The political climate in India has been volatile in recent years. The hard-line Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) took over the government. 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 postcolonial 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 (1999.305a–r). 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. 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. Nilima Sheikh uses miniature painting—perhaps the only contemporary artist in India to adopt this format—to examine ideas about craft and tradition. Her tentlike 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 He uses layered historical references to discuss contemporary conditions such as war and sectarian violence.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. 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 (1991.1280).