Transforming the city

Some tens of thousands come here to make their future. Some make it, others don’t. But the struggle goes on. That struggle is called Bombay

A spate of riots of unprecedented ferocity erupted in Bombay between 1992–3. The outburst of violence, in which Hindus and Muslims clashed, followed the destruction of the Babri Masjid, a mosque in the northern city of Ayodhya. The riots resulted in the wider polarisation of classes and communities across this city of 12 million inhabitants.

The title of this section of the exhibition, ‘Bombay/Mumbai’, reflects the city’s contested history. The old colonial name combined with the recently revived version in the Marathi language suggests a city re-figuring itself in history. A society of contradictions, Bombay has always accommodated both colonial and indigenous cultures, big business and slums, high art and populist entertainment, tradition and radicalism. This complex mix of ingredients provides the context for a contemporary art that seeks to contend with the violence of recent years in the city.

The art selected ranges from painting and sculpture to the latest technologies of photography, film, video and the web. Its prevailing spirit is eclectic: realism and modernism overlap; Indian mythology and the fictive melodramas of Bombay films are quoted; the impact of globalisation is explored. Rooted in the experience of modern urban life in India, the works address, amongst other themes, politics, identity, class division and the spectacle of the street.

Curated by Geeta Kapur, an art critic and curator based in New Delhi, and Ashish Rajadhyaksha, a film theorist from Bombay, now based in Bangalore.

The artist’s self

Bhupen Khakhar is one of the most significant contemporary Indian artists. His consciously naive oil and watercolour paintings draw on Indian popular art. Since the 1980s, the paintings have primarily explored his own sexual identity through the portrayal of homoerotic and transvestite subject matter. In a new commission for this exhibition, the younger painter Atul Dodiya chooses to work on laminate board and the kind of metal roller shutters used on shopfronts. Evoking the jostling imagery of Bombay streets, he mixes autobiographical portraits with those of well-known Indian public figures. Jitish Kallat moves into the culture of consumerism, creating an aggrandised self-portrait that effectively becomes an advertisement for himself.

Politics and protest

In her installation Between Memory and History, Navjot Altaf explores the pain of social disruption. It incorporates hundreds of paper ribbons knotted into a metal mesh, on which are written the testimonies of those who have witnessed cataclysmic events such as the Bombay riots. The monitors show documentary images of the events, while the multitude of voices offer possibilities for reconciliation. Vivan Sundaram’s sculpture Memorial uses a newspaper photograph taken in the midst of the riots of a man lying dead in the street. In an elegiac act the artist places the photograph in an iron coffin mounted on a gun carriage, as if for a state burial. The title of Rummana Hussain’s installation, A Space for Healing, which is part shrine, part hospital room, makes reference to the anguish of the city and her own illness – she died shortly after the work was finished. In the video installation Hamletmachine, Nalini Malani collages a text by the German playwright Heiner Mueller with images and sounds recalling the fascist era in Europe and Japan. In doing so she confronts fears of political violence in India.