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Indian art show tackles Gandhi, war and poverty

LONDON, Jan 29 (Reuters Life!) - A new exhibition of art from India at Charles Saatchi’s London gallery tackles issues including poverty, the environment, war, religion and the region of Kashmir disputed by Pakistan.

“The Empire Strikes Back: Indian Art Today”, which runs from Friday until May 7 and is free, follows similar surveys of art from China, the Middle East and the United States which have attracted more than a million visitors to the new gallery.

It brings together 26 artists, mostly from India but a handful from neighbouring Pakistan, who are either still working in their native countries or have moved abroad to the United States, Britain and South Korea.

The Saatchi Gallery said Indian art has begun to thrive in galleries in Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore, and is increasingly reflecting political and social issues that come with rapid economic expansion in the world’s largest democracy.

“They are certainly not purely decorative works which fit in with our notion of Indian art, which is of beautiful miniature paintings, for example,” said Rebecca Wilson, associate director of the Saatchi Gallery.

“This is showing a whole other side of India and it’s not surprising that the artists are engaging with things to do with migration, poverty, slums and refuse,” she added.

Wilson said that Saatchi, one of the world’s most influential art collectors, had been buying works from India for several years and felt he now had enough quality pieces to make up a show.

“With China and now India becoming more significant on the global stage, growing as powers in their own right with booming economies, our attention is on these countries.

“In terms of the art world, India has really begun to be a part of the international scene.”

A handful of Indian artists have profited from the recent art market boom, with Subodh Gupta and TV Santhosh -- both featured in the Saatchi show -- making headlines with giddying increases and works fetching six- and seven-figure sums.

But the economic downturn hit values of modern and contemporary Indian art hard, and it remains to be seen whether the Saatchi exhibition will help restore the sector.

“I think it’s across the board,” Wilson said of contemporary art market declines during the last 12-18 months.


The first room in the show features a monumental work lining an entire gallery wall with the words of a famous speech by Indian freedom hero Mahatma Gandhi spelled out with replicas of bones, an image of violence amid proclamations of peace.

Atul Dodiya’s “Woman from Kabul” tackles the plight of the refugee with the image of an elderly Afghan woman whose bones can be seen through her skin as she squats.

Reena Saini Kallat has two companion pieces on display which feature large portraits of ordinary civilians from Pakistan and India overlaid with a map of Kashmir, the divided territory over which the rivals have fought two wars.

Jitish Kallat’s “Death of Distance” features five panels which each tell two separate stories depending on where the viewer stands.

One is the launch of the “one rupee a minute” telephone rate across India and the other is the true story of a girl who committed suicide because her mother could not afford the one rupee she needed to buy a school lunch.

And Pakistani Rashid Rana’s “The World is Not Enough” looks from a distance like a large, colourful seascape, but in fact is a collage of hundreds of images of refuse digitally “stitched” together.

Editing by Paul Casciato