SHEELA GOWDA, 2/7, 2006, watercolor and mixed media on paper, 111.8 × 157.5 cm. Photo by David Flores. Courtesy Bose Pacia Gallery, New York.

“Horn Please: Narratives in Contemporary Indian Art”

Kunstmuseum Bern
India Switzerland

India has undergone profound social changes since the rise of new information technologies sparked spectacular growth in the 1990s. The show’s title, “Horn Please,” refers to the ubiquitous, quaintly polite signs on the back of Indian trucks asking drivers to honk before overtaking. As a guiding theme, the title evokes the warning sounds of rapid development and new forms of communication born from India’s evolving urban culture.

Diverging from exhibitions in the past three years riddled with the usual Indian contemporary superstars, “Horn Please: Narratives in Contemporary Indian Art” delved into the genealogy of current Indian art and its vernacular sources. Curators Suman Gopinath and Bernhard Fibicher propose that the Indian Subcontinent has “a pronounced tendency, a consistent gift for bringing ‘content’ to expression in visual narratives.”

The roots of modern Indian art date back to the influence of the Western representation system and its dialogue with 19th-century indigenous culture. The milestones of this rich history include the Bengal School of Art, the Mumbai-based Progressive Artists’ Group and the Fine Arts Faculty of the MS University in Baroda.

While narrative is important as a conceptual, structural, linguistic and literary resource, the main achievement of the exhibition was its dialogue with its predecessors, the 1981 exhibition in Mumbai at the Jehangir Art Gallery, “Place for People,” and “Questions and Dialogues” in Baroda in 1987. Manifestos from these earlier shows, written by critic Geeta Kapur and artist Anita Dube respectively, appear in the magnificent catalog. “Place for People” featured paintings by Bhupen Khakhar, Gulammohammed Sheikh, Sudhir Patwardhan, Nalini Malani and Vivan Sundaram. In “Horn Please,” these paintings hang alongside the same artists’ recent works and paintings by a new generation of Indian artists such as Atul Dodiya, Sheela Gowda and Jitish Kallat.

The four sections of the exhibition facilitated a free-flowing communication, both subtle and constructive, among the various works. This is exemplified in the Kunstmuseum’s central hall where NS Harsha’s brown-hued canvases populated by small figures, particularly Dyeing the Great Indian (2005) and Development (2004), critique the colonial overtones of economic development. They are enhanced with mural drawings made by the artist for the occasion. The metaphor of such a networked conversation was echoed in an installation by Raqs Media Collective, The K. D. Vyas Correspondence Vol. 1 (2006). Numerous screens framed in white cubes are connected in a molecular arrangement by pipes, conveying independent yet interconnected narratives. By establishing a continuous historical lineage for the work on view, “Horn Please” paid tribute to the Subcontinent’s long artistic tradition, which precedes its current vogue in Europe and the US.