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Artists travel — often compulsively and sometimes reluctantly. But, how does art travel, physically and conceptually? What is the relationship between art-making, on the one hand, and artists being in a place, of a place or from a place, on the other? Are notions of foreignness and universality, of being an insider or outsider at all relevant to the making, viewing, collecting and curating of art, or to the creative practice of design? These are some of the larger aesthetic, psychological and political questions explored in this solidly researched, beautifully designed and printed, and delightfully eclectic and unusual book. WESTERN ARTISTS AND INDIA: CREATIVE INSPIRATIONS IN ART AND DESIGN (Shoestring, Rs 3,000) brings together two different sets of intentions, as described by its general editor, Shanay Jhaveri, in his introduction: “the charting of the presence of Western artworks, design objects and exhibitions in post-colonial India; and the plotting of journeys and visits of individual artists to the country, which leads to interpretations that are not self-evident ‘truths’ or institutional fictions”. “The sheer heterogeneity of the art,” Jhaveri adds, “ensures that each work opens up vistas of newer knowledge and discourages the drawing of premature conclusions.”

The great merit of this book — part history, part compendium — is that it refuses to be a predictably post-Saidian critique of Western ‘Orientalism’. It focuses, instead, on individual voices, practices and encounters, and through a wealth of different points of view, from transcribed conversations with artists (Howard Hodgkin, Luigi Ontani, Lynda Benglis, Wolfgang Laib) and historical studies by specialists (Devika Singh, Saloni Mathur, Nancy Adajania and among others) to lavish and concisely annotated reproductions of the relevant works by artists as celebrated as Ad Reinhart, Alexander Calder, Anselm Kiefer, Hodgkin, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Francesco Clemente, Frank Stella, John Baldessari, William Gedney, Sophie Calle and Taryn Simon, all of whom have stayed (or passed through) and worked in India at some point in their careers.

The circumstances of these artists’ visits and stays in India, together with fascinating accounts of the people who invited them and hosted them in the country, make up the other valuable aspect of this book — “personalizing history and making the personal historical”, as Jhaveri puts it. The story of the Sarabhais of Ahmedabad, for instance, is riveting to follow. In the compound of their family home, Le Corbusier designed the Villa de Madame Manorama Sarabhai, where everybody from Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Kahn to John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Rauschenberg, Calder, Baldessari, Stella and Lichtenstein lived, worked and generously left behind a great deal of what they made there, making India an important station of the Pop and Abstract Expressionist cross. There also were more collective endeavours like Vivan Sundaram’s Kasauli Art Centre, the account of which provides a vital context to Bhupen Khakhar’s work, or the Khoj International Artists’ Workshop, which continues to be alive and well today; or, at a more formally institutional level, the setting up of the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, inspired and guided by Charles and Ray Eames visiting from America.

Starting with the policies and programmes of Nehruvian cosmopolitanism, Western Artists and India brings the reader right up to the present, compiling a nuanced history of what we now call ‘globalization’, but what had begun long ago as a compulsive drive towards modernity through the specific lives, friendships, conversations and ambitions of a whole range of artists, writers, designers, bureaucrats, industrialists, home-makers and, not least, uncategorizable eccentrics and visionaries.

Left: Robert Rauschenberg’s Charter, from the 1975 ‘Bones and Union’ series, made of rag-mud, rope and bamboo. Right: Alexander Calder’s Guava (1955), made of aluminium sheet and steel wire.