The big takeaway from "Paris-Delhi-Bombay," an exhibition of work by some 50 French and Indian artists running until Sept. 19 at Paris' Centre Pompidou, is that Indian (and Indian-inspired) art doesn't fit into neat categories. That hasn't deterred the curators from the audacious ambitions of explicating contemporary India through art and seeking correspondences between the visual languages of France and India. But instead the converse happens, and the show accentuates differences rather than similarities. While French artists enter the ring with an established aesthetic, the Indians arrive with a view to rewriting rules and challenging clichés, coming as they do from a country in the throes of social and economic transformation.
There's nothing conventionally Indian, for instance, about Sunil Gupta's powerful photo-essay Sun City. In this series of exquisitely staged images, an Indian man takes on a white male lover and transgresses sexual norms in a work that is as revealing about sexual subterfuge as the postmodern obsession with identity. Likewise, Amar Kanwar's video installation The Scene of Crime tells a story of industrial greed and environmental degradation in eastern India. The piece is a brilliant reworking of forms of narrative: a book of handmade paper has text printed on one page while images pour over the opposing one from an overhead projector. The quietude of words unites with an opera of images.
Contributions from India's female artists are cosmopolitan, accomplished and defiantly personal. Pushamala N.'s cocky images of historic female characters feature consummate use of light. Anita Dube's unnerving Silence (Blood Wedding) comprises 13 odd objects, talismanic and eerie. Resembling flowers and necklaces, they echo themes of loss and fertility. Sakshi Gupta's sublime installation of metal automobile parts arranged in the geometric patterns of an Indian rug evokes the industrialization of her country.
Among the French contributors, duo Pierre & Gilles may be singled out for their wonderfully absurd studies in irony. Their stunning portrait of the monkey god Hanuman, in a frame decked with little red bulbs, is kitsch without being silly. Cyprien Galliard's Indian Palm Study consists of nine Polaroids of palm fronds, mounted so elegantly that the passe-partout is itself a thing of beauty, distinct from brooding photos that evoke the sweltering solitude of tropical gardens. Leandro Erlich's recreation of a middle-class French bedroom, Le Regard, has a window looking on to a video montage of Indian street life. Perhaps it suggests that the room's inhabitant dreams of escape to an India that is the clichéd, romantic other. Or maybe the elegant but stifling room says more about French ennui than it does about India.
"Paris-Delhi-Bombay" is busy and slightly confused, but if you carefully comb through it, you discover Indian realities and imagined lives rendered with great finesse. And though the show doesn't unite two cultures, it reminds us that while similarities are important, differences make life profound.