July 12, 2024

‘Indian Highways’ at the MAXXI Museo in Roma

After spending the whole of September in India, I was interested to find that an exhibition of the country’s modern art and sculpture was showing at Rome’s MAXXI Museum.

The MAXXI, Italy’s National Museum of 21st Century Art, is one of Rome’s newest museums, opening its doors only last year. It offers a new way of looking at art, in a city revered the world over for its thousand year old churches and majestically displayed Caravaggios.

The glass entrance of the MAXXI is flagged, in refreshing contrast, by hundreds of Indian faces painted on the concrete. It is ‘Strands’ by NS Harsha, symbolising the varied contemporary social scene in India –some of the women are wearing headscarves; some aren’t. It turns out that there are over five hundred faces, all joined up, all engaged in different actions. They wind around the concrete outside the doors to the museum in a figure of eight; from the gallery above they can be seen collectively.

Research has informed me that the ‘highways’ of the title symbolises India’s movement from rural to urban, in economy, landscape and day to day life, and how the development of cities has created a mass migration of people towards them. Considering the impression one gets when visiting India of it being a lot like rapidly industrialising Victorian England, and given my interest in literary and artistic modernism, it seems that this exhibition has a lot to offer. It focuses on three of the mainstays of contemporary culture: politics, society and religion.

‘Strands’ sets the tone for the exhibition, which is made up of sculptures, sight specific installations, paintings and films. Some of the pieces strike me more than others: a life sized truck, made of shiny metallic balls and full of metallic people on their way to work, is the first thing I see as I enter the gallery. It is so striking, I think, because these trucks were everywhere in Delhi. On the right hand side of the truck, a film is playing in the wing mirror – it shows a road identical to the ones that we spent so long driving down; I have similar videos that I took myself.

The coupled paintings that have been used to publicise the exhibition are ‘Baggage Claim’ by Jitish Kallat. The muted colours depict lethargic looking Indians; they are a representation of some of the most vulnerable in their society – the street vendors, who, set against a backdrop of relentless advertisement, have been the most hurt by globalization. Unsavoury images litter the painting: a food box is covered in insects; a car is melting.

The next piece I encounter is another by Kallat, this time a sculpture entitled ‘Autosaurus Tripos’. It is the skeleton of an auto-rickshaw, made from animal bones – a grotesque skull leers out from the back seat as if acting as an omen. The skeletal shell of the rickshaw, such a common sight on India’s roads, for Kallat speaks for the numerous burnt out cars that are abandoned there every day.

Another sculpture, ‘The Cult of Survival’ by Jagannath Panda, depicts Indian economic growth as a snake, overpowering and crushing the natural world, symbolised by a plant pot of flowers. The snake morphs into a pipe that could easily have been taken from any urban building; its destination is unknown and its strength unremittingly powerful.

Immigration into the cities is represented by Hema Upadhyay’s ‘8 Feet X 12 Feet’, a large box with one side cut out, that the visitor can walk into. The metropolis is seen through the aluminium that covers the walls. On closer inspection it becomes clear that it is rows of miniature houses, hundreds of them, cramped together on each wall and across the roof. The aluminium could represent a shanty town, or a slum. Standing inside the installation feels oppressive, as though the houses, particularly the ones above, are bearing down – an accurate depiction, then, of the claustrophobia that comes with all at once being inside a metropolis.

A film plays at the end of the gallery, overlooking the eclectic collection of work. ‘You are here’, by Ayisha Abraham, is made up of shaky clips from the mid twentieth century. Every day family situations –a man at the kitchen table, a boy on a bike, a truck passing– dance against the gallery wall; an India that is newly independent and slightly unsure of itself. The images flicker, and then move on quickly – a moment lost.

Bringing up subjects that to some may appear controversial for an Indian artist, Sarnath Banerjee’s graphic novel extracts use the recognisable comic book form to highlight the influence that outside culture has had on the country. In ‘Threesome’, an apparently sexually liberated female (‘single and self-made… a divorcee with a perfect body’) is happy to fulfil the sexual needs of her numerous lovers, including her boss. The comic strip ends with her feeling disappointed by the reality of her liaisons, however – leaving her with ‘one fantasy less’. Possibly it could be read as a warning to Indians to preserve their traditions, in the face of increasing pressures to westernise.

The 2008 Mumbai terror attacks are the inspiration behind MF Husain’s ‘Rape of India’. In the painting, the body politic of an attack on the motherland being representative of an attack on the innocent body are shown graphically. The disturbing image that ensues is of a girl, a cow, a child and an elephant seemingly impossibly intertwined. It is a representation, possibly, of the boundaries between human and animal blurring, in the wake of slaughter.

Addressing religion, Shilpa Gupta’s ‘Untitled (Heat Book)’ reflects contemporary dangers of radicalisation. The book in question is made of steel, and is lit by coal from beneath – signs instruct the viewer to avoid touching it, its heat is too great. The symbolic reverence is added to in that it contains no words: there is no suggestion of which religion this book represents, or whether it encompasses dangers posed by the notion of religion as a whole.

These are my highlights from the exhibition; I could easily have picked out more – a chicken wire blanket that that looks soft but is likely to slice the ends of your fingers open if you touch it; decorative floral wallpaper that on closer inspection depicts semi-naked couples and is designed to educate about the risks of HIV. There is no doubt that ‘Indian Highways’ is brought more alive because I’ve just been to India, but don’t overlook it if this isn’t the case. It is a fascinating introduction to the culture of this emerging country on its own– a country that, it must be remembered, has had its independence for less than seventy years.

‘Indian Highways’ is showing at the MAXXI Museum, Via Guido Reni, Rome, until the 29th of January.

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