Modern in India begins much before 1947: French art historian, curator Catherine David

Modern in India begins much before 1947: French art historian, curator Catherine David

David spoke about modernity in art and the recent exhibitions of Indian art at Centre Pompidou. Excerpts from an interview:

Modern in India begins much before 1947: French art historian and curator Catherine David
Catherine David. (Express photo: Amit Mehra)

Deputy director of Musée National d’Art Moderne at Centre Pompidou in Paris, French art historian and curator Catherine David has been a proponent of diverse representations in art. Artistic director for Documenta X (one of the most prestigious exhibitions of contemporary art held every five years) in Kassel in 1997 and the Lyon Biennale in 2009, she was recently in Delhi for an international symposium on “Creativity And Freedom” organised by CIMA gallery.

In the last few years, we have seen several exhibitions of Indian artists being held at Centre Pompidou. Will that continue? Also, could you talk about the exhibition “Memories of the futures — Indian Modernities”?

At Pompidou there are a number of meaningful works in the collection and there are several events that are helping people understand the more complex modern developments, whether they are coming from Euro-American circumstance or from other parts of the world. “Memories of the Futures” was a way of showing two and eventually three generations of contemporary artists, including Ram Rahman, Pablo Bartholomew and Benitha Perciyal. When I began to work, one of the participants said, ‘Nobody will pick these artists because we are working in a very different medium’. For me, the medium is not the essence but a tool. The modern in India begins very early, with Kolkata. In this case, artists were consciously or unconsciously, directly or indirectly, carrying forward the Nehruvian movement, certain ideas of inclusive India, the many cultures, materialities, heritage. I am not interested in the passport of the artist. Ram and Pablo belong to what you would call the intellectual aristocracy; it is not rare in India, where you have a long tradition of families with strong cultural commitment and it is inherited, it is very specific and interesting.

Recently, in an interview, you stated that when it comes to visual art in India, modernity begins with the Bengal School.


Modernism is full of ideology. Climbing modernism is not just for the beauty of forms. When we look at modern art, we try to identify proposals for transforming the form, society, and I would include the Bengal school. It began in the 19th century and is a very complex articulation between an emancipatory, spiritual and formal project, and this is very specific to India at the time. Of course you can discuss the limitations of the project, colonialism, but we must be careful about how we understand modern and modernist. Modern is what is happening and the different levels of development. Modernist is more of an indication of what people want. Modernist also comes with you wanting to be modern. Nevertheless, modern in India definitely begins much before 1947.

You were the first woman and the first non-German speaker to curate Documenta X in Kassel in 1997.

That was the last Documenta of the century, and it was very close to the unification of Germany. It also followed a Documenta that was very festive in a way, even entertaining, but that is not what I think art is meant to be. I tried to not only go back to the beginning but design a perspective which would go back to a complexity of critical practices. I tried not to be exhaustive. I did not want to invite all the world, but a few paradigm artists from certain countries I knew very well. For instance, I tried to show the developments from Latin America, Brazil and South America. We were also interested in the moment when artists were opening their practice to very heterogeneous mediums, different intellectual areas, allowing more complexity into the practices.

Documenta 14 (2017) was criticised for several reasons. What your take?

In life, I’m always interested in what people say and what they are doing. I had many questions with what I saw at the Documenta. I found a lot of confusion. Editing is important. There was a lack of articulation, and too many people cooking. Moreover, there were two venues — Kassel and Athens — so you have to think about the audience, which is able to go to both. It was a collection of impossibilities.

You are currently working on a retrospective of SH Raza.

It may not be a retrospective but an exhibition on Raza and his time. Even during his time in France, he had a close dialogue with friends and peers in India, which was very interesting. We are researching and will look at a few precise elements.

You recently mentioned how ‘India should consider cultural exchanges much more diverse than British’. Please elaborate.

The big other for India for a long time has been the British Empire and culture, but I think it is important for India to consider other inter-cultural dialogues. There are so many recent instances. For instance, when Mexican poet and diplomat Octavio Paz was in Delhi. India had never been closed before the British.