In the film I am Twenty (1967) by Indian filmmaker S. N. S. Sastry, the narrator asks a group of young men and women – all of whom were born on 15 August 1947 (the day of Indian Independence) – how they feel about the 20-year-old nation state of India. A young man with a mop-top, unimpressed by the question, replies: ‘I don't have any love for the country, I don’t want to show off like other people and say, “Oh, I’ve got a love for the country” – whom shall I tell? Whom shall I tell that I have a love for this country?’ He bursts into a Beatles song instead: ‘I should have known better with a girl like you.’
Made by Jean Bhownagary during his time as chief producer of the Films Division of India, I am Twenty is included in the exhibition ‘Punascha Parry’ at Villa Vassilieff, in Paris. Curated by the Indian artist Samit Das, and Sumesh Sharma of Mumbai’s Clark House Initiative, the show draws from Das’s research into the lives of Indian artists who studied and worked in Paris between 1950 and 1970. Das and Sharma have included painting, sculpture and film works by 16 artists, including Krishna and Judy Blum Reddy, Nirode Mazumdar (from whose memoir the show gets its title), Zarina Hashmi, Akbar Padamsee, and even film editor Lila Lakshmanan, who worked with Jean-Luc Godard for over nearly a decade on some of his most famous films, such as À bout de soufflé (Breathless, 1960) and, Une femme est une femme (A Woman is a Woman, 1961). Das also includes his own work in the show, namely Burnt Pages from Art History Book (2010), where singed textbook pages leave their impression upon resin-coated paper. The piece echoes the sentiment of the show: neither Das nor Sharma are interested in the manner with which the history of Indian modernism has been written so far. This is timely, as several exhibitions, with a focus on Indian modernism, have opened in Paris recently.
‘Mémoires des futurs – Modernités Indiennes’ (Memories of the Future – Indian Modernity), curated by Catherine David at the Centre Pompidou, is a survey of the ways in which South Asian artists continue to be preoccupied with the modern subject. In Sosa Joseph’s wobbly pastel paintings Interior Figures (2015) and Episode (2015), the figures are barefoot, clothed in simple fabrics and blurrily elongated across the canvas. In their attempts to disengage with European urbanism the paintings recall the many Indian modernists who were preoccupied with scenes of village life. Other works on display include Seher Shah’s graphite on paper drawings, Brutalist Traces (2015-16), of the modernist architecture of New Delhi; artist Gauri Gill’s notebooks entitled ‘1984’ (2005, 2009, 2014), from which are also displayed several photographs of the people and interior spaces of the ‘Widows Colony’ in Tilak Vihar, where families affected by the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 were provided housing by the state; and a series of streetscape photographs by Pablo Bartholomew, including Man Asleep in Front of Political Graffiti, Calcutta (1978) which embodies how, in South Asia, history inflects the everyday.
A selection of talks and screenings entitled ‘The Gondwana Series’, curated by Sumesh Sharma, took place during the opening week of the show. It was named after the tectonic plate Gondwana, which was formed when the Indian subcontinent broke away from what is now Africa to join the Asian Geographical mass. In an effort to acknowledge the complexities at stake when discussing the nation state of India, the show’s title highlights one of the main concerns of the series: that the Indian subcontinent is far too large and diverse to be represented by a single strain of modernism. (Or, as some would argue, even to be called simply ‘India’.) The series also sought to make connections between different subaltern, postcolonial positions. A panel on ‘Transculture and the Idea of India’, moderated by Shaina Anand, of the Mumbai-based artist collective CAMP, brought together artist Kader Attia and filmmaker Jihan El Tahri. The Gondwana Series also screened a selection of experimental films produced by Bhownagary, including M.F. Husain’s Through the Eyes of a Painter (1967).
The film opens with a scene of Husain crouched over a canvas, dirty paintbrush in hand. He says to the audience: ‘Now, I have tried to tackle the film medium with the feeling of a painter. Here, unrelated moving visuals are juxtaposed to create a total form … a total poetic form.’ Husain justifies his choice of a new medium by likening it to the painterly surface, a conversation carried forward by another show, also in the Pompidou: ‘Nalini Malani: The Rebellion of the Dead Retrospective 1969-2018.’ Although traditionally trained as a painter, Malani conducted experiments with film in the 1960s and was one of the first South Asian women to work extensively with the medium. Her work often illustrates the stories of Partition, and the politics of newly formed nation states, namely, India and Pakistan. At the entrance of ‘Rebellion of the Dead’ is Malani’s large Mylar cylinder installation, Remembering Mad Meg (2017). The artist often expands upon female characters from Indian and Greek mythology, South Asian literature and contemporary history – in order, she explains, to ‘re-introduce male-dominated history from a female point of view.’ Malani’s work is immersive and atmospheric, and includes 8 and 16 mm film; acrylic and ink paintings over transparent surfaces such as Mylar; sound, light and shadow play. Her sharp critique of Eurocentric history is made clear via the text ‘Your history gets in the way of my memory’ which is repeated across her paintings.
At the Musée Guimet, fifth in a series of ‘Carte Blanche’ initiatives, designed to invite contemporary artists to make site-specific work to sit beside the Museum’s existing collection, is a solo presentation by the artist Jayashree Chakravarthy. A long process of layering leaves and insects onto tissue and handmade papers forms Chakravarthy’s sensitive and tactile exploration of the natural world. She began making work in the 1970s in Baroda, and it still carries the trace of Baroda modernism: by expanding and democratizing the painterly plane through installation and collage.
As is evidenced by these shows, the question of Indian modernity continues to engage the Indian and European imagination alike. In an essay accompanying ‘Punascha Parry’, entitled ‘A Plot for an Itinerant Modernism’ (2017), Sharma writes, ‘The relationship between modernism and nationalism cannot be confused with the need to find a path of self-determination.’ In fact, many Indian modernists were decidedly unpatriotic: for instance Krishna Reddy was painting the corpses of the Bengal famine while his colleagues from the Bombay school were composing works on the Indian pastoral. Reddy left the country shortly after the riots of Direct Action Day of 1946 and never made it back for the celebrations of the 15 August 1947. Sharma continues: ‘Exhibitions that do not explore these elements fall prey to representative aesthetics and thus orchestrate colonial renditions of a post-colonial history.’ When the different iterations of Indian modernism are judged against European standards, the canon reflects the politics of a postcolonial situation (namely, the nation building project), which often lacks nuance. In the project to deliver India her modernist legacy what needs to be emphasized, instead, is that the modernist project was the reformation of a personal visual language, local to each region.
Main image: ‘Punascha Parry’, installation view, Villa Vassilieff, Paris, 2017. Photograph: Aurélien Mole