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Indian artists at Venice flee shackles of the past
Sahar Zaman  2nd Aug 2014

Dhiraj Singh’s Black Tide

he Venice Biennale has long been the Mecca of practising artists. The history of the biennale, first held in 1895, is interspersed with the history of the world, including the two World Wars, the various changes in the political landscape and the evolution of art itself down the century. In the past few years, Indian artists have also begun to create a buzz with India having its own national pavilion there.

For the first time, Indian art has been given a large platform along the sidelines of yet another biennale in Venice called the Venice Biennale of Architecture. The show, titled "India: The Revealed Mysteries", is the biggest show of contemporary Indian art ever to be held in Italy.

Organised by Gallery Artchill of Jaipur and co-curated by Sangeeta Juneja, the show is a mix of modern masters, contemporary and new media artists. The list of 28 artists includes S.H. Raza, Subodh Gupta, Seema Kohli, Ravinder Reddy, Arpana Caur and Dhiraj Singh, to name a few. Juneja has carefully placed opposing styles together and yet managed to create a synergy that emphasises the stunning variety on display. "It's an endeavour to introduce the visitor to various narratives on life through art, as best understood and presented by each artist. It could either be a statement on moral philosophy, social concerns, political opinions, personal anguish, hidden fantasies or activism," explains Juneja.

"This exhibition offers an overview of what is happening in India's artistic world. It reveals to the spectators the works of some of India's most qualified contemporary artists, and in so doing it wants to disprove many clichés that are wrong," writes Sandro Orlandi, the Italian co-curator who has designed many international biennales in the past.

The oldest cliché that Orlandi and Juneja have tried to dislodge is that Indian artists mostly make works inspired by their ancient traditions. "That is slowly changing," says artist Dhiraj Singh, "as more and more artists are situating and contextualising their works in present-day India, which itself is a glorious mish-mash of the old, the new and the futuristic." His thought-provoking installation is a set of transparent surfboards, within which are sandwiched X-rays of human skulls. Dhiraj intends it to be an extension of the Indian idea of time as "kaal" —also the root for the word for black, "kala" — and how souls travel through this continuum of time only to merge into the great black emptiness.

The creative mix on offer can be mindboggling. A six-foot-tall traditional red-coloured head made of fibreglass by Ravinder Reddy stands alongside Subodh Gupta's set of hundreds of black tongs welded together in the shape of a scorpion's back. Mukesh Sharma's Nagraj (snake-king) intimidates with its height of eight feet, but it also fascinates with all its nine hoods made of multiple keyboards and wires and a body of long, tapering bean bags. S.H. Raza's serene and calm, white-coloured "bindu" canvas is confronted with a curtain of safety pins Surendra Joshi created to symbolise flowing water. Chintan Upadhyay's work of carelessly thrown jerseys across the floor and over wooden cargo boxes signifies the faceless traveller. This leads the viewer up to Thukral and Tagra's fascinating pastel-colour installation, which shows the flight of a dream house placed on a hot-air balloon. Bose Krishnamachari's audio installation narrates the various life stories of the people of Mumbai captured inside tiny screens placed within multiple tiffin boxes. A little ahead is a striking statement by Seema Kolhi on human desires, showing a series of human tongues made of wood fibre, painted in neon shades, jutting out of a six-foot canvas.

"I cannot say there's a good understanding of Indian art here," says Kohli, "but there is certainly an interest. They want to know about new and unexplored artists from India. They are intrigued by the multicultural/multi-faith expression and the diverse media used by us."

The upside of this interest is that Indian art too is now becoming more accessible and less didactic, especially with regards to our oft-quoted "ancient cultural heritage".

Sahar Zaman is a newsanchor with NewsX. She is also a curator and an arts journalist.

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