Pictures of the People’s Republic

Pictures of the People’s Republic

How does the myth of China show up in works of Indian artists?

How does the myth of China show up in works of Indian artists?

In aravind Adiga’s Last Man in Tower,a doctor commenting on builder Dharmen Shah’s admiration for China,says astutely,“The first experience of Shanghai to a middle-aged Indian businessman [is what the first experience of sex is to a teenager.” China to Indians is not just a big,overweening neighbour — its myth is a part of our popular culture. The dragon that always outpaces the elephant,its efficiency and power are what we secretly lust for. When China appears on the canvas of Indian artists,what shape does it take? What import do its mammoth cities and grand projects seem to hold?

For artists like Anant Joshi and Riyas Komu,China is a capitalist dystopia —and their art is often a sarcastic,sneering takedown of its glossy myth. An artist like Gigi Scaria spots striking similarities between the two neighbours,whether it is in the blurring of distinctions in the Delhi-Shanghai skyline,or the photographic portraits of Chairman Mao and Mahatma Gandhi. Others like Atul Dodiya and Nilima Sheikh look for beauty and continuities in the calligraphy of 7th century Chinese poetry or the older ties of trade and spirituality.

“My first memories of Chinese goods are from when I was in Class 6. Hero pens were a craze in schools and we all wanted to have one,” says Komu,who idealises the time when China prided its tradition of labour and communism. “Now,the Chinese economy has abandoned labour for consumerism. The market is now my metaphor for China,” he says.


His critique is evident in his metal sculpture Take Away,where the Chinese map is mounted on the legs of a rooster — as commonplace and uninspiring as fried chicken,to be parcelled for takeaway. Even in his signature portraits of ordinary Chinese,he foregrounds a sense of alienation. One canvas features a young man with eyes painted like a Xiangsheng master: the work is titled Hey,Why Should Everyone Look Like Mao?

Joshi has been working with decapitated and dismantled toys for many years now,but he takes this work a step further in Bell House. He has created a macabre contraption where toys,hung from skewers,are melted into a chamber that he calls the gallows and their “blood” drips into bottles. “I conceptualised this work after reading statements by workers in the Chinese toy industries,about how they work mechanically from morning till night,just pressing plastic into the moulds and taking it out—the metaphor here is how the blood is being sucked out of labourers — they could be from any country,” says Joshi,who also showed a similar work in a Vienna exhibition.

Dodiya’s work steers away from the contemporary and focuses on a thousand-year-old Chinese calligraphic art. His paintings Red Love Peas and Night Thought capture the spirit of Chinese poetry while using Chinese calligraphic characters as abstract forms. “Even though I have faithfully copied each letter,I do not understand Chinese,which is why I have treated them as pure form,” says the artist.

The rest of the work is textured with washes of monochromatic colours,and scratches and brush marks. The paintings were showed at Gallery Threshold, Delhi,a few years ago. He admits that contemporary China does not excite him. “So much of their art and life is state controlled and as a result can be quite shallow. An exception is an artist like Ai Weiwei,” says Dodiya.

The Chinese artist Weiwei,who was recently imprisoned by the Chinese government,has been an inspiration for many Indian artists for his subversion of state censorship. His famous work Dropping The Urn,that involved a performance of breaking a Han Dynasty Urn,was a strong but subtle political statement.

“In that scenario,one is not that inspired to work with China as a ‘theme’ but I am still showing in China,” says Sharmila Samant,who is part of a large survey exhibition that finds its way to China this September. Titled “Window in The Wall: Imaginary Conversations Between India and China”,it is curated by art historian-critic Gayatri Sinha who believes more such exhibitions are needed. “While there is an increased traffic between India and China,we do not have a large enough corpus of artwork in China,to expect a more nuanced reading of Indian art,” says Sinha. This exhibition will be featuring a mix of established and emerging artists like Ranbir Kalekar,Joshi,Abir Karmakar,Sharmila Samant,T Venkarna,Manjunath Kamat and Lavanya Mani. Kamat’s gentle watercolour,titled Dresses of Confusion,is an intriguing image. At first glance,it appears to be a traditional “exotic” Chinese dress,but on closer inspection,it is found to be covered in tiny images of everyday life,factories,birds,people and speech bubbles.

Gigi Scaria, who was part of an Indian exhibition to China curated by Chaitanya Sambrani,says that protocol and secrecy continue to be very strict in China,with artwork being screened at every level. In his project,he juxtaposes archival images of Chairman Mao shot by an official Communist Party photographer,with iconic images of Gandhi. “It is interesting that even though the two leaders were separated by almost 35 years,the posing and framing of images is almost identical,” says Scaria. His digitally morphed image of the Delhi-Shanghai skyline is a tongue-in-cheek comment on globalisation,where “one day all cities will look alike”.

Mithu Sen,whose work is loaded with sexually frank and confrontational imagery,says she faced censorship while showing in Taipei at the Louis Vuitton Gallery. “I was under pressure to break away from my dark imagery because both Louis Vuitton and the director of the Mori Arts Museum were concerned that my direct references to sex,violence and politics might cause a furore in China,” she says. Sen toned down her work and populated her prints with chirping birds and colourful foliage.

Unfortunately,the dialogue between the two artistic traditions often runs into the Great Wall.