Lovers of contemporary Indian art are in for an extraordinary treat with San Jose Museum of Modern Art’s exhibit “Roots in the Air, Branches Below.” The remarkable exhibition was assembled entirely from work found in private collections across the San Francisco Bay Area.


Curated by Kristen Evangelista, the artwork ranges from the tumultuous but exciting time when India became independent from the British and the Indian artist was determined to assert his or her identity in the post-colonial world to the 21st century when India has once again embraced change by moving from a socialist to a consumer-driven society on its way to becoming a global superpower. Evangelista says that the exhibition was inspired by the idea that the material world around is but a reflection of the timeless spiritual realm within, an concept found in the ancient Hindu poem, the Bhagwad Geeta.
In the case of the Indian artists represented in this show, ideas, influences, and experiences come from daily interaction with mythology, spirituality, political turmoil, or the paradoxes that exist in Indian society.

It is rare that one is able to see the work of early trailblazers of modern Indian art movement such as M.F. Husain, F.N. Souza, Tyeb Mehta, S.H. Raza, Ram Kumar, J. Swaminathan, Jahangir Sabavala, Krishen Khanna, Manjit Bawa, V.S. Gaitonde, Madhavi Parekh, Ganesh Pyne, K.G. Subramanyam, and Jamini Roy in one show.
Many of these artists formed collectives in the 1940s such as the Calcutta Artists Group, the Delhi Silpi Chakra, and the Bombay Progressive Artists Group. They studied art in the Western methods and often chose to combine their talent and skills with an Indian sensibility in terms of concept, context, imagery, and color. The influences in their work come from varied sources due to their exposure to both Western and Indian art, and from world-changing events such as world wars and the Indian freedom movement. The result is artwork that is powerful and shows considerable stylistic diversity. Jamini Roy, for example, went back to painting in the folk art style reminiscent of the sculptures found in his native Bankura district of West Bengal.  On the other hand, Jahangir Sabavala’s work shows the influence of cubism and Paul Cézanne. In Husain’s words, these artists built, “a bridge between the Western technique and the Eastern concept” and paved the way for newer generations of Indian artists.

The newer group is a witness to India’s growing power on the world stage. The India of the 21st century represents a society that is at once modern and traditional, deeply religious yet secular, and is home to some of the world’s richest and poorest people. The largest democracy in the world presents mind-boggling contradictions and essentially refuses to be put in a box.

Contemporary Indian artists encounter these paradoxes on a daily basis, and these experiences are often what provide a context for their work. Some of the artists represented are Rina Banerjee, Jitish Kallat, G.R. Iranna, Anjum Singh, Vinod Balak, Alexis Kersey, and Surendran Nair. Interestingly, artists from the Indian diaspora are also included: Aneesh Kapoor, Zarina Hashmi, and Bari Kumar. There is considerable stylistic variation found in the work of the contemporary group as well. However, in the senior artists’ work, the combining of Western and Indian elements was often deliberate while in the contemporary artists it has already become an inherited trait.

There are many outstanding works in this assortment of sorts created from various private collections. All these works must be seen keeping in mind the context of life as it was, or is, for the artist who has created the vision. Since the works are privately owned and will probably go back to private collections once the exhibition is over, the opportunity to see them, and see them all together, may not come again.

There are several upcoming events surrounding the exhibition such as a lecture by Santhi Kavuri-Bauer, and a free Community Day, to name a few. Roots in the Air, Branches Below is a commendable effort by the San Jose Museum of Art to introduce their audience to the dynamic world of Indian modern and contemporary art, as well as attract the growing South Asian population in the Bay area to the museum.n

On exhibit through Sept. 4 (closed Mondays). San Jose Museum of Art, 110 S. Market St., San Jose. $8 general; $5 student/senior; members and children 6 and under free. (408) 271-6840.

Events organized around this exhibition:
WED, APR 6, 2011, 12-1 PM
Lunchtime Lecture: A Historical Survey of Indian Modern Art
Santhi Kavuri-Bauer, who teaches modern and contemporary Asian art history at San Francisco State University, will look at modern Indian art from the 1900s to the 1980s in the context of Indian history, culture, and politics. Lunchtime Lectures take place on the first Wednesday of the month in the Charlotte Wendel Education Center. Visitors are welcome to bring food and beverages. Free.

SAT, APR 16, 2011, 1-3 PM
DIY Art : Roots in the Air, Branches Below
Find inspiration in the exhibition Roots in the Air, Branches Below, which features work by artists from India and includes imagery derived from traditional depictions of beloved Indian deities, from Ganesha with his elephant head to Lord Vishnu resting on a cobra coach. Relate these classic Hindi epic tales to today’s lifestyle as you design a digital “tile” for your computer’s desktop. Free with Museum admission.

SAT, MAY 14, 2011, 11AM – 5PM
Community Day: Art of India
SJMA’s free community days showcase the diversity of Silicon Valley. Celebrate the visual and performing arts of India at this fun-filled day for the whole family. Enjoy live music and strolling performers as you take in the art in the galleries. Get creative with hands-on activities inspired by traditional Indian crafts, and see demonstrations of Rangoli, traditional sandpainting that decorates courtyards and entrances of homes. Free.