Ideally, art exhibits offer an "ah-ha" moment, when you stand transfixed and realize, "This speaks to me like nothing before." All three India shows now in San Francisco contain pieces that scream "ah-ha" — that challenge your assumptions and reveal the massive contradictions of a culture that has enthralled outsiders for millennia.
"Maharaja: The Splendors of India's Royal Courts" shows an India subjected to British colonialism. Many of the most opulent treasures on display — the tear-drop ornament made of gold, rubies, emeralds, and diamonds; the public throne embossed with gold sheets; and the tamburi instrument laden with ivory — are now the property of British museums.
The humiliation that India faced under British rule is seen most pointedly in The Delhi Durbar of 1903, English painter Roderick Mackenzie's intoxicating panorama of a royal elephant procession. Held to commemorate the ascension of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra as the Emperor and Empress of India, the procession had Indian maharajas ("great kings") in the rear, behind Edward VII's brother and the British viceroy. Mackenzie's wall-sized study lays bare the Indians' second-class status on their own soil. Some maharajas benefitted from British occupation, even welcoming the English as saviors. The British, in fact, resuscitated India's maharaja pecking order, cultivating and rewarding loyal leaders.
Maharajas still exist, but they lost their hierarchical power after India's independence in 1947, and lost their financial lifeline in the early 1970s, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi — facing an economic crisis — eliminated their government subsidies. "Maharaja" covers this history in exquisite detail, revealing the faces (and bling) of the playboys and leaders instrumental in shaping India for centuries.
By contrast, "Demons, Deities, and Dudes with 'Staches: Indian Avatars by Sanjay Patel," is a playful consideration of figures who form a pantheon of devotion in Hinduism. Vishnu, Shiva, and their relations get the cartoon treatment from Patel, an artist at Pixar Animation Studios. If you've seen Patel's books, like The Little Book of Hindu Deities or Ramanaya: Divine Loophole, you're familiar with these works: big eyes, wild colors, silly set-ups. The deities' lighthearted doings are the brainchild of a son of Indian immigrants — a California kid who reinvented his parents' icons for a generation that might know little of these gods' epic exploits.
Six blocks away, at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, "The Matter Within" surveys contemporary artists with roots in India who are taking radical approaches to their subjects. In photos, performance artist Nikhil Chopra inhabits characters that are vaudevillian products of British influence and self-inflated aristocracy. Designers Jiten Thukral and Sumir Tagra give us mock-consumerist objects (a 30-foot pink dinosaur made of bottles; a cabinet full of strawberry bottles covered with faces of young Indian men) that are sly commentaries on globalization. Sudarshan Shetty puts a traditional Indian earthenware pot on a moving conveyer belt that symbolizes mechanized "progress." Photographer Sunil Gupta depicts an erotic relationship between an Indian man and a Frenchman in Paris, where they visit bathhouses and engage in risky sex. And video/photo/performance artist Pushpamala N, who is based in Bangalore, takes well-known scenes from film, art, pop culture, and religion, and re-imagines them with herself in the center, as in her perfectly subtle riff on Mary Ellen Mark's famous Indian circus series. Pushpamala N works with British-born photographer Clare Arni to fine-tune her India 2.0 images — a collaboration that's a powerful bookend to the colonialist backdrop of "Maharaja."
India has long been a country at a crossroads, amalgamating old and new — including the cultures of foreign people. The British left their mark. Muslim rulers left theirs, particularly with the Taj Mahal, India's top tourist attraction. Sanjay Patel, Pushpamala N, and the other artists in "The Matter Within" are the latest in a long line of India's descendants who can be called expressive amalgamators. They borrow from the past but are not beholden to it. Their artwork practically winks at the viewer. And in that wink is the edge of an "ah-ha." Whether you go over the edge isn't important — just that the edge is there in the first place.