Roots in the air, Branches below: Modern and Contemporary from India

When 25 Feb 2011 - 4 Sep 2011
Where San Jose Museum of Art
110 South Market Street
San Jose, CA 95113
United States
Enquiry 408.271.6840

Tyeb Mehta, UNTITLED from the “Diagonal” Series, 1976.
Courtesy of the artist and San Jose Museum of Art


February 25 – September 4, 2011

Roots in the air, branches below,

the tree of life is unchanging,

they say; its leaves are hymns,

and he who knows it knows sacred lore.

“The Fifteenth Teaching: The True Spirit of Man,”

in The Bhagavad-Gita, an ancient poem put into written form ca. first century BCE (trans. Barbara Stoler Miller, 1986)

Exhibition Overview

The tree of life described in this verse from The Bhagavad-Gita, an important classic of world literature, turns the world upside down. “Roots in the Air, Branches Below” becomes a metaphor for the timeless source of life — for the interconnectedness of the universe, of life and death, of past and present. This sensibility echoes through many of the artworks in this exhibition. Here, metaphysical and earth-bound realties intertwine; form is often in flux. The artists look simultaneously inward and outward. They find inspiration in the natural world as well as in India’s multifaceted cultural heritage of Hindu and Buddhist belief systems, ancient literature, political history, ancestral folk traditions, and popular culture. They picture a rich and hybrid realm.

Roots in the Air, Branches Below is an important survey of modern and contemporary Indian art rarely seen on the West Coast. The dramatic economic and social transformation of India since 1947, when it gained independence from British rule, laid the groundwork for newly expansive activity in the visual Art. The artists represented in this exhibition bring together their penchant for artistic innovation and participation in the international art world with the spiritual roots of India’s civilization. The second presentation in the Museum’s “Bay Area Collects” series, Roots in the Air, Branches Below is drawn entirely from private collections in the San Francisco Bay Area. The exhibition showcases paintings by renowned modernists such as Maqbool Fida Husain, Tyeb Mehta, Francis Newton Souza, and Sayed Haider Raza alongside the latest creations of a young generation of rising talents, such as Rina Banerjee, Jitish Kallat, and Bari Kumar. This exhibition illuminates a pivotal and exuberant phase of India’s artistic identity.

Modern Art

One of the ancient world civilizations, India is the birthplace of the Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, and Jain religions. Over two thousand years ago, the Silk and Spice routes connected Asia and Europe, weaving an intricate fabric of commercial and cultural exchange. Material goods, artistic traditions, and even belief systems were traded across great distances. As a result, the art of India reflects a rich array of diverse and complex influences.

The British, under the auspices of the East India Company, began trading in India in the seventeenth century. Over time, the British assumed power from the Mughal rulers and claimed India as a colony in 1858. By the early twentieth century, the Indian people increasingly resisted British rule on several fronts, most notably through Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent movement. With the British Parliament’s passage of the Indian Independence Act in 1947, India successfully gained its independence, yet the former colony was then also forced to partition into two dominions, divided by religious lines: India to the south (secular but predominantly Hindu) and Pakistan to the north (predominantly Muslim). The wrenching turmoil of Partition tarnished the excitement of emancipation, which occurred at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947. Over ten million people were displaced overnight and hundreds of thousands of people were killed during the following months of violent upheaval.

India’s young artists aimed to reconcile the political and often personal turmoil of the era with their aspirations for an uniquely modern, intrinsically Indian mode of visual expression. They played a critical role in defining the nation’s new identity. Across India, artists formed collectives such as the Calcutta Artists Group (1943), the Bombay Progressive Artists Group (1947), and the Delhi Silpi Chakra (1947). Together, they composed manifestos, organized exhibitions, and exchanged ideas. This new generation challenged the academic realism that was advanced in British colonial art schools and revisited India’s historical cultural heritage. Ultimately, India’s modern artists engaged in cross-cultural exchange and embraced diverse influences such as Cubism, abstraction, and Indian miniature painting. By the 1950s, European émigrés, who sought refuge from Nazism, organized the first exhibitions of Western modern art in India. Concurrently, Indian artists Maqbool Fida Husain, Sayed Haider Raza, and Francis Newton Souza traveled and studied in Europe and the United States. In the words of Husain, they built “a bridge between the Western technique and the Eastern concept”1 and set a precedent for recombinant artistic strategies for generations to come.

1Maqbool Fida Husain quoted in Daniel A. Herwitz, “Indian Identity and Contemporary Indian Art,” Contemporary Indian Art from the Chester and Davida Herwitz Family Collection, (New York: Grey Art Gallery, 1985), pp. 22-23.

Contemporary Art

Contemporary artists in India face a distinct set of circumstances from their predecessors: unlike the Indian modernists who sought to establish an artistic vision for a new nation, the present generation is part of a burgeoning democracy experiencing unprecedented growth and globalization. Over the course of six short decades, India has become a major military, economic, and technological leader. Its population has soared to over a billion people, among whom are more than 200 million cell phone users. Consumption of mass media has exploded. The once sole, government-run television station has been subsumed by over 515 channels. The commercial Bollywood film industry has blossomed. Despite this astounding progress and prosperity, the nation is challenged by divisive forces of nationalism and religious fundamentalism, recurring tensions with Pakistan, and the threat of nuclear war.

From ancient times to the present day, India has embraced paradoxes and incongruities—a complexity reflected in its rich artistic tradition. Today’s artists grapple with recurring political instabilities and severe economic inequalities. They balance past/present, traditional/modern, national/global, folk art/fine art, rural/urban, and religious fundamentalism/secular nationalism. By interweaving disparate inspirations and influences, they transcend dichotomies and defy a single definition of “Indian.” Above all else, the artists of this new generation are global citizens.

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