Of SubTerrains and Seismology: Notes on the Contemporaneous in India

Guest post by MOHD. SABIH AHMED

Of SubTerrains and Seismology: Notes on the Contemporaneous in India [1]

If the starting point of an enquiry is to investigate into the larger ambit of cultural production in which a notional unity of ‘contemporary art’ is one formation, the study of alternative systems/networks/formations would not suffice merely as mapping them as ‘alternative art’ in the same field. Instead, the demand would be to trace the contexts that give rise to a necessity for peculiar and disparate kinds of alternatives, and how certain cases instigate the field, maybe even risk rearranging the very conceptual and pragmatic constituents of that field.

This paper is a series of ponderings, questions, and a hesitant proposition regarding the above-mentioned, as much as it is an exposition on the state of affairs of that notional unity that is ‘Contemporary Art in India’.


Before I begin, I’d like to substantiate the above abstract. The reason I want to look at already available alternative systems is because we would have to perforce examine the context that gives rise to a necessity for those alternatives. This paper, hence, sets out with an endeavour of examining that context.  Just to spell it out, my sympathies do not lie with ‘alternative art’, ‘anti-art’ or ‘anti-institutional’ claims made by artists. In fact, I am interested in finding critically-engaged practices around visuals that may force us to think of ‘art’, as we understand it, differently. Further still, if I identify certain practices as alternative systems of art-production, it is also with an interest to see the way each instance would differ from the other in HOW each one makes a distinct proposition that is critical of some idea of the ‘mainstream’. The hope is to therefore to relativize the notion of contemporary art against those critical propositions, rather than maintain it as a pre-given context. Just as there always arises a doubt and question of how an alternative claim is really ‘alternative’ (on what terms, and whether or not it is what it claims), there needs to be an equally sharp interrogation of how contemporary art is really contemporary (on what terms, besides the temporal pre-givens).

The title of this paper takes from an essay by Geeta Kapur written in 2004 titled ‘subTerrain: artists dig the contemporary’ [2], in which she pins down certain conceptual frameworks with which she analyses contemporary artists from India. I choose the essay, because the mode she assumes seems to be the predilection of her other writings on contemporary art in India, and more importantly, most writing on contemporary art happening in India is on similar lines, with few exceptions.

In her “subTerrain” essay, Kapur asserts that the artist subjectivity resides in the ‘subterrain of the contemporary’ – by deliberately assuming an underprivileged subject-hood (as it entrenches itself in identities of caste, local, nation) to upturn “the levelling effect of the no-history, no-nation, no place phenomenon promoted by globalized exhibitions and market circuits”[3]. I don’t want to elaborate more on the essay because this paper is not for the purpose of refuting her essay. Taking off from here, I am going to risk stretching this metaphor of the ‘subterrain’ a little bit because there’s obviously a conceptual reverberation with which Geeta Kapur has used it. This reverberation, as I have already said, echoes in various other articulations on contemporary art by writers[4].

If the subterrain is the ideological and political consciousness, the terrain would consequently be the zone in which that consciousness takes physical form, and becomes manifest not merely in the style and content of representation of an art-work but also in the life and ethics of art-practice, its affinities and disregards, even in the choice of exhibitions and galleries, and also the productive activities that don’t result in making an art-object. Therefore, instead of only plumbing deeper into the complexities of this sub-terrain, I think there’s as much a need to pull ourselves out of the symbolic realm of the artist subjectivity, to the surface again, in order to do an empirical analysis of this (changing) field of cultural production. The surface is in fact where the tectonic plate movements of contemporary art are visibly taking place.

My aim, therefore, is to grope the surface, i.e., to see how the institution manifests itself peculiarly in current times. The basis on which I propose this is that discourse emerges from the conditions of the field itself, and, thus, ideological and conceptual necessities arise depending on the angularity in which the field is dealt with. It’s not only how the discourse is generated or produced, rather how we inhabit it, which is what I want to look at.

The Unstable Terrain

So to begin with, lets spend a moment to browse the usual disposition towards understanding “contemporary Indian art” here.

This Art Map of India claims to be the first of its kind, published by an Art Advisory called Japa Arts. The map is extremely handy, no doubt. But is it legitimate? How do we tell? More importantly, who can legitimize it, and if we follow that chain of thought, who will challenge and subvert that legitimizing body? As we already know, we don’t quite have such official and non-official claims of difference, nor commercial and non-commercial demarcations.

Coming to the point, I have heard more than once that there is no infrastructure for art in India in some of the conversations with various people. With regard to this, the art market players have taken upon themselves to support what they refer to as an ‘ecology of the art market’ which will garner and nourish all the components of the art-field/market[5]. So not only are there auctions and commercial galleries, there are art-appreciation courses, there are children’s workshops for (collector’s) children, etc. Within this milieu, in the last decade the high-profile commercial art galleries have played an axiomatic role in filling some of the gaps left behind by the state and academic institutional spaces. This can be corroborated by the fact that in the recent past, it has been the galleries that have churned out newer artists more than curators and art critics, as the latter have harked upon the former’s discretion. There are other initiatives too that are taken by galleries, such as publishing books, organizing workshops, symposiums and artist-talks, and awarding emerging writers and artists, not to mention showcasing ‘Indian Art’ abroad in important art fairs, so much so that one can see a particular kind of discourse on art that is generated by this monopoly. This is evidenced in the way catalogue essays have become the most prominent forum for art-writing in India, besides a handful of art magazines that don’t seem to diverge much in that style of exposition. There is a flip-side to all this for obvious reasons: The Affirmatory tone and artist valorisation become the primary mode of discussing. Though enshrined in invocations of diverse themes, genres and mediums, the discussions are structured within a discourse that precludes theorizing any ‘other’ contexts of practices on their own terms- be it of the minority, or even to an extent the foreign[6].

An outcome of a market oriented institution is the constant consolidation of an artist-figure/persona who is the locus of representation, even when his/her artistic-production is delegated or distributed in atelier-like studios or factories. There’s been a lot of hue and cry about the ethics of artists delegating work. But those discussions are comfortably appeased if assistants or collaborators have been mentioned in the captions or labels. But I don’t think the issue extends only till the limit of whether the artist acknowledges his assistants and collaborators. In fact, the crucial question is, who does the artist represent?

  • Does s/he have an ideological stake in the claims made through the art-work?
  • Do his/her collaborators or assistants have any stake in the (above) artist’s claim?
  • Does s/he represent any community besides the artist-community?
  • Does he/she consider him/herself a representative voice of whatever community s/he chooses? or is s/he trying to raise a subversive voice against the community he or she represents?
  • Does s/he pose him/herself on behalf of any more individuals than his/her own self?
  • If s/he ever takes to standing up for his/her rights, will that protest lie outside of his/her art practice?
  • Will he/she acknowledge all of these questions important for art?

If we ARE talking about representation in art, I think these are more fundamental questions of representation than merely what a painting, sculpture, photograph, video or installation depicts in the way it does, or whether all affiliates have been acknowledged in making that art-work. Public art, community-art, and online-art therefore become far more vexed issues than merely the spaces chosen to display art, or ways to make art accessible/interactive. The nature of associations that artists make in creating art also needs to come into the purview.

To take as an instance, curator, writer and art critic Johny ML curated ‘Vibrant Gujarat’ in early 2009. The project speaks for itself, and I’d rather not spend time explaining how there’s absolutely no hint of any of the socio-political crises that one identifies with Gujarat. It is indeed entertaining to read the justifications that the curator and the project co-ordinator give in defending their ideological stand (follow links in the footnote).[7] Now, considering the project does imply something about the curator’s stand (or denial of it), where does that leave his subsequent curatorial projects? On what terms would an artist affiliate with the same curator who does not even want to consider that there is something crucially problematic about the ‘Vibrant Gujarat’ project? But what followed soon after is that artists whose work I admire for their acute observation and political insight ended up participating in the same curator’s projects[8]. So what is one to make of the such ideological misalignment while thinking about artists whose works are known because of the way they deliberately situate themselves in the subterrain. These are artists who are ideologically driven and politically conscious, but do they treat the terrain itself as insignificant for a politically charged discourse? Where and how their works are shown and by whom falls outside the purview of the serious discussion. Representation remains at the core of the matter even here, but of the artist’s very own agency to represent.

The question of ‘artistic autonomy’ is perhaps at the heart of the matter, as is evident from some of the defences made not only by Johny ML, but even that larger issue of censorship in the country. In this context, it is perhaps useful to make the distinction as Jean Marie-Shaeffer does between ‘aesthetic autonomy’ and ‘artistic autonomy’. Whereas the aesthetic experience, according to Shaeffer, is a cognitive experience (perceptual, conceptual, or imaginative), the notion of artistic autonomy claims that the art-object possesses a kind of ontological insularity. The latter is clearly a Modernist fiction that maintains that myth that art is purely an interior project of its own refinement, and separate from social life.

So to conclude this section, it is one thing to treat the term ‘Contemporary Art’ as generic, without any antecedents. But it is a another thing to look at art the way Theirry De Duve does when we writes, “For art, identified as contemporary visual art, is the one sector within the culture industry that is the most dynamic and enjoys the greatest freedom. It is not necessarily visual in the sense of painting and sculpture. It houses experiments of all sorts ranging from the performing arts to documentary cinema to music and sound. It allows political statements of all strifes, anti-social behaviours, excentric sexual practices and outrageous opinions to find forms of expression that would not be tolerated elsewhere. It thrives on cultural differences and confrontations, not to say on exoticism, and on individual and group idiosyncrasies to the point where dissent, not consensus, is the norm. Last but not least, it still enjoys the highbrow aura it has inherited from the museum art of the past, all the while having the pungent flavour of the avant-garde and tapping into popular culture for its inspiration, codes and styles.”[9]

If we are indeed to treat contemporary art as the singular entity (like some enclosed garden maybe) as De Duve suggests, is our understanding of art really something like an allocated space that accommodates a slightly higher degree of dissent? The only exception would then be the fact that every now and then there are a few encroachments from outside forces: Those interruptions from outside that disrupt peace in the art-community, and throw up questions of the unstable fault-lines in modern and contemporary art in India.

My question is: Is any force an outside force for art?


If the same contemporary art scenario in India were to be talked about in plural (and therefore as art-scenarios), we would traverse a complex topography: from the neglected plateaus of regional art-centres run by government in various smaller districts, to the undulating slopes of the upbeat and not so upbeat gallery circuit in metropolises. But just as different terrains are never merely fixed distances separating one another, so we would also come across slow and gradual shifts, overlaps, folds and rifts, those tectonic movements above the sub-terrain which I’ve mentioned earlier. The dominant discourse of artistic autonomy would then be required to constantly negotiate and thrust itself against, and try to perforate the surface above the subterrain. Keeping aside the obvious, i.e., the over-powering commercial galleries, the seemingly redundant State support, a gradual demise of art-education, lack of art-criticism, and newly emerging art foundations; India in the recent past has had artist collectives and organizations that have dedicatedly devoted themselves to nurturing other means of artistic practices; scholars who’ve been deeply involved in elaborating on issues of cultural hegemony as well as foregrounding practices of the political minor; individuals and groups in other respective fields whose interventions in the art-field are noticed more often than not; and online forums for discursive exchanges that touch on art with a committed cause. These various fora can be seen as constituting a contemporary art-scenario always on the cusp of emergence, through muted waves that heave beneath the depths of established art boundaries and the other socio-cultural formations.

To walk across this diversified terrain, there is an imperative to examine it time and again, to mark the shifts and the rifts on its surface, and to remember that the constant thrusts from the subterranean are not an end in themselves but imminent of the dangerous seismic activities that occur on the boundaries of the tectonic plates.

I would like to go further now, to look for alternative systems of art-production not merely analyzing them on grounds of some art-work’s credibility. In this essay, I will outline two spaces that have had a long-term association with kinds of alternative art systems/production: one that can be seen to have marked a ‘shift’ in the prevalent Art-production, and, the other that still remains a ‘rift’ in terms of Art as a cultural and institutional categorization. These are overviews of the spaces more than the analysis of the products (i.e., artworks) that emerge from them.

On Shifting Terrains and Overlaps: Subduction

Not to say that only alternative practices have the potential of causing decisive shifts in any art scenario, but a major shift in art practices in India has been the result of KHOJ. KHOJ was established in 1997 as an artist-led “alternative” space that till today encourages experimentation and artist exchange from across borders. Over the years, it has paved the way for what it calls the “fluid alternative (of) the current entrenched establishment of government and the commercial institutions”. Being part of the Triangle Arts Trust, KHOJ has drawn connections with the artist communities practicing in the South Asian Subcontinent as well as from much farther across. The interest shown by artists has been such that under the aegis of KHOJ, a number of other locally engaged projects across the country have been facilitated too. Periferry in Guwahati, 1 Shanthi Road in Bangalore, CAMP in Mumbai, Camera Work in New Delhi have over time developed as autonomous nodes working in and through their entrenched local contexts of art. Further still, KHOJ organized the first of its kind Live Art Festival in New Delhi too.

KHOJ has played a crucial role in bringing to the fore a variety of Art practices that still seem on the fringe of what galleries promote today, and it has done so for over the past 10 years. Even now, sound-art workshops, book-making residency programmes, and the likes are the kinds of activities one finds at KHOJ. It is another matter that a lot of what KHOJ has churned out over the years is now the mainstream. For example, Video Art and Performance Art which had once had their mainstay in a space like KHOJ, are fervently promoted by commercial galleries in India today and have come to form significant components of private art collections. Notwithstanding, the importance of that conjunctural moment when many of such works were first shown and supported by KHOJ cannot be denied. But a criticism that it has been often up against is that it has become a launch-pad for artist who eventually move into the mainstream. A criticism of this kind has two aspects to consider: firstly, that the mainstream is also always on the lookout to appropriate the tangential new. Secondly, even though KHOJ itself has been an incubation space, there are little (or no) means for artists to sustain an experimentative rigor beyond the KHOJ precincts. Either way, the ‘alternative’ that is at stake in the case of KHOJ is affirmed only through the singular force of a privileged artistic agency. This allows KHOJ to skip over the discursive boundaries of social and cultural underpinnings, and the stress falls on various media as tools for artistic intervention. I think that there is no denying its alternative claim because it brings the particulars of identities and contexts (I refer to nationalities) into an interface that treats locations as contingent formations instead of immanent conformities. Yet, as an “alternative”, KHOJ works within the presupposed system of contemporary art as a complementary force, practically overlapping onto the larger framework of cutting-edge art exhibitions of its time[10].

On Rifts: Divergent Boundaries

If the kind of shift and overlap within the art-community described above invigorates the field of art, certain forces rearrange the very constituents of the field causing rifts and folds in unexpected sites. The Cybermohalla project[11] organizes itself in a distinct way a propos art-production, and, for the sake of convenience, can be regarded as a community art project. Translating from Hinglish as a cyber-neighbourhood, it refers to the concreteness and relatedness of alleys and corners in real neighbourhoods as much as in cyberspace. Cybermohalla began in 2001 as a collaborative project between Sarai (CSDS)[12] and Ankur: Society for Alternatives in Education, in New Delhi. The project has aimed to build new grounds of knowledge by setting up a network of local media labs in informal settlements and resettlement colonies (urban slum clusters) in Delhi, some of which have been under the constantly growing threat of being displaced by State machinery in order for a ‘developed’ urban city-scape. Rather than being a typical hierarchical didactic exercise of an NGO enabling the socially under-privileged, the means to develop a discourse has been mutually shared by the young practitioners from these settlements in the labs. There has been reciprocal empowerment with various media tools and technologies of circulation through the project to draw relations between writing, research, documenting, and experimenting with new-media to form new lexicons for praxis. The resultant of which are posters, collages, broadsheets, book publications, story-telling, computer animation, photographs, blogs, amongst several other things.

Interestingly enough, with such a project, the specificity of location is not used in emphasizing a subjectivity marked by oppression and contesting for heroic subversion. Rather, there is a reflective character to what comes out of these practices, with no use for irony or contrivances that stake claims to be transgressive. The project therefore positions itself not as any kind of alternative forum, for that would only relegate its position into a victim-narrative. Instead, through its vivid articulation of citizen rights, what is generated is an archive of inter-locked local histories, memories, gossip, dreams and foresight that resist the constant threat of erasure. The resistant cogency of the project can be understood in the aesthetic domain, both against the rhetoric and bombardment of visuals by the mass-media, as well as the allusiveness and spectacularization in a lot of high-art.  The most crucial aspect to be given attention in the Cybermohalla project is the fact that the agency of (critically insightful) representation has been dispersed. No more is the artist a privileged interlocutor between a torn subjectivity (/subjectivities) of loss and reclamation. Thus, in the context of aesthetics, the argument moves beyond the aspects of form, style and content, to the question of the aesthetic subject: what Foucault proposed as the aesthetic practices of the self that are essentially part of politics, ethics and freedom. This interest that the Cybermohalla project takes in the agency of ‘people’ as against the representational object (art-work) marks a notable departure from the dominant art discourse, which as Santosh S. points out, has determinedly shown “refusal to engage with the question of fragmented identities (that) resulted in the eradication of collaborative spaces with other political movements…” [13].


This essay outlines just two initiatives that can be seen as counterpoints within the alternative setups of contemporary creative practices in India. Presently, there are numerous other spaces and temporary sites burgeoning with critical responses to/as the contemporary. Peripherals, the Alkazi Foundation, Nigah, ARQ, Tasveer Ghar, are just a few in New Delhi.

As much as there is a complaint about there being no infrastructure for art in India, there are equally more possibilities of rethinking about art as an accretive system. Lets try and treat art practices, their production, dissemination and consumption as compunds. Their clubbing would no more have the traditional madium-based criteria. Rather, the criteria would be set by the larger politics behind the cultural production termed  “Art”. The turf will remain volatile and possibilities will accrue in intensities that speculations may not quite be able to fathom.

Besides the School of Arts & Aesthetics, JNU, for inviting me to present this paper, I would like to acknowledge my friends, Santosh S., Tanya Goel and Rupin Maitreyee for sharing time for motivating conversations and providing invaluable feedback.

[1] This paper is a slightly modified version of my presentation in a workshop led by Prof. John Clark, organized by the School of Arts and Aesthetics, JNU, in collaboration with The Getty Foundation, held from the 27th to the 29th of November 2009.

[2] Geeta Kapur, subTerrain: artists dig the contemporary, published in ‘Migrating images: producing… reading… transporting… translating’, edited by Petra Stegmann and Peter C. Seel, House of World Cultures, Berlin, 2004.

[3] Ibid.

[4] It is only too common, and perhaps essential to the discipline of art-history, that the force of interpretation on the art-object, the artists biographical accounts, against the back-drop of historical events etc., reveal the significance and political edge of art.

[5] Just as some call it the ‘art-field’ or academics use terms like ‘art-world’ or ‘institution’, etc., market players refer to the same as ‘art-market’. The field, in their parlance is the market.

[6] There is definitely something that is to be said about showing foreign art in India. While Triennials here were once the mainstay for exhibiting art from around the world, Galleries have taken it up increasingly over the years, with Vadehra Art Gallery, Sakshi Gallery, Gallery BMB, Maskara Gallery and the Devi Art Foundation being the best examples. Not to mention KHOJ, of which I will talk about separately later on. But access to art in India has been less through exhibitions than through books, magazines and now the internet. So why is it that all one mostly finds are cursory comments about art from other nationalities, or stylistic allusions to them only, whereas our imaginative horizons mark no national boundaries when it comes to theory? In my own experience as a student in two different art colleges, there was an unquestioned precedence that Indian art had amongst students, though there was the choice of choosing any topic. The same responsibility of selecting topics based on the criteria of nationality never applied to the theoretical frameworks or textual reference they chose. And of course, there would be an exception when the course/class itself was on ‘Western Art’ or ‘African Art’, etc.

But from where does an writer develop that consciousness and even wariness of the ‘exogenous’ in the field of art? And how beneficial is it to localize discussions to the extent that the object of study has by default got to be endogenous one way or another? Does this not create barriers in imagining contemporaneity?

[7] http://www.livemint.com/2009/02/18164909/Lounge-Web-Alert–Vibrant-Guj.html,




[8] ‘Expressions at Tihar’: http://ojasart.com/expressions/, ‘If I Were a Saint’: http://www.artconcerns.com/html/newsStory1_ifIwereAsaint.htm

[9] Thierry De Duve, The Glocal and the Singuniversal: Reflections on art and culture in the global world, presented in the International Conference, VIA MUMBAI: MULTIPLE CULTURES IN A GLOBALIZING WORLD 2006

[10] For more information on Khoj: www.khojworkshop.org

[11] For details of the project: http://www.sarai.net/practices/cybermohalla

[12] For more information on Sarai: www.sarai.net

[13] Santosh S., About the (not so) Fine Art of Protest, by Santosh S., published in Art Etc. Vol 1, No.2, Emami Chisel Art Pvt. Ltd., Kolkata, 2009. More insights into artists’ political solidarity with ‘real’ people are outlined in the same article.

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