Murderous Garlands, Hunky Gods Bring India to Paris: Review

"Hanuman" (2010) by Pierre & Gilles, a painted photograph in "Paris-Delhi-Bombay" at the Centre Pompidou through Sept. 19. Source: Centre Pompidou, Paris via Bloomberg

Is there more to India’s cultural scene than Bollywood, its prolific movie industry?

To help find out, the Pompidou Center has mounted “Paris-Delhi-Bombay.” The title of the exhibition promises more than it can deliver. “Paris-Berlin,” “Paris-New York” and “Paris-Moscou” were some of the museum’s most glorious achievements, filled to the brim with masterpieces.

The sequel focuses on some 50 contemporary artists, two-thirds of them Indian. The rest are French or live in France. Most of the works have been created for the occasion.

How representative they are is hard to tell. Judging from what you see, you’re inclined to believe that the dominating trends are the same in both countries -- installations, video art and photography.

Many of the Indian works have a political subtext.

Upon close inspection of Sunil Gawde’s red garlands, you discover that, instead of flowers, they are made of painted razor blades -- an allusion to the murder of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 with an explosive hidden in a garland.

Krishnaraj Chonat has built two walls. The first, symbolizing our throwaway society, is made of computer mice and other electronic waste. The second, showing the way to a “greener” future, is covered with sandalwood soap and wraps the viewer in its fragrance.

Mini Slum

Another pair of walls, made of recycled material by Hema Upadhyay and forming a corridor, is supposed to be a vertical, miniature version of Dharavi, a sprawling slum near Bombay.

Subodh Gupta, one of the most successful Indian artists whose works sell for seven-figure prices, has created a vast installation of stainless-steel tableware, piled from floor to ceiling as in an emporium.

The French participants either don’t know India at all or only superficially. Their contributions are fantasies rather than informed comments.

Leandro Erlich mocks his own ignorance with a traditional French bedroom. Through one of the windows, you see filmed images of a busy street in Bombay.

Pierre & Gilles, the grand masters of gay kitsch, have transformed Hanuman, the monkey god, into a muscular hunk.

“Paris-Delhi-Bombay” runs through Sept. 19. Information: or +33-1-4478-1233.

Royal Riches

For a more coherent Indian experience, don’t miss “Lucknow -- A Royal Court in India” at the Musee Guimet. The show, which was on display in a previous version last year in Los Angeles, glorifies the ancient kingdom of Awadh or Oudh.

During its golden age, beginning in the middle of the 18th century, Lucknow was one of the richest cities on the subcontinent. The glory days ended in 1857 when the British, after the so-called Indian Mutiny, a failed revolt against their rule, deposed the king and sent him into exile.

The exhibition -- paintings, miniatures, garments, jewelry and other objects from the royal household -- reveals a colorful mix of indigenous and European influences.

Lucknow’s extravagant architecture, amply presented in ancient photographs, looks like an Indian variation on a Rococo theme, the perfect style for the fairy-tale kingdom whose capital it once was.

The show, which is supported by Areva SA and Nomura Holdings Inc., runs through July 11. Information: or +33-1-5652-5300.

(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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