Summer. Europe. Juxtaposed together, those two words sum up the experience for many Indians fleeing from the heat of the subcontinent. For admirers of Indian modern art, therefore, a third — Berlin — could well be like the icing on a cake. For, the Nationalgalerie there — an umbrella organisation for museums including the Hamburger Bahnhof — is hosting an exhibition that includes works by Indian artists that have remained under the radar of most viewers and collectors of Indian art.
For some time now, museums in the West have been criticised for remaining Euro-focused to the detriment of art from other parts of the world. Efforts to right this anomaly are now underway and it is this that has got off to a start at the Nationalgalerie Berlin, which has managed a coup of sorts with one segment devoted to the development and sustenance of modernism in India. Given the general ignorance when it comes to, particularly, modern art practice in India, this is a surprising — but welcome — development.
Curated by Natasha Ginwala, it is at a remove from the familiar Souzas and Razas. Instead, the museum — which has an unexpected collection of works by less familiar but well-established artists — has pulled a rabbit from its proverbial hat. The roll-call includes such names as Avinash Chandra, Biren De, Satish Gujral, Laxman Pai, Prabhakar Barwe, G R Santosh, KCS Paniker, Somnath Hore, Devyani Krishna and Meera Mukherjee, who don’t have prime recall for most international collectors, although it also includes Ram Kumar, Krishen Khanna and J Swaminathan. India-born British Indian artist Anish Kapoor is also part of the celebration, and there is documentation of Rabindranath Tagore’s engagement with Berlin. It’s a rare coup, since these are artists whose voices are only slowly becoming known in the land of their birth.
Artwork by Avinash Chandra
Titled Hello World, Revisiting a Collection, the exhibition (till August 26) features as many as 250 artists within the context of 13 narratives featuring works from the Nationalgalerie collection as well as from other museums and collections. Its approach brings back the essential thinking of the early 20th-century museum as a repository for cultural artefacts of all eras from around the world. The intervening periods with the wars and the Nazi labelling of some art works as “degenerate” led to a provincial hegemony in which Western European and North American art became the hallmark of West Germany and German art that of East Germany. All else mattered little, or at least, less.
The Indian exhibit is set within this historicised parameter. That the works of these artists were collected at the Berlin and Kunst museums is proof of a comprehensive vision that guided acquisitions at a time when the world was somewhat less connected but more curious. In so doing, it also argues the case for India’s emergent modernism pre- and post-Independence, and juxtaposes the contextual in paralleling the political caricatures, for instance, of Gaganendranath Tagore with those of German cartoonist, George Grosz. It questions as well as states the reciprocity between different traditions and practices of art making.
It is not this column’s contention that the section on Indian art should be the only reason to celebrate — and visit — the path-breaking outing of the Nationalgalerie, but it is a powerful one. With works from iconic artists from elsewhere and the intertwining of these narratives, a cosmopolitan framework lends itself to its understanding from one’s individual perspective — how else to explain the possibility of dialogues between Cy Twombly, Paul Gauguin and Satyajit Ray, for example? Ray’s phrase ghare baire — the home and the world — might, therefore, perfectly explain both the museum’s raison d’etre as well as the exhibition’s ambition.
Kishore Singh is a Delhi-based writer and art critic. These views are personal and do not reflect those of the organisation with which he is associated