Tag Archives: Modernist Art

“Blackness in India” (notions of beauty in India)

I recently met Lucia King at her film screening of “At Play” at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in West Kensington, a documentary of film director Roysten Abel’s adaptation “In Othello” of Shakespeare’s play “Othello” (talk about meta texts!). “At Play” got me thinking of the recently black-faced model Lara Stone and  how skin color continues to determine people’s perceptions of beauty, class and education in India.

Click here to read Kavita Ramdya’s “Blackness in India“.

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“News India Times” December11, 2009

“Blackness in India” by Kavita Ramdya

“Blackface” as a performance tool is not solely relegated to nineteenth-century minstrel shows or early-twentieth-century films such as D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” (1915). Most recently, the use of blackface re-surfaced when French Vogue published Steven Klein’s photos of a blacked up Lara Stone. Cynical yet true, blackface has a shock value that generates free marketing and publicity unmatched by YouTube promotional videos and Google advertisements. Blackface, in addition to remaining relevant in today’s fashion circles, is also topical on stage. In Roysten Abel’s production of “In Othello” (2004), an adaptation of the Shakespearean classic performed by Indian actors and actresses and interspersed with Hindi, the actor who performs the part of Othello blackens his skin in order to suggest that his color is what results in Desdemona’s murder and Othello’s own suicide.

In “Othello”, Shakespeare’s anti-hero is a foreign man who has won the heart of fair Desdemona. Despite his military success which places him in high esteem among the men under his command and poetic language with which he woos Desdemona, the insecurities of his status of an outsider, a Moor, get the best of him. Shakespeare, rather than write a seminal play about racism had in fact written a psychological study of the effects freedom and democracy have on an individual making the transition from the pre-civilized world where social hierarchy is determined by violence and war to modernity where education and language skills define success.

Lucia King, film-maker and painter, whose documentary of the making of Abel’s “In Othello”, entitled “At Play”, documents the use of blackface by the Kerala-born director who transformed the play into one about racism against northeast Indians. While working as a set designer during the filming of “In Othello”, Lucia decided to take her role as a “fly on the wall” amidst the actors, actresses and director one step further by filming while on set.

The introduction of “At Play” is a few minutes worth of video footage of the actors and actresses in full costume and make-up quietly poised and motionless as they model for the film’s publicity shots. It is initially striking to watch Indian actors wearing long, wavy moustaches and Indian actresses sober from the weight of heavy, velvet gowns.

Abel chose to focus on the anti-hero’s color rather than the psychological tensions that climax in the brutal murder of Desdemona. However, in the case of the film “In Othello”, Indians’ widespread prejudice against dark-colored brethren is the crucifix upon which Othello hangs himself. Every Indian woman I know has been subjected to comments about the fairness or darkness of her skin by family members raised in India where skin color among Indians plays a significant role in the politics of marriage. Whereas growing up in America, I was envied by friends for my “year-long tan”, I was also conscious of NRIs assessing my skin color.

Bloomberg reporter Saikat Chatterjee’s article “Fair-Skin Fashion Boosts Sales of Whitening Creams in India” describes how major global consumer product companies such as Unilever are marketing products such as the popular Fair & Lovely Fairness Cream, providing the growing middle and upper classes with an alternative to the old-fashioned “turmeric and sandalwood paste” remedy for dark skin. Hindustan Unilever is not the only company marketing skin whiteners to Indians. Blockbuster brands such as L’Oreal SA, Beiersdorf AG and Emami Ltd. Have have found success in selling “fairness creams”. Chatterjee reports how “sales of whiteners increased 17 percent to 20.5 billion rupees ($432 million) in the nine months to September from a year earlier, according to research by Haarlem, Netherlands-based Nielsen Co.”

Browsing my parents’ copies of “India Abroad”, the back pages which contained the Personal Ads inevitably advertised single women “with fair skin” and “well-educated” men. The significance of having fair skin, like “wheat”, for a woman is equally as important as completing a graduate education is for a man. Skin-bleaching creams remain popular among Indian women in the subcontinent. Of course, the easiest way to interpret the nation’s obsession with fairness is in relation to India’s social history with regards to the caste system.

Before banishing the caste system, the Untouchables (India’s lowest class), were relegated to the jobs that brought them outdoors, thereby exposing them to the sun whereas Brahmins, the priestly class, worked within the confines of the holy temple. Fairness is more a determinant of class than it is beauty. According to T.K. Oommen, professor emeritus of sociology at New Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University, “Indians traditionally associate fair skin with aristocracy and not having to work outdoors in a menial job.”

The irony is that in looking at Indian-Hindu temple art, Krishna is always depicted with blue-colored skin; in fact, “Krishna” means “the dark one”. Additionally, the Sanskrit meaning of “krish” is “to draw to oneself, to attract”. Krishna is dark skinned yet attractive, contradistinct from ideals about beauty in mainstream Indian society.

It makes sense that Abel produced a version of “Othello” where the main character’s regional origin and skin color result in his unravelling. The story of Othello’s self-hatred and violence is foreboding even seven hundred years after Shakespeare penned the original play. Let’s hope Indian consumers recognize Krishna’s beauty, transcend the antiquated caste system and refrain from purchasing skin-bleaching creams; unifying India despite its regional differences, varied dialects, disparate customs and religious sects may depend on it.

Kavita Ramdya is author of “Bollywood Weddings: Dating, Engagement and Marriage in Hindu America” www.bollywood-weddings.com

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“An Artist with no nationality” by Kavita Ramdya (review of Anish Kapoor at the Royal Academy of Art)

Read Kavita Ramdya’s review of Anish Kapoor’s exhibit at the Royal Academy of Art.

The Anish Kapoor exhibit at the Royal Academy of Art is all the rave right now. You can’t escape it: Anish Kapoor’s name decorates Tube turnstyles, double-decker buses, and cabs. Completely turned off the by hype and marketing, I was more than skeptical that the show would live up to the rave reviews; it’s as if art reviewers are foaming at the mouth for Anish Kapoor, stark-raving mad for more. Unbelievably, the show DOES live up to expectations. I loved it as did my husband and friends who accompanied us, an accupuncturist and the owner of a technology company. The Anish Kapoor show is among the best I’ve ever visited, and it’s fair to say I’ve seen my fair share of art.

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October 23, 2009

News India Times

“An Artist with no nationality” by Kavita Ramdya

Tube (London subway) platforms, double-decker buses, and cab doors, not to mention magazines and newspapers as diverse as The Financial Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Economist, and Mayfair Times. The Mumbai-born artist the first living artist to have a solo exhibition at the elite Royal Academy of Art, one of London’s most well-respected and revered cultural institutions.

Outside the Royal Academy of Art, during all hours of the day and night, there is a glut of people spilling onto the Piccadilly pavement.

They wait on line to buy tickets to the show as well as marvel at the fifteen-metre sculpture “Tall Tree and Eye” in the Annenburg Courtyard: a Babel-inspiring pyramid made up of seventy-six large, polished, stain-less-steel spheres reaching for the sky. In it, viewers see reflections of the museum, the clouds, and themselves.

As his name suggests, Anish Kapoor was born in Mumbai before schooling and working in England where he made his career. Expecting to see art inspired by his heritage, I was surprised by the lack of references towards Indian culture, mythology, current events, and imagery. In fact, I later learned from Dr. Adrian Locke, a curator at the RAA, that the artist finds his Indian origin irrelevant and defies art historians, patrons of the arts, and museum directors to categorize his work as “Indian art”. As a writer of South-Asian descent, and one who is highly conscious that my ethnicity, faith and gender shape my concerns and thus my work, my interest was piqued upon hearing that Anish Kapoor rejects the idea of nationalizing his work. Do works of Art have a nationality? Is it possible to reproduce art which doesn’t lend itself to having a national identity?

Upon entering the exhibit, which takes up five galleries, I quickly observed that for Anish Kapoor, “bigger is better”. The scale of his work is surreal.

As I made my way past “Svayambh”, the heart of the show, where a thirty-ton block of licorice-red wax creeps its way across the gallery on a set of tracks, and walked through “Mirrors” where kids contort their faces and jump up and down while their parents sneakily took photos on their iPhones, I felt like I was walking through an “art funhouse”.

Two major differences between the Anish Kapoor exhibit and other shows I’ve attended is the interactive play between the viewer and the art and, as a result, the preponderance of young children running and screaming throughout the galleries… and, of course, the accompanying noise that further confirmed my analogy of attending the show like visiting a carnival funhouse.

Although “Svayambh” is the heart of the show and the towering courtyard sculpture tempts shoppers and pedestrians while greeting museum visitors, “Shooting into the Corner” is the most infamous piece in the show. The title borrows from a dirty, adolescent joke and with good reason. The work is made up of a canon which fires wax pallets through a doorway from one gallery into another.

There is an element of penetration in the work and expressions of masculinity and violence. And, of course, the joke is on the viewer when the semen, I mean, wax hits the wall and then, in an anti-climactic way, slowly creeps downwards into a mess of old wax. On a psychological level, the work spurs notions of sexuality – not coincidentally, the work was first exhibited in Vienna, the home of Freud. From an architectural point of view, the wax is shot into a corner: the corner as the origin of any building. And, finally, from an artistic point of view, the slowly dripping wax is in its own way a constantly-evolving piece of art work, changing and growing like a human inside and outside the womb.

Is there anything in the Royal Academy of Art show that betrays Anish Kapoor’s Indian origin apart from one work’s Sanskrit name? In my opinion, yes—the scale and the colors with which Kapoor creates his works suggest the artist’s country of origin is at the very least a subconscious force in creating his oeuvre. “Tall Tree and Eye” resembles the shape and size of Rajasthan’s ancient Hindu temples, and the vibrant crimsons and yellows in Kapoor’s work are reminiscent of common Indian spices used in cooking like red chilli powder and turmeric as well as the most popular pigments used to paint family and friends on the popular Hindu holiday, Holi, or the Festival of Colors.

Originally skeptical of Anish Kapoor’s rejection of the label “Indian artist”, after viewing the exhibition I am convinced that although Art need not require a nationality, or a specific country culture from which it originates, I stand by the fact that Art cannot be produced in a vacuum; it comes from somewhere, is inspired by something, and is in conversation with other cultural products.

However, Anish Kapoor’s body of work does not come from the culture of nationhood, specifically India’s, but from the Culture of Science. Anish Kapoor’s ambitious attempts at creating perfectly symmetrical geometric shapes, experiments with pigment, play with materials to create textures, and problem solving behind integrating two seemingly-incompatible materials into a single piece, is the most successful demonstration of Art originated from Science I have ever witnessed. Which begs the question, what does this Culture of Science indicate about Anish Kapoor’s own identity as an artist?

Kavita Ramdya is author of “Bollywood Weddings: Dating, Engagement and Marriage in Hindu America” http://www.bollywood-weddings.com/Home.html

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“An Indian in Paris” by Kavita Ramdya (Sakti Burman at Aicon Gallery London)

Click here to read Kavita Ramdya’s profile of artist Sakti Burman and a review of his show at the Aicon Gallery London.

A few weeks ago I discovered Aicon Gallery, a space completely devoted to promoting Modernist and contemporary Indian art. I must confess that the exhibits at Aicon Gallery are a welcome change from the typical South-Asian shows in London. In mainstream museums, art of the Indian subcontinent is typically focused on Mughal/North Indian royal paintings, so much so that one wonders if any art was produced by Indian nationals after the British Empire extended its reach into India. Sakti Burman surprised me with his friendly approach and frankness in admitting that he is inspired by French Impressionist art. Thank goodness the Aicon Gallery exists to show that there is a community of artists in India producting contemporary and modernist art.

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News India Times October 2, 2009

“An Indian in Paris” by Kavita Ramdya

If you’re a second-generation Indian American like me, you probably grew up hearing “Well, you know the concept of zero originated in India!” or “The Crown Jewels are all originally from India!” Only good things came out of India – family values, royal jewels, mathematical and scientific concepts, art. So you can imagine my shock meeting Modernist Indian artist Sakti Burman who openly and enthusiastically admitted that he and his contemporaries were inspired by “tremendous” French Impressionists such as Renoir and Monet. Born and raised in India, he “dreamed of moving to Paris.” More than 50 years after moving to Paris as a graduate art student, he continues to live and work in the City of Lights.

I met Burman at the Aicon Gallery London, the best place in Europe to view and learn about contemporary Indian art. The London gallery opened in 2006 to serve as a “launch pad for Indian art in the capital” and showcase the works of radical and experimental artists rather than the Indian Modernists whose work is most commonly shown in the Aicon New York gallery.

Located in a swanky part of town, right off of Regent’s Street, Aicon Gallery London is a cultural refuge amongst high-end stores such as Burberry and Ralph Lauren and restaurants where people dine to be seen. As an Indian-American Hindu who moved to London almost four years ago, I remain amazed at the city’s established and well developed South Asian cultural scene… the hip and friendly South Asians I’ve met who comprise the South-Asian art community.

I attended the gallery’s private viewing of “Archetype: Two Solo Exhibitions by Ashish Avikunthak and Sakti Burman”. Avikunthak, whose sole piece on display is an 18-minute film about three girlfriends in India, is a “contemporary” artist whereas Burman, who had a dozen paintings on display, is considered a “modernist.”

Niru Ratnam, the gallery’s hip (as denoted by his beatnik glasses) and friendly director who also works as a curator of Indian art, explained to me how Burman’s works include “Indian iconography in the style of Italian mural art.” Jagroop Mehta, an equally hip (as denoted by her unapologetically orange dress) and friendly sales associate, distinguished between the two artists’ works: Whereas Avikunthak’s film symbolizes “contemporary” art, it has been inspired and informed by “modernist” works created by the likes of Burman. The show is meant to “marry modern and contemporary” art, Mehta continued, and inform people about the “history of Indian art in the West.”

Burman stands out in a crowd. He is a diminutive man with little hair, but he has an aura of energy that emanates in a crowded room. I was struck with how he always appears to be moving, even while standing in a group and talking about his work. I found him refreshingly earnest, and was completely taken aback by his friendliness and humility.

Friendly demeanor aside, what I loved about Burman’s art was not only the Western aesthetic (a pastel color palette and the juxtaposition of Hindu gods with ordinary people) but also his disarming charm when he spoke about how his work is informed by iconic European artists, painters whose countries were only tribal groups during the days when India was a set of scattered kingdoms ruled by maharajas. Talking to Burman reminded me that, as in literature, no art is created in a vacuum.

What captured my initial attention was Burman’s use of mythological figures in his paintings: Hindu religious characters are central in his works. Hanuman, Ganesha and Shiva function as the sun around which secondary characters and objects revolve on the fringes of the canvas. However, their dream-like qualities instigate questions about Freudian and Jungian concerns rather than spiritual ones.

The use of a pastel color palette and creating highly-textured canvas recall a European Modernist aesthetic and Italian fresco style. When I asked Burman about it, he freely admitted that while French Impressionism lured him to Paris, it is “Marc Chagall’s works in conjunction with the Ajanta murals” which inspire his paintings.

After completing his art education in Paris, Burman tried his hand at having an art career in India. However, when he realized he couldn’t sell his work, he returned to Paris where, he tells me, “I thought I might succeed… It is a not an easy job”. Of course, Burman is not the first artist to flee to Paris to establish himself as an artist. Following World War I, African-American musicians settled in the capital where their music and identity were embraced rather than rejected.

In writing about contemporary Indian-ethnic culture, I have picked up on a trend. I recently wrote about Nina Paley’s “Sita Sings the Blues”, a film that re-imagines the myth of Sita and Rama through Sita’s perspective.

Likewise, in Burman’s art, he presents Hindu mythological figures with a European Modernist sensibility, another twist on East-meets-West. A successful Indian artist in Paris, Burman’s work is an experiment in incubating ideas about Hindu mythology in a tandoori oven filled with European scents and spices. I wonder what other examples of fusion art and culture will come my way in exploring popular South Asian culture in London.

Aicon Gallery, New York

Aicon Gallery, formerly known as Gallery ArtsIndia, originates in the United States, where it began as an online gallery of contemporary Indian art before opening the New York (2002) and Palo Alto (2004) gallery spaces. After exhibiting the works of established artists such as Laxma Goud, F.N. Souza and M.F. Husain, Aicon has collaborated with such artistic institutions such as Tate Britain, the San Francisco Asian Art Museum and the Peabody Essex Museum. Earlier in the summer, Aicon Gallery New York exhibited “Experiments with Truth,” a collection of works by Debanjan Roy. This show included fiberglass sculptures of Gandhi engaged in modern activities such as listening to an iPod and working at a call center. This exhibition was meant to spur conversations about the growing middle class in India and the apathy that has resulted due to their increased material wealth. Aicon Gallery New York has also exhibited the works of Pakistani artists, including Hasnat Mahmood’s “I Love Miniature” collection that comprises of miniaturist copies of Pakistan’s greatest paintings. The accompanying captions are engraved in Braille to further drive home the idea that the viewer cannot fully comprehend these miniature works of art unaided. On both sides of the Atlantic, Aicon Gallery is noted for its mission of promoting contemporary Indian art.

Kavita Ramdya is author of “Bollywood Weddings: Dating, Engagement and Marriage in Hindu America” http://www.bollywood-weddings.com/Home.html

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