Monday, February 5, 2024

White Cube Versus Colorful Walls: Galleries and Changing Visual Experiences


(Image courtesy: Net)

White, as far as galleries are concerned, is not a racial index. Ironically, it stands for neutrality. It reflects all lights, all thoughts and all visual engagements. It separates the work of art displayed against it from the surroundings and the possible attributes that enhance or affect the meaning of the work during focused and dispassionate contemplation by the viewer. Perhaps, viewer is exempted from this discourse for he or she is just another attribute to the art galleries and events. The contemplation of art these days, is mostly done by art buyers, dealers, collectors and auction house personalities. That justifies the scheduling of events during an art do; previews before views and VIP previews before the open doors for art ‘people’.


The color white and the conventional rectangular spaces have been the reasons for calling the galleries white cubes, though cube is just a euphemism for squares with varying angles. Such designated gallery spaces replicate the idea of modernist grand narratives. The space almost determines the viewers’ attitudes and their kinetic orientations within it. Unlike in the large scale museums where people audibly express their surprise before masterly works, exchange art historical anecdotes, the overlapping narratives of the live guides who conduct the flock of visitors through halls and the gleeful noises that the children make, the white cube galleries hush the people up with their sanitized interiors. Galleries, more than museums become stringent civilizing agents in this way and visiting a gallery becomes a civilizing ritual, if I rephrase Carol Duncan’s argument a bit.


(Image courtesy: Net)

Breaking away from the white cubes was a way of the artists who rebelled against the grand narratives of modernism and they thought that these sanitized grand structures were commodifying interfaces. Those artists who went into the making of conceptual art using poor materials, emerging technologies and their own corporeal bodies discarded organized white cube spaces and propped up their interventionist practices in impromptu spaces or in the spaces that were ready to create ruptures in the conventional art making and viewing. Immateriality and temporality became the defining status of the works of art that broke down materiality and object experiences and converted them into conceptual experimentations. Art being an expression through a medium, materiality couldn’t have been wished away completely. Hence, artists went for abject materials that evoked aesthetical revulsion initially followed by intellectual deliberations.


However, white cubes are structures that never say die. They are determined spaces with assumed fluidity with the arrival of a vigorous art market. Had it been once a place for dispassionate contemplation without external influences or distractions, later it became a space that could replicate interiors of elite habitats virtually, interestingly, by adding certain distractions to the very viewing space. It was done through certain minimal touches of change and major tweaking of the viewers’ consciousness and conscience. Galleries changed the ambience of their interiors by changing the nature of light, darkening the interiors to create light spots that highlighted the works, drowning the surroundings in utter darkness. It came as an offshoot of video art but became a fad in general display even. The white cubes came masquerading as dark caverns, making the viewing or art an exploration or expedition through an unchartered land.


(Image courtesy: Net)

The determined spaces with certain square feet of display area with a familiar layout to the regular visitors suddenly became confusing labyrinths where navigation turned out to be an experience in itself rather than the works of art exhibited on walls or floors or screens. The breaking down of grand narratives became another set of obscure narratives that needed physical and mental unpacking at once. If the white cubes were an offshoot of a colonial discourse, the navigational challenges now posed by the galleries by changing lights, layouts and wall colors became an imperialist offensive that demanded subservience, unquestioned acceptance and never ending awe from the viewers. The white cubes, once the temples of civilizing rituals and grand narratives are now the theme parks with mindboggling roller-coaster rides. The attention of the viewers is taken away from the machine that took them to gut-wrenching movements, instead they are meant to focus on the exhilaration that that the movements impart. Often it turns out to be a para-jumping with a malfunctioning parachute.


Colored walls of a gallery, taken positively, are a pleasant distraction from, as one of the artists would put it, ‘the usual drab of ‘the’ white’. They do accentuate the presence of the works on display so long as they remain subdued. But the screaming colors, indiscreet daubing of all what are available in the color chart of a paint-maker, absorb the works the way a cunning croc would do to unsuspecting thirsty lambs. The Poppins candy like walls in a gallery may be a fun thing for the first timers but for the seasoned ones, besides the visual titillation, it offers nothing but a terrible sense of discomfort. Someone wearing gaudy suits may be interesting to look at for once but a pack of such buddies processioning through a narrow street would make one think of a harlequins’ carnival.


(Image courtesy: Net)

White cube is old fashioned now, many think so. Adding hues to the walls does make some impact of on the viewing experience. However, thinking of it, a work of art, if it is done in a conventional medium, has to be seen in a neutral space, devoid of particular physical contexts. The neutral spaces function as crucibles for the contexts to flow in virtually. It doesn’t mean that the museums and galleries have to stick to white surfaces. There could be colored walls, heavily decked up frames exuding the glories of royalty. But a gallery space is a space where royalty is an aspiration but not a given reality. It is meant to be a class-less, caste-less and color-less space. Treating adjacent walls in jarring colors doesn’t really enhance the quality of the works.




Friday, December 1, 2023

Blinding Visual Silence of Artists from Kerala and Elsewhere During the Gaza Crisis


(Work by Banksy in Gaza)

Art is the child of its circumstances. Art could happen in isolation but the resultant work is always a product of its own physical and intellectual environments. Sometimes, art tend to hide its real intentions in order divert the attention of the authorities or resort to some other methods of expression so that the censors find them passable, harmless and innocent. Such clever display of harmlessness, when passed through time sheds its hood and show the real face. It becomes an object with telltale evidences of the time in which it was born. It also tells the story of the artist who has caused it. It is irrelevant whether the artist has left some journals and anecdotes in order to connect the dots or not. Whatever unsaid in art is chiseled out by time, if someone in that projected time takes interest in the said piece of art object.


A question sent by one of my Facebook friends caused this preamble. He asked, requesting anonymity, why artists from Kerala and elsewhere have not yet responded to the Gaza War through their works. Yes, in such events that shake up human conscience artists, irrespective of their land of origin find seeds for their art. They react to it the way Picasso had reacted to the bombing at the Basque town of Cadacaus. Picasso’s response is now in everybody’s mind and it is called ‘Guernica’. It has become such a landmark work that ever since the artists from world over when they responded to an atrocity or calamity, extracted symbols from this huge painting and employed them in their works to express their angst. But Picasso is now seen as a ‘modernist’ whose grand narratives existed within certain intellectual monoliths, in other words, it is old, odd and stereotypical.


(Question sent by a friend)

Whenever there is a crisis in the world that brought humans to despicable states of existence and several innocent lives are lost for no reason of their own, the abjection and revulsion that the artists feel in their minds come out as works of art which is generally called protest art. Sometimes protest art register a protest and sometimes they invite world’s attention to the crisis. The more is the fame of the artist the more is the traction of his or her message through the protest art. Of late Banksy, the anonymous artist from London, whose works, ironically are sold for millions of dollars (no other anonymous artist is sold for such obscene prices so far), had involved in the Israel-Palestine crisis by landing in the crisis ridden areas and painting pictures of hope (often with children as protagonists, a clever ploy to get the attention of the people), which, it was reported that, were lifted by art dealers and their agents for post-war commerce elsewhere.


Protest Art is sometimes dubbed as reactionary art. The negative connotation weighs down on the real intention of such art. Reactionary art can be just naïve and hypocritical but all kinds of protest art are not necessarily so. Protest art too needs a positive environment to flourish. Where totalitarian regimes are in place or state censorship is rampant artists do not dare to make protest art that challenge the authority. Art that has the critical edge and has the ability to dare the authorities may go underground and anonymous (exactly the way Banksy had started off in late 1980s in England) in such situations. Result; a lot of graffiti in the city walls, posters, performances, videos and secretly shared documents and images.


(Ai Wei Wei)

Today, it is not difficult to trace the origins of a graffiti and underground art. With the presence of AI controlled CCTVs and other surveillance mechanisms, authorities could zero in on the artists and if need be, curtail them from such activities by imprisoning or slapping sanctions on them. Ai Wei Wei is a best example of such artists who dared the one party ‘democracy’ of China and got incarcerations in return. All the artists are not Banksys or Ai Wei Weis. It takes a lot of guts to speak up and a dare the authorities. During the times of peace, one could talk about the war times and express angst against atrocities of wars one’s heart’s content. But in the war time, especially when the authorities are on the side of the perpetrator, the artists cannot speak for the victims.


It is not a rule though. In the present context, though India has lately condemned the ongoing war in Gaza and pummeling of the Arab citizens by the Israeli forces and the Arab retaliations, one does not know whether the Indian authorities really entertain artists in India speaking on behalf of the Hamas, the Arab extremists who fights for the freedom of Palestine. Though there are writers, intellectuals and journalists speak against Indian authorities for siding with the Israel, their reactions are contained by the counter narratives rampant in the official, unofficial and citizen media. Art is slightly different in that case. Words can be responded with words. Art’s power cannot be responded with another kind of art, especially when the artist who has done the powerful protest art is famous like Ai Wei Wei or Bansky who have an international standing.


(Work by Ai Wei Wei)

Whenever the issue of censorship has come up for public debate, we have talked about self-censorship as a ploy to hoodwink the authorities. During the rise of the Nazis in Germany, many a German Expressionist had resorted to allegories and metaphors that did not speak of the Nazis but spoke of the totalitarian rulers and authorial fallacies culled up from the vast repository of European literature including that of Shakespeare. When India was under the rule of non-BJP regimes, artists spoke of the local, national and international crises through their art. Now, with regimes showing totalitarian traits both in the center and state, artists do a lot of self-censorship. Look at the kind of art that is produced in Kerala, where there is a thriving art scene. They produce such art that does say a lot about the land that they live, the abstract ideas expressed through forms and a lot of concern for environment. There is a joke doing rounds in the art scene; when there was a crisis in the tribal belt of Vayanadu, in Kerala, it was easy to paint the crisis in Kashmir or Palestine. A child died of hunger in Kerala is neglected while Alan Kurdi, the Kurdish toddler died in the Mediterranean seashore is a talking point for the artists in Kerala.


(Alan Kurdi)

Artists in Kerala may be afraid of the totalitarian regimes. Or they may be doing self-censorship. Even if both are not the case, then they may be speaking through metaphors. One cannot say for sure. What is sure is this that protest art is Kerala and elsewhere has become a part of city beautification projects, funded by the authorities and promoted by the mainstream curators and art promoters. We are as well as they are now spellbound. We need to wait for the spell to wither off.



Thursday, November 30, 2023

When Someone Places Curio Shops over Art Galleries and Works of Art

(Screenshot of a message sent to me by a senior woman artist)

“Yesterday I was asked by a visitor to the exhibition why should he pay so much more for “an art piece“ when he could get something better finished and “finer” for a few hundred rupees from curio shops. He had also visited an exhibition at Fine arts college and could not see why youngsters should waste their time and talent making things out of “muck” and scrap. I did a poor job of explaining. Hope when you have time to spare you can write something for clearing such doubts.”

When I got this message in my inbox, from a reputed woman artist, what came to my mind instantly was the shallow understanding about art that people still carried in their minds. It reminded me of the statement that often people make when they see some masters’ works that apparently look naïve and child-like; hey, what is the big deal. Even my child could do this. Why does it take a great man/woman to do this stuff? The answer given to such bravado often ekes out stereotypical answers from the informed; yes, then why don’t you or your children do it?

This man does not differ much from such cynical people. Perhaps, he was not particularly sarcastic or condescending. He was just being real there! His idea about art lies something around a ‘finished’ product, something very Aristotlean, imitation of nature. While looking at the works of art that do not confirm his ideas about art as mimicking the objects and concepts, he feels that they are not up to the mark. And he does see a lot of art that are polished, finished, rounded and confirming to the commonly held ideas about art as mimicry.

However, this Aristotlean understanding of mimesis has a problem because the conceptualization of mimicry, while taking nature into consideration, obliterates culture from its discursive ken. Culture, as we understand today is the cumulative manifestations of the lives that people lived so far on the face of the earth. The early art did not confirm the ideas of mimesis though our ancestors were trying to imagine and execute the events, participants and objects exactly the way they had perceived them. They were trying to confirm but the confirmation needed more conceptual orientations and scientific understanding and overall development of brains that facilitated the accumulation of skills required to do sophisticated images and objects as we see today.

It too may take years for the human beings to arrive at the exact mimicry of nature in their creative expressions. They literally wanted the reflecting surfaces such as mirror and lenses in order to capture images and express them in verisimilitude. Imitation reflected truth and surface value was important for verifying the exactitude of that truth. The western thinking developed mostly around the Greek School of thought etched indelible marks in the minds of the people all over the world about the idea of exactitude, irrespective of the cultural variations chosen by the people in different continents, countries and regions. The western thought therefore moved around the existence of a complete body, a perfect body and an unblemished body that became the fundamental measure of beauty, truth and aesthetical as well as social acceptance.

Joseph Kosuth, taking directly on the Aristotlean idea of mimesis and also the Platonic idea of ideal form, produced a conceptual work of art titled One and Three Chairs, 1965, where he placed a chair on the floor, a photograph of a chair on the wall and a detailed dictionary definition on the wall adjacent to the photograph. The question was, which one is the ‘real’ chair there? Is it the wooden chair? If so, are all the chairs same in design and material? Is the picture, a chair? Or the definition of it? Between the concept, text and image, and even the object there is a chasm that has to be filled with ideas, culture and related discourses.

(One and Three Chairs- by Joseph Kosuth)

The man who came to see the shows and raised those questions himself is a confused person who needs a thorough education and experience in looking at and understanding the works of art, not only the ones that he sees in the galleries but also the ones that have become part of the history which are available through online and offline sources. The questions, thought cynical and sarcastic in sound and delivery, are good questions. That is one juncture where one start thinking about one’s own concepts about art and the works of art that are available for his consumption. He can get a finished product from a curio shop which would satisfy his aesthetical needs for the time being but once he is a regular visitor to the exhibitions, if he has a probing mind and ability to understand, he will definitely change his ideas on the nature of art.

Young artists are a different lot always. They are the people who respond to the world in a radical and new fashion compared to the old people whose eyes and brains are tuned to the fundamentals of life whatever changes take place in the material world. Hence, even if newer inventions challenge their materialistic and intellectual understanding, after the initial unsettling they land back to their time-tested understanding about life; exceptions are there in those categories though. Young people, on the contrary are dare devils, with a lot of curiosity to know the world and imbibe the ever-renewing technologies. Their ideas about the object(ive) world are different from those of the old people. When such ideas are made into expressions, the youngsters resort to unprecedented approaches and choose hitherto disused objects, materials and concepts. Those who look for beauty in the conventional sense, such works of art may be a disappointment. But the viewers, art collectors and so on, cannot live in a Chaplinesque dreamscape forever where the primal innocence is the driving force and the dominant theme. Contemporary works of art are meant to challenge the conventional ideas about art. When they are capable of challenging, the intelligent ones would say, what a challenge!

Friday, November 17, 2023

Prof.B.N.Goswamy No More: A Quick Portrait of the Art Historian


(Prof. B.N.Goswami 1933-2023)

Prof.B.N.Goswamy, the renowned art historian is no more. He was ninety years old. A man who inherited his classy lifestyle and erudition during the tumultuous years of colonial era kept that on without compromising even after India gained independence. He was an IAS officer for a few years and left his administrative skills behind to do further research on Indian art, especially Pahari and Sikh art. His curiosity moved from recognizing the lesser known manuscripts and illuminations from the regional varieties of Indian miniature traditions and writing volumes about them, to the identification of artists who did signature style works in the courts of northern provinces since the Mughal period. He pored himself over innumerable volumes of documents kept by the temple priests whose relentless documentations of the donors in cash, kind and art, without losing the finer details such as the painters’ names, those of the donors and witnesses under certain chieftains and kings, and brought out volumes on artists such as Pahari Masters: Court Painters of Northern India, Nainsukh of Guler: A Great Indian Painter from a Small Hill State, Manaku of Guler: the Life and Work of Another Great Indian Painter from a Small Hill State.

I met Prof.B.N.Goswamy personally in 2012, when I was invited by Chandigarh Lalit Kala Akademi to give an illustrated lecture. Prof.Goswamy, to my surprise, came and sat in the front row and kept listening to my rather lengthy presentation for slightly over one and half hour. After the lecture he shook hands with me and said he enjoyed looking at the contemporary works of art that were detailed in my presentation. Reading B.N.Goswami has always been a pleasurable thing. His volumes are written in chaste English but never pretentious or deliberately tedious and complex. He never encumbered his writing with unnecessary jargons. He could transport an art history enthusiast and a general reader to the layers of Indian art traditions prevailed in the northern provinces of our country both in his writings as well as in his illustrated lectures. He had this theatrical flourish in his presentations, which often ended with an image where Lord Krishna was presented in an absent form, through a blooming tree.

Prof. B.N.Goswami always reminded me of the late painter, Jehangir Sabawala; both of them exuded a sense of Victorian elegance. While Sabawala was aloof in nature (may be he was accessible to his friends, galleries, collectors and dealers, which I was not) but Prof.Goswami remained accessible to students and scholars alike, but never made himself a populist. He stuck to his methodology and writing style and did not traverse to the realm of contemporary art (except for once) as some art historians specializing in 19th century or earlier centuries tend to do. Most of them believe that methodology makes art history; a sort of stencil application of the historical methodology over contemporary arts done in different contexts and intents, and make hybrid art historical writings, overtly jargon infested and opaque. Prof.Goswamy never fell into that fallacy. To put it differently, he did not emulate a Hindustani singer who thought he would rap for a change and cut himself a sorry figure.

Brijinder Nath Goswamy, that was his full name. I never knew it till recently. I was reading his book ‘The Indian Cat’, his last work on art history, approached through a different trajectory where he picked up a set of Indian traditional works of art where cats are depicted as a side character or a predominant one. In that book, one of his foreign friends calls him ‘Brij’ and I was curious. Like the book revealed another side of Goswamy, it also revealed to me that his name was Brijinder Nath Goswamy and his close friends called him Brij. In every person there are two persons, at least. One is for public consumption and another one for exclusive private use. How was B.N.Goswamy in private, did he always wore a scarf around his neck like some old film stars, or did he always sleep on a spotless bedsheet and so on, we are not privy to know. But the public personality of Prof.Goswamy was that of a meticulous art historian, always looking for a lost name of an artist and giving him his due acknowledgement in Indian art history, a delayed justice but what a justice!

We are going to miss Prof.B.N.Goswamy for a long time.


Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Do Not Mistake Sher-Gil’s Money as Indian Women Artists’ Gain


(Story Teller by Amrita Sher-Gil sold for Rs.61.8 Cr)

Amrita Sher-Gil is in news again, obviously for monetary reasons only. Of late people speak about art when it fetches exorbitant prices in the auction market. The gavel went down for Sher-Gil last week for a whopping price of Rs.61.8 Crore in the Saffronart Auction for her painting titled ‘The Story Teller’. I am not here to debate the price or the ethics of art market. I am just curious about the ways in which the news was reported both in the conventional and social media. Money makes news and news make money, that is the trend of our times. So, Amrita Sher-Gil’s painting fetching a huge amount is definitely newsworthy.


It is curious to see how unknown people exchanging money in ways unknown to ordinary people throw the latter into orgasmic spasms. Most of the people who have commented on the incident seem to have taken ‘ecstasy’ or some similar potion as they gush about Sher-Gil and her market worth as if she belonged to their families. Money’s intoxication seems to have become so contagious that it sends people hallucinatory in a sense. Someone posted in a whatsapp group, ‘Finally justice is done to Sher-Gil. It is a new dawn for the women artists in India.’ I was wondering about the kind of injustice that had been done to Sher-Gil by the Indian art scene till she fetched this kind of money. So I asked, did that person who posted the message really believed whether it was a new dawn for the women artists in India.


(Amrita Sher-Gil)

It felt like a hungry man feeling satiated upon smelling the fragrance of the delicious dishes cooked in the neighbor’s kitchen. I asked a few women artists whether they felt the same with the price of Sher-Gil, a sort of liberation, hope and aspiration. None felt so. Everybody thought that it was a market ploy that everyone knows about. Though people do not know clearly how auction houses function according to a pre-planned sketch, a blueprint for structuring the flow of money, everyone today knows that periodical transformation of dead artists into heroes and heroines is a necessity to keep the art scene guessing; who could be the next. As you play your cards on the regular Progressives a sort of ennui could set in. To dispel boredom better you introduce surprises. In fact, for those who closely observe the pattern of auctioneering, there are not many surprises in store for them.


Auctions are like a sort of beating hot and cold. Major works of Amrita Sher-Gil are in the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi. The rest of her works must be with her relatives and family estate if any or in the extended family of Sher-Gil. She is said to have done only 200 works in her life. So gathering the paintings from these sources is important. Auction houses need provenance and they know how to establish provenance in the absence of a real one. Once the work is found, provenance is ready and there are stake holders, it is the time for surprise. And the players are not the auctioneers and the faceless/unknown collectors. There are a number of players in between and around who decide what to be hot and what to be cold for the season.


(Tahitian Women Taking Shelter Under Shadow by Paul Gauguin)

I was looking at the reports that came after the grand fetching of money by Amrita Sher-Gil’s work. All the newspapers, portals and other mediums said the same thing about Sher-Gil. They all expressed happiness that finally Amrita got her due. Why so? In the same reports they say she had fetched Rs.6 Crores back in 2004, a whopping price for those times. Hadn’t she got her due then? Language of journalism, I tell myself in order to pacify the mild tremors in me. Then all of them invariably go on talking about her biography. Amrita Sher-Gil was born in Hungary and her mother was blah blah blah. Some words about the painting, ‘Story Teller’ that stands in the middle as the reason for this euphoria? No. Nobody seems to have something to say about it.


Some among the journalists write a few lines about the work and mention the year of its making, 1937. Thank god, at least that much information is there about the work! Then they too have to show their research. So they ramble on about Paul Gauguin, Pahari Miniatures and Ajanta Murals, the styles that had apparently influenced Sher-Gil. It is very easy to draw Gauguin into the picture. He was exotic and alien in Tahiti and also exploitative to certain extent. Somebody could mistake even Sher-Gil for the same; for her selective use of orientalism in a Gauguin-esque fashion. She was famous for making tableaus before making a painting. She modelled her paintings after the women in the hills in their utter poverty and gloom, exactly the way Gauguin had used the Tahitian women for his sexcapades and sexploitation.


(Painting by Amria Sher-Gil)

‘The Story Teller’ comes from the same stable. The gloomy colors typical to Sher-Gil is very much in the palette. There are five woman and boy in an inner courtyard, a location that Sher-Gil had always liked and used repeatedly as a recurring image in many of her works. She, a libertarian knew the plight of her rural counterparts and their wretched lives confined in the inner courtyards. They may be decking up a young bride or taking an afternoon nap, their world is confined in the courtyard. Sher-Gil knew it and she made them pose in those locations itself. The maximum she did was to keep them inside the rooms, against gloomy walls. Sher-Gil must have been enamored by the dark beauties, a kind of her own doubles in other bodies, in other guises and in other locations. This must have given her a different kick.


The five woman are seen animated in their own ways. The painting is called story teller. The woman in the lower middle is seen recounting something but it doesn’t mean that the other women are glued to her story. They all seem to be in their own world of reveries. The boy who is on the charpoy with his mother or aunt is interested in the story. There is a dog cooling off under the charpoy and there are three bovine creatures minding their own business, except one which is looking intently at the betel leaf that the lady is holding. There is a man in the picture who has not been given any permission to come in. He wants to inform something to ladies or he is keeping an eye on them. His precarious position shows that he doesn’t hold any power on the women in their own locations. The liminal line that separates two worlds, of the men and women, though not really an emphatic one plays a pivotal role in the painting which only a pair of trained eyes could see.


Happy that money is flowing into the Indian art market which will have trickle effect on the younger contemporaries. However, Amrita Sher-Gil’s painting fetching sixty one crore rupees is definitely not going to help the Indian artists in general or the Indian women artists in particular. Auction results are a different game altogether. One thing is true; Amrita Sher-Gil’s works will slowly re-surface in the coming days and there would be a lot of activities in the secondary market. It is always good for the art market. Auction house results expands the boundaries of the rigid art market and definitely, slowly the money bags will loosen the strings before the contemporary works of art too.


Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Female Artists in the Land of Male Artists: The Curious Case of Kishori Kaul


While standing in front of the paintings of Kishori Kaul, a question flashes in my mind. Is her visual language male or female? Language is neutral and devoid of gender, they say. But we know that language is an ideologically driven tool, and it has gender. Visual language too has gender and ideology. The more an artist becomes aware about her leaning towards ideology and gender politics the more she uses gendered and ideologically driven language. What would have happened to those women artists who were destined to live among the dominant male artists and carve out a niche for themselves? Either they would leave the place altogether (exactly the way Amrita Sher Gil left Europe saying that she was leaving Europe to Picasso and taking India for herself) or stick to the same place and compete with the male artists (like Leonor Fini and Dorothea Tanning during the surrealist period and Lee Krasner of the Abstract Expressionist time) and gain marginal success and fame.


Kishori Kaul belongs to the latter group who decided to stick to the same place where the male artists dominated. She was born in Kashmir and went to study art in the illustrious Faculty of Fine Arts, Baroda. Both the artist and the institution were taking baby steps, and the enthusiasm was very high. It was post-Sher Gil time and B.Prabha and Nasreen Mohammedi were her contemporaries, with slight difference in years. Sher Gil was a huge possibility and a hindrance for most of the women artists. Sher Gil had the socio-cultural means to be a liberal and liberated woman artist much ahead of her times. She could negotiate with the royal houses and could find patrons among the rich and powerful. The case of the post-Sher Gil women artists was not like that. They were absolutely home grown and had to wage war against the existing social conditions that prevented women from becoming independent human beings with creative abilities.


N.S.Bendre was one of the teachers who established the fundamentals of teaching modern art in Baroda’s faculty of fine arts. He was a maverick and worked like a magician using different palettes, brushes, knives and other tools. He was more inclined to make rural subjects with lean and dark figures, obviously a departure from the so called Indian School of painting, which again is a derivate of the Calcutta School of painting perfected by Abanindranath Tagore, Asit Kumar Haldar, Nandalal Bose and so on. While the earlier doyens stuck to their premises with limited palettes, romantic effects and lofty philosophies to substantiate their creations, N.S.Bendre created a different kind of aesthetics across the Indian mainland without any restrictions. But Bendre, despite his urban experiences reminded rural at heart and his creativity overflowed when he worked on the rural imagery.


Ideologically, Bendre did not lean too much towards any nationalistic project the way his elders had done. Perhaps, Bose had some influence regarding the choice of the subjects. Inspired Ajanta paintings, off and on Bose went into the mythological stories of both Buddhism and Hinduism. It was a part of the larger cultural makeup of the country, which the modernists somehow preferred to keep aside, allowing only occasional entries into their works. Bendre, however kept mythologies out of his works and focused on secular subjects, something that defined the Baroda School of painters including the imported K.G.Subramanyan. B.Prabha, coming from the Bendre school of painting, turned her attention towards the rural folk and fish mongers and one could say that her works had this distinct quality in terms of subject matter. However, when it came to the style, she could not move much away from the Bendre school of painting.


Kishori Kaul too, in the big bad world of male painters, seems to have been stuck with the male visual language. Kaul’s works from the 60s are best example of this. She uses thick impastos of oil paint using palette knife for its application. The works have that modernist vintage flair that attracts one towards her paintings. As you keep watching her works, the question that came to my mind in the beginning refuses to budge. Keeping the biographical details of Kaul apart from her works, how does one discern that the works are painted by a female painter. The works currently on display at the Triveni Gallery in Delhi, presented by Anant Art Gallery, impart this feeling that Kaul is one kind of a woman artist who has not differentiated her language from that of the male artists of her formative years and later on. There is intrinsic evidence that tell the viewer of her indebtedness to the late 19th and mid 20th century male painters of the West routed through the Indian modernists.


As she progressed in age, she seems to have loosened up her otherwise tight palette with thick knife applications and let the canvas peep out through the brush strokes. She has finally picked up brush and left the knife behind. The change in the tool has made all the difference. The background becomes lucid, and the contours are visible in their curvaceous lines. They almost look like Japanese portrait paintings with blank background created by pigment swatches. Further we move to see her works that are inspired nature; there are landscapes, close up of lotus ponds, lily ponds and so on. The spring in her mind comes back in random strokes on the canvas through liberated color applications.


The organizers have called it a retrospective. There is only scant literature about the artist in the internet space. Each piece available says the same thing; her early days in Kashmir, a great grandfather who was an artist, an affliction of tuberculosis during her teens, her first tryst with colors and canvas, her art education in Baroda and so on. There are mentions about the influence of the spring, snow, hills, valleys, flowers and water from her native in her works. But the works say a different story, at least in the exhibits. When Kaul paints, she paints like a male artist. There is nothing that leads to make her distinct from the male artists of the time. I don’t blame her. It was the dilemma that most of the women artists of the time had gone through. Salvaging Kishori Kaul from those dominant male visual narratives and finding a space for herself in the hall of fame is important. Hope that will happen soon, before she is made into a spectacle in the auction sales (or the effort to make her a spectacle in the auction sales) because auction houses also need some convincing narrative to make a sales pitch.



Monday, September 18, 2023

House of Memories and the Strange Pilgrimage of Objects: A Note on the Installation of Aakshat Sinha


 (Yaad Ghar, Installation by Aakshat Sinha)

Objects are the products of history. An object having an existence without history cannot be called an object. Objects are cursed to carry history with them. History, in turn is not the lofty stories of those who had won the battles, established monuments and registered their legacies in various mediums. History belongs to the people the way streets belong to them. Bound between leather covers, the annals may contain historical registrations that look profound. However, the shelves that carry such tomes, the chairs that are sat in to read those volumes, the accumulated darkness on the hand rest of those chairs, the inkpot and everything have got histories; nothing can escape the fate of being converted into a component of history.


Aakshat Sinha knows the relevance of history inscribed on the objects. For him collecting and accumulating are two different things. Collecting is practiced by someone whose interest lies in objects with special connotations that inspire his ideas and the classification that he does based on chronology or any other mode gives immense satisfaction to his curiosity in building an understanding about the world. One could call it creating a narrative universe through objects of worth. Accumulation on the other hand is a practice that is partially collecting but indiscriminate in nature. What comes into the hands of the accumulator does not go out only because the accumulator finds a value that transcends its object-hood and attributes it with a meaning intrinsic to the narrative universe of his making. Each object stands in association with the autobiography of the accumulator and by virtue of him being a social being the objects thus accumulated become the building blocks of a collective biography of the times that he has lived in. Hence, anyone one who sees the accumulated objects quickly finds an emotional association with them.


(Aakshat Sinha)

‘Yaad Ghar’ (the House of Remembrance) is an open air installation with such objects with collective history, accumulated and presented by Aakshat Sinha, a curator, artist and a mechanical engineer by profession. Museums are houses of remembrance because the objects collected and displayed in those galleries remind us of the histories pertaining to them. Those objects are the syllables of a grand narrative, each waiting for deciphering. The more remote are the objects in time the more they look distanced, romantic and enveloped by magic. Though well founded histories are written about those objects the magic of their detached existence, something separated from the labels, QR Codes, Museum manuals and the audio guides, goad people to weave their own stories around them. Museums are methodical and randomness cannot be permitted in its narrative. In Yaad Ghar, there is madness and randomness, but both presented with some poetic methods.


Right in the middle of the atrium of the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi, Yaad Ghar stands like a makeshift place of worship with the objects arranged there look like parts of an esoteric ritual around the idols created out of random objects. The sanctum sanctorum is flanked by a two discarded mannequins salvaged from an old boutique run by Sinha’s mother at some point of time. Those erstwhile beautiful plastic human forms are now bandaged and bruised, wearing heavy facemasks worn while a chemical war or fatal pandemic rampage is underway. The chairs have been there at his home and the beanbags, the marvel cards and the knick-knacks also have been a part of Sinha’s life at some point. They are all memory holders; for the viewers, they are memory makers.


(Yaad Ghar)

Sinha, the self-styled accumulator of things believes that he is a hoarder. He just cannot throw away things. Hence, his house is full objects that reminds him of the life that he has lived so far. Imagine anything that you grew up with since 1970s till date in an urban center, Sinha has them all. Spring cleaning is the last thing perhaps he does every year and he cleans only to save those discards from disappearing. Sigmund Freud calls the collectors and accumulators anal retentive people. Children who are afraid of defecating because of their fear of losing something of their own are anally retentive creatures. As they grow up they learn to discharge the refuse and maintain personal hygiene. Grown-ups showing anal retention is something different; they know what personal hygiene means but they just cannot throw things away. They find strength in the materials accumulated; I should say, they find life in the objects that are capable of invoking exquisite narratives about their lived lives.


Keeping one’s own life open for the scrutiny of others is the driving motto behind most of the autobiographies. They use verbal narrative as a medium of explication. Here in Sinha’s case he uses the accumulated objects as his medium and interestingly everyone finds a little bit of themselves in those objects. Art of any kind is supposed to create empathy among the viewers and reliving the lived memories is the way to cathartic effects that leave the people relieved of existential burdens. Object based art as well as verbal and non-verbal aesthetical communications do the same thing to the onlookers. The installation of Aakshat Sinha too does the same thing; it draws people into the chaotic randomness of the objects and make them unspool the memories at the very sight of those objects; a Proustian effect.


Orhan Pamuk, the Nobel Prize winning Turkish novelist has created a ‘Museum of Innocence’. As he started writing a novel with the same title in 1990s he felt like collecting all those objects that he has mentioned in that novel and house them under a single roof. Slowly the novel and the museum evolved together, objects giving ideas to the novel and novel making the novelist to look for those objects from his childhood elsewhere. With the novel he completed the museum and today it is housed in a 19th century building where the objects speak to the visitors irrespective of their familiarity with the novel’s plot or not. In Urdu there is a word for Museums, ‘Ajaib Ghar’, the house of strange things. During the colonial period, museums were developed as the cabinet of curios where the colonial masters, merchants and the new gentry collected exotic objects and opened it for their personal guests.  


Detached in and from time, the objects that constitute Sinha’s installation, Yaad Ghar also transform themselves as exotic things, their familiarity now shrouded by disuse and decay. They become uncanny objects, filling in déjà vu with its edges sharpened with unfamiliarity. The decaying objects impart a magnetic horror, as we see in the termite eaten pulp fictions carefully stuffed in a plexi-glass vitrine. They could have been confined to flames, erasing their existence even from the memory, but in Yaad Ghar they stay put with some kind of stale stubbornness only death can demonstrate. The installation as a total is a memento mori, a reminder of death and decay, the futility of accumulation but at the same time the unbearable lightness of being both in carnal bodies and in memories.