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To explore India's contemporary art, 'Gateway Bombay' is a start

Can you name a famous contemporary artist from India? OK, other than Anish Kapoor? I couldn't either before I saw "Gateway Bombay," an exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum that, despite being small and muddled, serves to introduce uninitiated viewers to some of India's most celebrated modern and contemporary artists.

Organized by Peabody Essex curator of South Asian and Korean art Susan Bean with help from Beth Citron, a Bombay-based art historian, the show aims to address the impact of one of India's biggest and busiest cities on artists who have lived, studied, and worked there. (Now officially known as Mumbai, the city is still called Bombay by many.)

What is more conspicuous in the show than evidence of local or regional influence, however, is the effect of European and American styles on the 13 artists at hand, all of whom have had high-profile careers within India and most of whom have exhibited in museums and galleries in Europe, the United States, and Japan.

As the artists range in age from about 35 to almost 90, the show also works as an abbreviated survey of the post-World War II evolution of modern Indian art -- and of painting in particular.

The older artists, who are unfortunately represented by just one painting each, were concerned with exploring the possibilities of European-style abstraction. A small cityscape by Kattingeri Krishna Hebbar (1911-1996) shows the influence of Post-Impressionist French artists such as Cezanne and Bonnard.

Canvases by Bal Chhabda (b. 1923) -- an almost indecipherably abstracted, expressionistically painted still-life -- and Tyeb Mehta (b. 1925) -- a flattened, iconic female figure in high-keyed colors divided by a blue diagonal -- reveal the impact of Cubism and Abstract Expressionism.

M. F. Husain (b. 1915), who began his career painting billboards that advertised movies, represents a transition from formal preoccupations to more culturally provocative kinds of image-making. His Pop-style painting from 1983 offers a montage of a gun-toting actor-hero, a red-haired cartoon girl, and a hand gripping a pistol.

Except for Anil Revri (b. 1956), whose dark picture of atmospheric space underlying a loosely gridded network of dripped paint emphasizes formalist composition, the other painters assert representational imagery with references to Indian history and tradition. A painting by Bhupen Khakhar (1934-2003) portraying a well-to-do Parsi family as a group of little, cartoonish figures in a mysteriously vacant, green landscape is a gently satiric update of Indian miniature painting. Complicated, washy watercolors by Nalini Malani (b. 1946) in which modern and mythic images are layered similarly bring together past and the present.

Glimpses of India's social landscape appear in paintings by Sudhir Patwardhan (b. 1949) and Gieve Patel (b. 1940). Inspired by Marxist politics, Patwardhan's works depict people in complex urban environments with a Social Realist style reminiscent of Mexican muralist painting. In suavely color-coordinated paintings that call to mind Matisse and 1960s Color Field painting, Patel's pictures place ordinary people in simplified cityscapes to enigmatic, dreamlike effect.

The show's most contemporary-looking paintings are by Atul Dodiya (b. 1959). In thin, grayed layers on large canvases, Dodiya paints montages of mass-media imagery that call to mind David Salle's moody, puzzling paintings of the 1980s. They project a distinctly Postmodernist sense of psychic fragmentation and ennui.

Besides the painters, the exhibition includes black-and-white photographs by Ketaki Sheth (b. 1956) and Chirodeep Chaudhuri (b. 1972) that predictably traffic in images of poverty, religious celebration, ancient architecture, and modern industry.

Incongruously, the show also features a large sculptural work by Bose Krishnamachari (b. 1962) consisting of 108 metal buckets hanging from a pipe structure meant to represent the hand-holding supports on commuter trains. The buckets are typical of lunch pails widely used by Indian workers. Here they have windows cut into them revealing small video screens on which people from all walks of life describe their experience of living in Bombay. Bristling with electric wires, Krishnamachari's sculpture has a vigorous presence, but its effect is more didactic than metaphorically enlightening.

As for the exhibition as a whole, the best one can say is that it points to veins of inquiry that the Peabody Essex could mine more deeply in its continuing engagement with contemporary Indian art. How Indian artists have managed tensions in art and life between East and West, past and present, the sacred and the profane, and traditionalism and modernism are exciting questions to consider. To do so, however, the museum's curators will have to muster a clearer sense of purpose than that which animated this modest, uncertainly focused effort.

Ken Johnson can be reached at kejohnson@globe.com.

'Related'

Gateway Bombay

At: Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, through Dec. 7. 866-745-1876, pem.org

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