1997, you can't but have noticed, marked the 50th anniversary of India's independence from Great Britain. Even if you missed National Curry Day or all the fuss over the Queen's ill-managed visit to India last month, there's little chance that the myriad of other celebrations will have passed you by. The art world was no exception, with the anniversary prompting all manner of exhibitions including the extraordinarily beautiful Padshahnama manuscript at the Queen's Gallery and an exhibition of magical miniatures illustrating the life and loves of Krishna at the Whitechapel.
These two were the best of the year's Indian shows, but another which might be nearly as good opened last week at the Royal Festival Hall. India: A Celebration of Independence shows (through 250 photographs by 21 photographers) how the nation has and hasn't, changed in the course of 50 years. It's an incredibly diverse selection, but, at the heart of the best images, runs a vein much older and richer than anything which came or went with colonial power. It's an imprecise quality which appears strange and even a little mystical to western eyes, but which seems to play a real part in everyday Indian life.
Not all of these photographs are masterworks in the league of Cartier- Bresson and Sebastiao Salgado, two of the better-known contributors, but each is revealing in its own way. Some are ordinary exercises in photo- journalism, which, in a way, is the point. So the Mountbattens in all their finery mingle on the walls with snake charmers, factory workers and 12-year-old prostitutes. It's a bizarre and occasionally breathtaking mixture: rather like the country itself.
India: A Celebration of Independence 1947-1997, Ballroom, Royal Festival Hall, SE1 (O171-921 0600) 27 Nov-18 Jan
It's time once again for the Royal College of Art's vodka-sponsored lottery in which pounds 35 buys you one of 2,000 postcard-sized, unsigned artworks. You might get something by Auerbach, Kitaj, Caulfield or Caro, or (more likely I'm afraid) by a first-year student or the caretaker's granny. Buy something you like and you won't go far wrong.
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