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The road to riches

Since independence, Indian artists have been engaged in obsessively constructing an identity for the

A couple of years ago I spent an afternoon talking to Maqbool Fida Husain, the grandfather (or strictly, at 93 now, the great-grandfather) of contemporary Indian art. Husain was living for the summer at a hotel in Mayfair, central London, surrounded by the latest of the 40,000 paintings he has made in a life that has seen him rise from sleeping on the streets of Mumbai and painting portraits on scraps of paper for food, to selling canvases for upwards of a million pounds.

Husain cultivated the air of a mystic - long beard, no shoes, a paintbrush four feet long. He had, he said, always lived the same way: "I get up at five in the morning and I always feel like it's my first day in front of a canvas. I don't get bored with sunrise. I then work hard for three hours." And after that? "The rest of the time I think it is extremely important just to loiter around."

Despite this laid-back regime there has never been anything half-hearted about his commitment to his work. Husain was a leader of the Artists' Progressive Group, which vowed, at Indian independence in 1947, to create a new visual language for the nation.

"We came with a mission to go back to the roots of our country. Most of the art schools and universities had British professors, from the Royal Academy or those places. We demolished that system in ten years, you know, and we tried to build something that was ours."

Sixty years on, Indian artists are still obsessively engaged in that effort, as evidenced by the exhibition "Indian Highway", currently showing at the Serpentine Gallery. The Serpentine has been clad for the occasion in a plywood shell, painted black and hung with a series of Husain's reworked favourites, allegories of India in the artist's prolific mongrel modernism, in which scenes from the Mahabharata fight for space with colonial themes and Bollywood outtakes.

This shell gives the exhibition the feel of one of those building sites that are ringed with chipboard and decorated with artists' impressions of the finished construction. That feeling is entirely appropriate to what is inside: India is many things, but finished is never one of them. The 15 artists represented acknowledge this in distinct ways. To get inside Sheela Gowda's improvised roadworker's dwelling, made of rusted tar drums, you feel in need of a hard hat. Jitish Kallat, meanwhile, uses lenticular prints - framed boxes of collage that give an illusion of perspective and motion - to document the slum clearance of the Tulsi Pipe Road in Mumbai. Each of the prints in Cenotaph (A Deed of Transfer) is a little framed elegy to the efforts of the people who once lived here to hold these dwellings together, to improvise home. They act like time capsules, layer upon layer of vibrant-coloured plaster clinging to walls, like geological strata of hope. Kallat, now in his thirties, used to cycle along this road to school; he relives that journey in his fleeting memory boxes of colour.

One of the engaging things about this show is that many of the artists have been moved to focus on its abstract theme in quite literal terms. It is a road trip, but one travelled, as on Kallat's bicycle, at variable speed, and as likely to dwell on the place that has been left behind as the uncertain destination. The theme suggests the unstoppable progress of the vaunted Indian economic miracle, but it is rarely celebratory in character. Dayanita Singh's Dream Villa 11 - 2007 makes wallpaper of the roaring Mumbai cityscape; the blue Indian night is cut into a fiery, fecund V by the lights of non-stop traffic on the main roads below. Her camera observes it steadily, one step removed. History never slows in her city.

Given events since this work was commissioned, it is easy to see portents in the unchecked drive to the future. Husain, called upon to reflect on the massacre in Mumbai, has painted a gallery wall with golden tears and dashed off a subcontinental Guernica. But the effort to bring things up to date does not feel necessary - violence and mourning already cast a shadow over much of the work. Look carefully at N S Harsha's melting-pot mural along one wall, on which all of India's castes and creeds are represented smiling, and you see in the background loaded guns and maniac axemen and shots fired in hatred.

That wall leads you to Amar Kanwar's harrowing Lightning Testimonies, a series of films which document one specific horror that dates to Partition. Shown on eight screens, Kanwar's films surround you with the stories of the 75,000 or more women who were raped, mutilated and murdered as the two nations came into existence. While one screen puts you in the front line of protests that even now continue, with naked young women accusing soldiers of assault, another shows old women recalling the violence done to them, speaking in languages you may not know but with faces you understand only too well.

In an adjacent room you can hear the speeches of Jinnah and Nehru, made on the occasion of the troubled birth of each of their nations, full of hope for peace and stability. The speeches are told in the infant sing-song of Rushdie's Midnight's Children, and relayed through a pair of postwar microphones that see-saw constantly. Now Jinnah's rhetoric rises, now Nehru's.

There is no getting away from those innocent-sounding hopes in these rooms. They carry to the video installations made by the Raqs Media Collective (comprising Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula and Shuddhabrata Sengupta), on which the nation's histories clash - jumbo jets appear to land on the corrugated roofs of peasant huts, statued deities contemplate urban sprawl. They invade the claustrophobic room made by Subodh Gupta, the most famous of India's younger artists, who has re-created a government official's office: Remington typewriters on knackered benches padlocked to the floor; a wonderful, bulging, glass-fronted filing cabinet, its laborious contents chained up for ever, thick with the dust of bureaucracy.

If Gupta's work speaks of the statistician's endless grind to hold a nation together, to catalogue its chaos into a post-colonial order, Bharti Kher's offers an alternative version of that energised anarchy. Her wall of competing psychedelic bindis, The Nemesis of Nations, never for a moment lets you get a fixed vantage point; not one of its hundred concentric centres can hold still. In this, it is much like this unruly exhibition - and much like the idea of the country it fails to contain.

"Indian Highway" is at the Serpentine Gallery, London W2, until 22 February. For more details log on to:

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The destruction of Gaza