hen I was 15, my father took my mother, my sister and me on a month-long trip to South Asia. We spent the requisite time visiting family in Delhi and then proceeded to a whirlwind tour of India, followed by a couple of days each in Bangkok, Tokyo, Singapore and Malaysia. Thanks to his ambitious schedule, we’d usually be up and out the door early, ready to tackle any sculpture, architectural wonder or temple site that crossed our path, only to do it all over again at the next destination.
So what did I gain (intellectually) from this dream vacation that most people would lust after?
Unfortunately, not much. I can barely remember the trip, and I learned nothing.
It would probably pain my father to hear this, in part because, well, it wasn’t exactly cheap, but also because he probably hoped we would come away with some grand knowledge and an enhanced Indian identity.
So what happened? As I look back on that vacation, I realize his mission failed partly because we had never been exposed to the significance of all those temple sites and architectural wonders.
After all, how could I have guessed that nude male jina figures are acceptable depictions of Jain religion, when my quotidian interaction with Indian culture doesn’t even allow for kissing in movies? At the time, there were few books or exhibitions highlighting Asian art; there weren’t even any college classes on the art of South Asia.
Times change, and 17 years later, it’s a whole different art game. These days, the only excuse you have for not learning about Asian art is, well, yourself.
How could I have guessed that nude male jina figures are acceptable depictions of Jain religion, when my quotidian interaction with Indian culture doesn’t even allow for kissing in movies?
One of the greatest museums in the world, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, houses a significant collection of South Asian art, including Indian paintings from the Mughal period and rare examples of Khmer sculpture from Cambodia. New York is also home to The Asia Society, founded on the magnificent collection of John D. Rockefeller, which contains some of the finest examples of East and South Asian art available for public view. And don’t forget the Rubin Museum of Art, dedicated to art from the Himalayan region. A newcomer to New York, this two-year-old institution has quickly integrated itself into the fabric of the hip Chelsea scene and offers guided tours and talks for visitors (of whatever artistic acumen) to enjoy. All of these institutions provide audio guides for the galleries, fabulous gift shops, and oases of calm amidst bustling city life.
Not interested in the classical stuff? Indian contemporary art is extremely hot, and there is a concomitant increase of exhibitions and gallery shows of artists who trace their roots to Asia.
One of the earliest such galleries is Bose Pacia, which opened in 1994. This large, airy space is owned by Shumita and Arani Bose, whose mission is to “foster an active discourse between [South Asian] artists and the international art community” through artist openings and lectures. In 2000, they were joined by the Sundaram Tagore Gallery, followed in quick succession by the Talwar Gallery, Saffronart Gallery and, most recently, Bodhi Art Gallery.
Most of these galleries partner with galleries abroad to bring the art of living Indian artists to the West. But if you have a hankering for the art around the time of Indian Independence and Partition, the best venues are the Christie’s and Sotheby’s auction houses. Both offer previews and sales of modern and contemporary Indian art each March and September. Modern Indian art is loosely defined as those artists whose careers reached their height as late as the 1970s, whereas contemporary Indian artists are achieving success now. There is no admission charge, and anyone can also attend the auctions.
Finally, Sky Mirror (pictured above), a public installation of Anish Kapoor’s outdoor sculpture, has just been installed at Rockefeller Center. Similar in material to its sister, Cloud Gate in Chicago, this 35-foot-diameter concave mirror of polished stainless steel is angled upward to reflect an inverted image of the iconic 30 Rockefeller Plaza skyscraper against the ever-changing sky. On the convex side, the passersby can sees their reflection with Fifth Avenue behind. I call New York home, but even I couldn’t help but snap a few pictures alongside the tourists.
New York City is particularly rich in South Asian art galleries and exhibitions, but most major cities also have museums and galleries dedicated to South Asian art. Visit one before your next trip to the Subcontinent—if anything, my father will thank you.