Contemporary art: Vocabularies of multiplicity

The New Indian Contemporary Art movement gains traction, as a crop of successful young artists use different mediums and technologies to present opinions, advocate change and champion the dispossessed
The New Indian Contemporary Art movement
The New Indian Contemporary Art movement

A large landscape occupies an entire wall. It appears to be coated with rust-coloured layers of acrylic. The texture is earthy. Vast spaces of arid land come to mind.

A closer examination reveals that the paint isn’t paint at all. It is soil from the Belpahari region of West Bengal’s Jhargram district. A group of men and women labourers occupy the centre of the canvas, sitting, standing and crouching on their haunches, seemingly waiting for their next job. The 12x8ft soil-on-canvas serigraph forms part of Sangita Maity’s ‘Industrial Acquisition’ series, and was exhibited at the recent Delhi Contemporary Art Week (DCAW). It captures the daily lives of tribals in Belpahari, where industrial activity has made farming nigh impossible. The original inhabitants are forced to migrate to the cities or do odd jobs to survive. Trained as a printmaker, the versatile Maity uses photographs, photo-etchings and serigraphy to make her argument.

Indian contemporary art, old and new, is on a roll. Anish Kapoor ranked first in the Hurun India Art List 2021—he has been topping the list since 2019. Paresh Maity is the fastest-selling contemporary artist. The Indian contemporary art movement began in the late 20th century. While artists such as Subodh Gupta, Sheela Gowda and Atul Dodiya, like their modernist predecessors, continued to produce art with political, critical and interrogative nuances, the creative grammar became more intimate. New mediums were new frontiers. With canvas, metal and mud, contemporary artists tell stories of Partition, CAA and displacement through development. They present a point of view, advocate change and champion the dispossessed. The practitioners are getting younger: Sahej Rahal, winner of the Forbes India Art Award in 2014, and all of 34 years old, has fathered a mythical world through stylised performances, abstract sculptures and films. His mediums are digital, clay and discarded furniture. He blends the puranas, Japanese anime, paganism and science fiction to explain the unity of differences. The magic of the contemporary artist lies in deploying randomness as an imaginative tool.

Take ‘Cut’ by 36-year-old Shailesh BR. If ‘stream of consciousness’ has a pictorial representation, it would be this 6ft x 4ft collage on board. A collection of seemingly random images have been created using gift-wrapping paper, gum tape, stickers, watercolours, ink and acrylic. But they are not as random as they seem. “I started by first pasting lots of paper and cutting up some negative prints. Placed together, they gradually emerge as landscapes, evoking the sense of narration of daily activities and observations,” he says, adding that “these works are maps that guide you to reach your own story and philosophy”.

Youth is in the air. While the modernist greats like Rameshwar Broota and Arpita Singh are past eighty, abstract painter Siddharth Parasnis is only 45—the youngest in the Hurun India Art List. He, Shailesh BR and Sangita Maity, all in their thirties, represent the new Indian contemporary art wave, which has mobilised the forces that define the art of today. Prominent art historian and curator Ranjit Hoskote says the current generation of artists are no longer preoccupied with specific mediums and styles. “You can’t go by traditional lineages of style or the art school where they studied. They are responding to urgencies,” he says. For example, programmes of the Raqs Media Collective span media, film, sculpture, books, photography, and lectures. They are artists and researchers engaged in a quest for meaning, using philosophy, reviewing history and examining existing knowledge passed on through centuries. They address both local and global concerns through art forms.

If art is the reflection of the times, what does India’s new contemporary art movement represent? Is it the stylised synthesis presented in the work of the artistic dyad Jiten Thukral and Sumir Tagra, whose ‘pop aesthetic’ camouflages extant disquiet over migration, globalisation and India’s mythological ethos? Or is it about recycling and regeneration, as 44-year-old former architect Asim Waqif would have us believe by diligently combining bamboo, cane and waste materials to create massive edifices that people can enter and are then abandoned to decay. Or is it an itinerant cultural and individualistic narrative as propounded by Nikhil Chopra, celebrated performance artist and an artist-in-residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, whose Yog Raj Chitrakar makes massive drawings by plundering memories across metropolises? It’s a bit of this and lots of that, but change as a primal force sums
up the change from conventional to deconstruction.


Change thrives in the sensibility of Baaraan Ijlal, who is her own medium in ‘Change Room’, an ongoing sound installation addressing overall discrimination. Anonymous voices describe the prevailing prejudice against different sexual orientations. They resonate with the trauma of caste and communal violence, displaced nomadic tribes, and war refugees of the subcontinent. Stories of marginalisation reflecting profound truth and feelings form her palimpsest.

“The victims tell me their stories, which I take forward,” she describes the process. Ijlal, who works and lives in Delhi, is self-taught. She, however, grew up in a creative atmosphere (her mother was a fine arts teacher), which honed her sensibilities. An early influence was her uncle Nasim Haroon, an artist himself, who encouraged his talented niece to evolve into a “questioning being”. Even after many years, this instruction comes through in ‘Hostile Witness’, a series of paintings on “silenced narratives” which Ijlal started working on in 2014.

She has treated buildings as witnesses; Bhopal’s Iqbal Maidan and Mumbai’s Grant Road reveal parts of their hidden histories in frames, provoking the viewer to discover more about their elusive past, because India’s present is a cornucopia of timeless cultural shifts and identity displacements. “I don’t romanticise the past, which has its own flaws. It’s when you start excavating that the violence, the longing, and the resilience emerge,” she elaborates. “Artists now are kind of post media,” is Hoskote’s considered opinion. Art in a post media world, as German art and media theorist Peter Weibel notes, is one in which “no single medium is dominant any longer; instead, all of the different media influence and determine each other”. 


For the last three years, mixed media is the preferred choice of contemporary artists, making the works more saleable, according to the Indian market report on contemporary artists by Indian Art Investor (IAI), an art market intelligence firm. “The medium is accredited with generating 31 percent of the turnover. Contemporary artists are driving creativity with experimentation,” the report says. Hoskote points out that “artists will make a sculpture or create a performance or set up an archive, or even cook a meal and invite people. All of it is art.” 

There is no constancy of expression in new contemporary art.  Using a cross-section of mediums, Mumbai-based Biraaj Dodiya expresses impermanence, uncertainty and distance as recurrent themes in her work. Though born to famous parents, artists Atul and Anju Dodiya, she has never evoked pedigree 
to get success. She is known for exploring notions of space and physicality, using discarded domestic objects, industrial repair materials, studio detritus and architectural ‘support’ forms in her art.

“My work is rooted in rigorous painting practice. I’m deeply interested in the possibilities the painted surface offers, like abrasion, resistance and gentle conjuring,” says the 29-year-old, currently a Visual Arts Fellow-in-Residence at the Civitella Ranieri Foundation in Umbria, Italy.  The tactility of paint compels her. A new solo exhibition of her large oil paintings and mixed media sculptures is coming up 
at Experimenter, Colaba, this November. But her sense of belonging stays firm even as 
the vocabulary morphs.


Art today, believes critic Alka Pande, has much to do with an artist’s sense of belonging. She says, “Diversity and hybridity are characteristics that defined the last two decades of Indian art. Many artists are exploring new material, while some others are exploring their own identity.” Pandey could well be referring to Awdhesh Tamrakar, whose work revisits his roots in Thathera community, the copper and brass workers of Madhya Pradesh. ‘Warped Space’ is a recreation of his ancestral village, now one of the many forgotten towns languishing in India’s expanding urban geography. One of the works is a crumbled image of the village printed on acid-free paper, which has been subsequently reinforced on fibreglass. “The photo’s crumpled effect indicates a forgotten place,” mourns the 33-year-old artist. 

The art is angst-ridden, its makers buffeted by their concerns about climate change, communal violence, gender, Kashmir, demonetisation and the CAA. The lockdown-induced displacement added a layer to the migration crisis. “You can clearly see a juxtaposition of the personal and the political here. Artists are focusing on climate change and migration, which are relevant issues in contemporary times,” says gallerist Bhavna Kakar of Latitude 28. For instance, Lavkant Chaudhary’s recreation of the diary of the Tharu revolutionary Jokhan Ratgainya, who was murdered on June 11, 2001, by the Royal Nepal Army, forced viewers to pause and think. By Nepali law, the indigenous alcohol-drinking Tharus are expendable and can be taken as slaves by the rich and powerful. The feudal Ranas and Shahs gave their land away to influential friends and allies.

Closer to India, the anti-CAA protests and the farmers’ agitation were the ideological concerns of Varunika Saraf’s 2021 solo show ‘Caput Mortum’. In a 12-work series titled Jugni, the 41-year-old concentrates on the women protestors. She has replaced the faces of Russian Madonna icons with that of the real-life women, while retaining the golden background and the halos. “The idea is to initiate 
a dialogue with the past and critically analyse the antecedents of a range of contemporary issues,” says Saraf, who also works with natural mineral pigments created by her.  

The Hyderabad-based Saraf, also an art historian, believes that one of the greatest things about being an artist today is multiplicity. “Today there is no ‘either or’. The multiplicity of voices and the ways of creating acceptable art is what makes this period significant,” Saraf demystifies the trend. Hoskote agrees that art has gone from a “self-enclosed system” to being “osmotic with movements of social change or political transformation”. Many artists work with media that require collaboration. Or they create art in contexts like labs, residencies and workshops. 

A different consciousness prevails. “It’s no longer about solitary artists locking themselves in a studio; there’s a lot more dialogue,” he elaborates. It was at one such residency in Korea that Sudipta Das learned the ‘dakjee’ technique using Hanji paper, which has become her signature. Migration is her recurrent theme; having grown up in Assam’s Silchar, where floods would force people to relocate, it is personal. Hanji paper is both her medium and metaphor. Although fragile, it is considered extremely durable, which reflects the resilience of the displaced. “Because artists can’t explain everything, they create art. My medium and process are my language,” says the 36-year-old. In ‘Home’, the centre of attention at India Art Fair 2022, the Baroda-based Das filled a house-shaped, seven-ft-tall, stainless steel installation with 1,000 dakjee figurines—an allegory of the constantly occupied homes during the lockdown and the overwhelmed state of mind.

In the stunning wash and gouache on paper series, ‘Are We Ready For Tomorrow’s Sun’, Yogesh Ramakrishnan transforms the home into a theatre with human beings wearing masks. It’s his satire on life as we know it now. “This painting visualises a series of short plays about surviving the lockdown and people finding entertainment at home. I treat each house as a theatre space, by imagining how behaviour changes inside after hearing or reading about new developments outside; therefore the question “are we ready for tomorrow’s sun?” elaborates the Pune-based artist. 


A 2013 survey by Pew Research Center showed that art organisations agreed that the Internet and social media have “increased engagement” and made art more participatory, turning “arts audiences more diverse”. They also tend to agree that the internet has “played a major role in broadening the boundaries of what is considered art”. Traditional art and digital art didn’t mix, with the latter being criticised for its lack of uniqueness. 

Not anymore. Technology opened new horizons and created new societies and structures for artists to work in and re-examine the fundamentals. Viraag Desai’s electroplated resin sculptures are proof of the change. The 36-year-old artist taught himself Masked Stereolithography Apparatus (MSLA) 3D printing in order to make larger-than-life virtual sculptures. Simply put, he operates his computer and 3D printer wearing VR headsets, as if he is creating sculptures with his hands, but in a virtual studio. “You feel you’re moving around digital clay,” he admits. Once the resin sculpture is printed out, he electroplates it for a metallic finish. “This bridges the gap between the digital and the physical world,” he says.

The Kolkata-based artist’s subjects are as futuristic as his medium. His series, ‘After the Void’ addresses the nature of Nature without human life. The idea struck him when he saw how Nature had “bloomed”, during the two months of lockdown. He extrapolates the notion to imagine a future where Nature reclaims the earth. He asks, “What would happen if we are absent for 10 years? Nature will absorb everything we have. The fact is that our existence reduces Nature. If this is the reality we have to live with, then how do we address it? It’s an ecological question I'm interested in,” he clarifies. ‘After the Void’ features all white resin-on-paper sculptures of trees, flowers and animals devouring humans. 
Aditya Pande’s ‘This It Is and Everything More’ is another example of the skilful use of technology.

Explains Aprajita Jain of Nature Morte, which showcased his work at DCAW:  “It parodies Edgar Alan Poe’s famous line ‘only this and nothing more’ in The Raven.” Pande starts his process by making drawings on a computer, which are then printed on both paper and canvas. He continues to add elements as he goes along. The end results are unique, handmade pieces born from technology. Machines play a key role in Aditi Anuj’s works, too. She has collaborated with architect and new media artist Denis Peter to re-imagine a screen of water by putting together origami paper squares. The installation uses 27 motors to propel the movement of water, reminiscent of ocean waves. “Each square is a drop of water, which together forms a wave that celebrates the transience of life,” says Jaipur-based Anuj. 


As far as markets go, contemporary art, while on the rise, is still far behind the modern masters. Most sought-after are veterans such as Subodh Gupta, Bharti Kher and Paresh Maity, who dominated IAI’s 2021 list of most expensive Indian contemporary artists. No young or mid-career artist features on it. “Collectors don’t feel confident enough to buy the work of young artists. They want established artists whose works are considered investments. This is true of India where senior artists work only with established galleries. Young artists need more support,” urges gallerist Peter Nagy of Nature Morte, Delhi. The IAI report also notes that the average price for works by contemporary artists is in the affordable range (Rs 1.5-5 lakh for younger contemporaries, and Rs 5-20 lakh for more established names).

This will encourage more patrons and investors to buy. “The DCAW weekend reportedly received about 900 to 1,000 visitors, which is a clear indication of the current interest in contemporary art. The contemporaries of today are inevitably the modernists of tomorrow,” declares Arvind Vijaymohan, CEO, Artery India, an art market intelligence firm. Staples like the annual Indian Art Fair and the Kochi Biennale are getting new siblings like the Museum of Art and Photography in Bengaluru and the Gujral Foundation’s public pavilion series in Delhi.

Contemporary art by successful young Indian artists is booming, in spite of their comparative absence in reputable foreign galleries where all the big money is made. The inimitable Raqib Shaw, a fan of Bosch and Holbein, was just 33 when he sold a work for £2.7 million. Earlier this year, online art auction house AstaGuru’s contemporary art sale fetched Rs 12.13 crore. One painting was ‘Henry VIII’ by Shaw, who reinterpreted Holbein’s 16th-century masterpiece. The site’s ‘Present Future’ Contemporary Art Auction, held from September 22 to 23 has 81 pieces for sale.

A major departure from tradition is that the new Indian contemporary artists don’t stick to Indian themes. ‘Cuckoonebulopolis’ by Surendran Nair is inspired by the Greek satire ‘Birds’ by Aristophanes, where a character tries to get a bird to build a new city in Cloud Cuckoo Land. The contemporary landscape of new Indian art, however, dominated by a generation of emerging artists in their thirties and early forties is clearly no Cuckoo Land.

“Because artists can’t explain everything, they create art. My medium and process are my language.” - Sudipta Das, 36, on using Korean Hanji paper to make dakjee figurines that tell stories of migration

“When you excavate a site, the violence, the longing and the resilience emerge.” - Baaraan ijlal, 45, on ‘Hostile Witness’, a series of paintings on silenced narratives

“I treat each house as a theatre space, by imagining how behaviour changes inside.” - Yogesh Ramakrishnan, 31, on his wash and gouache on paper series, ‘Are We Ready For Tomorrow’s Sun?’exhibited at DCAW

“I’m deeply interested in the possibilities the painted surface offers, like abrasion, resistance and gentle conjuring.” - Biraaj Dodiya, 29 on finding an artistic voice of her own in the themes of impermanence, uncertainty and distance

“The images evoke the sense of narration of daily activities and observations.” - Shailesh BR, 36, on his collage-on-board ‘Cut’, made using varied materials

“The idea is to initiate a dialogue with the past and critically analyse the antecedents of a range of contemporary issues.” - Varunika Saraf, 41, on making “political art” using textile and wasli paper

“This bridges the gap between the digital and the physical world.” - Viraag Desai, 36, on using MSLA 3D printing and combining it with virtual reality to create

“I have spent a lot of time with the children of mine workers, and their lives had always fascinated me.” - Sangeeta Maity, 33, on finding inspiration for her series ‘Industrial Acquisition’

 “Each square is a drop of water, which together form a wave that celebrates the transience of life.”
- Aditi Anuj, 35, on her origami installation propelled by kinetics exhibited at DCAW

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