Plugged In

Enlightenment in contemporary Indian art is the subject of a new exhibit at the Zimmerli Art Museum.

By: Susan Van Dongen

"Tree of Suffering, Tree of Life," by Arpana Caur.

"Women Conversing," by Prabha.

   The saffron yellow background of the large oil painting, "Tree of Life, Tree of Suffering, Tree of Enlightenment" is the first thing you notice. Next, the eye is drawn to the blue-skinned Buddha figure draped in a white shroud, reclining at the bottom of the painting. Then, perhaps, you look at the trees themselves. Out of the fronds of these tropical-looking specimens float two electrical plugs, one blue, one green. This detail elicits a double-take.
   There’s something very traditional about the work, but the plugs are completely modern. The
juxtaposition makes the mind search, like a computer going through old files, looking for an obscure piece
of data.
   Plugs…Buddha. Buddha…plugs. To the untrained eye, this information has a difficult time
leaping from one side of brain to the other. Then comes the "aha" moment.
   Created in 1998 by Indian artist Arpana Caur, the three trees represent the levels a soul
has to go through to achieve eternal bliss, symbolized by the serenity of the Buddha. The electrical cords
make the connection for the Western mind. After all, what happens when you plug something in?
   You get power. The lights come on.
   "That’s being plugged in — enlightenment," says Jeffrey Wexler, a curator at the Zimmerli
Art Museum at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, which is presenting the exhibit India: Contemporary Art
from Northeastern Private Collections through July.
   "Tree of Life" is just one of many works in the exhibit that offer the viewer one of those "lights-on" moments. Mr. Wexler hopes the artwork will also help to plug the community into the relationship between India and New Jersey.
   "As far as we can tell from the recent census, there’s been a tremendous increase in the
Asian-Indian population of Central Jersey," he says. "Four out of every 10 Asian-Indians living in the United
States live in New Jersey. One in three of these lives in Middlesex County, which we think has the highest
concentration of Asian-Indian residents in the country.

Untitled, by Manjit Bawa.

   "Of course, New Brunswick and Rutgers is in the center of all this. Since we are an educational
institution, we want to educate the public about this culture, help people to understand the Indian community
and its presence in our region."
   With this in mind, the Zimmerli museum has planned a series of events to tie in with the
exhibit, including lectures, screenings of Indian films and classes in classical and hatha yoga. Mr. Wexler
agrees that the interest in Eastern religion and philosophies, health practices, cuisine and music all parallels
nicely with the exhibit, the largest of its kind to be held in an American museum.
   "It’s a major event," he says. "Most museums concentrate on Indian antiquities, sculpture
and traditional miniatures but don’t have much contemporary Indian art. We think this exhibit will make an
impact on the contemporary art scene. We’ve even had some calls from the Indian press about it."
   Along with the population boom, contemporary Indian artwork is blossoming as well, garnering
significant attention from the international art community. As artists in India have adapted traditional imagery
and ideas to modern art practices, the nation has begun to contribute to the multiplicity of variations on
modernism reflective of non-western cultures.

Untitled, by Gulam Rasool Santosh.

   Artists were already breaking away from longstanding traditions when the country gained independence
from Great Britain in 1947. But in the last 20 years it seems like the creative floodgates have opened and
India has graced the West with a wealth of colorful, provocative works.
   "Modern art came to different countries in different ways," Mr. Wexler says. "With non-Western
countries, Western art styles had to be imported. There were also long, long cultural traditions to be maintained,
so there may have been some reluctance. But thanks to better communications and travel, as the world got smaller
people had more access to Western and modern art.
   "Still, Indian art reflects back to its own culture and society. Their works will look modern,
but will often employ traditional imagery, such as Hindu and Buddhist gods and other spiritual figures. You’ll
find a great deal of this in the show."
   One engaging untitled painting by Gulam Rasool Santosh shows a brightly painted, abstract
figure seated in a meditative pose against a backdrop of olive colored, spiky mountains. Diamonds, triangles
and other geometric figures in red, blue, black and emerald compose the figure’s body, crowned by a golden
and turquoise halo. In the center of the halo is a black-and-red vertical eye.
   "They’re the chakras, the seven psychic centers of the body," Mr. Wexler says. "This painting
looks like an interesting abstract image, but has a very substantial cultural background. The vertical eye,
for example, is an attribute of the Hindu god Shiva and the geometric diagrams represent gods and goddesses
in the Tantric pantheon."

"Twins," by

Satish Gujral.

   A branch of Hinduism and Buddhism, Tantrism instructs its practitioners that spiritual enlightenment
is achieved through various esoteric, yoga-like rites. It also incorporates abundant symbols in its teachings.
   "Santosh is one of the leading artists in the neo-Tantric movement," Mr. Wexler says. "Although
he was born a Muslim, he spent many years studying Tantric literature and had a guru who initiated him into
these teachings. So this work has specific meaning.
   "The exhibit represents an impressive breadth and range of modern Indian artistic creativity
since 1947," Mr. Wexler says. "There are representations from the very first group of progressive Indian artists,
right through to the more notable artists of contemporary times."
   "What’s really remarkable is that we put this show together in a very short period, just
about nine months. But I’m glad we did it because, to date, this is the largest show in the United States on
the subject. We’re also pleased because it ties in so well to the community."
India: Contemporary Art from Northeastern Private Collections is on view at the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art
Museum, 71 Hamilton St., New Brunswick, through July. Gallery hours: Tues.-Fri. 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m., Sat.-Sun.
noon-5 p.m. Admission: $3; free under age 18; free first Sun. For information, call (732) 932-7237, ext. 610.
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