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Midnight's Children at Fifty

Raghu Rai photo
Subcontinental Drift: The Desai sisters' 'Rhythms of India' mural incorporates imagery both ancient and modern, like the scene in this Raghu Rai photo.

Like India itself, the Desai sisters' mural is a work in progress

By Zack Stentz

The "midnight's children" of Salman Rushdie's celebrated novel--those tots born on the night of India's 1947 independence date--are turning 50 and settling into a somewhat wary middle age. And to celebrate the impending half-century mark of the world's second most populous nation and largest (by far!) democracy, the Asian Art Museum has devoted a wing to its India: A Celebration! exhibit. (India's such an expansive subject that even the staid folks at the Asian are reduced to slinging exclamation points with the abandon of a Broadway musical.)

And as if the displayed statues, saris, paintings and photos weren't enough, the show's organizers have incorporated a live element as well, in the form of the Desai sisters, Indian-American artists who busily paint an Indian-themed mural during visiting hours. "The program director wanted something interactive for this exhibit," explains Monica Desai Henderson, clad in paint-spattered cotton as she pauses from her work to answer questions. "So the people from the museum approached us to do this"--Monica points toward the mural, titled Rhythms of India.

Rich in geographic and cultural symbolism, the work incorporates natural features like the Himalaya Mountains, the sacred Ganges River and the intensely cultivated fields of the monsoon-prone south, all of which help underscore the nation's vast size and diversity. "We've incorporated a lot of elements, many of which honor India's classic arts tradition," says the acrylic-coated Meera Desai, stopping to join her sister in conversation.

Luckily, the mural manages to incorporate these well-known tropes without succumbing to the sort of shallow Asian exoticism derided by Palestinian scholar Edward Said as "Orientalism."

"Our father is from Bombay [Mumbai]," Monica explains, "and our Indian heritage has always been integral to our lives--the food, music, art, dance and religion."

Cultural symbols incorporated by the Desais range from a Mughul-influenced scene in the right corner, the familiar elephant-headed visage of Ganesh and a rural woman practicing the traditional rangoli art form. "It's a form of folk art that involves doing a floor design of a mandala," explains Meera, who has herself tried her hand at rangoli. "It's very meditative, because rangoli is done with flower petals and other similar materials, so as soon as the wind comes, it's gone."

Monica and Meera hope for a little more permanence for Rhythms of India. Scheduled to be completed Aug. 15, India's Independence Day (though not at midnight, alas), the mural will hang for the duration of the exhibit. "And we're still looking for a home for it after that," Monica says. "We'd really like it to go someplace where people can see it."

The sisters' handiwork can also be seen in the Mission district, where they had a hand in painting the striking mural on the Women's Building, and they collaborated on another work in Vistacion Valley as well. "I really like doing murals a lot," Meera says. "It's so big, so public, and we have people coming up and asking questions while we're working, so it's not a work of art that's made in isolation. It's almost like a performance."

Through Sept. 28 at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, Golden Gate Park. Wed.­Sun. 9:30am­5pm, $7 adults, $5 seniors, $4 children 12-17, free to children under 12 and members. 415/379-8801.

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From the August 1997 issue of the Metropolitan.

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