Acting in its unofficial capacity as the State Department's east wing, the Hirshhorn Museum this week opened a show of "Modern Indian Paintings from the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi," coinciding with Indira Gandhi's official visit.

The 50 works by 47 Indian artists range from meditative yin-yang to very awful dentist-office art. The movement appears caught in a crisis: cultural themes of the homeland are rendered in wild styles patterned after famous English, French and German modernists; tantric designs hang beside surrealist images that smack of Magritte and Gorky. Diplomacy aside, Americans will have difficulty knowing in what context to judge these unfamiliar works.

"The message is one of struggle, these artists are trying very hard," said Laxmi P. Sihare, director of the New Delhi museum. But perha, while experiments in modern styles produce imitations or washouts. Two small, quiet paintings by Nobel Prize-winning poet R. Tagore are among the most compelling. His "Veiled Woman" and a male head study seem novel while retaining an Indian texture.

Sihare says Indian influences underlie the international styles picked up by artists studying abroad, but the subtleties are lost on foreign audiences. Suffice it to say that the nine Rasa, or aesthetic responses, the 33 transient moods, various mythologies, calligraphy and Sanskrit tales inspire certain works. In one painting, a moon above a tiger (protected as an endangered species in India, also feared as "a maneater") recalls the Indian saying, "Wherever the sun cannot reach, the poet can." Another work, "Vishvamitra," depicts the story of the damsel sent by God to seduce a saint. She succeeds, confronts the saint with his child and he averts his eyes.

"You may not get the meaning and the subject, but when it comes to handling formal images -- in color, line and form -- that's a universal language," Sihare maintains. Still, selective viewing is required. The show continues for five weeks, after a special preview for the prime minister. MODERN INDIAN PAINTINGS -- From the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, at the Hirshhorn Museum through August 29.