Generally, when I see two men holding hands at an art event in India I assume they’re gay. Not this Independence Day! I was thrilled to find the Jehangir Art Gallery crowded on August 15th, and even more delighted to realize that this was no normal “art public.” This was more like the “real public,” if such a thing could ever be said to exist.
Never before I have I seen a cross-section of classes stroll into a gallery showing contemporary art in this country. There is certainly little democracy at play in the white-cube spaces where big-name artists exhibit. But surprisingly, Jehangir was able to attract a Hindi-majority crowd where indeed young men held hands as a sign of friendship as opposed to romance. It was clear that many of the patrons were a little unsure what to expect. A lovely young woman exclaimed “bahut tanda hey!” before entering with hesitation, evidently surprised by the fact that there was air conditioning in one of the exhibition halls.
The art itself was of little interest to me. The gallery’s two levels showcased a variety of painters who evidently specialized in quasi-impressionistic or pseudo-expressionistic representations of pleasing subjects such as bullock carts, lilies, or village girls. However, the audience reaction (as well as the mere multitude of the audience), made my trip more than worthwhile. Some of the crowd simply walked around the exhibit in a relatively efficient manner (perhaps with the vaguely moralistic spirit of cultural betterment that I have certainly been guilty of from time to time), but many couples and small groups stopped in front of particular paintings to discuss them at some length. The edgiest work of the exhibition was executed on animal skin. This choice of medium was of great interest to some of crowd, many of whom peered in closely to examine the curious canvas substitute.
The next day contemporary artist Shilpa Gupta remarked to me that perhaps so many folks had come to see the art because the Prince of Wales Museum right next door had been closed for the national holiday. Maybe this was the case. Whatever the reason, I left with a profound sense of buoyancy. India may have a long way to go before a rag picker strolls into an opening at Nature Morte, but public interest in (chronologically if not stylistically) contemporary art is certainly not the culprit.
-- Sophia Powers