Transience seems to be a marked characteristic of our times, as populations shift, as communications enable people to roam more frequently. While many people continue to choose to migrate out of India, certainly a reversal of this pattern is starting to be noticeable. With greater economic and social freedoms, people have more control over where they choose to live, raise a family, or pursue a career. All of this has an effect on the definition of identities, our sense of belonging, and our concepts of home, community and nation.
The Indian Diaspora, as it is called, has become an institution of sorts. Within India it is the cousin-brother or aunt and uncle which almost every person you meet seems to have tucked away in some distant corner of New Jersey, Birmingham or Brisbane. This diaspora is now generations old, diluted and doubley-migrated. These are the Indians whose families have migrated from Uganda to London to Los Angeles, many of whom have never visited India. More visible to us today are the first-generation migrants, the Silicon Valley whiz-kids, the entrepreneurs, artists, authors and musicians. They have migrated during an era of frequent air travel and e-mail, which means they're able to have the best of both worlds. But what do we call it when a daughter of the diaspora, born and raised in England, chooses to go and live in India? Do we have a term for someone such as Bharti Kher?
To attempt to find some stability within this transience, some site from which to excavate meaning, there can be no better place to begin than the domestic interior. Our mirrors are the objects we purchase, the design we choose, and the arrangements we inhabit. Certainly, we may harbour fantasies of our true selves and how we would express these selves through dream environments but, at the end of the day, our economic limitations (or lack thereof) speak volumes of who we really are in this world. How we negotiate the space between our dreams (or our desires for individuality) and these limitations is plainly visible in the rooms of our homes.
The interiors which Bharti Kher has chosen to paint come directly out of today's burgeoning India, its rapidly expanding urban bourgeoisie. They are evidence of the liberalization of the Indian economy, the influx of foreign commodities as well as media, the impact that foreign travel has on peoples' tastes and habits. At the same time, these interiors speak of the strength of traditional Indian culture, the continuing prevalence of family and religion to peoples' basic identities. So rich are these interiors, in details, in psychologies and in layers, that the artist has found it necessary to paint each room of the home (or more aptly flat) one at a time.
Let us start then with the drawing room (or living room as it is called in America) for this is the most open of rooms, the room where the family meets and greets and puts forth its public face. Kher has focussed on the wall-unit of shelving, that which accommodates the “entertainment center” (the television and stereo set) but also books, knick-knacks, and souvenirs. These shelving units in today's ambitious India are, more often than not, made of plastic, covered with an ersatz wood-grain patterning, and supported by pillars of a Classical Roman styling. So easy to assemble and to clean, virtually maintenance free. Center place, of course, goes to the television set and then, scattered around picturesquely, are the “objet d'art.” This strategy of arrangement varies little among different classes (and different cultures) though, surely, the cost of said objects may change drastically. A toy Cannon holds a set of bar utensils (drinking!); a decidedly non-Indian carved wooden elephant is paired with miniature Japanese kites (travel!); the glass shelves have bevelled edges and lights are discreetly inset above (sophistication!). Lest anyone question the householder as being a tad too liberalized, a tad too entranced with the imported and foreign, placed prominently is a sign of piety and, in these days, political sympathies - a sticker which proclaims “Jai Shri Ram.” Placed on the upper-most shelf will most certainly be the properly garlanded hand-tinted photo of the dearly departed ancestor.
Each room of the house, as painted by Kher, supplies us with the same potpourri of contradictory influences, the same archaeology of consumerism. The kitchen is a parade of Pearl Pet jars used to store atta flour, garam masala and Ghana dal. The bedroom harbors an anniversary gift clock, a calendar of Hindu deities, posters of pop stars both “desi” and international, and a Rajasthani block-printed bedspread in a French Provencal pattern. Each vignette, codified as “Painting” proper, indexes both the materialistic and idealistic aspirations of its inhabitants, records an accommodation (easy or anxious?) of the profane with the sacred, and is likened to a diorama in a museum of natural history. We the viewers are the archaeologists who must sift through these strata of cultural detritus, the visual remnants of the sentimental rituals of contemporary life. Ultimately the subjects of these paintings of interiors are the compromises of the middle classes, a group most painfully aware of their limitations and their unrealistic aspirations. Don't get me wrong: this is not typical of the Indian middle class, this is a universal phenomenon.
Kher, however, is too perceptive to leave it at simply this and, besides, this information is readily available in any of the cloying magazines of elite homes published today in India. What fascinates the artist about these interiors are both their typical contemporary Indianess as well as their significance to the diasporadic community of Indians. Surely, these NRIs (or Non-Resident Indians as the Government of India has christened their status) will recognize a cousins' flat in Bangalore but also their own homes in Fort Lee. It is precisely this displacement of locale which renders these interiors loaded and quizzical. Kher is careful to leave a part of each of her pictures of interiors unfinished, only sketched in, to imply the incomplete program which is this construction of identity, to imply the transient lifestyles which often inhabit such interiors. Additionally, she has grafted on companion images which spin these paintings towards increased obfuscation, albeit pleasurable and humorous. A blond girl with a bindi, a monstrous cricket, the bastardized pattern from a reproduction carpet or a line-up of stuffed animals who can call no particular culture their own all mimic the rather desperate attempts of succinct seduction which are evident in the listings of a newspaper's matrimonial columns. The painted-collage, with its roots in Surrealism and Pop Art as well as the Indian institution of the hand-painted photograph, can best serve this reflection of a culture which is, but its very nature, hybridized, contradictory and luxuriouslycomplex.
Other institutions endemic to India have also caught Bharti Kher's attention. The film industry of Bombay is polymorphous in its production of movies which synthesize the action picture with melodrama and a musical. It's favored stars, usually light-skinned and increasingly buffed, portray characters who hope to symbolize the traditional values of Indian society, usually while cavorting around Dutch windmills or the canals of Venice. Playing with publicity stills taken out of movie magazines, Kher's paintings of Bollywood heroes and heroines choose compacted and contorted compositions to become crystallized emblems of these overwrought spectacles. These works are souvenir clichés of redundant oxymorons sprinkled with garish vinyl bindis (that religious token gone grotesquely secular). With similar finesse, Kher has created a suite of portraits of Indian men, all of whom have been reduced to their signature moustache. Multiplied by hundreds, this particular facial institution becomes both predatory and comical. Kher is able to shuffle her insult and anxiety from within an oppressively male-dominated environment into an act of defiant creativity.
Bharti Kher's artistic project can be said to be auto-biographical. The institutions of identity, culture and community, both received and changing, are that which she strives to locate within the home, out on the street and through the mass-media. Certainly, her status as a foreigner of Indian heritage now residing in India gives her a perspective from which to appreciate, and fondle through her paintings, the cross-pollinization of ideas and images occurring throughout the world today. It may be ironic, but also wholly appropriate, that these works of Kher's should first be shown in a gallery in New York City. The vast majority of India's gallery-visiting public is still unprepared for, and even antagonistic towards, art which is critical of its context and analytical towards its content. Certainly, during the past decade, the contemporary art community of New York has welcomed a greater diversity of voices from throughout the world. Kher's work is the visual counterpart to a school of literature which is coming from both the diaspora community and young Indian writers, an English-language school which though obsessed with a nation and its culture may not feel wholly connected with it. Bharti Kher’s India, like her own identity, is a slippery, self-actualizaing construct, an institution which defies definitions while pretending to play by the rules, rules which are comfortably elastic and always being re-written.