“Sub-Plots: Laughing in the Vernacular”: Exploring Indian contemporary art with a sense of humour – curator interview

The exhibition provides an insight into the satirical wit of leading Indian artists, expressing their creative opinions on a range of socio-political issues.

Curated by Meena Vari and supported by Sakshi Gallery, this exhibition is on display at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), Mumbai until 14 January 2018. Art Radar speaks to the curator to find out more.

“Sub-Plots: Laughing in the Vernacular”, 9 December 2017 - 14 January 2018. Installation view at NGMA Mumbai. Image courtesy the artists, NGMA Mumbai and Sakshi Gallery.

“Sub-Plots: Laughing in the Vernacular”, 9 December 2017 – 14 January 2018. Installation view at NGMA Mumbai. Image courtesy the artists, NGMA Mumbai and Sakshi Gallery.

The power of laughter

Historically artists have been using wit, satire and humour in their work, while contemplating popular culture, for centuries – from ancient Greek theatre to modern-day political cartoons and the comic strip. In 1917, Marcel Duchamp revolutionised the world of conceptual art by submitting his readymade Fountain to the Society for Independent Artists, under the pseudonym R. Mutt. A tongue-in-cheek jab that was designed to poke fun at American avant-garde art became one of the most influential artworks of the 20th century.

In the recent past, humour has been appearing more frequently in contemporary art, with artists and audiences increasingly feeling the need to reflect satirically upon the absurdities in daily life. Artists in India have been surrounded by a social and political arena that has seen significant uncertainty, conflict and change since independence – which has inspired them to infuse into their work, a dose of subversive humour, enabling them to establish an immediate rapport with their audiences.

“Sub-Plots: Laughing in the Vernacular”, 9 December 2017 - 14 January 2018. Installation view at NGMA Mumbai. Image courtesy the artists, NGMA Mumbai and Sakshi Gallery.

“Sub-Plots: Laughing in the Vernacular”, 9 December 2017 – 14 January 2018. Installation view at NGMA Mumbai. Image courtesy the artists, NGMA Mumbai and Sakshi Gallery.

“Sub-Plots: Laughing in the Vernacular” (PDF download) presents the works of 24 Indian artists, spanning over several decades, in a comprehensive exhibition that includes 60 multimedia installations, photographs, paintings, graphics and sculptures. Curated by Meena Vari and presented by Sakshi Gallery in Mumbai, the show successfully transcends the formality associated with exhibitions at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in Mumbai, by introducing a sense of humour and a familiarity into the artworks – making art more accessible and more fun.

Mithu Sen, 'False Friends', 2007, mixed media photo collage (16 units). Image courtesy the artist, NGMA Mumbai and Sakshi Gallery.

Mithu Sen, ‘False Friends’, 2007, mixed media photo collage (16 units). Image courtesy the artist, NGMA Mumbai and Sakshi Gallery.

This is evident when visitors to the gallery are confronted by a sardonic comment on the persistence of India’s colonial hangover, with Siddhartha Kararwal’s Still Chewing (2017) – a life-size statue of Queen Victoria dangling in the central atrium, suspended with the help of a mammoth piece of hot-pink chewing gum. A vibrant curvilinear red wall greets visitors at the entrance, displaying Mithu Sen’s False Friends (2007), a mixed media photo collage of images, many of which are the artist’s own, digitally altered and defaced as a spoof on self-representation.

Siddhartha Kararwal, 'Still Chewing', 2017, fibreglass and silicon rubber on fabric. Image courtesy the artist, NGMA Mumbai and Sakshi Gallery.

Siddhartha Kararwal, ‘Still Chewing’, 2017, fibreglass and silicon rubber on fabric. Image courtesy the artist, NGMA Mumbai and Sakshi Gallery.

Another monumental installation is Vivek Vilasini’s Out of Home (2017), a series of photographs of 65 different advertising hoarding sites that make a political statement on the omnipresence of consumerism in contemporary society. L.N. Tallur’s ATM – Anger Therapy Machine (2012), Ravinder Reddy’s relief sculptures of contemporary city girls styled like mythical yakshinis (1981), Bharti Kher’s wry twist on an everyday chore of vacuuming in Hungry Dogs Eating Dirty Pudding (2004) or Manjunath Kamath’s intriguing terracotta 20-foot-long Conversation (2017) are all tongue-in-the-cheek works, full of wit with a dash of the absurd.    

Bharti Kher, 'Hungry Dogs eating Dirty Pudding', 2004, fibreglass and plastic, 18 x 30 x 40 in. Image courtesy the artist, NGMA Mumbai and Sakshi Gallery.

Bharti Kher, ‘Hungry Dogs eating Dirty Pudding’, 2004, fibreglass and plastic, 18 x 30 x 40 in. Image courtesy the artist, NGMA Mumbai and Sakshi Gallery.

Bhupen Khakhar, 'He took enema five times a day', 2002, oil on canvas, 42 x 100 in (diptych). Image courtesy the artist, NGMA Mumbai and Sakshi Gallery.

Bhupen Khakhar, ‘He took enema five times a day’, 2002, oil on canvas, 42 x 100 in (diptych). Image courtesy the artist, NGMA Mumbai and Sakshi Gallery.

Humour as a Sub-Plot

As one traverses across the three levels of the NGMA Mumbai, the blend of art and comedy slowly comes together and the roles defined by “Sub-Plots” become more evident. Each artist takes on the mantle of the joker and each spectator becomes a keen-eyed observer seeking to solve the riddle or comprehend the witticism. The underlying thread that weaves the myriad works on display into a composite whole becomes clearer with each piece. There are the doodled photographs of artists in Atul Dodiya’s Anarkaliand 72 Idiots (2004-2010) and Bhupen Khakhar’s wickedly entitled He Took Enema Five Times a Day (2002). C.K. Rajan’s Psychopathic Killer Fan (2010) is suspended at a low height so that its long blades come dangerously close to slicing into an onlooker’s neck.

In the words of Shivprasad Khened, Director of NGMA,

The artists have used their whole arsenal of creativity and lampoonery to articulate their humorous – yet impactful – thoughts, which while evoking laughter pose a range of questions.

Thukral and Tagra, 'Mythological Inductions: Kalki,' 2017, acrylic on canvas, SS plates with enamel, varied (21 units). Image courtesy the artist, NGMA Mumbai and Sakshi Gallery.

Thukral and Tagra, ‘Mythological Inductions: Kalki,’ 2017, acrylic on canvas, SS plates with enamel, varied (21 units). Image courtesy the artist, NGMA Mumbai and Sakshi Gallery.

As a grand finale, and as a reward for having completed a journey into the comedic world that has been created within the circular walls of the NGMA Mumbai, we reach the top floor. Under the domed roof of the gallery is Mythological Inductions: Kalki (2017), a monumental bespoke installation created by Delhi-based artist duo Thukral & Tagra. The work draws from the geometrical form of the NGMA, by referring to the cyclical nature of time and addressing the idea of Dharma, or the divine laws of existence, using a wry metaphor – the game of ping pong. The rumblings of thousands of balls that are powered down circular tracks, by motorised fans, reverberate and echo through the floors of the 107-year-old Sir Cowasji Jehangir Public Hall – enhancing the experience of visitors by providing yet another element of amusement and frivolity.

Art Radar spoke to curator Meena Vari about howSub-Plots: Laughing in the Vernacular” was conceived and her curatorial experiences during the realisation of the project.

“Sub-Plots: Laughing in the Vernacular”, 9 December 2017 - 14 January 2018. Installation view at NGMA Mumbai. Image courtesy the artists, NGMA Mumbai and Sakshi Gallery.

“Sub-Plots: Laughing in the Vernacular”, 9 December 2017 – 14 January 2018. Installation view at NGMA Mumbai. Image courtesy the artists, NGMA Mumbai and Sakshi Gallery.

This is an exhibition with unique subject matter and is perhaps the first-of-its-kind in India. What was the genesis of this idea?

The genesis of this project took place a couple of years ago, when I saw the works of many artists who were using humour as a response to local and personal themes in their work. I was following the work of Atul Dodiya, Vivek Vilasini, Anup Mathew Thomas and N. S. Harsha. In my discussion with Geetha Mehra, owner of the Sakshi Gallery, it became clear that we had to do this show as she had already worked on this theme earlier. We applied to the NGMA with the proposal two years ago and they scheduled the show in December 2017.

Vivek Vilasini, 'Out-of-home', 2017, archival print on Hahnemühle paper. Image courtesy the artist, NGMA Mumbai and Sakshi Gallery.

Vivek Vilasini, ‘Out-of-home’, 2017, archival print on Hahnemühle paper. Image courtesy the artist, NGMA Mumbai and Sakshi Gallery.

You have explored ‘Laughing in the Vernacular’… how do Indian artists differ from their international counterparts in using humour as a conceptual framework in their art?

This show is unique to an Indian perspective and that is natural. It is very difficult to translate humour from one language or one context to another, because the reference is from one’s own social and cultural context – especially if it is not some kind of slapstick humour. Internationally too, artists have been using wit and humour as a tool to confront and challenge complex questions around politics, history and the everyday. I will say there is no difference – every artist is using humour in the same way. One of the best examples is Ai Weiwei, who uses humour as a critical tactic to question politics and policies. Until recently, works with humour were not considered serious, maybe because they were not understood properly and their importance was lost. Due to this, they were not considered in curated international shows.

Ravinder Reddy, 'Reliefs I - III', 1981, painted polyester resin, fibreglass , 72.6 x 28.6 x 12 in. Image courtesy the artist, NGMA Mumbai and Sakshi Gallery.

Ravinder Reddy, ‘Reliefs I – III’, 1981, painted polyester resin, fibreglass , 72.6 x 28.6 x 12 in. Image courtesy the artist, NGMA Mumbai and Sakshi Gallery.

What was the curatorial vision that you used while choosing the 24 artists represented in the show, and what was your own creative process in the final choices of the works on display?

The curatorial vision was to explore artists who were working in this realm over the last six decades. The idea was to exhibit works of artists who were already known to use humour as an integral part of their practice. The content played a big role in the selection. It became possible also because of Sakshi Gallery’s support and their work with some of the artists for many decades. I must say we were quite lucky to get some seminal works on loan like that of Bhupen Khakhar, Amit Ambalal, KG Subramanyan, N S Harsha and others.

C. K.Rajan, 'Psychopathic Killer Fan', 2010, wood, metal, acrylic paint and used motor, 77 x 153 in. Image courtesy the artist, NGMA Mumbai and Sakshi Gallery.

C. K.Rajan, ‘Psychopathic Killer Fan’, 2010, wood, metal, acrylic paint and used motor, 77 x 153 in. Image courtesy the artist, NGMA Mumbai and Sakshi Gallery.

Your title “Sub-Plots” is intriguing. Was the underlying sub-narrative that you saw in each work different from the artists’? What was the role of the artist in the show and were any of the installations bespoke pieces done on site?

As the name suggests, “Sub-Plots” is very direct, like a sub-plot in a play or show. The term is taken from theatre, where there are sub-acts and main acts in the same play, and usually when the clown or a comedian comes in to make a parallel track or a sub-narrative, usually through humorous acts. I was looking for works that were pointing to contemporary times and to highlight the sub-text that was being picked up by the artists.

We got some new works, which were made specially for the show, and some of them were made site-specific – like Still Chewing by Siddhartha Kararwal, Mythological Inductions – Kalki by Thukral & Tagra, Out-of-Home by Vivek Vilasini,  Good morning, so …. what is Trump saying today? by KP Reji, Sun goes around the Earth by Anirban Mitra, Mother Earth by Dhruvi Acharya as well as the works by Surendran Nair and Manjunath Kamath.

Manjunath Kamath, '20-foot-long conversation', 2014, painted terracotta, 15 feet. Image courtesy the artist, NGMA Mumbai and Sakshi Gallery.

Manjunath Kamath, ’20-foot-long conversation’, 2014, painted terracotta, 15 feet. Image courtesy the artist, NGMA Mumbai and Sakshi Gallery.

The show is at the National Gallery of Modern Art, a venue that sees visitors with a varied profile, being on the tourist map for Indian and international travellers. What has been the reaction of both, such viewers as well as the more seasoned art fraternity, to such a unique exhibition?

Yes, different kinds of people came to see the show. I was quite happy that some of the works were very accessible to people while some were difficult to make sense of. But the spirit of the show was quite clear. The idea of the show was not to showcase stand-up comedy or slapstick humour. The art fraternity and many of the regular visitors to NGMA were very positive about the show. They liked the intellectual challenge that the artists were demanding through their works.

Some visitors did feel that there should have been explanations or interpretations of what the artists meant – but I feel that it would have taken away the feel of the work. There are clues in the work, the title and sometimes in the material that is used.

L.N. Tallur, 'ATM (Anger therapy Machine)', 2012, wood, bronze, textile, 12 x 77.5 x 46 in. Image courtesy the artist, NGMA Mumbai and Sakshi Gallery.

L.N. Tallur, ‘ATM (Anger therapy Machine)’, 2012, wood, bronze, textile, 12 x 77.5 x 46 in. Image courtesy the artist, NGMA Mumbai and Sakshi Gallery.

As a curator, art educator and supporter of new artistic practices in the field of visual and performance art, are there any exciting initiatives to look out for, in the coming year, that you can share with Art Radar readers?

Since 2004, as an annual event at Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology, I have been curating and organising month-long participatory contemporary art projects, inviting artists from all over the world. This year we had artists from Turkey, India, Japan, Croatia, the United Kingdom, Slovenia, Germany, Iceland, the United States and Australia. I have already started working to put together next year’s project. I am also working on curating another show, looking at the idea of material and materiality – from ‘dust to data’. I am hoping to have a wide selection of contemporary artists from India and abroad for this exhibition.

Amita Kini-Singh

2020

“Sub-Plots: Laughing in the Vernacular” is on view from 9 December 2017 to 14 January 2018 at National Gallery of Modern Art, Sir Cowasji Jehangir Public Hall, M.G. Road, Fort, Mumbai 400032.

Related Topics: Indian, photography, video, interviews, museum shows, Mumbai

Related Posts:

Subscribe to Art Radar for more exhibitions on Indian contemporary art

Comments are closed.