Visual Art

SAM's City Dwellers Explores the Cultural Pressures of Modern India

A collection of Indian artists confronts the conflicts brought on by societal modernization and years of colonialism.

By Seth Sommerfeld September 11, 2014

Nandini Valli Muthiah, Disillusioned from the from the Definitive Reincarnate series, 2006, photograph, 40.25 x 40 x 1 in.

A culture in transition is always a culture worth examining. Seattle Art Museum’s City Dwellers: Contemporary Art from India takes a look at the ways in which modern India transitions forward while still holding onto its history. The collection of works by Indian artists from the country’s biggest cities offers up some stunning imagery and plenty of substantive ideas on the benefits and detriments of modernity.

There's so much to mentally consume in City Dwellers’s main room. The first thing that catches the eye is Debanjan Roy’s blood red fiberglass sculpture India Shining V (Gandhi with iPod). It’s a musing on how the culture has diminished Gandhi’s accomplishments by turning him into a piece of pop iconography. The room’s other sculpture, Valay Shende’s Scooter captures the importance of the vehicle in Indian society by turning the coveted mode of transportation into a garish golden idol fashioned out of welded metal disks. While the two-wheeled vehicle may seem like no big deal to Western viewers, the scooter is a functional status item in India. Turning it into a glimmering treasure conveys the aspirational dreams of working class Indians today.

On the gallery’s walls, state of Hinduism in current India gets explored via photographer Nandini Valli Muthiah’s Definitive Reincarnate series. Muthiah juxtaposes blue-skinned Hindu god Krishna against scenes of city life in India: standing on a truck, wandering through a market, sitting on a hotel bed, etc. In these current settings, he seems out of place and slightly melancholy, which speaks to how religious traditions no longer feel quite as natural of a fit in the country as they previously did. Another photography series on display in the room—Pushpamala N.’s Native Women of South India: Manners and Customs—confronts the scars of British colonialism in India. Particularly striking is Toda, which features a woman being photographed in classic British anthropological style, with makers in the backdrop to used measure her size. When looked at though a modern lens, it underscores the dehumanization of the British colonialists that treated the Indian natives as creatures to study; not people, but wild beasts that needed to be observed, catalogued, and dominated.

The back gallery is devoted to Dayanita Singh’s Ladies of Calcutta photographs. The series explores the strength of the women in the city of over 4 million people. There are family photos that depict generations differentiated by the increasingly Western youth fashion, ones of a female magician at work (sawing a man in half, in a role reversal of the traditional magic troupe), a famed sitar player with her instrument, and more. The only issue with this room is the inclusion of Alwar Balasubramaniam’s Untitled (Self in Progress) sculpture, which depicts a sitting white body jutting out of both side’s of the gallery’s dividing central wall. It may have worked in another part of the exhibit, but when juxtaposed in a room otherwise entirely devoted to Singh's photographs, it feels like an tonally out of place non-sequitur.

The third section of City Dwellers stretches into the adjoining hallway with even more photographs. While there’s less thematic coherence here compared to the exhibit’s other sections, there are still a couple noteworthy inclusions. Dhruv Malhotra’s Sleepers photos capture various scenes of people sleeping outdoors (whether they be homeless or simply cannot afford a bed to rent while working in the city). The vibrant diversity of the locations shows the both the hardship and the ingenuity of the people: park bench sleepers create makeshift bug nets, a construction platform becomes a mattress elevated above the dirt, and two bodies lie curled up on lush green rolling hills near an illuminated major road. A few steps down the hall, the Dream Villa series by Daynita Singh captures a sense of mysterious dread, as photographs blasting with color in the dark of night show ominous patches of forest fenced off with barbwire without any explanation. There’s almost an authoritarian science fiction creepiness to the still scene; one seldom associated with India.

City Dwellers manages to present a cavalcade of modern Indian issues in short order without placing too much emphasis on any specific aspect. It’s a thought-provoking artistic snapshot of growth and the struggle that it creates as a country of over a billion people rapidly rushes to modernization without wanting to abandon its past.

City Dwellers: Contemporary Art from India
Thru Feb 15, 2015, Seattle Art Museum, $20

Valay Shende, Scooter, 2007, welded metal buttons, 45 x 70 x 30 in.

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