Pictures of the People’s Republic
How does the myth of China show up in works of Indian artists?
In aravind Adiga's Last Man in Tower, a doctor commenting on builder Dharmen Shah's admiration for China, says astutely, "The first experience of Shanghai to a middle-aged Indian businessman [is] what the first experience of sex is to a teenager." China to Indians is not just a big, overweening neighbour — its myth is a part of our popular culture. The dragon that always outpaces the elephant, its efficiency and power are what we secretly lust for. When China appears on the canvas of Indian artists, what shape does it take? What import do its mammoth cities and grand projects seem to hold?
For artists like Anant Joshi and Riyas Komu, China is a capitalist dystopia —and their art is often a sarcastic, sneering takedown of its glossy myth. An artist like Gigi Scaria spots striking similarities between the two neighbours, whether it is in the blurring of distinctions in the Delhi-Shanghai skyline, or the photographic portraits of Chairman Mao and Mahatma Gandhi. Others like Atul Dodiya and Nilima Sheikh look for beauty and continuities in the calligraphy of 7th century Chinese poetry or the older ties of trade and spirituality.
"My first memories of Chinese goods are from when I was in Class 6. Hero pens were a craze in schools and we all wanted to have one," says Komu, who idealises the time when China prided its tradition of labour and communism. "Now, the Chinese economy has abandoned labour for consumerism. The market is now my metaphor for China," he says.
His critique is evident in his metal sculpture Take Away, where the Chinese map is mounted on the legs of a rooster — as commonplace and uninspiring as fried chicken, to be parcelled for takeaway. Even in his signature portraits of ordinary Chinese, he foregrounds a sense of alienation. One canvas features a young man with eyes painted like a Xiangsheng master: the work is titled Hey, Why Should Everyone Look Like Mao?
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