the fast-rising middle class in the country and international popular culture.

Here they explore the various socio-political issues faced by the Punjabi Diaspora. It’s a subject the nuances of which they know first-hand since many of their colleagues and friends have migrated in recent years. They aspire to leave their home country and re-live their fantasies abroad, largely perpetuated and cultivated by the mass media. Elaborating on their new body of work, an accompanying note states, “The ‘windows of opportunity’ they seek are referenced in portraits of young individuals framed in airplane windows, waiting patiently for escape. Another witty choice of imagery hints that a difficult reality belies this dream: these portraits look to be encased in pinball machines, likening the process of getting a visa or living abroad to a never-ending game where one is thrown back and forth, jostled between reality and fantasy.” Most of their work addresses the issues, cultural shifts, problems and beliefs of people in India today, harboring a dream laced with anxiety and insecurity. For an added element of wit and fun, very much characteristic of the two, a site-specific installation of a running track meanders through part of the gallery space.

On the other hand, a new exhibition at Smart Museum of Art in Chicago introduces one of India’s most renowned and active art-activist collaborations to the American audiences. The New Delhi-based, Sahmat group, serves as a platform for artists, writers, musicians, actors, poets, and artist-activists for creating and presenting creative works. Its aim is to promote freedom of expression apart from celebrating secular, egalitarian values. It was formed after playwright-activist Safdar Hashmi’s murder while performing a street play. In over two decades since, it has drawn on the country’s secular heritage plus an expansive group of ambitious collaborators for projects, which nurtures socio-political engagement through a powerful mix of high art and street culture. An introductory essay mentions: “Animated by the urgent belief that art can propel change and that culture can reach across boundaries, Sahmat has offered a platform for an expansive group of artists and collaborators to present powerful works of art that defend freedom of expression and battle intolerance within India's often divisive political landscape.”

The Sahmat showcase includes works done in a wide array of media by artists such as Manjeet Bawa, Zarina Hashmi, Atul Dodiya, Rummana Husain, Subodh Gupta, Pushpamala N., Bharti Kher, Gigi Scaria, Nalini Malani, Vivan Sundaram and Nilima Sheikh among others. This kaleidoscopic survey of art and ephemera looks to assess the impact of this unique and at times controversial group focused on contemporary Indian art and society in general. The exhibit is accompanied by a publication, which gives new interdisciplinary perspectives on the collective and investigations into the country’s history, politics, and culture. Situating the collective within not only the political sphere in India, but also contemporary art trends from around the world, it contains both critical essays on the art produced by Sahmat and insightful texts on the prevailing artistic, political and social climate in India.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts’s Peabody Essex Museum is hosting a significant show encompassing modern Indian art. It showcases no less than seventy monumental works by twenty renowned artists from India spanning three generations. ‘Midnight to the Boom: Painting in India after Independence’ includes works culled from the iconic Chester & Davida Herwitz Collection, a major compilation of modern Indian art in the world. The PEM showcase focuses on art movement post-independence that continued through the economic boom of the 1990s.

Unrestricted by cultural expectations, three generations of Indian artists have fully engaged with the world around them, embracing their individualistic approaches to modern art. Susan Bean, the former senior curator (South Asian & Korean art), has curated the show including works of several master Indian practitioners alongside those around the world in something aptly called ‘conversational groupings’. So you get to see creations by Bikash Bhattarjee against those of Andrew Wyeth, an American artist, and veteran Chinese artist Xu Beihong’s pieces with Maqbool Fida Husain’s horses, among others.