Some thoughts on Delhi and contemporary Indian art

After meeting many travelers who’ve been down on Delhi, i was quite prepared to not like it, to find it crowded, polluted, full of touts and traffic. But that was not the case. For one, like Agra, Delhi has replaced its autorickshaws with CNG autorickshaws. Most of its buses also seem to be CNG. Add a spanking new metro which actually does not smell of urine and the air of New Delhi is breathable and downright pure when compared to Kolkata, Bangkok and parts of KL. Not as clean as Singapore of course, but then, nothing in Asia is (barring some Japanese cities possibly).

As for the crowding and general narrow street full of touts, beggers, cows, traffic and jostling people, there’s lots of that in Paharganj and the old city but the new parts of Delhi in the south, the bits built by the Brits and the enclaves of public servants, those parts have wide tree-lined avenues, have service lanes along the main roads, have gardens and parks, have actual real footwalks for pedestrians (that dont end abruptly in crumbling concrete and an open sewerage pipe) and even rubbish bins every few metres or so.

I guess it is the capital of India and this the where many politicians and civil servants live. Anyway, like them, assuming they walk and are not driven around in their white government cars, I found walking around the southern parts of Delhi a real pleasure and a nice break from the usual chaos. It reminded me of Melbourne.

There is quite a large art scene here as well with many private and public galleries. I was lucky enough to get to a Contemporary Art Show at Travencore Palace which had around 15 galleries and I dropped in on a couple of other private galleries in Connaught Place and the Indian Habitat Centre.

Unfortunately, I wasnt all that impressed. The works are really quite beautiful but they are very safe, very conservative. There is so much happening in India at the moment, the society is changing very quickly, there’s conflict in everything and the pressure on individuals is horrendous. But you wouldnt see any of that in contemporary works.

This is not to say that people are not aware of what’s happening. I’ve been very impressed by the news here.  Some of the better weekly news magazines such as Tehelka and Frontline show the best of investigative journalism: courageous, controversial, cutting-edge, risk-taking, highly critical and opinionated.

But where are the equivalents in the art-world? Where is the passion? Chinese artists seem to have it but it could be that is because their society lack the same journalistic freedoms as India.

The only artist I’ve so far seen with vision and courage, is Raghu Rai, a famous photographer of which there was an incredible retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Tellingly enough, Rai started off as a photojournalist and his work while having that feel still, has transcended it. Leaving that exhibition made me look at India with different and refreshed eyes. I’d not realised how many barriers I’ve put up since I’ve arrived.

When every time one looks at a shop, a tout comes and hassle you, when every time one looks at a street person, a begger comes and asks for money, when every time you happen to meet the eye of a local, there’s an even chance they’ll come and try to engage you in an inane limited conversation, it doesnt take very long for one to stop looking or to look away quickly.

Rai’s works reminded me of how much I’ve stopped seeing and more than that, it showed me how much of India, warts and all, I am missing, how much of its people I have dismissed and ultimately how incredible and complex India is.

And that’s what art does, it doesnt just hang on the wall and look pretty.

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