Home of Bollywood, India’s stock exchanges and some 25 million inhabitants in its metropolitan area, Mumbai can be an overwhelming place. A walk down any Mumbai street is an esthetically awesome experience, where every corner promises another Technicolor assault to the senses.
The city has a long and distinguished artistic tradition and an indefatigable appetite for culture. Until recently though, art here was bought by older NRIs (that is, "Non-Resident Indians," or Indians living abroad), who tended to have more conservative tastes and preferred fairly traditional styles and subject matter. Today’s global market has brought more foreigners and younger Indians into the game, allowing for a bit more boundary-pushing. Still, contemporary art in Mumbai remains "in transition."
Many of the city’s top galleries are clustered around the former Victoria Terminus station (now Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus), along streets lined with folk-art stalls. Urchins approach idling cars hawking pirate copies of Booker Prize-winning novels.
Prabhakar Kolte at Studio Napean
This spring, the 60-year-old Mumbai resident Prabhakar Kolte showed a variety of recent works at Studio Napean, a bright, welcoming space beside a gelato shop and across from a row of patrician residential blocks.
A veteran abstractionist, Kolte has often cited his debts to Paul Klee, Mark Rothko and Wassily Kandinsky, as well as pioneering Indian abstract artists V. S. Gaitonde and Shankar Palsikar, whom Kolte has called his "guru." In the late 1960s, these artists -- as well as Biren De, Ghulam Rasool Santosh and Jagdish Swaminathan, among others -- looked to ancient forms of Tantric meditation, a practice that includes contemplating sacred abstract forms (yantras) as well as figurative religious imagery. Today, he is an artist who has a developed following -- an untitled 1982 painting by Kolte recently sold for $42,000 at Sotheby’s New York. In his latest body of work, Kolte applies his rarified, sacred language to urban scenes, creating a sort of meditation on the Mumbai skyline.
Indian cities are blends of urban and rural -- even at the heart of Mumbai’s dizzying metropolis, parrots and monkeys are a daily sight. Just a few hundred yards from Studio Napean, a herd of goats lolls on the beach in the shade of a towering apartment compound, while bullocks move slowly through crowded streets. This interplay between the natural and artificial worlds was perhaps an inspiration for Kolte’s lush, fertile color fields enveloping the rectilinear forms of a modern metropolis.
Beneath the streaming layers of paint, there emerge hints of cityscapes -- billboards, traffic signs and squat, blocky high-rises. There is something methodical about even his most riotous abstracts, an architectural stolidity beneath the disorderly surface. Glimpses of fences and rooftops peek out from behind the encroaching bands of color like makeshift slum walls glimpsed from the city’s new fly-overs.
Manu Parekh at Jehangir
Founded in 1952, the Jehangir Gallery is a Mumbai institution (it was founded at the urging of Indian painter K.K. Hebbar and nuclear scientist Homi Jehangir Bhabha). If only it didn’t look so, well, institutional -- the renowned space suggests a public school cafeteria more than an art gallery, with a drab, faded interior and funereal lighting.
In such bleak environs, however, the vivid colors of Manu Parekh’s show "Banaras: Eternity Watches Time" were all the more affecting. Born in 1935, the Delhi artist’s paintings imagine Banaras (or Benares, also known as "Varanasi"), considered by many to be the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city. Banaras is one of India’s most important pilgrimage sites -- many Hindus believe that bathing there in the river Ganges washes sin clean, and that dying in Banaras allows the soul to break the cycle of rebirth. For thousands of years, the city has been synonymous with wasted beggars, devout pilgrims and burning funeral pyres.
Amid all this, Parekh presents unruly natural landscapes of untamed vegetation and volatile passions, populated by earthy figures of sexuality and brutality. Ironic for the eternal city of Banaras, the effect is one of profound instability. Rubbery and swollen, almost cartoony, Parekh’s houses and shrines lean crazily at 45 degree angles as if threatening to blow away, and ghostly faces appear in the muddy swirls of the river. The city, both precarious and timeless, seems to have been teetering on the brink of ruin.
The artist renders Banaras in different palettes (blue, red, brown, green or black) to reveal the city’s multiple dimensions, its holy river alternately a contemplative field of blue, or a blood-soaked red (a blue Banaras dyptich sold for $84,370 at Saffronart last year -- an auction record for Parekh). Eyes peer from every doorway in these paintings -- as in Kolte’s work, the motif suggests a familiar image of people huddled in slum housing, peering warily at the street. Trees and vegetation are shrouded in a lingering darkness in the background, even as the foreground teems with color and energy. Yet despite the sinister edge, Parekh’s work is finally elegant, full of graceful movement and sinuous lines.
Laxman Shreshtha at Pundole
Colorists like Kolte and Parekh may find themselves in competition with the city’s own constantly shifting accents of azure, jade and scarlet, against which the most flamboyant works of abstract color can pale. Veteran abstractionist Laxman Shreshtha’s stark "Elaborations: Recent Works in Black and White" at the Pundole Art Gallery is a break from the city’s turmoil -- contemplative rather than chaotic.
Shreshtha’s spare, carefully balanced, mainly black-and-white compositions have an ascetic rigor at odds with Parekh’s lush expanses -- but Shreshtha too is drawn to abstract landscapes. A spiritual rather than a political painter, the Nepalese artist crafts thoughtful meditations on the ways that nature is experienced and interpreted by the human eye.
These abstractions are topological, then -- a series of graceful, undulating forms pared to their essential elements, alternative patches of stark black and white. Passages of shape and form morph into lone mountain roads traversed by wayfaring pilgrims, with twisting paths and tumbling brooks that converge and diverge across vast open spaces.
In his latest work, however, Shreshtha’s famously meditative landscapes are roughed up by the addition of jarring collage elements and superimposed geometric shapes. In the large triptych that anchors the show, solid masses of opaque black and white are set among muddy forms of hills and furrows. These ruler-perfect shapes call attention to the process of creation -- elsewhere, the same effect is created tactilely, through dry brush scratching or dense, wet patches. Ever a naturalist, Shreshtha is also an interpreter, responding actively and critically to the physical world. The paintings range in price from $43,000 to $107,000, or $3,600 to $12,000 for one of his works on paper.
Dayanita Singh at Gallery Chemould
India lives in the world’s imagination as a nation filled to brimming with people, nowhere more so than Mumbai. Scenes of mass humanity occupy every public space -- clinging to the overburdened railway cars or camped blanket to blanket along Chowpatty Beach. In photographer Dayanita Singh’s "Beds and Chairs," Feb. 8-28, 2007, a combination of two series shown this spring at Gallery Chemould, unpopulated spaces speak most tellingly in their absence of occupants.
Chemould’s attic gallery is ringed with meditative black-and-white photos of empty beds and chairs, photographed in houses, libraries, museums, ballrooms, halls and temples in India and abroad, including London and Boston.
While always mindful of Mumbai’s slums and sewers, Singh focuses on "the other India" -- one of middle class prosperity, social aspirations and international tastes. Though only a tiny minority of the population, these prosperous people loom large in the nation’s cultural imagination and dreams of future development. Photos of a single bed standing primly in an empty room also comment on the role of privacy in a developing nation, where a space of one’s own is a potent sign of privilege.
The artist has explained that she was particularly moved by those places that have stood a long absence, "beds of those who had passed away, but that were still made everyday, beds turned into shrines, with photos and sandals on them." The empty rooms speak loudly of their missing occupants: some bedrooms appear shy and evasive; some chairs effusively welcoming. Singh finds just the right mixture of poignancy and peace in her photograph of an old-fashioned leather chair standing vigil in a shaded room. These quiet, cool spaces are a world away from the disorderly streets outside the gallery, but they teem with their ghosts.
Nitin Agrawal at Gallery Beyond
Only a short walk away in Mumbai’s graceful Kala Ghoda gallery district, another young artist, Nitin Agrawal, held a small show at the cozy Gallery Beyond. Both the artist and gallery owner, Vibhuraj Kapoor, were on hand to greet guests in the loft-style space, the sofas and cool tile floors of which made the gallery appear like a fashionably appointed living room.
Agrawal’s show, "Utopian Impressions," consists of his own fingerprints, substantially enlarged and arranged into monochromatic abstractions that again tend towards the topological -- a beguiling series of valleys, vapors, coastlines, droplets, ripples and flowers. Agrawal begins each piece by tracing the image of his fingerprints onto a canvas-covered wooden base. Using plaster, he builds the design up into low relief. He then applies layers of paint over the plaster surface, building a shiny shell of color. The finished pieces are buffed to a high sheen that looks glossily artificial, more like plastic than wood and canvas. Individual by definition, the works appear mass-produced and unnaturally flawless.
A newcomer to a booming art market, Agrawal is concerned with the artist’s "fingerprint," the irreducible quality that makes original canvases valuable both esthetically and commercially. His pieces, simultaneously exposing and obscuring the artist’s identity, are a world away from the smudged, dirty, criminal fingerprint that unmasks illicit deeds -- here, these individual signatures seem ready to hang, fresh and gleaming, on the walls of a coffee chain or boutique hotel in a modern, 21st century India.
SUMMER KUMAR is a writer and critic living in Shanghai.