Indian Highway


Written by Julius Hinks
30 Tuesday 30th December 2008

The Indian Highway exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery sees new and established Indian artists reflecting on the changes occurring in their country. There's even response to the Mumbai attakcs by M. F. Husain. Julius Hinks reports.

A history of India surrounds the exterior of the Serpentine Gallery. Canvases by M. F. Husain depicting Hindu gods, bloody colonialism and Mahatma Ghandi in the style of Cezanne, Kirchner, and Picasso gaze out at the lawns of Hyde Park.

Bharti Kher, The Nemesis of Nations, 2008

These works orbit a collaboration of over twenty Indian artists entitled Indian Highway, centring on roads as a means of migration, the links between urban and rural communities and ‘information superhighways’ connecting a booming India to the rest of the world. Much of the work is pronouncedly contemporary: Raq’s Media Collective curate ‘a show within a show’ in a capsule-like room with video art projected from so many angles that if you want to see the Shiva impersonator with her head on a railway track you must contort not to block footage of a yogi digitally enhanced to make extra-human grimaces.

We witness an India in a time of rapid change and increasing diversity and the frequent message is that this is a source of difficulty. In Kanwar’s The Lightning Testimonies, footage from Assam of women protesting naked against the brutalities of the Indian army suggests that roads are paths for repression. This eight-screen work bursts with life and death, contrasting smiling Himalayan villagers with soldiers and the tragically captivating Kashmiri mountains.

Subodh Gupta, Date by Date, 2008

Further highlighting the conflict between tradition and modernity, Subodh Gupta describes how roads are ‘like the Ganges River,’ intimating that Indians have changed their spiritual routes as well as their travel routes. In Date by Date he recreates a government office and makes mountains out of bureaucratic papers. The use of everyday objects eloquently explores the effect of these changing social and political conditions on the individual.

M F Husain, Rape of India, 2008

India may be experiencing a massive economic boom but there’s a feeling of "ambivalence about the euphoria of new financial capital," says exhibiting artist Ravi Agarwal. One wonders why there’s little mention of the positive sides of modernity. Nonetheless, most viewers will feel sympathy for a culture that is adapting to new influences at a brutal pace. This sympathy strengthens when we encounter Husain’s Rape of India on a split canvas with an anguished figure being accosted. Painted only days ago, it is a powerful reaction to the attacks that took place in Mumbai and may suggest that India’s increasing global profile and entwinement with the West has made it a target for terrorist attacks.

M F Husain, Naad Swaram … Ganeshayem, 2004

However, Husain’s work also shows how positive a union between India and the West can be. His creation of a visual vocabulary fusing art from both cultures shows that tradition doesn’t have to be lost with modernity. He points towards a mutually respectful relationship between Asia and the West. These works at the Serpentine reveal a troubled country but one that is bursting with an outward-looking dynamism that will help it find its feet as it strides into the spotlight of the international art scene.

Indian Highway continues at the Serpentine Gallery until 22 Feb. More info at

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