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“Faiza Butt in ‘The State of Things: Recent Art from Pakistan'”

Click here to read Kavita Ramdya’s review of Faiza Butt’s show at the Aicon Gallery London, “The State of Things: Recent Art from Pakistan”, in the February 2010 issue of “Modern Art Asia“.

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“Faiza Butt in ‘The State of Things: Recent Art from Pakistan'” by Kavita Ramdya (Issue 2, February 2010 of Harvard University’s “Modern Art Asia”

Faiza Butt is obviously well-versed in talking about her work. She has done it countless times, breathless and quick, at ease yet also distant. Not once in the evening we spend together at the show or at a café afterwards where we continue our “conversation” does she let herself look me in the eye. It seems she has saved her gaze for her canvas.

In The State of Things: Recent Art from Pakistan at Aicon, Butt’s paintings are distinct from those of her peers’ for their focus on the feminine: children playing, turkey dinners and kitchencleaning supplies. Clearly her role as a mother and wife inform her work. Tellingly, in both our phone calls prior to our meeting I could hear the voices of laughing children in the background. I later learned that her marriage to an English national and role as a mother inspire an autobiographical flavour in her work, as does her youth growing up in a matriarchal family with five sisters.

Born and raised in Lahore, Butt spent a few years teaching in South Africa before attending London’s Slade School of Fine Arts, her first time living in Europe. In East London, she began what she describes as “a crash course in learning the fabric of society”. Here Butt started painting canvases that spoke to her “feminine” concerns but with a politicized and global perspective.

Ironically, two of her three works on show at Aicon Gallery are of hyper-masculinized, fundamentalist Muslim men and yet the feminist concerns which have inspired Butt are loud and clear. Two tales of Whopped Fantasies, a series nspired by the photorealism of Gerard Richter’s work, are two separate realist paintings of traditional Muslim men. The viewer is forced to scan the canvases horizontally due to the visible and linear color lines that layer the subjects. This linear repeated linear pattern is meant to replicate the movement of a printing press, she tells me. In addition to the linear
swathes of pastoral colors that sweep Butt’s canvases, the “western, edible beauty” which each man carries (one wearing plastic, yellow cleaning gloves while holding a cake decorated with a generous amount of frosting and the other proudly presenting a traditional Sunday roast) points straight away to the artist’s original concerns: fitting gender expectations to cultural and religious traditions and making them compatible though they may in reality be polar opposites.

The two portraits are humorously paradoxical through their fusion of religious images with secular values. One the one hand, they wear old-fashioned clothing, but on the other hand they carry opulently-decorated Western dishes as a result of engaging in what is traditionally deemed ‘women’s work’. The contrast is inspired by Butt’s identity as a Pakistani-Muslim woman who married an Englishman and faced the pressures of integrating into an English, Christian family. The image of a Muslim man humbly yet eagerly offering his Sunday roast to the viewer, presumably after many
hours of slaving over a hot oven, expresses Butt’s own personal story in trying to win over her in-laws
and the cultural and religious sacrifices she made along the way.

Butt’s art work and biography remind us that some stories, like one of a woman trying to win over her inlaws by attempting to recreate their seductively succulent cuisine, are universal. Her work is refreshing in its appeal to the most petty yet powerful conflicts young wives all over the world face as a metaphor for the changes that occur with globalization.

About Aicon

Faiza Butt’s works showed at the Aicon Gallery, London until January 9th. The Aicon Gallery is the best place in Europe to view and learn about contemporary Indian art. The gallery, formerly known as Gallery ArtsIndia, originated 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 as Tate Britain, the San Francisco Asian Art Museum and the Peabody Essex Museum. On both sides of the Atlantic, Aicon Gallery is noted for its mission of promoting contemporary Indian art.

The London gallery opened in 2006 to serve as a “launch pad for Indian art in the capital” and showcases 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, off Regent’s Street, Aicon Gallery London is a cultural refuge amongst high-end stores 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.

Kavita Ramdya received her PhD from Boston University. She is author of “Bollywood Weddings: Dating,
Engagement and Marriage in Hindu America”, visit www.bollywood-weddings.com

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“Divorcer a l’anglaise comme un musulman”

I got a kick out of reading this French blog posting about a letter I wrote to the “Financial Times” in response to Dr. Suhaib Hasan’s first-person article “I’m a sharia judge” (a friend translated the entry for me). I think this woman carrying the sharia law text book is supposed to be me!

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Dr. Suhaib Hasan’s “I’m a sharia judge” (Sep. 19, 2009)

Kavita Ramdya’s “Muslim women’s right to happiness under threat” (Sep. 26, 2009)

Blogger’s “Divorcer a l’anglaise comme un musulman” (Sep. 26, 2009)

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“An Alien Artist” (profile of Saad Quereshi)

A few weeks ago I attended the opening of Saad Quereshi’s group show at Aicon Gallery London. Saad is a young, Pakistani-English artist whose highly-conceptual work is both rigorous and well crafted. He was extremely grateful for his parents’ support of him pursuing a career in art which I found endearing.

Click here to read Kavita Ramdya’s article “An Alien Artist”, a profile of artist Saad Quereshi.

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“News India Times” November 20, 2009

“An Alien Artist” by Kavita Ramdya

Saad Qureshi is easy to pick out in a crowd. At “Wound”, an Aicon Gallery group show, Saad sticks out: he wears immaculately-white high-top sneakers two sizes too big for his feet. Saad’s sneakers are the discerning feature of his “artist costume”, an outfit that must have taken him a week of internal to-ing and fro-ing plus phone conversations with friends for him to pull together. He wears the multiple layers indicative of his current status as an art graduate student at University College London’s Slade School of Fine Art including a white shirt, red tie, purple cardigan and black jacket. His hair is tussled and he isn’t clean shaven, giving him the appearance of looking disoriented from having just left his art studio for the first time in days.

The young Pakistani artist furtively scans the gallery while speaking to friends, family and associates, giving the feeling that he is half present in all his conversations. However, when speaking with him, I have his full attention. What I quickly realize is that for all his posturing as iconoclast, he is not immune to the guilt young South Asians feel over rejecting more practical vocational choices (e.g. law, medicine, business) for embarking on a creative career as an artist. Saad describes how his parents, although initially unsupportive of his artistic interests, started to come around when his school teacher, Mrs. Robinson, explained to them that Saad was a “chosen one”. Now, he continues, his “parents are 200% behind me” and “would do anything to help me in my career”. Saad’s parents surface again and again, so much so that I begin to feel like I am his shrink rather than an Arts Op-Ed columnist. Alternatively, and I wouldn’t put it past Saad whose youth is a powerful cover-up for his shrewdness, he may be planting material on me that he knows a South-Asian reading audience subscribing to “News India Times” would find endearing.

Saad Qureshi, despite his formulaic style and earnest concern for his parents’ approval, is an exceptional conceptual artist. Not only is his work well-crafted and of the highest standard of quality, but its themes and concerns are relevant and timely. When he tells me that he works constantly and needs to be coerced into leaving the 24-hour art studio to eat and sleep, I am not surprised. His work is the conceptualisation of issues of immigration, terrorism, and victimhood, all as current as the daily e-mail alerts I receive from the “New York Times” and “Washington Post”.

Qureshi has two qualities that will stand him in good stead as he moves forward in his career. First, he is prolific. Second, his work is a response to his personal experiences as a young Pakistani growing up in the suburbs. However, these personal themes reverberate on a global scale: the alienation and marginalization he captures in his sculptures and on the canvas also speak to the current political climate with regard to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the proliferation of racism.

Jagroop Mehta, the gallery’s Sales Associate, explains how a collection of black, life-sized alien figure sculptures symbolize marginalized societies. On a more personal level, the black sculptures refer to the artist’s adolescence while living in the suburbs, where he felt like an outsider. When I ask Qureshi about his tribe-of-aliens sculptures, he refers to Frantz Fanon, a black, mid-twentieth-century French post-colonial philosopher whose writing serves as the intellectual backbone in Qureshi’s own work. Fanon discusses how the “other” is only a different version of oneself. After learning the intellectual underpinning of Qureshi’s work, I silently applauded his ability to inspire repulsion and intrigue in the viewers of his sculpture collection. He successfully mirrors the viewer’s own grotesqueness by drawing his or her attention to the quality of the “other” in his works.

In addition to the alien-like sculptures, a collection of Qureshi’s “edge paintings” are in the show. From a distance, the pieces look like fresh, egg-white canvases waiting for the artist’s attention. However, upon closer viewing, Qureshi has meticulously painted, drawn, and “scrap-booked” in marginalized figures on the edges, where the canvas bunches up and threatens to be overlooked rather than on the smooth, white, fresh surface. The scrap-book nature of the canvas’ edges is a result of Qureshi’s use of multi- media. Along with drawing and painting on the canvas’ edges, he also utilizes photographs and currency to convey concepts around “the other”.

When asked why he refrained from utilizing the medium of the canvas in a traditional way, Qureshi describes his frustration with painting: “I felt restricted, like painting was a limited medium… I discovered the edge of the canvas instead.” He goes on to describe his images threaten to “slip off the canvas” and Qureshi’s role as the artist is to “catch these images before they fall into oblivion”. Niru Ratnam, the gallery’s curator, describes how despite Qureshi’s age (he is not yet twenty-four years old), the artist’s installation works “are conceptually very well developed”. The use of Fanon and Qureshi’s ability to discuss his work on a theoretical level are testaments of the thought process he puts into his art.

Ivan, an art student enrolled in the same program Qureshi is finishing his studies, rejects the notion that his friend is a painter. Instead, Ivan describes Qureshi as a “designer” who “arranges things”, designing canvases like Tom Ford would “designer jeans”. Although on the face of it, Ivan’s comments might seem unfriendly, in the context of looking at Qureshi’s painstakingly-detailed work, one quickly realizes how much of his art is based on the conscientious placement of details.

Clearly a workaholic, Qureshi is managing well during a defining moment in his young career. Currently his work is showing in a well-respected gallery while he is still completing the final year of his Master’s degree. Finally he has just finished filming what I am guessing is a reality television show on BBC2. Throughout the private viewing of “Wound”, my ears pricked when scattered associates referred to a television production of some sort which incorporates various young artists including Qureshi. The production is not meant to be public, but then artists are not known for their ability to keep secrets.

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“Worshipping the Common Man” (art review of Subodh Gupta) by Kavita Ramdya

It was great to interesting to see how Subodh Gupta integrates humor into his art work. In his sculptures, Gupta pokes fun at the western art world’s description of his work in relation to Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst as if there is no way to understand eastern artists without a reference towards western art.

Click here to read Kavita Ramdya’s “Worshipping the Common Man“, an art review of Subodh Gupta’s show “The Common Man” at Hauser & Wirth.

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“News India Time” 30 October 2009

“Worshipping the Common Man” by Kavita Ramdya (review of Subodh Gupta’s art show at Hauser & Wirth)

Subodh Gupta, known as the “Damien Hirst of Delhi” and “India’s Jeff Koons”, worships the “common man” as opposed to, respectively, hyper-commoditized morbidity and the mass consumption of name-brand art. Hauser & Wirth’s Old Bond Street and Piccadilly galleries are currently showing Gupta’s work in a show entitled “Common Man” which pays homage to India’s labourers rather than the Hindu gods and goddesses typically displayed in museums and galleries exhibiting art from the Indian subcontinent.

“Common Man” integrates everyday objects, from mangoes and chappals (slippers) to tiffins (steel lunch boxes) and thalis (pans used during worship), to create thought-provoking yet aesthetically-profound sculptures. His attention to detail combined with his commentary on India’s labor population confirm why Gupta is currently India’s most celebrated living artist.

There are a number of untitled works, including a seven-foot wide stainless steel thali pan filled with kitchen utensils, tiffins, and pails, a work meant to pay respect to the way labourers eat: employing re-usable eating utensils and tiffins brought from home to the work site. In another untitled yet striking piece, Gupta’s team took a mould of a tree growing out of a window from the artist’s hometown of Bihar as a way of highlighting how nature forms around and in spite of man-made objects.

What differentiates Gupta from his contemporaries is not only his worship of the common man but also the humor in his work. In another untitled work, the viewer recalls Damien Hirst: a large fibreglass skull is ringed with stainless steel eating utensils. Here, the artist makes fun of the western media’s description of him as “the Damien Hirst of Delhi”, as if contemporary Indian art can only be understood in reference to western artists.

Likewise, in an attempt to recognize the western media’s description of Gupta as “the Jeff Koons of India”, the artist took two years to create fifty aluminium boxes bearing the Jeff Koons “Puppy” branding in a work titled “Jeff the Koons”. In a marketing ploy, Koons had created an “unlimited” rather than “limited” edition of his art work as a way to turn the economic model of supply and demand on its head which Gupta subsequently pokes fun at for Koons’s obvious effort to position his art for widespread, mass consumption.

Perhaps the most poignant and devastatingly hard-hitting piece is “I Believe You”, another large thali pan, this time covered with battered shoes worn by day labourers. While visiting an Indian village, Gupta traded the labourers’ old shoes for new ones. The shoes are served on a thali pan normally used to carry coconuts and candles as well as other assorted fruit, rice and spices as offerings when worshipping Hindu gods and goddesses. In a clockwise motion, worshippers will move the thali pan in front of a Hindu idol or photograph as a way of doing arthi, or making an offering. In Gupta’s sculpture, he places worn shoes on the thali pan as a way to worship and pay tribute to “the common man”.

Likewise, “Aam Aadmi” (Hindi for “man people”) is a collection of mangoes surrounded by hay sitting in a wooden crate. It was only after reading that the mangoes were painted bronze that, upon looking more closely, I could see the reflection of the overhead lights in the mangoes; the reflection was the only clue that betrayed the mangoes were not made of their original organic materials, a true testament to Gupta’s craftmanship. I remembered eating mangoes every summer, mangoes my parents brought home from the Indian grocery stores in Jackson Heights. When visiting my in-laws in Trinidad & Tobago, I remember rejoicing in the juicy mangoes which grew from the trees in their yard, quickly wiping the sweet juice escaping from my mouth after each succulent bite. Gupta talks about how he chose to highlight mangoes for their accessibility to the wealthy and poor alike in India, but he forgets the fruit’s universality in South-Asian communities globally.

The only piece which is romantic in nature is “Spooning”, a play on the western term. Two nine-foot long stainless steel spoons nestle, or spoon, on the gallery floor. “Et tu, Duchamp?” is yet another comedic poke at western culture. Gupta, also known as the “Subcontinental Marcel Duchamp”, upon seeing Duchamp’s “Mona Lisa with Mustache and Beard” (1919), sculpted a bronze rendering of the painting in an effort to “have a dialogue with [Duchamp].”

“A Penny for Belief II” is one of the few pieces global in scope rather than a commentary on India’s “common man”. The work is an oversized thali pan which gallery employees and Gupta threw coins into, coins from all over the world including British sterling, American quarters and Euros, before pouring olive oil into the pan. When I bent closer to the pool of coins, I smelt a strong odor of olive oil which is more popularly used in European and American cooking rather than Indian. Maria de Lamerens, the Press coordinator at Hauser & Wirth, explained how throwing a penny for good luck is a universal practice which Gupta wanted to capture in the work. Clearly the practice has benefited Gupta whose name and work are counted among the best contemporary, living artists in the world.

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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Review of Hanif Kureishi’s “The Black Album” at the National Theatre by Kavita Ramdya

Click here to read my review of the stage adaptation fo Hanif Kureishi’s novel “The Black Album”.

In the summer of ’08, for my “Contemporary British Literature” class, I taught Hanif Kureishi’s “The Buddha of Suburbia”, a coming-of-age novel about a young Indian-English Hindu Brit obsessed with celebrity culture and incensed by his father’s re-invention as a yogi master in their suburban English community. So you can imagine my interest when I heard that the National Theatre, in conjunction with Tara Arts, adapted Hanif Kureishi’s “The Black Album” to the stage. Unfortunately, the play did not live up to my expectations. The characters were shallow and the scenes a blur. However, there is value in staging such a production as “The Black Album” as a way to spur conversation about the rise of Muslim fundamentalism in London, the identity crisis and ostracization young Muslims experience in the modern world, and the question around whether religious faith is incompatible with contemporary, secular forms of art such as Prince’s “The Black Album”.

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“News India Times” October 9, 2009

“Hanif Kureishi’s ‘The Black Album’” by Kavita Ramdya

I‘m still amazed at how mainstream South-Asian theatre is in London in comparison to New York where the South-Asian community is smaller in proportion. I recently visited London’s National Theatre (NT) to see the stage adaptation of Hanif Kureishi’s novel “The Black Album” (1996) whose title refers to the 1989 Prince album with which the main character, Shahid Hasan, is obsessed. Co-produced by Tara Arts, a long-established South Asian theatre organization in England which “champions creative diversity through the production, promotion and development of world class, cross-cultural theatre,” the play’s themes are still relevant today despite the book’s original publication more than ten years ago. Shahid, a first-year university student, is a music-loving Pakistani Muslim raised in Kent, England.

He moves to London to attend university; there, he has an affair with DeeDee Osgood, his professor of “Post-Colonial Literature,” and falls in with the “wrong crowd”: a group of radical Muslim students who tout that all “whites are racist” and wield violence in Allah’s name. Kureishi attempts to dramatize the events of 1989: the fall of the Berlin Wall, the impending doom of Communist Russia, the fatwa against Salman Rushdie for his book “The Satanic Verses” (1988) and the popularity of rock music by heretics such as Prince whose ambiguous sexuality and mixed race symbolize the secularism that threatens to distract young Muslims away from Allah.

Alas, the play’s context and the players producing it promise much but deliver very little. Word must have spread because although I expected a big showing of support by South Asians, my husband and I were two of only a dozen South Asians in the audience. In the play’s first scene, Shahid is called a “Paki” by the resident drug dealer and meets the leader of the local radical Islam group, a young man from Lahore who expresses homo-erotic feelings towards Shahid. The play turns into a mess of sexual tensions, racial epithets, allusions to historical events, and philosophical discussions of political discourse, a twister of confusion which threatens to envelope Shahid from his love for music and family who pray for him in Kent.

Occasionally, the play is punctuated by a semi-articulate discussion of themes around race and politics, but, for the most part, the play closely resembles the meandering, late night, overly passionate discussions we all had in our dorm rooms while first-year university students. Although this level of discussion is appropriate and even expected for eighteen-year olds, who wants to see it re-enacted on stage? If anything, watching the play reminds us of our own foolishness that we could somehow solve the world’s problems between the hours of ten in the evening and three in the morning in the safe confine of our college dorm room.

Lines such as “Racism turns us away from ourselves” and “music poisons us from Allah… cure us from that white shit” hit the audience with precision and force, like tennis balls shooting from an ac-powered machine. Practically staggering out of the theatre, I felt bruised and beaten from the constant delivery of such heavy-handed dialogue. And it didn’t help that the show’s choreography resembled that of an MTV video: the scenes changed constantly, almost ADD-like.

Another major drawback in the stage adaptation of “The Black Album” is its lack of humour. Having enjoyed reading and teaching “The Buddha of Suburbia” (1990), I expected a good douse of humour to accompany the play’s rather serious themes. However, there are only two instances of humor, the first of which happens in response to Shahid practicing yoga. One of his new radical Islamist friends implores Shahid to stop his practice because that “Hindu shit will fuck your mind” and turn him “into George Harrison.”

As a long-time yoga practioner, I could appreciate how people unfamiliar to yoga might feel threatened by the ancient Hindu practice.

The second instance is one which points fun at all radical religious groups. Shahid’s mother cooks and packs him pakoras which his radical Muslim friends happily devour.

However, one special pakora is saved because it is inscribed with a shape that looks like “alif,” the first letter in the Arabic alphabet and the first character in the Quran.

Anyone who has seen the alif will observe that it is little more than a vertical line so when Shahid’s radical Muslim friends decide it is a sign from Allah, the crowd bursts into laughter at the sheer ludicrousness of the situation.

As we see from following the news, observing G-d’s image in one’s food and other inanimate objects is not uncommon among fervent believers.

As a writer, Hanif Kureishi is never shy about to spur conversation around controversial topics. For this reason I applaud his, Tara Arts and the National Theatre’s stage adaptation of “The Black Album.” But, had the delivery been more suited to a thinking, contemplative and mature audience, this reviewer would have sung the play’s praises rather than written the equivalent of a theatre review death sentence.

Kureishi in New York:

Hanif Kureishi is an English playwright, yet his most popular novel , “The Buddha of Suburbia”, contains a few scenes in which the hero Karim visits his bestfriend Charlie in New York.

Karim’s introduction to life in Manhattan is the crazy speed with which New York City cab drivers chariot their passengers across the city and the experience of feeling jetlag: “when we got out of the cab, I did want to lie down on the pavement and go to sleep” which pretty much sums up my feelings the first night upon arriving in New York from London.

Karim and Charlie find themselves in the Village people watching and enjoying milkshakes “thick with Italian ice-cream” which spurs readers familiar with Manhattan geography wonder whether Kureishi could possibly be referring to the Four Corners Cafes (possibly even Café Figaro where I   had my 19thbirthday party celebration while a student at NYU?)

Finally, Charlie and Karim frequent the Russian Tea Room in Midtown West, a restaurant noted for its variety of flavoured vodkas. Reading about fictional Londoners in New York offers the opportunity to connect with these otherwise foreign characters whose adventures on my home  turf affirm for me once again, “There’s no place like home.”

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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“Muslim women’s right to happiness under threat” by Kavita Ramdya

 Click here to read Kavita Ramdya’s letter in the “Financial Times” in response to Dr. Suhaib Hasan’s request that divorce decisions made by sharia councils be recognized by British law.

“Muslim women’s right to happiness under threat” – Letter by Kavita Ramdya (in response to Dr. Suhaib Hasan’s first-person column “I’m a Sharia Judge”. Dr. Hasan is a judge with the Islamic Sharia Council and, in his column, asks that divorce decisions made by sharia councils be recognised by British law)

Published: September 26, 2009

Publication: “Financial Times”

From Kavita Ramdya

Sir, I shudder to think of the repercussions for Muslim women if British law recognises decisions made by Sharia councils (“I’m a Sharia judge”, FT.Com, September 19). Sharia law dictates that when a woman requests a divorce and the husband disagrees, the judge will “emphasise reconciliation” and “she has to return the dower to him”, whereas a man can divorce his wife by simply repeating “I divorce you” in front of two witnesses.

Muslim women who seek divorce are subjected to an interview process, pressured to remain married and risk losing quite possibly their only financial wealth by being forced to return their dower.

In the past, it was critical that individuals marry and remain married in order to preserve the safety and stability of a clan, tribe, family fortune, or even an alliance between countries.

Since then, marriage has evolved. It is now the primary method with which to pursue happiness and fulfilment. Muslim women in Britain are cognisant of the fact that they have the inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness.

For Sharia judges to question a woman’s motivates for divorce and pressure her socially and financially to remain in an unfulfilling and possibly dangerous marriage is antiquated at best and deadly at worst. Decisions made by Sharia councils have no room in British law.

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