Fantastical conceptions of India

May 6, 2014

by Livia Romano

 Indomania. From Rembrandt to the Beatles. 16.10.2013 > 26.01.2014

Centre for Fine Arts, Rue Ravenstein 23B -1000 Brussels

Portrait de John Wombell vêtu à l’indienne et fumant le hookah © Fondation Custodia, Collection Frits Lugt, Paris

Portrait de John Wombell vêtu à l’indienne et fumant le hookah © Fondation Custodia, Collection Frits Lugt, Paris

There were cardboard boxes and plastic chairs shoved in the corners of the grand marble entryway of BOZAR as I approached the exhibit Indomania: From Rembrandt to the Beatles. The gift shop outside the entrance consisted of books stacked on wooden crates, evoking the overseas trade that first brought Europeans to India. It feels as if we have docked at the port and are embarking on an adventure.

But we won’t really be going abroad, literally or conceptually—this adventure guides us through different versions of India as seen through the eyes of the West, especially European and American artists.


This in itself is a broad topic, and not without conflict. Some conceptions of India are fantastical, as Mark Twain wrote in 1887: ‘This is indeed India! the land of dreams and romance, of fabulous wealth and fabulous poverty, of splendor and rags, of palaces and hovels, of famine and pestilence, of genii and giants and the jungle…’ Others have slandered the country as backward and primitive, as when Lord Macaulay notoriously wrote in 1835 that ‘a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.’ Even before entering the exhibition, there is a tension, a preexisting condition: how will the curators and creators of this exhibit tastefully address the long-standing misconceptions and generalizations that continue to define the largest Asian subcontinent for Europeans?

Life in the colonies


The Indomania exhibit is part of the 24th edition of the Europalia art festival which, as their program states, celebrates ‘the complexities and paradoxes of Indian art and culture.’ This exhibit is not exactly a celebration of the fine aspects of Indian art, it rather is a survey of European artists’ interaction with and portrayal of India. The result is a visually beautiful and diverse exhibition.


Our journey – aided by a free audio guide—begins in a long hallway lined with vivid photos of lush nature and colorful crowds. On the floor is an installation called Paths (1945) by Richard Long that consists of three long, irregular pieces of wood lying flat on the floor. In the first room, the timeline of historical highlights of the exhibit begins with Vasco de Gama’s first trade route to India via the Cape of Good Hope in 1498.


Next is a room full of works of watercolor and gouache on paper depicting everyday scenes in Indian life, including people weaving, native exotic plants and animals. Most notably, fantastical and wholly inaccurate are the early portrayals of the rhinoceros. We also meet a depiction of sati, the ceremony in which an Hindu widow burns herself along with her husband’s funeral pyre. The paintings, mostly done by Mughal artists, were commissioned by the British East India Company to inform the English about life in the colonies.


These images were not necessarily representational of life in India, but they were perceived as such by Europeans. The informative plaques indicate that the pictures are especially designed for Western eyes, meaning that they are selected for shock value and sensationalized appropriately; they represent the first fodder for stereotypes. Perhaps the curators assumed that message would carry on by itself, or perhaps that it is already ingrained in the minds of viewers, for during the rest of the exhibit an explicit discussion of stereotypes is more or less abandoned.


Following the watercolors we move into the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. One room is dedicated to textiles and weaving, another to sculpture and carving, all noted as impressing Europeans with their fine craftsmanship. One highlight is a traditional sculpture of a female dancer that was owned by Auguste Rodin, accompanied by a photograph of his Indian model and an erotic watercolor sketch entitled Embracing Sapphic Couple.


The revolt against the British in 1867 is noted next to unrelated black and white photos of the same year. Nearby are early printings of works by Rudyard Kipling, Pierre Loti, and J.R. Ackerly; then architectural sketches for a meditation temple commissioned by Nehru by Romanian sculptor Constantin Brâncuși. Contrasts are prevalent: for example, tragic black and white photos by Werner Bischof as Famine Stricken Area, Grain Bags as Beds show hunger and poverty. Nearby, more photos by Henri Cartier-Bresson pick up the mood with scenes of prayer and the marketplace.


The small rooms are organized chronologically at the outset, but as the exhibit continues it seems to shift to be grouped according to subject or medium. There is a lot on display, and viewers do get a sense of how difficult it must be to attempt to arrange the multitude of works that represent the impact of India on the whole of European art. Of course, logical organization isn’t mandatory, and is especially forgivable with the hypnotizing sound of traditional ragas on the headphones.


Music and dance


Music is one of the main highlights of this exhibit. The present-day art works are dominated by poets and musicians: modern artists including Allen Ginsberg, George Harrison, and Ravi Shankar are presented as taking inspiration from Indian classical music. Once again, musical accompaniment is provided by the audio guide. The upbeat tune of ‘Meetings Along the Edge’ of Passages, a compilation by Ravi Shankar and Philip Glass, eases the transition between rooms.


Yet toward the end of the exhibit, the scope of media seems to become exponentially larger—to the point of being distracting. We realize just how diverse the content of the exhibit is. Suddenly, we are shown more musicians (shouldn’t they have been with the others in the previous room?) including John Coltrane and Carlos Santana. Then, a slightly out of place video of modern interpretations of Indian dancing was thrown in, although no traditional dance was shown as contrast.

Contemporary abstract paintings by Howard Hodgkin including Snake and Leaves (2006-2008), are shown alongside Robert Rauschenberg’s installations Charter and Capitol (1975), built from materials like mud, bamboo, silk, string, glass, and teak. We finally conclude with hanging geometrical sculptures from bamboo by Keith Sonnier including Aum Om-A and Vishnu (1981).


While somewhat overwhelming, the journey is far from boring. There are benefits to shifting between media quickly. There seems to be a surprise around every corner: before one has the chance to get tired of still photographs, they are brought into motion with a screening of The River by Jean Renoir. Beautiful images of India’s lush landscape will surely transport the consciousness of anyone who still remembers he is in Brussels.


Speaking of consciousness, we next arrive in a room dedicated to Indian spirituality and philosophy including the West’s interest in Ayurveda, Yoga, and Tantra through photos from 1935-1955 by Alain Daniélou and Raymond Burnier. Yet it would be nice to have been granted a tidbit of information about these traditions, rather than simply naming them—the spiritual traditions are mentioned, but not explored in any depth.


Sadly, despite the visual and audial splendor of the exhibit, its ethical and sociological potential goes untapped. Another topic that begs for exploration is Orientalism. In his 1978 book of the same name, Edward Saïd explores the problematic nature of treating a diverse and complex nation as one monolithic unit. He wrote that ‘European culture gained in strength and identity by setting itself off against the Orient as a sort of surrogate and even underground self.’ With British occupation well in the past, the discussion of Orientalism, ‘a discourse of power originating in an era of colonialism,’ would have provided a fruitful conceptual framework for not only consideration of the artworks in Indomania but also for a critical self-analysis of our individual and collective European views. Rather than being at the forefront of the exhibition, this interesting topic is implied at best.


Quick jumping


The exhibition is broad, which has the benefit of illustrating the vast scope that an awareness of India has had on nearly every imaginable facet of European art. Yet the quick jumping between media, from watercolors to textiles, from carvings to films, from books to dances, feels fragmentary and disjointed. Perhaps it is the diversity of media that prevents the creators of the exhibit to go into more depth regarding the political and sociological implications of European interaction with India, or with specific aspects of India’s rich spiritual and philosophical tradition.


Before visiting the exhibit, I was excited to see how modern curators confront the powerful issue of Europe’s history of dominance. Saïd said that his ‘two fears are distortion and inaccuracy, or rather the kind of inaccuracy produced by too dogmatic a generality or too positivistic a localized focus.’ The answer is that they avoid the question completely. There is much potential for controversy in tackling the subject of the European gaze East, yet the creators of the exhibit chose to minimize that potential by simply describing the art works and brief biographies of the artists without delving into controversial topics.


Indomania: From Rembrandt to the Beatles sterilizes the more controversial, but also the more interesting and relevant, aspects of Orientalism. While some may appreciate the lightheartedness of the exhibit, it could have benefitted from just a little more philosophical backbone. Perhaps, hopefully, these types of issues were tackled in other events of the Europalia art festival. Despite this lack, the sensory aspects of the exhibit are rich and exciting; yet those interested in the ethical and intellectual questions surrounding the complex history between Europe and India are left aching for more.