This exhibition was initiated as a commemorative examination of the contribution of a single privately owned institution-Gallery Chemould-towards the development of the contemporary art climate in India. That being said, it has remained significant to us that the contours of the exhibition extend beyond specific affiliations between artists, Gallery Chemould and the wider institutional lineaments of contemporary art in India. Thus, we have found it possible-if not imperative-to examine not only a central narrative of contemporary practice (if indeed such a singular narrative was conceivable) but more importantly from the perspective of the curator and historian, the interstices between such a narrative and other streams in the broad spectrum of metropolitan art in India in the last four decades . The relationship between dealers and collectors and art practice is of course a major area of art historical research. That such studies are as yet nascent in modern Indian art may be a significant indicator of our particular historical position (or predicament). Whether because of a generalized insecurity and tentativeness felt by modernist artists in India-even as they sought to invest themselves in the national project of modernization-or more recently, because of the relationship between speculative investment, the gallery (as sponsor, mediator, facilitator, publisher, and inevitably, gatekeeper) and the artist, we have failed to produce a body of scholarship on this area.
But to return to the task at hand: this exhibition has developed through a collaboration between two independent curators and a gallery. The lens of Gallery Chemould’s interactions with artists has necessarily played a role in thinking about the project. The conceptualizing and range of the exhibition is however, deliberately wider. The artists represented in diVERGE are not necessarily connected to Gallery Chemould in direct affiliation in terms of dealership. We have consciously steered away from simply documenting a succession of art-works that have passed through the portals of the Gallery. We have chosen to present what is hopefully an intellectually exciting and visually challenging take on contemporary art that takes in the creative preoccupations of four generations of artists in India. We have been interested in setting up a curatorial presentation appropriate to the emergence of a diverse range of artistic possibilities in the contemporary scene that Gallery Chemould has played a part in nurturing since (and indeed, before) its formal inauguration in 1963.
Being ourselves separated by more than a generation, both of us curators have found tremendous challenge as well as fulfillment in the process leading up to this presentation. Rather than subsume our own differences of perspective within an artifice of seamlessness, we have chosen to forefront these, and indeed, to use them as productive of a tension and a sense of tentativeness that we hope to share with the viewer/ reader. We have both been simultaneously engaged with our individual curatorial projects in Europe, Australia and the United States . As such, crossing generations: diVERGE has occupied an overarching and yet liminal space in our own working processes. The complexity of this project is added to by the fact that unlike our other projects, this one is being presented within the country, in the city of Bombay that both of us have close ties with. The audience here is (perhaps all too) familiar with some of the material we seek to present. A number of members of this audience are stakeholders in the stories we seek to tell, in the art-climate that we have represented-in their position as actors on the stage of the contemporary, as artists, dealers, collectors and critics. The city of Bombay presents a relative abundance of interested parties that is certainly not common in our country.
The challenge involved in presenting an exhibition of contemporary art to an audience that is intimately invested in the field is always significantly different to considerations involved in representing the Indian contemporary to international audiences. I want to digress briefly here to indulge in a moment of reflexivity that implicates the curator as much as it speaks of the exhibition policies of recently “enlightened” art institutions in advanced economies, and their new-found enthusiasm for contemporary art from contexts where until not so long ago, art was supposed to have gone into fatal decline in the eighteenth century. It is significant that international exhibitions of Indian art-and more generally, of contemporary art from non-western, “developing country” contexts-are broadly mounted in such a way as to provide audiences with illustrative expositions that provide ostensibly, reflections on variously articulated spectacles of reality, where the art-works are somehow understood as relatively seamless articulations of present political and social concerns. This of course is no new phenomenon, with modernism in Indian art constantly treading on a tightrope between “not Indian enough,” (too close to western models) and “too Indian,” (not modernist or cosmopolitan enough). The current regime of globalised expositions may have more in common with those other expositions that characterized colonial expressions of possession in nineteenth century European capitals, than we would otherwise be prepared to grant.
In this instance however, it has been possible to think beyond the potentials and limitations of the international exposition and to engage with the specifics of contemporary Indian art as it were, on home ground. This is not to say that we offer here a straightforward, unproblematised or valorized account of the Indian contemporary. On the contrary, it is very much the intention here to actively challenge the certitudes associated with a mainstream narrative of national art, and to posit juxtapositions and configurations of work that work against the grain of an easy assimilation of what is a tremendously varied field of practice into a false uniformity.
The title of this exhibition implies an engagement with chronologies in its fore-fronting of generational crossings, thereby implying a commitment, however fleeting, to histories of the contemporary. Given the specific circumstances of this project-in terms of time, materials, finances and logistics, not to speak of loans-to mount a comprehensive examination of four decades or more of art practice in India has turned out to be an impossibility. What has simultaneously emerged as an option is the presentation of a dramatic, polemical and interested series of configurations that capitalize on the potentials of the exhibition space, while declaring our own intellectual investments and predilections. Bombay’s Cawasjee Jehangir Public Hall, now the National Gallery of Modern Art, offersthesomewhatunusualarchitectural site: once an opera house and now an extension of the national art institution, the edifice with its series of semi-circular half-levels enclosed within a cylinder topped off by a full circle offers an extraordinary, if somewhat unwieldy exhibition space. There is potential to preserve the desire for contemplative viewing, as exemplified by the dome gallery at the top level. Here is a space for modernist paintings to be seen in all their uniqueness, in their assertion of their own materiality, which argues for a transcendental affect. At the same time, here we also have potential for disruption, for an adventurous positioning of works making use of the interleaved “terraces” of C. J. Hall to suggest connections and conflicts across a wide variety of material and intellectual concerns.
Clearly, these configurations in display are not intended as definitive statements on the state of the contemporary in India. The volatility of the present moment anyway does not allow for such a conceit. The display is intended as an invitation to engage with the multifariousness of art practice in urban India, on the caveat that there is at least a dual function implicit in the presentation: the dialectic between historical desire and a visceral enthusiasm for visions of the present forms an undercurrent in this exhibition, even as it provides a bedrock for the curatorial process of thinking about the Indian contemporary. It is this dialectic that has led to the argument for divergence that the exhibition is premised upon.
At one level, this may seem overly free-wheeling, as though the curators were abdicating their responsibility to make cogent and cohesive statements about their material in the name of “historical indeterminacy” in the present moment. I would like to suggest, however, that a conceptualization of divergence is already incipient in histories of contemporary art in India; further that such conceptualization is vital to the task of renewing our engagement with the historical at a time when the constantly shifting sands of media-driven simulations of reality threaten to subsume historical difference into a flattened, spectacularised present. This hyper-real, constantly mobile present, morphing to absorb the past and future in a seamless manufacture of consumables, makes for a peculiar bind. Infinitely elastic and capable of projecting an accommodation of difference into a facile and ultimately vacuous plenitude, this manufactured consciousness of the present leeches away the potential for historical change, for engagement and action, for a political reading of culture.
A conceptualization of divergence is vital in the context of nation-states that have staked their right to sovereign existence and affirmed their authority through a whole gamut of intellectual apparatus symbolized by slogans such as Unity in Diversity . That third-world, post-colonial states with widely diverse constituent communities emphasize such concepts-an assertion of unitary structures within uneasy federations-and that they have done so long before multiculturalism became the defining feature of cultural policy in first-world, post-colonial, multi-ethnic sates such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand, is significant of one of the central problematics of cultural politics in the contemporary world. For all this, we are no nearer in India to a committed theorization of divergence, of difference in our cultural histories. This has of course had to do with the need in post-independence India to forge the category of the national out of the resources on the one hand of anti-colonialist nationalism, and of modernization along internationalist lines on the other.
Unitarist fantasies of the nation-state find corollaries find echoes in unitary policies of technological modernization, and indeed, in discourses of aesthetic modernism that are formulated in teleological terms. The task at hand then, is to formulate a take on the contemporary that makes due acknowledgement of deviations, detours, divergences that characterize the several historical trajectories that are merged into the category of the national. This exhibition seeks to re-open for discussion certitudes associated with the notion of a mainstream trajectory of Indian modernism. It is useful to remember that the other great fiction of linearity, evolution and logical progression-the trajectory of Euro-American modernism as represented in the galaxy of dead white males in the New York MoMA-is itself rather porous on closer examination, and subject to sustained challenge and interrogation in contemporary art historical research.
Is the existence of a legitimized canon of modernist practice and discourse a necessary condition for the production of an avant-garde, of radical interventions that problematise their own origins while opening out new avenues of practice? At first glance, this would seem self-evidently true. In order to achieve efficacy, if not to exist, counter-narratives and meta-narratives need a pre-existing trajectory that is legitimized and generally accepted as the dominant model of cultural practice. Alternatives can only be located against a defined mainstream. Indeed, modernity is premised on and subsists in, a systematization of knowledge that yields canonical formulations. What I want to signal here is the link, often implicit, between the notion of canonical knowledge and policies-of colonization, of nationalism, of post-nationalist globalization, and so on. A canon consists in a systematized body of knowledge based on a survey of primary materials and creative contexts-which is mobilized to legitimize and justify (or critique and discredit) a specific trajectory of practice with a defined, logocentric purpose. The question in our context is: are we in a position to identify the existence of a reasonably concrete canon of modernist practice, however rough and inconsistent?
Given that we in India are not in a position to refer to a single dominant narrative of modernism that holds invariably and consistently. This is again a situation that India shares with other countries of the South, where trajectories of modernism have been regionally various, often mutually contradictory or internally inconsistent, and unevenly spread. As a direct result of our historical circumstances, we are faced with an incomplete project of canon-formation, which has parallels in complete processes of philosophical modernity, in lop-sided policies of modernization, and in prematurely short-circuited practices of modernism.
diVERGE is thus a dialectical proposition: whether we like it or not, we (along with other practitioners in similar contexts) must proceed-in the absence of a coherent canonical theorization of modernism-to elicit and articulate a conceptualization of the contemporary that can keep pace with current art practice.LiketheHomerian figureof Penelope willfully engaging herself in a task of alternate weaving and unraveling, we must simultaneously work to construct, through an attitude of purposeful historicizing, and to deconstruct the sorts of certitudes that have continued to animate the frame of a national modernism. The difference is that unlike that heroine staving off the demands of suitors, we are not interested in using these opposed vectors in a strategy of digression or of diversion. What we intend here is to set up a reflexive structure that can accommodate a critical perspective on a polyphonous contemporaneity that is anchored in praxis and routed through a dialogical relationship between a contingent series of constructive moves that find echoes in equally contingent deconstructive gestures.
The curatorial project has always had an uneasy relationship with historiography. “Curated” exhibitions such as official Salons in nineteenth century Europe and in its colonies, and the series of colonial expositions that displayed the wealth of Asian and African possessions under the rubric of an exposition universelle had at their heart the desire to champion a certain view of history and contemporary culture. The ideology of the exhibition can in such instances, be seen in direct relationship to the ideologies of control and of governance. Simultaneously, the exhibition can be seen as a component of the process of canon-formation, in that through strategies of display and through associated apparatus such as catalogues, it participates in a public construction of historical trajectories.
diVERGE is predicated on and made possible by the polyphonous spectrum of contemporary practice in India. It would seem facetious to seek to construct a single overarching paradigmatic structure that effectively embraces this variety. Somewhat in the manner of a shifting, restless gaze, the exhibition’s perspective pans over a wide and often internally contradictory collection of works. diVERGE does not pretend to supply any glib statements that could presumably stand in for a genealogy of the contemporary. The point is that even at the most fundamental level of “high” or “late” modernist experimentation that characterizes urban art in the 1950s and ‘60s, there are intimations of divergence that have already begun to problematise and challenge a singular project of modernist art making. Take for instance, the work of S H Raza and V S Gaitonde, both represented here by major works from the 1970s and ‘80s. Raza’s involvement with abstraction is nonetheless anchored in an implied landscape, and an overall task of representation. In this sense, Raza’s abstraction links up with a representational idiom where the earth, the colours of the landscape, and philosophical adumbrations on essentialised characteristics of Indian civilization (such as his sustained meditation on the bindu) continue to serve as anchors for the work of an expatriate. Gaitonde on the other hand, can be seen to follow a completely different trajectory where the painted surface claims to hold no more meaning than its own materiality. Although Gaitonde’s mature work can still be traced back to his involvement with a Klee-esque figuration, his consistently untitled works seek no attachments to an anterior reality, make no claim on being somehow “Indian.”
By the time we leave the 1960s, and as a result of various developments in India’s political economy and the institutional parameters of contemporary art practice, it is impossible to preserve any fantasies of a singular late modernist trajectory. The manner in which we have until now historicized the “first” spring of high modernism through the intervention of Bombay’s Progressive Artists Group, and other regional groupings in Calcutta, Delhi, Madras and Baroda, we have found ourselves striving to chart a history of movements even in the face of evidence that we cannot depend on clear trajectories in terms of manifest movements. It would seem that we at best have tendencies that mingle at times, and come into various kinds of interactions with each other and with other practices in the broad stream of visual culture. As I have argued above with the examples of Raza and Gaitonde, we must devise models that usefully comprehend the existence of mutually incommensurable tendencies within the purported unity of Bombay modernism.
By the time we come face to face with more recent experimentations by a younger generation of artists, we could indeed ask whether it is possible to formulate a continuous and internally coherent historiographical model that links say a Jitish Kallat or a Shilpa Gupta with a Raza or Gaitonde. We may find ourselves noting with a degree of surprise, the extent to which these younger contemporaries are making work that draws upon a post-national, post-historicist mode of functioning. Kallat, for instance, is represented here by a text-basedwork that invokes Jawaharlal Nehru’s iconic “Tryst with Destiny” proclamation. At face value, Kallat seems to be invoking a (failed or contested) national project of modernization and egalitarianism. The words of Nehru’s speech come into uneasy juxtaposition with Gupta’s wheelchair-tricycle, with its own text that asks questions of the national mission of a welfare state. The questioning is insistent, and yet is carried out in a tongue-in-cheek, self-conscious attitude of urban sophistication. There is a way in which these objects participate in a glossy consumer culture that “political” art from the 1970s or ‘80s cannot conceive of. Have we then lost sight of the notion of art with a concrete social or political purpose within the ambit of the national state? Or are we faced with a situation where the very notion of a politically anchored art has mutated to an extent that it cannot be subsumed within readily accessible categories?
NotesIt may at first glance seem rather presumptuous to be articulating a narrative of contemporary art through the lens of a private institution. Such perception of presumption does take on another cast in view of relationships between historical avant-gardes and varieties of institutional and marketing apparatus. The genealogy stretches far, taking in collectors such as Tanguy who played a seminal role in introducing Japanese Ukiyo-e to French post-impressionist painters; the collector-critic Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler’s contribution to the development of Cubism; the work of impresario Sergei Diaghlev with the Ballets Russes.
Geeta Kapur’s exhibition subTerrain opened at the House of World Cultures, Berlin on 15 September 2003; Chaitanya Sambrani’s Edge of Desire will open at the Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, in September 2004 and at the Asia Society, New York in March 2005.
 Interestingly, India is not alone in making such an assertion. The coat of arms of the Republic of Indonesia carries the inscription, “Bhinneka Tunggal Eka,” which carries identical meaning.
This was part of an exhibition titled 'diVERGE: crossing generations' (2003), shown at Chemould and NGMA. The exhibition was curated by Geeta Kapur and Chaitanya Sambrani.