Artists Crossing Borders: The Creative and Social Ties of Four Global Indians

by J.P. Singh  //  MULTIMODAL

“I believe the histories specific to each place should be acknowledged, valued and carefully tracked alongside recognition of their interaction with other local and regional tendencies, and with the waxing and waning of more powerful regional and international art-producing centers.”

Terry Smith (2013: 187-188)
Contemporary Art: World Currents in Transition Beyond Globalization


The four global Indian artists presented here share cultural and geographic origins from India, but they have another commonality. They have crossed boundaries with art forms that are globalized, but mostly Eurocentric in the way they rank art, convey status, and move the artists’ purposes through the cogs of their infrastructures. What does it mean for these four Indians to step into these globalized arts spaces?

Nearly three decades ago Mini Kapur arrived in Germany, trained in graphic arts from Delhi College of Art, and now runs Under the Mango Tree, an art gallery in Berlin, which showcases contemporary art, including the work of many Indian artists. Anjali Bhushan Nugyal, a Bollywood filmmaker who was the assistant director for the blockbuster Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, switched to documentary filmmaking to narrate, among others, the story of 6,000 Polish refugees who lived in India around World War II after fleeing Siberia. Shanul Sharma, a principal tenor with Opera Australia, switched from heavy metal to opera after hearing a recording of Luciano Pavarotti sing Puccini’s Nessun Dorma. Daniel Phoenix Singh was studying computer science at the University of Maryland when he took a physical education class in dance. This was the beginning of a passion for dance, which led him to create a contemporary dance company that combines several dance forms including Indian classical dance.

The global artist who crosses social or national borders enters spaces of art practices that are global but still evolving, and often beholden to the past. Art is inherently social. It arises out of shared meanings and relationships (Becker 2008), though it can transcend them (Heywood 1997). The everyday life of four artists discussed here provides several clues to their past and present social networks but no single or linear narrative. There is a heroic voyage in the invocations of risk and adventure, and the place called home that is created and carried within the artists who travel (Frith 2012). There is emotion and perhaps even trauma in the costs incurred (Knečni 2012). There is social training, learning, and contestation in a globalized arts arena in which the metaphors for welcoming outsiders remain unclear and undefined (Beltin et al. 2013). They entail the presentation of an artefact or a performance that may not cater to established ways of knowing, producing, or seeing. There is also the mundane business strategy of negotiating and passing through the known hierarchies of art that elevate professionals, or the marketing networks that produce audiences.

The artists in this essay are early and mid-career professionals. They are committed to art and have received recognition. Their stories are nevertheless different from the glittering accolades provided for those at the heights of recognition, or those who aspire but have not taken the first steps. The experiences of these professionals are an ideal-type for exploring creative cultural crossings and their challenges.

The text below captures a few highlights. For the sentiment and nuances in each artist’s story, please watch the individual videos. The method for this article takes its inspiration from multimodal and visual anthropology in presenting its content with some focus on issues of Eurocentricity in globalized arts spaces (Gill 2020; Singh and Chrysagis 2019).

Mini Kapur

AIA Interview with Mini Kapur. Second half of the video contains a tour of the art Gallery Under the Mango Tree.

Mini Kapur arrived in Germany 28 years ago with a graphic design background. Starting Under the Mango Tree art gallery and design space in 2011 was her connection to home. “I really needed that contact,” she says. The idea came much earlier, in 1998, when a friend from India suggested something similar. Showcasing contemporary Indian art soon evolved into contemporary art from anywhere. Part of the explanation lay in the lack of exposure for audiences to contemporary Indian art practices, and the need to diversify into global art, but Kapur does at least one show from India each year. The current show, titled “Indian Storytellers,” presents the work of five Indian artists. Kapur’s connection to India comes through in the description for this show: “These photographs, almost imperceptibly, shift the inevitable associations to Indian sojourns and reinterpret people, their life, offering you a view from the gaze of experienced insiders.”

Kapur’s prior training in graphic design may have given her a sensibility for art, but the vocation of running an art gallery was new. The kind of course work on arts management that would have prepared her for this work was prohibitively expensive. For Kapur it was “learning by doing” and trying to connect with relevant networks. She registered with the club of gallerists and found that arts magazines are a good resource for advertising her shows. Financial resources for showcasing art are often limited. While there is public funding for the arts, galleries are a commercial enterprise and rely on other networks including visitors, artists, and collectors. Building a network of collectors for contemporary Indian art was hard, even in a place like Berlin that has attracted artists from around the world. Berlin’s status does help gallery owners like Kapur, with increasing number of artists approaching her, but breaking into Berlin’s own tightly knit arts hierarchies and competitive art gallery world remains a challenge. In the video tour of her gallery to AIA above, she stopped before a photograph of closed doors. “You have to learn to open doors and reach where you have to reach.”

Under the Mango Tree Art Gallery in Berlin


Anjali Bhushan Nugyal

AIA Interview with Anjali Bhushan Nugyal
[Nugyal mentions an Indian measure called lakh. One lakh = 100,000 units.]

Anjali Bhushan Nugyal got her start in Bollywood working with now well-known director Karan Johan on his blockbuster Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. Most recently, her documentary film My Home India was premiered at several international venues and film festivals. Her press kit describes the documentary as “India’s Schindler’s List.” The film deals with over 6,000 war time Polish refugees who relocated from Siberia to India from 1942 to 1948. The protagonist is Kira Banasinska, a Red Cross nurse married to a Mumbai consular official, who looked after these refugees in India. Nugyal had made a few small documentaries, but when she read the story of Kira Banasinska she was immediately drawn in. Nugyal views herself foremost as a humanitarian, which informed how she experienced the story of these Polish refugees.

Trailer for My Home India

While fictional and documentary filmmakers often operate in different worlds, Nugyal says that most filmmakers regard these boundaries as seamless in terms of producing creative content. However, as a story My Home India was a difficult sell. Artistic documentaries made in India often require international funding. She received an offer for partial funding from Doordarshan, the Indian government’s official channel, but only if they would hold the copyright. Unable to give up the copyright, the finances came from a variety of sources including the Polish Office of War Veterans and Victims of Oppression. Trained in filmmaking, she brought her experience as a director and producer but stepped into other roles when needed. That included everything from physically picking up loaned camera equipment to stepping in as director of photography.

Nugyal’s challenge was finding places for funding and exhibition. Receiving international recognition means gaining access to international networks, but there are costs to be paid for advertising and exhibiting in international festivals or exhibition spaces. Despite Bollywood’s success, there are limited networks for documentary filmmaking from India. In addition, many of the symbols of recognition are in the West. My Home India played at several international festivals and tried to garner an Oscar nomination.

While the other Indian artists featured in this essay have left India to make their mark, international networks have now landed at Anjali’s door in Mumbai. She’s currently the head of creative content for Viacom in India.

Shanul Sharma

AIA Interview with Shanul Sharma

Shanul Sharma was a shy and quiet child, but grew up uninhibitedly singing Bollywood songs. His father often sang songs from Indian singers Mohammad Rafi and Kishore Kumar, and encouraged Sharma’s talent for singing. In Australia, while studying for his degree in information sciences, he was also part of a heavy metal band until the day he heard a Luciano Pavarotti recording. The sound connected with Sharma’s high-pitched tenor and his curiosity was piqued. Opera presented the opportunity for Sharma to explore the full potential for his voice.

Sharma was a self-taught musician. In his interview he describes his early opera training in Melbourne. Unlike most principals at opera houses, Sharma did not attend prestigious music academies or conservatories. Bakers tend to trust ingredients from sources they trust, he says. He learned the circle of fifths and cadences at a late age, eventually earning an advanced degree in vocal arts from Wales International Academy of Voice. He did not immediately know the structure needed for him to succeed as an opera singer. But his perseverance paid off. Part of Sharma’s persona is his non-exposure to opera and the switch from heavy metal.

Shanul Sharma Performs a heavy metal interpretation of Bizet’s Je Crois Entendre


Daniel Phoenix Singh

AIA Interview with Daniel Phoenix Singh

Singh’s first class in dance was at the University of Maryland while he was also working on a computer science degree. Caste and religion play a role in the training process for classical dances. Growing up Christian in India, Singh did not have ready access to Indian classical dancing. Surprisingly, the first Indian classical dance performance Singh attended was in the United States. An introductory dance class he took in Maryland was transformative and he continued his training, eventually founding a dance company called Dakshina. His background in information technology helped, a day job that allowed him to sustain a dance company. Dakshina combined many contemporary arts forms, including classical Indian dances. Daniel’s IT training also informed his ability to recognize patterns, which is important in both dance as well as managing a dance company.

Starting his own dance company rather than joining one meant that Singh did not know any of the protocols of the dance world. Both his curiosity and ignorance helped. For example, Singh directly contacted guest dance performers for his shows instead of going through their managers. Doing everything on his own also gave him a “why not?” sense of doing things.

Singh was confronted with an infrastructure in dance that leans toward ballet and modern dance. This infrastructure caters to all aspects of the value chain in dance including funding, studio space, and exhibition. Access to resources for Dakshina meant educating critics, audiences, and funders. Sometimes big arts organizations would copy Dakshina’s dance ideas or even attract away its dancers. Singh was among a handful of colored directors in a predominantly white world. Singh notes that movements such as Black Lives Matter have now begun to change dance culturally, but white males still lead or choreograph for most of the dance companies.

Singh is passionate about both the need for education in the arts from K-12 and an equitable funding model. Often funding for arts organizations is a fraction of the costs. For large arts organizations, the fraction can be a big amount but for organizations like Dakshina, receiving a fraction of a small budget is unsustainable.

Dakshina performs Ann Sokolow’s Frida


Diaspora and Exile

With globalized arts practices, the general tendency is to speak of the expansion of “geocultural cultural space” (Nurse 2014). Arts sustain, renew, and transform themselves through these spaces. These spaces also contain hierarchies of power where art is ranked and distributed in particular ways. The sociology of the four individuals from the diaspora presented here provides a glimpse into the ability of artists to create something new and challenge themselves in these spaces. Equally the everyday difficulty of trying to connect with important networks and organizations to gain access to funds, audiences, collectors, distributors, and exhibition spaces.

Diasporic artists are also part of important movements in art in the 21st century to decolonize and question the Eurocentricity of arts practices. For now, Eurocentricity is here to stay and debates around this issue are just beginning. To gain recognition, filmmakers must cater to Eurocentric mechanisms, an opera singer or a dancer must compete with iconic practices, and in presenting anything syncretic artists and producers must educate many including the critics and the funders.

Art historian Steve Nelson (2014) notes that while art history is a “Eurocentric endeavor … it does not follow that the discipline is always a Western enterprise” (p. 80). The recent debates in Berlin on post-coloniality in the creation of the new €644 million Humboldt Forum, presenting collections from world cultures, are instructive. These debates included the status of art looted from colonialized places, but they also featured Berlin’s aspirations for being a cosmopolitan global city. Through the intersections of hegemonic arts practices will arise spaces for new artists and endeavors. These debates set the tone or reflect the activities of artists and their managers in the streets or trenches. At the granular level, the artists who sustain and challenge existing practices provide the most detailed look at how art is created and experienced in a globalized era.


Works Cited

Becker, Howard S. (2008) Art Worlds. Berkeley, CA; London: University of California Press.

Beltin, Hans, Andrea Buddesnseig, and Peter Weibel. (2013) The Global Contemporary and the Rise of New Art Worlds. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Frith, Simon. (2012) “Creativity as Social Fact.” In Musical Imaginations: Multidisciplinary Perspectives on Creativity, Performance, and Perception. Eds. David Hargreaves, Dorothy Miell, and Raymond MacDonald. 62-72. Oxford University Press.

Gill, Harjant S. (November 2020) “Decolonizing Visual Anthropology: Locating Transnational Diasporic Queers‐of‐Color Voices in Ethnographic Cinema.” American Anthropologist.

Konečni, Vladimir J. (2012) “Composers’ Creative Process: The Role of Life-Events.” In Musical Imaginations: Multidisciplinary Perspectives on Creativity, Performance, and Perception. Eds. David Hargreaves, Dorothy Miell, and Raymond MacDonald. 141-155. Oxford University Press.

Heywood, Ian. (1997) Social Theories of Art: A Critique. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Nelson, Steven. (2014) “Conversations Without Borders.” In Art History in the Wake of the Global Turn. Eds. Jill H. Cassid and Aruna D’Souza. 79-87. Williamstown, MA: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute.

Nurse, Keith. (2014) “Diasporic Spaces: Migration, Hybridity and the Geocultural Turn.” In Cultural Expression, Creativity and Innovation. Culture and Globalization Series 3. Eds. Helmut Anheier and Yudhishthir Raj Isar. 78-85. Los Angeles: Sage.

Singh, J. P. and Evangelos Chrysagis. (April 2019) Understanding Multimodalities in Arts and Social SciencesArts & International Affairs. 3.3/4.1. April 2019. DOI:10.18278/aia.

Terry Smith (2013) “Contemporary Art: World Currents in Transition Beyond Globalization.” In The Global Contemporary and the Rise of New Art Worlds. Eds. Hans Beltin, Andrea Buddesnseig, and Peter Weibel. 186-192. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.