Critics’ Picks

Chittaprosad, Untitled, 1947, brush, pen and ink on paper.

Chittaprosad, Untitled, 1947, brush, pen and ink on paper.

New Delhi

“Common Course”

Kiran Nadar Museum of Art
145, DLF South Court Mall, Saket
August 13–October 25, 2019

The four artists in this exhibition deploy colloquial, widely circulated forms of graphic representation such as cartoons, caricatures, and illustrations to report, critique, or lampoon current Indian affairs from this century and the last. The tonal and political variety between the artists’ output is considerable, a fact offset by curator Roobina Karode’s decision to partition each oeuvre by section. Midcentury communist Chittaprosad’s trenchant pen-and-ink drawings and linocuts about colonial horror, bourgeois tyranny, and poverty have an urgent, documentary aspect. A 1946 work, depicting a man in tatters preparing to launch the “Quit Kashmir” campaign against the Dogra king, flanked by an Englishman with a machine gun and enthroned atop bodies of his subjects, sears for its contemporary relevance. Another chronicle is more forgiving—RK Laxman’s iconic gag cartoon strip, You Said It, recorded the nation’s political and cultural life for five decades in the popular daily The Times of India. Accompanied by cyclostyled editor’s notes, its display here has a warm, archival quality.

Gaganendranath Tagore’s lithographs appear in two albums, of which Adbhut Loka (Realm of the Absurd) (1917) proves most memorable for its delicious social farce. The album’s fine renderings caricaturize the anglicized comprador class—one sendup titled Metamorphoses shows a man donning trousers over his dhoti in a train compartment as a uniformed conductor pokes his head in. In another, Millstone of the Caste System, a skeleton embraces a Brahmin priest literally grinding people down.

KG Subramanyan’s paper collage series, “The Tale of the Talking Face,” 1989, is an allegory for the state’s Emergency (1975–1977): Forty-three black-on-white cutouts frame stanzas from a poem about “a princess” (a stand-in for Prime Minister Indira Gandhi). The verse and silhouettes, the latter typical of the artist’s folk-modernist style, have an unsettling and cryptic character to them, as befits the era of state clampdowns to which they bear evidence. As India enters another period rife with restrictions on civil liberties and press freedom, this show is a timely reminder of how popular art can speak truth to and about power, or at the very least, acknowledge it.