Indian oasis where artists compete with the world's most vivid real-life canvas

City Life
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The Independent Online

In the town of Modinagar, 55km (35 miles) from Delhi, the industrial age is over even before it had a chance to begin.

In the town of Modinagar, 55km (35 miles) from Delhi, the industrial age is over even before it had a chance to begin.

This is a steel town: "MODI STEEL" reads the high black lettering on a tower made of girders on the main street, and beyond are the reeking chimneys, hulking brick buildings and factory gates of some raw Midlands town in its heyday. Yet many of the mills have closed in recent years, with thousands of people being thrown out of work. For millions of other Indians living close by, however, the Industrial Revolution has yet to arrive. The potholed roads are clogged with ox carts weighed down with sugar cane.

It is the modern Indian collage at its most extravagant: brutal industry smashed up against folkways unchanged for millenniums; a mêlée of auto-rickshaws and peasant women with bundles on heads; darting Korean subcompacts and shambling cows; lopsided shop signs stuck to crumbling buildings, and vendors' carts piled with fruit.

We have come to Modinagar to have a look at the fourth annual International Artists' Workshop. And there is only one question in my mind as I stagger from the car: confronted with the vast objet trouvé that is modern India - how can any artist compete?

Many years ago an early member of the Modi Steel dynasty created a big park alongside the town's steel mill - but exactly why seems to have been forgotten, and the park has been sliding into themonsoon-fed decay that overtakes most human initiatives in the subcontinent sooner or later. There are lawns, a small lake, avenues of trees and a modest villa set amid the park - but the lawns are balding, the lake scummy, the trees running wild, the villa going to ruin.

Back in 1997 a group of artists looking for a place to do their thing got an introduction here; the present head of the Modi family agreed, and they've been back for a fortnight every winter since. The annual event is called Khoj, "Search" in Hindi, and this year included artists from Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Mexico, Britain, America and other countries, as well as Indians - who usually make up at least half the participants.

Artists are free to use the space in any way they like. They can hole up in one room in the villa and paint miniatures. Or they can spread out across the park, dig great holes in the balding lawns, string nets from trees, make mud mountains. This freedom enables the most enterprising and imaginative participants to do work which, while not actually competing with mad India outside the gates, resonates with it - taking its themes of chaos, collage and entropy to make work that is surprising and fresh: a washing line, drooping near the ground, strung with white rubber gloves made for a giant; wonky stools caked with mud; a crazy fuse box, with coloured cables looping from it; a segment of lawn-turned-to-mud with half-buried shards of pot that might have been left there 5,000 years ago or yesterday.

The exhibits that work best are those that are the most difficult to distinguish from the casual, entropic phenomena all around. The fuse box, for example, turned out not to be an exhibit at all but a functioning fuse box, just slightly more flamboyant than normal.

Modern art was born thousands of miles from here. In this provincial Indian corner you might expect it to be something exotic, hard to understand. Yet the best work in Khoj sits very easily in itssetting, requiring no contorted explanation.

Pooja Sood, co-ordinator of the event, says that more and more artists invited to Khoj are going to the immediate surroundings of Modinagar for ideas, stimulation and help. "Many of the artists have begun to interact with the people of the town," she says. "The work is a process, an exchange." Far away from the hegemonic artistic mafias of the West, the developing world's artists are learning how to find inspiration in their own amazing surroundings.