Contemporary Stories: Revisiting South Asian Narratives

This exhibition features a range of contemporary art practices that mine and reinterpret visual and narrative traditions from the Indian subcontinent. Envisioned as a conversation with Epic Tales from India: Paintings from the San Diego Museum of Art, an exhibition of traditional manuscript paintings and drawings, Contemporary Stories examines the ever-shifting meanings of such narratives as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata in contemporary life.

Chitra Ganesh (American, born 1975), Shimmering Pulse, 2009. Exhibition print from a digital file, 147.3 × 139.7 cm. Courtesy of the artist. © Chitra GaneshOn display are prints, paintings, and digital animations by the artists Chitra Ganesh, Nalini Malani, Nilima Sheikh, Gulammohammed Sheikh, and Shahzia Sikander. Living and practicing variously in India and New York, the artists arrived on the international stage at slightly different moments and demonstrate a range of approaches to art making. Gulammohammed Sheikh and Nilima Sheikh, both of whom served as teachers at the famed arts institution the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda in the 1960s and ’70s, have educated a generation of artists in art history and practice. Nalini Malani, the subject of an upcoming retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, has contributed to gallery and museum exhibitions around the world for more than three decades. Shahzia Sikander and Chitra Ganesh, both based in New York and (at least partially) trained in the United States, emerged in the late 1990s and early 2000s as cultural instigators and powerful “new historians” of art.

Gulammohammed Sheikh’s Mappa mundi provides a point of entry into thinking about the layered meanings of the featured works. Sheikh combined scanned and digitally manipulated imagery and hand-painting to create Mappa mundi, in which the visual references span various periods and geographies, denying cultural specificity. Rama, the protagonist of the epic Hindu narrative on duty and righteousness, the Ramayana, appears in miniature multiple times, as does Saint Francis (from a painting by the great Italian artist Giotto). Majnun, the grieving lover of the tale “Layla and Majnun,” famously retold by the Persian poet Nizami in the twelfth century, features prominently in the upper left. Sheikh rescripts these figures, with their entrenched historical, religious, and cultural associations, as a cast of characters in a world of commingling spiritualties and unity across borders.

Gulammohammed Sheikh (Indian, born 1937), Mappa mundi, 2003. Gouache on digital inkjet paper, 58.4 × 71.1 cm. Umesh and Sunanda Gaur Collection. © Gulammohammed SheikhIn a sense, the featured artists play with the burdens their images and styles carry. In the contemporary imagination, Indo-Persian miniature painting, which has been most famously associated with the imperial Mughal dynasty of North India (1526–1858), has come to symbolize a South Asian classical past. In the South Asian context, the classical associations have fostered cultural nostalgia; in the international context, Indo-Persian visual idioms have come to serve as fossilized cultural markers, rendering its current practitioners traditional South Asian artisans, rather than contemporary artists.

Shahzia Sikander brings her rich historical knowledge and training in miniature painting to her works, citing its forms within new aesthetic framings that pry open these contemporary meanings and associations. Similarly, in Shimmering Pulse, Chitra Ganesh peels away layers of meanings attached to images with cultural resonance, reconfiguring aesthetics associated with Amar Chitra Katha, a popular Indian comic book series that was created in the late 1960s as a means of teaching Indian children about their heritage. Selectively quoting styles and images from the comic—which is itself a selective retelling of Indian (and largely Hindu) mythology—Ganesh challenges its biases and agendas as a site of history-telling. Both artists draw attention to the capacities of images to create a sense of nationhood, nationalism, and cultural identity and, most importantly, to shape histories. In the process, they invite the viewer to think about how histories are written, and who has had the right to (re)write them.

This exhibition is not intended as a survey of contemporary South Asian art; rather, it looks at contemporary artists who have chosen to bring richly associative styles, icons, or narratives from South Asia to bear on their practice, their varied projects directly addressing contemporary issues through the use of historically potent languages of art.


Rashmi Viswanathan

Guest Curator


Contemporary Stories: Revisiting South Asian Narratives has been made possible by support from the Bagley Wright Jr., Class of 1946, Contemporary Art Fund and by Stacey Roth Goergen, Class of 1990, and Robert Goergen.