Organized by one of the handful of dynamic young commercial galleries showing the work of emerging Indian artists in Mumbai, ‘Simple Tales’ felt timely and significant. The exhibition’s overarching theme was the common interest of ancient, classical and contemporary Indian art in exploring existing narratives. Including a selection of sculptural pieces from antiquity and a smattering of recent work by contemporary artists whose areas of concern lent a fragile link to the historic works, ‘Simple Tales’ was a show that would have been ideally suited to a larger institutional venue. In spite of its noble gesture toward seeking to situate recent art production within a specifically Indian art-historical context, the exhibition unfortunately fell short of providing real insight into the trajectory between the disparate artists and eras it represented.
Upon entering the gallery, the viewer encountered a 14th-century bronze sculpture of the cross-legged saint Ramanuja, his hands poised in prayer, flanked on either side by immaculately delicate line drawings by N.S. Harsha (both untitled, c. 2002). An informal guide to the exhibition’s classical works informed us that Ramanuja lived in the 11th century and was an important interpreter of early Hindu scriptures. Aside from the fact that Harsha’s drawings portray loosely rendered images of a sliced-animal work by Damien Hirst and a set of hands holding an open book of what appeared to be scripture, neither the display mechanisms nor any informational materials illuminated a clear rationale for placing these drawings together with the sculpture of Ramanuja.
Elsewhere, both the New York-based filmmaker Ashish Avikunthak and the Mumbai-based performance artist Nikhil Chopra took Shakespearean plays as their points of departure, capturing their performances on video with an eye toward Indian dance, performance and post-colonial discourse (Dancing Othello, 2002, and Sir Raja as King Richard III, 2007). What, however, does Shakespeare have to say to the narrative traditions conveyed by the neighbouring historical Indian works, particularly when interpreted by contemporary artists such as Avikunthak and Chopra? Certainly there must be a discourse between works of the ancient and the contemporary periods (not to mention the entire period that lies between them), but ‘Simple Tales’ did not provide the scope to reveal any specific tendencies.
Sourced in collaboration with Natesan’s Antiqarts, a Mumbai-based antiques dealer, the rare historic pieces, dating from as early as the eighth century, comprised an impressive selection of exquisite works in wood, metal and stone, primarily of historic figures and fantastical deities. One must bear in mind, however, that these objects were intended for everyday ritual purposes, sometimes in combination with utilitarian functions – such as the 18th-century Chettinad door panel carved in wood or the intricate Gajalakshmi lamp from 14th-century Kerala – and were probably neither conceived nor executed by single individuals. Thus, yet another conundrum in the quest to place contemporary art works in the same space as classical works demands to be addressed.
Given the resurgent interest in ‘tribal’ and classical fine art genres in India and the attendant attempt to contextualize them within the urban, cosmopolitan arena, ‘Simple Tales’ was on the right track toward opening a valuable discussion. However, why must a single gallery bear the burden of initiating a discourse that rightly belongs in the public arena of state-run institutions? Although several recent privately organized exhibitions have displayed less illustrious examples in attempting to draw a thread between contemporary artistic production of a globalized younger generation and the methods and symbolism of a more circumscribed traditional era in southeast Asia, the discursive link between the mostly Conceptual artists in this show and the magnificent antique icons of deities on view was unfortunately tenuous at best.
First published in Issue 129