“What is India today?” is the question that the Centre Pompidou seeks to answer with its blockbuster summer exhibition titled Paris-Delhi-Bombay. An ambitious question, if there was one, this show brings together nearly 50 artists from India and France to address the idea of India and what it entails.
Physically and logically clustered into six themes of Politics, Urban Development & Environment, Religion, Home, Identity and Arts & Crafts, works of art emanate from a central ‘documentation area’. Lying quite literally at the heart of the exhibition and assembled around Ravinder Reddy’s Tara (2007), this circular, vermillion coloured space attempts to provide an overview of each of these themes and provides supporting material in the form of maps, statistics and census data.
Among the exhibiting artists are such well known names as Subodh Gupta (Ali Baba, 2011), Bharti Kher (Reveal The Secrets That You Seek, 2011), Sheela Gowda (Gallant Hearts, 1996), Jitish Kallat (Ignitaurus, 2008) and Sudarshan Shetty (Six Cages, 2010) with their trademark styles and personal visions. Pushpamala N.’s collaboration with Parisian photography studio Harcourt produced an engaging series of three performance-photographs inspired by iconic French paintings. In this Indo-French exchange of artistic ideas, this partnership was the only one of its kind in the entire exhibition and the superior quality of its outcome cannot be underlined enough. While Pushpamala N.’s work reinterprets existing works, filmmaker Ayisha Abraham uses found footage of amateur home movies shot between the 1950s and 70s to create a dreamlike video collage of family life in India (Enroute or Of A Thousand Moons, 2010-11).
Notable too is the inclusion of work by several performance makers such as Nikhil Chopra and Kiran Subbaiah (While The Mouth Is Still Full, 1997). Sonia Khurana’s whimsical video based investigations of the human body and its perceptions provided for a silent chuckle (Lone Women Don’t Lie, 1999 and Head-Hand, 2004), just around the corner from Sunil Gupta’s photo-fictional exploration of the relationship of a gay Indian hero with his older French lover (Sun City, 2010-11). Kader Attia’s documentary collages (Collages, 2011) bring together the stories of three transsexuals in Paris, Algiers and Mumbai, two of whom visited each other as Attia filmed their exchange of experiences. Remarkably, each of the themes addressed in these exhibits (over two-thirds of which was produced especially for this project) is explored with great depth and nuance that resists convenient pre-conceptions. If one were to gather an insight into India through the work of the artists, then one comes away with a very rich idea indeed.
While the displays in this exhibition enthral, their interpretation by way of text panels disappoints: in trying to dissect and map a complex, contradictory sub-continent, Paris-Delhi–Bombay comes across as an over-simplified attempt to impose order on the often slippery notion of India. While the device of sociological cross-examination may have seemed appealing in the presentation of a nation, it is little more than superficial in this case: India never was, nor is a homogenous entity; it isn’t, nor will ever be a unified, singular culture. To present it as such with vast, sweeping overviews in the information section, allows the exhibition experience to lapse into a pastiche of pop-culture references: the section on Home is illustrated with clips from Hindi film Swades while the wall on Religion is crowned with a camp diorama of Goddess Durga raising her hand in benediction. To the average French visitor who has never travelled to India, the exhibition text offers no more than exoticism. To me, it was an appalling re-iteration of clichés that the foreigners tend to associate with India.
If the purpose of the text accompanying this exhibition is to provide a context in which the work of the French and Indian artists can be intelligently viewed, then clearly it falls short of the mark. The art on display multiplies the concept of India at every corner, and one feels as though the India the artists speak of is a world removed from the two-dimensional space described by the curators. It is unfortunate that this is the case: a delicate and sensitive approach to the introduction of India and Indian art could have done a great deal in enriching the visitor’s experience whether he is an aficionado of all things Indian or a newcomer to the subject.
Four years in the making and nearly four hours in the viewing, Paris-Delhi-Bombay leaves one with more questions than answers, and despite the flaws, celebrates everything that is to be admired in India: its multiplicity, its sense of dignified chaos and disdain for objective classification. At the same time it follows in the footsteps of the Pompidou’s “Paris” exhibitions such as Paris-New York (1997), Paris-Berlin (1978) and Paris-Moscow (1979), which attempted to “situate Paris in the circulation of ideas” and locate its relationship to other art hubs around the world. Delhi and Bombay are now brought to the table in a similar discussion on the role of cities as centres of artistic production and this is all very well, except for one niggling problem – Bombay ceased to be known by this name in 1995 and is now known as Mumbai. This apparent and glaring oversight makes me wonder then, if the entire notion of India being expounded in this exhibition isn’t as out-of-step with the times as its careless title.