Right above the lobby at Seattle Art Museum, in the central gallery where Jackson Pollock and the mightiest American modernists are usually featured, you will now find a blood-red, full-size Gandhi, staring down at his iPod. It's a vivid—if unintentional—demonstration of American culture ceding the room to an emerging power. SAM is heralding a new relationship with a local collecting couple, the Indian-born, Bellevue-based Sanjay Parthasarathy and Malini Balakrishnan. Balakrishnan is a medical doctor; Parthasarathy, the former Microsoft VP and avid amateur photographer, is the man who brought Bill Gates to India for the first time, back in the 1990s. India is now a major part of Microsoft's enterprise and market, and in February, Microsoft appointed its first Indian-born CEO, Satya Nadella. Don't let anyone tell you that museums are houses of high culture untouched by the messy outside world. Rather, they're fascinating places to see power shifts happening if you remember to look.
Why was Parthasarathy, who has brought so much technology to India, drawn to buy blood-red Gandhi, by Debanjan Roy? Gandhi is made of fiberglass coated in automotive paint so slick, it looks wet. The garish glinting of the surface seems to hiss, The blood of India was spilled in the fight for independence so we could become just like any other technocracy? The sardonic title of the piece is India Shining V. Another sculpture from the series, India Shining IX, is twin Gandhis seated in adjoining cubicles. Its subtitle is Gandhi at a Call Center. Blood-red Gandhi working for Microsoft, maybe. Or Amazon, another Seattle-headquartered tech supercorporation.
City Dwellers: Contemporary Art from India is original to SAM. It's notable that it's appearing in the main modern and contemporary galleries at SAM downtown, rather than at the separate Seattle Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park. Contemporary art shows do appear at the Asian art museum. Frankly, there is no coherent rule about where you can expect a contemporary show from Asia among the SAM campuses. That variability is not ideal, but seems preferable to any number of problematic rules that could govern the placement of Asian art in such an idiosyncratic system.
Modern-and-contemporary specialist Catharina Manchanda curated City Dwellers; she described its 44 works as merely a fraction of the Bellevue couple's collection. They mostly buy photography by living Indian artists, and photography makes up the bulk of City Dwellers, though the handful of sculptures are attention-grabbers: a life-size scooter made entirely of gold-plated disks (by Valay Shende), a life-size male figure embedded in a wall (by Alwar Balasubramaniam).
City Dwellers features 12 artists, all born and raised in India's megacities in the last decades of the 20th century. Some, like Dayanita Singh, Subodh Gupta, and Sooni Taraporevala, are established names; others have gained international attention in the last five years. (India had its first professionally curated national pavilion on the world stage of the Venice Biennale in 2005.) Lest we forget, SAM provided a chart on the gallery wall that gives context to the scale of India today: New York has 8.4 million people. Mumbai: 18.4 million, New Delhi: 16.3, Kolkata: 14.1. Like China, India is transforming mind-bogglingly fast.
From the start of the 1500s to 1947, India was an exploited colony whose image was captured incessantly by outsiders—tourists and "scientists" studying the natives. Photography is a pre-coded medium in India. One small photograph at SAM is a seething black-and-white print of a woman being measured against a checkered backdrop and a yardstick. The woman is the artist Pushpamala N., and the picture is a re-creation of an actual ethnographic photograph. Pushpamala N. is in all her pictures—"inside the image, not just outside, looking," she likes to say. It means her pictures are also performances, and you can see the resistance in her wide, fixed eyes. It's not only antiquated colonial photos she dismantles; she nails a 1989 Mary Ellen Mark photo of an Indian children's circus, contemporary Indian magazine covers, and film stills, too.
The unavoidable question: Where do visitors to City Dwellers take their selfies? With the enormous, obnoxious triptych Overdose by Manjunath Kamath. It's a cutaway view, digitally collaged, of the inside of an Indian home gone cross-culturally mad. Christ is in the dining room with a robot and Picasso. Superman reclines on the couch. At the feet of a Hindu goddess is a dog wearing an English crown. There are so many references—to Western and Indian art, global politics, and history—it's overwhelming. Tourists are inside the picture, snapping away.
Don't overlook the spare, quiet side of City Dwellers. In the panorama Artist Making a Local Call, artist Jitish Kallat uses a pay phone station on a street that's bending away from him into the distance on both sides, like a disappearing realm. Nobody needs the stations anymore; they're all getting cell phones.
For five years in New Delhi, at night, Dhruv Malhotra photographed people sleeping out under the sky, some by choice, some by necessity. They made temporary nests on benches, rooftops, construction scaffolding platforms, the lawns of space-age airports. In the pictures, they're curled up like caterpillars and look peaceful, resting up for whatever it is that comes next.