In what now seems like an amazingly prescient move, the William Benton Museum at the University of Connecticut began seriously collecting contemporary art from India in 2004. That was the year the museum mounted a show called "Masala: Diversity and Democracy in South Asian Art," which garnered a rave review by Holland Cotter in the New York Times.
Ten years later, the Benton has mounted a fascinating follow-up, called "Convergence: Contemporary Art from India and the Diaspora," featuring 15 contemporary artists, nine of whom live and work in India, the others of Indian descent living elsewhere — and none of whom appeared in that earlier show. But, as might be expected with 15 unique and idiosyncratically different artists, "Convergence" seems at first like it should be called "Collision."
However, after studying the work on the first pass through this engaging exhibition, visitors should take a second stroll through it, and the theme will then make perfect sense. The notions of convergence and collision are perhaps best seen in the work of Neil Chowdhury. The overwhelming presence of India is captured in his powerful "Laundry Puja," a photograph of an old woman seemingly falling into a religious reverie on a city sidewalk in the midst of washing clothes. All of humanity seems to have swarmed past her, and every color in the spectrum surrounds her. It is such a busy image it looks Photoshopped; but then it hits the viewer that India is its own montage, its own collision and collage, at every turn. Would it be possible, you think, to take a photograph of a city scene in India that does not have this collision? As if responding to that thought, Chowdhury's other work, a black and white photograph called "Child Mechanic," looks as if it were by Walker Evans or Dorothea Lange in the Great Depression.
Even more powerful is the work of Ravi Agarwal, whose photographs anchor the show in India, the teeming subcontinent that serves as the proverbial elephant in the room. Agarwal's large-format color shots of life along the banks of the polluted Yamuna River are the first things you see upon entering the gallery. The scenes are wretchedly littered and the people even more wretchedly poor and yet they solemnly work the waters for whatever they can scare up.
In addition to his photographs, Agarwal has created a video, "The Sewage Pond's Memoir," on view in a side room. Less than seven minutes long, it's worth watching from beginning to end. In it, he creates haunting beauty out of a waste dump. We watch it unfold over the course of a day, with birds tweeting and frogs chirping and we see that, even out of this desecrated space, life abounds.
These works hold a dominating power over the rest of the exhibition, which is not to say that work by the other 13 artists is of lesser quality. Besides photography, nearly all media are employed: etching, watercolors, gouache, acrylics, even cartoons and digital art. Other standout work includes woodblock-style etchings by Vijay Kumar, a Brooklyn artist who mines political and religious controversies (using the New York Times as his backdrop), folk-art-like watercolors by Sujith SN (Psalms of the Black Water No. 2 has a subtle power), Sarnath Banerjee's original sketches for his graphic novels, Avinash Veeraraghavan's digital art (for the eBook I Love My India), Annu Palakunnathu Matthew's diptychs, in which she juxtaposes clichéd sepia-tinged photographs by Edward Curtis of "Red Indians" next to her own shots of "Brown Indians."
"Convergence: Contemporary Art from India and the Diaspora" is an exhibition about which UConn can take deserved pride. Almost all of the pieces are from the UConn collections, and it was curated in-house by Kathryn Myers, a UConn professor of art. Myers will take part in "Convergence: A Discussion of Diasporic Indian Art and Literature," a related program on Nov. 19 at 5 pm at Konover Auditorium.
Convergence: Contemporary Art from India and the Diaspora