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On my way to India

19 January 2012
Published in Culture, Primo Piano
by Anna Bulzomi

As India’s rapid economic ascent continues to thrive, for sale a certain Indian quality that has little to do with its economy or its politics is perceived as increasingly fascinating. India epitomizes a conundrum of opposites: the millenary civilization and the developing society, illness a strong traditional identity and a rush toward the future, seek wild countryside and bursting megalopolis. In the past two decades, with Indian population growing over one billion and the middle class blooming at the super-fast pace of the economic growth, the question of how to strike the right balance between a magnificent past and a globalised future became more urgent – and it became the main subject of contemporary Indian art and literature.

The exploration of Indian culture clearly appeals to a wide public, as demonstrated by recent cultural events in Rome.

The exhibition “Indian Highway” at MAXXI is about to come to a close (22 September 2011- 29 January 2012). A 360° portrait of the sub-continent and its culture is interpreted through the works of thirty major contemporary Indian artists. Presented for the first time in London at the Serpentine Gallery back in 2009, “Indian Highway” has toured the most prestigious galleries in the world and will eventually close the circle and reach New Delhi in 2013.

In addition, an event called “Italia-India: le vie della Scrittura” (Italy-India: the routes of writing) was recently organized at the Casa delle Letterature (14-15 December 2011). It consisted of a two-day workshop led by both Italian and Indian female novelists. The likes of Anita Nair, Elisabetta Rasy, Priya Basil, Dacia Maraini and Bapsi Sidhwa all gathered for a two-day literature delight in the ancient Biblioteca dell’Orologio, a magnificent building hedging a peaceful citrus garden.  The leading theme of the event was women’s writing as a tool to stir modernity and tradition. An Indian printemps in Rome…

Indian Highway” and “Le vie della Scrittura” share the same “India-is-going-global” flavor, while exposing several thorny issues: gender equality, caste-based discrimination, the exploitation of thousands of migrant workers, pollution and environmental disasters, the India-Pakistan ordeal.  The latter is the subject of “The Lighting Testimonies”, by Amar Kanwar, in which the conflict is recounted through the testimonies of women on both sides who suffered rape and other forms of gender-based violence. “I love my India” by Tejal Shah sheds light on the 2002 repressive policies against the Muslim minority of Gujarat.

Jitish Kallat transformed an old rickshaw in a work of art: his “Autosuarus Tripous” looks like a relic of a distant past, especially since it shares the hall of MAXXI with “Transit”, a glittering aluminum truck designed by Valay Shende symbolizing the massive urbanization of farmers, fuelled by promises of luxury and a modern life.

Large enameled panels by Nalini Malani allude to ancient mythological stories and evocate a mysterious and sensual India, where we can definitely feel the string that attaches today’s life to long-gone eras.

These themes are recurrent in contemporary writing as well. Anita Nair explained during the workshop that her world revolves around the feelings of Indian women, who struggle to find their way, caught between tradition and innovation. In one of her novels, Ladies Coupé (2001), Nair addresses the question of whether a woman can survive in this world without a man by her side. Her main character, a 45-year old single woman in India, asks herself: “Is there a place for me here?”. Another character, another woman, metaphorically embodies the answer to her question: she learns to swim. Isn’t staying afloat in a swimming pool just as easy and possible as staying afloat in life? Hard to tell for the average woman living in a macho society.

Le vie della Scrittura” was an amazing chance to dive in the world of the Indian woman, get an impression of her joys and pain, the restrictions imposed on her by tradition and her great strides towards modernity. In one word: her Indian-ness. The same charm, doubts and contradictions that emerged in the artworks of  “Indian Highway” and that render India so unique.

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