Mumbai

Roshan Chhabria, Weight of a Brain (detail), 2013, watercolor on paper, 22 1/2 x 31".

Roshan Chhabria, Weight of a Brain (detail), 2013, watercolor on paper, 22 1/2 x 31".

Roshan Chhabria

Gallery Maskara

Roshan Chhabria, Weight of a Brain (detail), 2013, watercolor on paper, 22 1/2 x 31".

“Just what is it,” asked Roshan Chhabria via cut-up text pasted on a wall in his debut solo exhibition, “that makes today’s Mothers so different so appealing?” Just above this cheeky question—a revised quotation from Richard Hamilton—were three graphite-and-watercolor drawings, all dated 2011, depicting an upper-middle-class Indian housewife engaged in stereotypical activities. She works out with a personal trainer. She lounges in bed watching a soap opera while instructing a servant. In a pink-and-ocher dress and with two children in tow, she plods down the runway of a “mother and children’s fashion show competition,” presumably at one of the country’s new malls.

If you know the Indian middle class, this is familiar territory. What is peculiar about Chhabria’s approach is that he has given the subject an antique-y patina, made to glow with a post-Cubist palette of yellow-browns and aqua-greens, then polished with Dada silliness and Socialist-era naïveté. The show’s title, “Ideal Boy,” comes from pedagogical picture charts, first popularized in India in the 1950s to promote proper behavior among children. An Ideal Boy, 2012, a suite of six sketches reproduced as a poster visitors could take away with them, plays on the charts by showing the perfect child grown up and doing what he should as a young man: GOES TO COLEGE DAILY, OBEY PARENTS, HELP FATHER IN OFFICE WORK. The misspellings and inconsistent conjugation indicate that the joke is on new members of the class, not the better established and economically more secure anglophone community.

As Vishwajyoti Ghosh and Meera Sethi have done before him, Chhabria parodies the charts for their earnestness and folksy stiffness. It is presumably their unintended suggestion that overly good kids act like funny automatons that led Chhabria to dovetail the trope of the “ideal boy” with a Dada-inflected parody of Indian consumerism. The show was hung in a staggered fashion reminiscent of the International Dada Fair in Berlin in 1920. The multi-object Weight of a Brain, 2013, includes a drawing in which Chhabria has put his own face on Raoul Hausmann’s Mechanical Head (The Spirit of Our Age), ca. 1920, while his cranium is being tickled by a head massager resembling a kitchen whisk. The massager itself was exhibited on a shelf nearby, one of a handful of readymades in the show. In Women Shopping for Robo Maid, 2012, a plumpish lady in heels is shown in a department store perusing clunky metal men modeled, it appears, on Sophie Taeuber-Arp’s marionettes and Hugo Ball’s costumes. In the Indian context, the image is inherently absurd. Who would buy a machine when human help is so stupendously cheap, or trust something as intricate as a robot when even basic appliances are unreliable?

Across the gallery from the Hamilton quote, there seemed to be a reference to Andy Warhol’s Before and After, 1961, in You have a beautiful face but your nose?, 2012, a large collage-drawing on raw canvas in which the plastic surgery Warhol depicted is replaced with images of torturous prosthetics taken from an early-twentieth-century advertisement. Chhabria’s framing of Pop as an extension of Dada reflects a keen understanding of art history; it also reflects social conditions in India. The middle class of the country, wrote social critic Pavan Varma in 1998, is “the middle class of a poor country,” and this remains true today. Despite growing affluence, most of India’s middle-class citizens must live with substandard housing, bad roads, irreversible overcrowding, and an abysmal education system. Some can escape to Hamilton’s domestic wonderland, the ersatz quality of which is a leitmotif of “Ideal Boy.” But step outside into the street: The Cabaret Voltaire never imagined such anarchy.

Ryan Holmberg