Two London exhibitions, the Serpentine Gallery's Indian Highway and Aicon's Signs Taken for Wonders, are the UK's most ambitious attempts yet to distill coherence into the chaotic rush of art emerging from the Indian subcontinent.
The marriage between the conceptually minded Serpentine and Indian art – whose overriding characteristics are narrative drive, flamboyant figuration and sensuous colour – is interesting because it is so unlikely. Recent memorable Indian installations have been sprawling, direct and often rooted in the animal motifs of folklore: Bharti Kher's "The Skin Speaks a Language Not Its Own", a collapsed fibreglass elephant adorned with bindis (female forehead decorations) at Frank Cohen's Passage to India, or Sudarshan Shetty's bell-tolling aluminium cast of a pair of cows, now at the Royal Academy's GSK Contemporary. Nothing like that is in Indian Highway; with conceptual aplomb, the Serpentine turns the accessibility and energy of Indian art into a taut cerebral game.
The highway of the title refers both to the literal road of migration and movement, and to the information superhighway, which together are propelling India to modernity.
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Dayanita Singh's wallpaper-photographs of Mumbai's central arteries illuminated at night introduce the theme in the first contemporary art gallery, and a crowd of sober documentary films worthily continue it – but a pair of installations catch the symbolism best. One is Bose Krishnamachari's celebrated "Ghost/Transmemoir", a collection of a hundred tiffin boxes – widely used to convey home-cooked lunches to workers across cities – each inset with LCD monitors, DVD players and headphones, through which everyday Mumbaikars regale audiences with their stories, accompanied by soundtracks evoking the high-pitched jangle and screech of Mumbai street life.
The other, towering upwards to the North art gallery's dome like a beating black heart at the core of the show, is Sheela Gowda's "Darkroom", consisting of metal tar-drums stacked or flattened into wrap-around sheets, evoking at once the grandeur of classical colonnades and the ad hoc shacks built by India's road workers. Inside, the darkness is broken by tiny dots of light through holes punctured in the ceiling like a constellation of stars; yellow-gold paint enhances the lyric undertow in this harsh readymade.
Opposite is N S Harsha's "Reversed Gaze", a mural depicting a crowd behind a makeshift barricade who tilt out towards us – making us the spectacles at the exhibition. All Indian life is here in this comic whimsy: farmer, businessman, fundamentalist Hindu, anarchist with firebomb, pamphleteer, aristocrat in Nehruvian dress, south Indian in baggy trousers and vest, tourist clutching a miniature Taj Mahal, and an art collector holding a painting signed R Mutt – linking the entire parade to the urinal, signed R Mutt, with which Marcel Duchamp invented conceptual art in 1917.