Adivasi Modernity in Paris

An exhibition of Adivasi art at the Quai Branly Museum presents a convincing argument that neocolonial exoticism, Indian and French, is anachronistic

01 May, 2010

TO THE RIGHT OF A ROUND DAIS, on which a few visibly ill-at-ease Adivasi artists sit while elegant French and Indian guests swirl around them, a rough rendition of the Eiffel Tower in modelling clay has slowly cracked into sections as it dries. The occasion is the opening of the exhibition of Adivasi art currently on in Paris at the Quai Branly Museum, Other Indian Masters: Contemporary Adivasi Creations. The clay provided to the visiting artists to demonstrate their craft is not a material they are used to manipulating. The cracking Eiffel Tower seems to be a metaphor for the subtle rebellion of an Adivasi artist not happy with being rendered into an exotic spectacle for Parisian aesthetes; and for the persistent incapacity of both urban India and France to break the neocolonial frame of a vision of ‘exotic’ others that permits them to be exhibited.

The irony is that the exhibition itself explicitly takes on imperial ethnography, from 19th century British sepia portraits of various ethnic ‘types,’ to Bollywood movie renditions of pretty tribal girls capturing the hearts of proper Hindu urban boys, to Dayanita Singh’s photographs of ethnographic dioramas in a Kolkata museum. The exhibition is curated by celebrated Indian traditional art expert and anthropologist Jyotindra Jain, and is brilliantly informed by his essays in the exhibition catalogue. Jain is categorical: this art is neither ‘primitive’ nor timeless. It is a contemporary expression of an alternative modernity which exists simultaneously with the modernity of the viewer, as parallel universes might. In the contemporary Adivasi artist’s vision, it is the West and, more specifically, Westernised India—urban, rapidly industrialising and privatising, globally connected and whose Promethean trajectory is ruthlessly enforced by the police and security forces—that is the object of an active subject’s representation. In the Adivasi artist’s world, we are among the observed, the depicted, the represented, as our world crashes into theirs. The art in the exhibition presents us with our own violent reality as seen by people who live at once on the margins of this reality and at its epicentre.

While the exhibition includes exquisite specimens of the traditional art of diverse communities across India, it is the work of those artists who have put their individual stamp on a traditional medium that is the most provocative. In these works, we see the god of death, Yama, represented as a policeman. In the innocent-seeming terracotta friezes of Rajwar artist Sonabai, a policeman leads away a man as if it were the most usual thing in the world. In a painting by Warli master Jivya Soma Mashe, a train rips through a village, dividing it forever from itself. A work by Ganga Devi, an artist who paints on paper in the Mithila tradition, depicts her treatment for cancer. Here, the figures of doctor and patient, rendered in the Mithila silhouetted style, echo the relationship of the work of art to the viewer, where one is exhibited to the other’s observation. The twin towers in New York, under attack on 11 September 2001, Indira Gandhi’s assassination, and the tsunami of 2004 all find their way into the works Jyotindra Jain has selected to make his point that the Adivasi artist’s world includes our own. This point is underlined by the photographs in the exhibition by Pablo Bartholomew of Nagas whose day-to-day reality, we come to understand, is very much inflected by one we think of as ours even as Bartholomew shows us it is theirs.

But Jain also has included works of Adivasi art that reverberate with such exuberant form and colour that they approach the aesthetics of abstract expressionism. While Jivya Soma Mashe’s mesmerising repetition of meticulously rendered forms verge on the abstract—whorls of dancers spiralling out of a circle, fishermens’ nets cast like fine lace across the paper surface of the painting—it is in the work of Jangarh Singh Shyam, whose paintings are the culmination of the entire show, where we sense a highly original synthesis of traditional motifs and techniques with the impulse of a genius. Shyam’s organic forms, pulsing with colour and sinuous movement, are incantatory evocations of the natural and the imaginary worlds. This brilliant artist took his own life at the age of 37 in 2001 while attending an artist’s residency in Japan.

The Quai Branly Museum’s walls of glass opening onto contemporary gardens provide a dramatic backdrop to the monumental terracotta sculptures, while the undulating form of the walls and the almost secret room where the photographs and Bollywood footage are shown, help to literally break apart the strictures of the 19th century idea of the natural history museum as exhibition space for the ‘exotic.’ It is, all in all, a breathtaking show.

On 14 April, Mallika Sarabhai performed at the exhibition for the inauguration of Namaste France, the Indian counterpart to the French Bonjour India. This joint cultural festival is meant to provide a glimpse of each country’s culture to the other. As Sarabhai observed wryly, “It’s an irony that we’re celebrating Adivasi art abroad while we’re waging war on them at home.” The list of peoples who no longer exist but for what is exhibited of their culture in museums is very long. In its campaign to ‘pacify’ large tracts of land, now teeming with Maoist revolutionaries, where Adivasis have lived for millennia, in order to make that territory safe for lucrative mining and industrial ventures that involve the wholesale destruction of their land and way of life, the Indian government seems to be doing everything it can to make sure that the Adivasis join this list. It seems never to have occurred to India’s urban elite to ask the Adivasis themselves what kind of development they would like, or even if they want to be ‘developed,’ in the sense that shopping-mall crazed urban Indians think it means. (One of the paintings in the exhibit actually depicts middle-class Indians at a mall.) Certainly, secure enjoyment of their traditional territory, access to quality education and medical care, the ability to feed children who too often go hungry would be among the basic conditions of a set of policies that would allow Adivasis to chart their own way of being modern in life as well as in art. Whereas the exhibition in Paris has the great merit of treating these people as active subjects, India’s current ruthless domestic policies—and the Maoists’ no less ruthless guerrilla warfare—merely subjects them. There is no doubt that the Maoist infiltration of Adivasi territory has become alarmingly threatening and must somehow be dealt with. Yet, in its too-facile conflation of Maoists with Adivasis, the current government reveals its feet of clay—clay that is cracking.