10 Indian Artists Who Are Shaping Contemporary Art
India has a history of debate around the nature of “Indian art” and the development of an idiosyncratic style of modernism spurred by the country’s independence in 1947. Contemporary Indian artists continue to be critical and engaged with issues linked to the country’s turbulent and fraught history of colonialism, decolonization, and division. The legacies of crafting nation-states—which continue to be felt in the present—and questions of representation often underpin works. Artists respond to faith and gender politics, the country’s contested territorial boundaries, the nuances of secularism, and wider geopolitical agendas.
The scarcity of international exhibitions by Indian artists in no way reflects reality. India’s thriving art world is growing fast—and the strength of Indian art will only grow. In addition to the annual Indian Art Fair, various new museums and exhibitions are emerging: The Kiran Nadar Museum of Art is developing a new, forthcoming institution; the Museum of Art and Photography will open in Bangalore; the Gujral Foundation is commissioning a public pavilion series in Delhi; and the Kochi Biennale will have its fifth edition this December.
Streamlining this rigorous and expanding Indian contemporary art world into a list of 10 artists is a challenge. This is a mere selection focused on a range of established and emerging artists, the majority of whom are based in India. Working across performance, installation, photography, painting, sculpture, fashion, and ceramics, each artist has a distinctive aesthetic vocabulary, which affirms their place in the global canon of contemporary art.
B. 1937, Aligarh. Lives and works in New York.
Zarina hopes to evoke and pin down a sense of home through minimal monochrome prints, canvases, intimate drawings, elegant sculptures, and cast papers caked in layers of gold flake. Formerly known as Zarina Hashmi, and with a background in mathematics, she is one of India’s few female artists of her generation, including M. F. Husain and Tyeb Mehta, amongst others. Significantly, Zarina was part of India’s first-ever national pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale in 2011.
Zarina’s work is informed by her experiences living itinerantly and being part of a minority Muslim community in India following Partition. She articulates dislocation and exile through her vocabulary of maps, abstract geometries, stark lines, and a muted palette. Her pared-back works are laced with emotion and politics, and expand beyond the personal to include references to cities around the world that have felt the divisive consequences of conflict, such as New York, Baghdad, and Kabul.
B. 1957, Bhadravati. Lives and works in Switzerland and Bangalore.
Sheela Gowda responds to her environment. The heady, rambunctious ins-and-outs of everyday life and work in Bangalore are her fodder. Using materials associated with the city—human hair talismans, cow dung, kumkum (red turmeric), incense, tar drums—she is best known for her large installations and sculptures that captivate their surroundings.
Working painstakingly by hand, Gowda employs craft techniques, responding to the status of manual labor in the face of India’s social and economic metamorphosis, as well as its implication in the fabrication of art. She often looks towards disenfranchised and marginalized communities in India to create staggering works such as Behold (2009), which was acquired by Tate in 2014. The work is composed of four kilometers of knotted rope swinging from 20 car bumpers, suspended by tight plaits of human hair. It responds to the tension between India’s fierce urban aspirations and the religious economy in which hair is donated to temples to form talismans or sold for profit.
Jeebesh Bagchi (B. 1965, New Delhi), Monica Narula (B. 1969, New Delhi), and Shuddhabrata Sengupta (B. 1968, New Delhi). All live and work in New Delhi.
Raqs Media Collective, frequenters of the world’s major institutions, are equally adept artists, curators, editors, and researchers.
Academic in their processes, the artists co-founded the Sarai Programme and Sarai Reader Series in 2000 at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi. Working with researchers from the program, they have built an interdisciplinary practice spanning media, film, sculpture, books, photography, and lecture performances entrenched in philosophy, the re-examination of history, and their ongoing scrutiny of received systems of knowledge. Their work often addresses discrepancies in systems of power and truths, offering subtle revisions and new questions. Insatiably inquisitive, their art direction of the 2020 Yokohama Triennale promises to unearth a whole new perspective on local and global concerns.
B. 1974, Calcutta. Lives and works in Goa.
There are many characters conjured up by Nikhil Chopra, one of India’s leading performance artists and the current artist-in-residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Whether roving the Met or walking from Athens to Kassel for Documenta 14 in 2017, contemplative drawing is integral to Chopra’s practice. He explores the complexities of colonialism and its legacies, implicating his audience in the process.
In his “Memory Drawings” series (begun in 2007), Chopra fuses autobiography with collective history and nostalgia by taking on the persona of Yog Raj Chitrakar. This itinerant, dapper character has traversed a range of cities including Mumbai, New York, and Oslo. He uses drawing performatively to access memories of landscape and consider identity and convoluted histories, creating vast charcoal drawings made on stretches of canvas that often take the form of a tent. Chopra’s other whimsical characters have appeared at the Second Yinchuan Biennale in China in 2018, the Sharjah Biennial 12 in 2015, and the 53rd Venice Biennale in 2009.
B. 1976, Mumbai. Lives and works in Mumbai.
Shilpa Gupta is concerned with human perception and the imperceptible, and the acquisition and consumption of knowledge and its shaping into arbitrary categories and systems. Working with video, performance, sound, and installation, she seeks to emancipate knowledge and stimulate flows of information across time and communities, counterintuitive to repressive powers, which may operate at state and local levels.
Her acclaimed work at the 58th Venice Biennale in 2019, For, In Your Tongue, I Cannot Fit (2017–18), picked apart the enactment of censorship, penal conviction, and rights of expression. The works of 100 poets who were imprisoned for their writing emanated from 100 microphones, each one suspended over a page of writing pierced by a metal rod. Incorporating verses written between the 8th century and the present day, the work in part highlighted the revitalization of sedition claims in India. Gupta will have a solo show at London’s Barbican Curve this fall.
B. 1973, Delhi. Lives and works in Mumbai.
Symbols of bureaucracy—rubber office stamps and clippings of barbed wire entangled with electrical cables—reoccur in Reena Saini Kallat’s work. Satirizing the apparatus of state, recent pieces such as her series “Leaking Lines”(2019) toy with the contours of nationalities and the potency and permeability of geographical borders. In this set of diptych drawings—each named after an iconic boundary—an abstract land mass composed of woven cables is severed by a laser-cut line, a symbol of the area’s political delineation. This is accompanied and juxtaposed by a charcoal landscape sketch showing the lived geographical impact and markings.
Building on her international acclaim, this year Kallat’s drawings, photographs, sculptures, and videos will be or have shown recently at institutions including the Minneapolis Institute of Art, London’s Hayward Gallery, and the Museum Oscar Niemeyer in Brazil, among others.
Jiten Thukral (B. 1976, Punjab) and Sumir Tagra (B. 1979, New Delhi). Both live and work in New Delhi.
Working together for 15 years, artist duo Jiten Thukral and Sumir Tagra have an unmistakable pop aesthetic, which belies deeper social concerns. Deftly moving between art, advertising, and fashion, they consciously broaden the scope of art while also addressing issues such as migration, India’s globalization, and the mythological narratives intrinsic to the country’s self-conception.
Play and humor are deployed in this endeavor. “Bread, Circuses & TBD,” their 2019 show at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, centered on kushti, a wrestling game common with farmers in northern India played on a bright circular mat. Placed in the gallery, this equipment was available for use but also symbolic; the objects allude to the numerous suicides among India’s debt-ridden farming community.
B. 1988, Mumbai. Lives and works in Mumbai.
A complex mythical world is being built by the young artist Sahej Rahal. Winner of the Forbes India Art Award in 2014, he creates ritualistic performances, biomorphic sculptures, drawings, and films that incorporate digital ephemera, clay, salvaged furniture, and everyday detritus. His works are beguiling and cryptic assemblages where Indian legends, Japanese anime, paganism, and science fiction collide to make characters with volatile temperaments who find themselves at ease in the present.
Recently, for his exhibition “Continuous Voyage” at the 2019 Vancouver Biennale, Rahal created a series of fossilized, anomalous, and animalistic bodies. Previously, he presented work at the Setouchi Triennial in 2016 and at New York’s Jewish Museum in 2015; he was also a resident at Akademie Schloss Solitude in Germany.
B. 1978, Hyderabad. Lives and works in New Delhi.
Asim Waqif creates expansive installations informed by his background in architecture. He’s concerned with the built environment and its infrastructure, civic character, and ecological management; his work develops from research, and lately has developed into vast, interactive structures inhabiting abandoned buildings and galleries alike.
Waqif intertwines bamboo, cane, and waste materials through a meticulous manual process to create massive works that people can walk into and are often left to decay. An earlier exhibition, “Bordel Monstre,” held at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris from 2012 to 2013, made use of the remnants from previous shows—plastic chairs, hunks of wood—and incorporated an electronic system with speakers that was sensitive to the movements of its visitors. In 2018, he performed as part of Frieze Live in London, and has shown at the Queensland Art Gallery in Brisbane and at New York’s Queens Museum.
Himali Singh Soin
B. 1987, New Delhi. Lives and works in New Delhi and London.
Himali Singh Soin, still from we are opposite like that, 2019. Courtesy of the artist.
Winner of the Frieze Artist Award at Frieze London in 2019, Himali Singh Soin has risen to prominence for her evocative practice, which combines performance, text, and film. At the core of her practice is the natural world and ecology, often used as metaphors to reflect on the foibles of human intervention and interaction with the environment.
Her films and performance works have their origins in research. Her ongoing series “We Are Opposite Like That” (2017–present) builds a historical narrative for the most remote areas of the Arctic and Antarctic circles, told from the perspective of its ice. The ice recounts tales of the area’s “discovery” at the hands of European colonialism, integrated with references to conspiracy theories, animation, and UFO sightings spliced with archival material. She is currently a writer in residence at Whitechapel Gallery in London.