Friday, January 20, 2017

Fail not this Fair: India Art Festival Second Edition in Delhi

(India Art Festival Director, Rajendra Patil at Tyagaraja stadium pavilion)

If Google map and Delhi map meet each other at a restaurant table if not an operation table, they would find it difficult to recognize each other. Delhi has a map and signage so has Google. However smart Google is Delhi could confuse it. Get down at the INA Metro Station and look at the Google map in your phone. You want to go to the Tyagaraja Indoor Stadium (spent 300 crore rupees in its making!) where the second edition of the India Art Festival is taking place. You look for the signage of the stadium; you find Tyagaraja Park, Tyagaraja Block, Enclave and what not but not a single board that leads to the stadium. But blood recognizes blood; an art critic smells art even if it is taking place in an unnatural space like an indoor stadium. Finally I reach there and I feel happiness. At the security gate none asks for the pass (I am equipped with three VIP passes of which none had come for me). People walk in and everyone feels very important here and of course there is a surprise in waiting for you. Yes, this time India Art Festival looks like a professional art fair.

(view from India Art Festival)

All credits go to its director, Rajendra Patil who goes by his first name, Rajendra. His fair is a story of survival against all odds. When he started it in 2011 in Mumbai’s Nehru Centre (in which I had played a small part as a special section curator) it was given a step motherly treatment by the city’s proud galleries. They were all batting for India’s one and only art fair, the India Art Fair and thought that Rajendra’s venture was second grade in nature and a Vijaykant for a Rajnikant. From elitism to more elitism, from internationalism to high internationalism and from local to global went the India Art Fair, pushing so many galleries and aspiring artists out in its exclusivist filtering process done by (god alone knows why) some high browist gallerists holding the slogan of quality control. They never acknowledged the fact that the South is North when the map is turned upside down. That’s what exactly helped Rajendra to float his Fair/Festival with the help of those disgruntled artists and galleries and some staunch supporters like Siddharth Tagore and Sudhanshu Paliwal. And today the Festival proves that Rajendra was not wrong in his move though he had to amass a lot of second grade art and bad name for himself. But no game is bad game so long as you could gain a few brownie points. India Art Festival also saw Mumbai’s galleries ‘supporting’ the third edition of the India Art Festival (by this time it had gained its brand identity with the usual suspects warming the seminar platforms) with some hand down works but never the gallerists physically appearing there to own the brand up for themselves. Who said India’s art scene does not have caste system?

(view from India Art Festival)

A few months back, before demonetisation had hit Indian economy, Rajendra was still keeping his fingers crossed about the entries for the second edition of the India Art Festival in Delhi whose first edition had brought him brickbats than bouquets. Then and there he had decided to move it to the Tyagaraja Indoor stadium. It was a win-win situation for Rajendra just before the demonetisation. “I could break even now with the entries,” a happy Rajendra had told me then. Then came the demonetisation quite unexpectedly. “If I do it in Delhi I would lose around 40 lakhs rupees,” Rajendra told me then and he added, “If I do not do also I lose the same amount. Hence, I have decided to do it.” It was not even a gambling for Rajendra, a sort of loss which he was ready to face. But of course I know those people who run a business either exaggerate the profit margin when they are about to borrow or reduce it to abysmal levels when they are about to lend. In short, do not believe what the entrepreneurs say. I did not gulp Rajendra’s words without a pinch of salt; even with a pinch of it I did not swallow it at all. But I liked the way he put it. He projected himself as a completely wounded warrior in the battle field but still standing with a broken weapon in his hand. The image that I imagined was pretty interesting.

(view from India Art Festival)

Today, at the Tyagaraja Stadium Rajendra stands at the gate with a burnished weapon of success in his hands; a well laid out art fair. “The pink has not stopped coming,” Rajendra says metaphorically as he leads me through the stalls. He points out the artists who have made moolah in the last two days. “It is not huge sales, but the optimism of the buyers is quite palpable. They don’t mind shelling out a couple of lakhs for a work, that too in pink, the new currency,” says Rajendra. The works of art may disappoint an art enthusiast who wants to see something ‘really happening’ there in them. Most of the artists are from Mumbai, Noida, Faridabad, Gurgaon and they have made new galleries to place themselves in the festival. Even a couple of galleries from Singapore and Tanzania have taken the pains to come and exhibit. The works of art are mostly decorative and experimental as much as the artists understand it. One may find some interesting works even by inconspicuous artists. The Kalavishkaar Gallery, a flagship gallery of Rajendra and the stall that combines it and the Bombay Art Society has some good works of Sudhir Patwardhan, Baiju Parthan, Jatin Das, Jogen Chowdhury and so on. “They all came as contributions towards my efforts,” chuckles Rajendra but he is reluctant to part with them.

(view from India Art Festival)

Forty galleries in around forty thousand square feet of space are what make the India Art Festival this year. It has got the ambience and lay out of a fairly good art fair in any part of the world though the works cannot boast quality. However, it would be absolutely doing injustice to the artists who have enthusiastically taken part in the festival if I say that they are bad artists and have done bad art. No, they are not the kind of art may be the mainstream art enthusiasts want to see or trade in. But we cannot wish away the fact that there is a market for these kinds of works too. The artists who have come there are dignified people though their skill levels and conceptual levels are not as polished as the professional artists in the mainstream. So what could be done to enhance the quality level of the festival by bringing more artists, galleries and people into it? With the India Art Fair going really international and exclusivist, it is imperative for the Delhi based galleries to come forward to support by participating in Rajendra’s India Art Festival so that the quality would also increase and the India Art Fair turned down galleries would get a prime position in this fair. It would grow in size and quality; I am sure the buyers are where the good works are sold. I can say it for sure that 90% of the people who come to the India Art Fair do not have the habit of going by Mercedes cars or drinking Absolut Vodka every day. But they hang out there to see some art and also to identify with the international brand that the India Art Fair has been successful in creating.

Why not give, a home grown brand like the India Art Festival a chance to make another international brand with the artists who really want to do good in their lives and works? All our inspirational movies whether it is Jo Jeeta Woh hi Sikander or Chak de India, Sultan or Dangal, all of them say one single story; if you have perseverance and the support and guidance of a determined team or person, you can create wonders. Why do we think only the gora sahebs could create great stuff or why do we think only those could create good stuff who want to go out and please the international audience? What about our asmita? Our feeling for ourselves? “It is cold here,” says Rajendra, “People come after lunch and between two and four there is a considerable crowd in the pavilion and later on it thins down,” he says. It is not just about cold; people queue up, beg, cry, steal and brawl for a free pass in the severest of cold in early January to get into the India Art Fair ground (during the early editions). What deters them from coming here is the kind of brand association. But Rajendra alone cannot do anything to make it better. The Delhi galleries should make up their mind and come forward to participate in it. We all know that the galleries show something and sell something else. Hence, the days of holier than thou attitude are gone. Come forward and support so that you build a brand. Drop that step motherly attitude towards India Art Festival. Do come out and see, and tell Rajendra, the lonely man who makes it happen that it is great and we are ready to be with him. That shows the spirit of Delhi, nobody’s land. Fail not this fair. Go visit and appreciate. 

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Fruit of Wisdom (njanappazham) in the works of V.Ramesh


The road leading to the address C-221 Sarvodaya Enclave, New Delhi is tree lined and spacious except for the infamous smog of Delhi and the address houses the Threshold Gallery where V.Ramesh, the Vizag based artist is currently having a solo show. For a moment one wonders whether he is inside the gallery or a drawing room of sorts, minimal yet furnished with certain vintage furniture. On a chair that gives the impression that the artist was just around here a while ago one sees a book half read and the title reads ‘Bento’s Notebook’ by John Berger. The lower table on the one side has a portrait of Ramana Maharshi, the artist’s soul guru and a few brushes and a small drawing of Annamalai (Arunachala), the hill by a student whose gift it is to the artist at some point and a light carnatic music wafts in the air from an invisible source. Close to the pillar there is a cupboard full with a mirror and a framed poem and a few books. You just glance at the mirror and you see yourself; did you ask ‘who am I?’ completing the third tip of the triangle there is an easy chair with a pillow which the artist uses in his studio, a meditative couch with an invisible shrink on the side, yes Ramana, the healer. The large wall that constitutes the base of the triangle has a huge painting with a portrait of the artist relaxing in the same chair while the world goes on with its hurried activities. The artist is in no hurry; he is like the self that watches the ‘I’, the world of senses and what remains in the painting is a vast area of drips and dashes, the marks that time has created taking the hands of the artist once in a while.

(Genesis by V.Ramesh)

The solo of V.Ramesh does not have a title; perhaps a title for something so subtle cannot be so contemporary or too traditional. It should be ‘athukkum mele’, beyond that and what is there all that beyond- the nameless, the ‘it’ with no qualities, no form, no beginning and no end. The advaita philosophers say that the pursuit of art in itself is a distraction from the realization of god/self. Art is an obstacle; but at the same time the advaita philosophy adds that one could follow bhakti (devotion), karma (action), raja (enquiry and mediation) and njana (knowledge) yogas to achieve the godhead. Art is a mixture of bhakti yoga and njana yoga expressed through raja and karma yogas. Hence, art is permissible in the pursuit of self provided the artist does not become mundane like a sufferer of worldly worries and vices. V.Ramesh has been doing his art as a way of self realization and his thematic repertoire is often limited to the characters from Bhakti literature as well as epics, scenes around Thiruvannamali and Ramana Maharshi and some animals and fruits. It is pertinent to speak about the animal imagery and the fruit (banana/plantain) imagery in his works.

(Savdhan by V.Ramesh)

As an art critic, when Ramesh presented the fruit series for the first time I was very sceptical about the work. I could not locate the clinical precision of its execution and the digital imaging that could have been the base of it. However, when I see the watercolours in the present body of works, I could deduce a new meaning by reworking on my previous position. The banana bunch in its original stem appears here as a body, a rib cage or a torso and the artist calls it ‘offering’. The body is an offering; the fruit is the inside and the body just a peel. Pazham, the fruit in Tamil literature stands for the essence of wisdom and knowledge and Ramesh knowing this, uses banana as his metaphor to emphasis the body-soul relationship. Also he conceives one of his paintings, ‘Fall of a Warrior’ as a fallen plantain tree; there is the stillness of a dead body in the stem, there is the layering of the sheaths, the broken and tattered leaves become the devastated body of the warrior, who here is none other than Dronacharya, who was felled by lies in the battle field of Kurukshetra. Ashwathama hata kunjara, the elephant named Ashwathama is killed. But the Pandavas did not say the word elephant loudly and even if they said, Lord Krishna, the master of all yoga had blown his conch submerging the distinct words. Drona kept his bow down and alighted from the chariot as he heard his son, Ashwathama was killed. Arjuna does the final act. And Ramesh details this narrative in a fallen banana tree, which I think is quite poignant and telling.

(Offering by V.Ramesh)

In Thiruvannamalai if you go right next to the old prayer hall you would see two small tombs one for Lakshmi, the cow and one for a crow that used to come and eat with Ramana Maharshi. Those who come to the Ashram soon shift themselves from the homocentric world to the creature centric world. Ramana’s teachings are not for human beings’ welfare alone; it is for all. Ramesh has learnt his lessons correctly. There is a dog that comes repeatedly in his watercolours and he is seen against the backdrop of the Arunachala hills (Annamalai) and the Annamalai temple. He is an insignificant dog but so significant in the Indian philosophy. He is the one who walked all the way to heaven when Yuthishtira crossed the threshold of heaven. He is the one who came with the Chandala, Lord Shiva in disguise who had come to subdue the ego of Sankaracharya. If Ramana could see a cow and a crow alike and see no difference between them and the human beings, what is the difference between a highly placed human being and a dog? In his poetic watercolours Ramesh brings this aspect like a chant, but never trying to teach anyone anything because the wise ones see no point in teaching because the ones who want to learn, learn it from silence and silent gestures; or maximum from the stories.

(Work by V.Ramesh)

That’s how Ramesh takes the Ramayana paintings, three major works that hold the show together. Somewhere he happened to see an old Ramayana book with wood cut illustrations. Suddenly he remembered the Ramayana narrations done by his grandmother when he was a child. That seemed to a Proustian moment for the artist. Though he had treated Ramayana situations earlier, he attempted once again the Ramayana paintings. There are three distinct paintings; one titled ‘Epiphany’, the deliverance of Ahalya, two, Savdhan, the moment before the abduction of Sita from the hermitage and three ‘the Genesis’, the episode that leads to the making of Ramayana. The source of all these three works are the existing illustrations but Ramesh takes them as a starting point to make layers of his own stylized pixels and over layers it with multiple narratives that precede and succeed the intended and given episode. The choice of Ahalya scene seems to be accidental but Ahalya is the most debated woman character in Ramayana after Sita and many a feminist writer has reworked the stories of both the female protagonists in their own perspectives. However, Ramesh does not seem to attempt any such alternative readings as his attention is given more in the juxtaposition of narratives and the near submerging of decipherable stories in the primordial chaos of the visual universe. One need to go back further into the space to see the works properly and suddenly one sees himself right in the middle of the triangle that I have mentioned earlier; the artist’s own space. That means, one could read the works primarily and eventually from the artist’s space; it is the artist’s narrative almost doing away with all the possibilities of extracting subtexts. Self has only one text; no subtexts and if at all they are there, they are all illusions.

(Work by V.Ramesh)

In Savdhan (attention, caution, alertness etc) we see Ravana coming as a mendicant and asking for alms from a lonely Sita and she is about to cross the line, therefore the warning, Savdhan. However, Ramesh over layers it with the succeeding narratives of Jatayu fighting Ravana and later informing the news of abduction to the distressed Ram and Laxman in order to make the work an old volume that only the devoted could open with reverence and read. Same is the case with the work, Genesis, the origin of Ramayana where sage Valmiki sees a hunter shooting down one of the love birds. ‘Ma Nishada’, ‘Oh Forest dweller, don’t’ is the opening of Ramayana; it is against all kinds of killing; perhaps a message for the contemporary world where not only living beings are killed for establishing some other beings’ supremacy but also the very environment where everything survives is annihilated for commercial gains. The works are to be seen in silence and in reverence. It is not just about Ramesh’ works but all the works of art in the world should be seen with reverence. If a work of art is not for meditating further about it or about the maker or the seer himself, what is the use of art? For social change? You must be making up things. A society can change by means of art only when the people who see a work of art and remain in that sublime state of being for a prolonged time and perpetuate that state of awareness into all what they do further in life. Are we ready yet for such art and such contemplation? 

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Here After Here: The Point Where Jitish May Consider Stop Doing Art

(Jitish Kallat with one of his works. source net)

The exhibition is just four days old; besides some pre-publicity you see hardly any post-exhibition celebrations in the media. But Jitish Kallat can wait till the weekend when most probably the newspapers would publish full page essays praising the forty two year old artist to the heavens for these ‘stupendous’ works done during the last two decades. Curated by Catherine David, Jitish Kallat’s ‘Here After Here’ is a retrospective, a look at the past oeuvre and the look into the future of it, though the artist in his interview with the Vogue Magazine and the curator in her wall text insist that it is not a linear retrospective in the conventional sense of the word but an exhibition that catches the engagement of the artist with various ideas and mediums at different stages of his development as an artist. As photography is prohibited, as there are no handouts and the catalogue available is priced at Rs.850 what I could speak is from my memory, all what I could carry there from a huge show with almost hundred works ranging from paintings to photographs to multimedia installations.

Let me admit at the outset itself that it is a worth watching exhibition for it gives a complete taste of the artist who is just forty two years old. I repeat this age factor like a jealous old man because I always wonder about the early bloomers and their future. Jitish Kallat, cut to be a contemporary artist by looks, nature, presentation, demeanour and conduct has another forty two years or more active years to come. I sincerely pray to God Almighty to shower him with health, wealth and happiness so that he could come up with interesting works of art. But the fate of early bloomers is this that they fade away slowly for what is left in them is their experimental verve with materials than their deep analysis of life, and the experimental enthusiasm for taking up mediums is clearly seen in this retrospective as Jitish moves from acrylic and oil on canvas to mixed media, fibre, resin, dental plaster, computer software, multimedia installations, multi frame assemblages, parody, pastiche and what not. In a way from this show one could dissect and understand the proliferation of materials and methods not only in Indian art scene but also in the private and public life of an average Indian. Like an aesthetic machine Jitish has ingested all these materials and methods and employed his understanding in creating different kinds of impressive works of art.

(Aguasarus by Jitish Kallat)

There are two types of works in Jitish retrospective; one, done by the artist himself and two, designed by the artist. The works that he had done in his formative years (from early 1990s to late 1990s) are all by himself and moderate in size. The works that follow in the new millennium are joint efforts and large in size where the artist plays a director’s job than an artist’s role. The complexion of the growth of the Indian art market also could be seen when one goes through the works on display here because according to the money inflow, one sees the materials and scope of the works change and also depending on the artist’s exposure to a larger world, the thematic as well as material sophistication come to the forefront. Then there is a feeling that for this artist sky is the limit. He could do anything that he wanted to do. And Jitish, ironically exemplifies the limitation of the artistic thinking that most of the artists of the late 1990s and the first decade of the new millennium faced in India. There is a pattern to it; grappling with city life, migration, arrival of new technology, money, terrorism, cross border cultural and economic exchange, development of global taste and all these work against the general backdrop of Indian history.

Perhaps, that was the curse and blessing of the Indian contemporary art in those years. In its efforts to be at par with the western aesthetics and western world (to put in other words to please the aesthetic tastes of the western curators) Indian contemporary art went for many sixers with occasional fours, that too without touching the ground. While they talked about mass migrations to the cities, in the beginning they talked closer to home realities and later they were just talking about global migration. Jitish symbolizes India to fit into the narrative of the west by cutting the regional and provincial from his scheme of things. He studies food in different ways to make it a spectacle but what interests me is the number of Indian as well as foreign artists who had taken up food as a theme! Even our Subodh Gupta had to deal with food, which Rikrit Tiravania had done in late 1990s and later became an international fad including the Chinese artists going for extreme edibles. So is the use of simulated bones; at one point the whole world was working with bones including Anita Dube and T.V.Santhosh. That means, going by the Indian contemporary art, we see only international issues or issues that could be identified internationally in art. Nothing provincial and regional about it; provincialism could go maximum to giving iconic status to the security guards, a new tribe that gets the sympathy of Indian middle class artists; from Jitish Kallat to Shilpa Gupta and many more.

(work by Jitish Kallat)

‘Sleeping’ is one theme that has been made popular by many artists including Shibu Natesan and N.S.Harsha. Perhaps, after Andy Warhol’s Eight Hours sleep, it was Manjunath Kamath who in his video art had made sleep a performance. Then many of them tried sleeping inside the gallery including Nikhil Chopra. Here we have Jitish Kallat also making sleep as his theme in one of his sculptural installations where one sees a number of animals in their sleeping posture, which is a sort of cute. The description that goes with the sculpture moves around the idea of sleep as a disembodied existence but that’s it. I thought that the artist would go further to deal with the idea of Sushupti, the dreamless sleep where the ‘I-ness’ still exists as a witness, but an absent witness only to come back when one comes out of the sleep. Such deeper debates are not attempted by Jitish for he seems to be an artist looking for themes and materials in the external world. If I do not sound too harsh, I choose to call such aesthetic adventures as aesthetic scavenging. In aesthetic scavenging one makes use of anything and everything, any issue in the world becomes the artist’s issue and his eyes are always opening to the gross world and never even once turning into the subtle worlds.

Jitish may dispute my views though I do not intend any wrong to him because he would say that he has also done works that looks into the mechanism of mind and imaginations. He shies away from using the world spiritual in his works even when there are umpteen spaces where he seems to stand at the edge of it. Because of this lack of spiritual firmness, Jitish remains an artist of the physical world, dealing with the physical issues and that too in a gross form. Look at the installations in thousands of frames that cover the major part of the sprawling gallery of the new wing of NGMA. They are premeditated for its visual effects and never for the spiritual subtlety. There is nothing wrong in it if the artist prefers to deal with the physical world. But the curator in her wall text suggests that Jitish is an artist who deals with physics to metaphysics (not these words but something to this effect). If an artist deals with everything that comes to him or occurs to him, then however visually effective they are, they remain as spectacles signifying nothing. In fact, Jitish’s works are spectacular and beyond that they are museum pieces.

(work by Jitish Kallat)

What makes Jitish an appealing artist to the western world? I find most of his works are in major collections in the western collectors or museums. What I understand is that Jitish gives what the west wants to hear; the story of a failed India. Jitish presents the famous ‘Tryst with destiny’ speech of Pt.Jawaharlal Nehur etched on distorted mirrors and Gandhi ji’s speech in Sabarmati before his famous Dandi March in simulated bones. Gigantic and spectacular, these two works besides all other issues of riots, migration, cramped city spaces, literally valueless one rupee coin and so on, speak of a failed Indian dream (or at least the wall texts say so). This is what the western museums want; the images of/from a failed India. I wonder why Jitish never attempted to monumentalise the speech of a landless migrant or even the monologue of a security guard. Jitish looks at the ‘glands’ (pockets) of the people in the street; a nice spectacle of India’s dreams on the move. Poverty and deprivation, or helplessness blown up beyond a point pixellate into sarcasm; though Jitish does not intend it so, it comes across as that.

Jitish has many more years to work and what is he going to do? His works are in most of the museums all over the world. A work of art which has reached in a museum is a dead object. Jitish himself had said once that a work of art once out of the studio has its own trajectory. With the artist having no hold over the fate of his works, they remain as loan/lonely mummies. In the meanwhile Jitish has to do many more works. The problem with artists like Jitish is that they make gallery ready works; they are fabricated for the show. There must be preparatory drawings but they cannot be called serious artistic processes. They are designer’s blueprints. Jitish’s works look like dettol washed products meant for exhibitions. There is no touch of the artist or no life of the artist breathing from them. Jitish would do a lot more impressive and spectacular works in the coming years and I am sure he is going to employ the latest technology and materials in his works. That’s what happens to the artists who depend too much on fabrication of newer materials. I could predict two things for the artist’s future: either he would go back to studio painting or he would stop art altogether. The moment one realises his spiritual side then these works would look lesser and gross in his own eyes. But the external demands would not permit him to look at that side. If he does, he would not do such works. In whatever way, Jitish needs a break. He has curated one of the biggest biennales and now has a retrospective. Now he needs rest, a serious re-thinking. And if possible a decade of no art.   

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Gopi Gajwani’s ‘Meditative Silence’

(Gopi Gajwani)

On the table, near the flower vase from which three red dahlias sprout, an old paper back with a darkening cover is meticulously kept as if to tell the visitors that the artist is just around. At the Sridharani Gallery, New Delhi, a winter noon lazily sits on the steps at the amphitheatre. The book is one of the collections of Osho Rajneesh edited by late Khushwant Singh. The book has been read not once but several times, so say the yellowing pages but surprisingly without any dog’s ears. But I do not think much about Osho for I know most of the non-figurative/abstract artists read him for his mellifluous voice soothes them and reaffirm their faith if not in life but in their works that many people fail to decipher. Gopi Gajwani, the veteran artist who has been a serene presence in Delhi’s art scene for almost half a century, whose exhibition, ‘Meditative Silence’, currently on at the Sridharani Gallery does read Osho and I am not surprised for the very same reason that I have just mentioned. Once again, I do not think about Osho but I think of Khushwant Singh, the editor, who had not only penned the history of Sikhs but also essayed fictionally though, the history of partition in his ‘Train to Pakistan’. Gopi Gajwani, as a seven year old chid was there in one of those trains that ran in the opposite direction from the Sindh region without knowing what future had in store for him and his three siblings.

(Display of Gopi Gajwani's works at Sridharani)

I dare not to ask whether he was reminiscing those days as he picked up the book yet again to read, as Gopi Gajwani enters the gallery. It would be too intrusive, I tell myself but as I sit and look at the works on display, a series of non-figurative paintings and drawings, in a silent communion with the artist, I see the black lines that run mostly vertical, abruptly stopping at times and at other times dividing the canvas off the centre into two asymmetrical halves, I pick up courage to ask him about the partition days. According to Gajwani, he as a child did not face the cruelties of it or rather he was too young to know it. He was happy to run barefoot along the footpaths in Old Delhi where they had come to settle, play marbles and fly kites. Children often shut the cruel world out by sleeping endlessly; for many other children having parents around is enough. Come whatever may they do not wince; parents make their world complete. While growing up Gajwani knew the world was different from what he thought about it. The vastness of Sindh faded slowly like the last remnants of the events of a dream in the waking man’s mind and in came India, a new geographical and political entity and everyone was destined to live with it.

(work by Gopi Gajwani)

Look carefully at the works of Gajwani; they are non-figurative works (though Kishore Singh who has written the catalogue at the outset itself makes an effort to distinguish the artist from being an ‘abstract’ artist. According to Singh, qualifying Gajwani an abstract art would be a recognition and failure of it at once). One sees the colours keep coming up in bold patches without hiding their origin as carefully considered brush strokes and fading into the layers of other colours (reds, browns, ochre, green, black and so on) only to resurface again in some unexpected part of the pictorial surface, imparting a sense of surreal meandering of eyes. One sense of vision or visual experience fades away and another one takes its place. However, imposing the biographical details of the artist into the works would be a sort of over reading the works. “Figurative art is not my forte,” says Gajwani smiling profusely and it is ironic that an artist who spent almost thirty years as a graphic designer for the USIS sponsored magazine SPAN. Charles Fabri, one of the pioneering art critics in India welcomed Gajwani’s works with a title ‘Powerful Abstractions’ in his famous column in the Statesman; it was in mid 60s. However, it was not Fabri’s influential comment that had made Gajwani stick to the language of abstraction.

(work by Gopi Gajwani)

Educated in the Delhi Polytechnic, which would become today’s Delhi College of Art, Gajwani studied with Arpita Singh, Paramjit Singh and many other famous contemporaries. Pioneers of Indian modernism namely Sailoze Mukherjee, Biren De and Bhabesh Sanyal were his teachers. “Walking around without a sketchbook was severely derided and figurative sketching was a must in those days,” Gajwani remembers. International abstraction brought in by the High Modernist movements in the west had already taken the Indian art also by force and a rigorous soul search was underway in order to find an indigenous art language. The ‘modern’ art of 1960s and 70s should be seen in this light; on the one hand the artists were trying to be at par with the western internationalism and on the other hand they were disputing this internationalism to find indigenous roots of their own art. In both the cases experiments for a newer form took predominance and it was reflected both in the figurative and abstract art languages. Non-figurative abstraction got an upper hand pushing the post-cubist and post-expressionist figurative experiments in India and there was a wave of abstraction all over India in 1960s and 70s. Gajwani remains faithful to the wave that had brought him into the art scene and anchored there firmly.

(work by Gopi Gajwani)

Unlike many abstract artists in India or elsewhere, Gajwani does not use too much of spiritual jargon to explain his works. Perhaps, it comes from his early association with the artists’ movement in Delhi, Shilpi Chakra where even the abstract artists like R.K.Dhawan had a few theories about their society, world and politics in general. For them abstract art was all about being modern not about being escapists, and like in the South, the artists demanded a special place in the modern discourse by virtue of their abstract art. Gajwani could grow up in the cool shade of this discourse and could come into contact with most of the intellectuals who defined the Indian art ethos of the time including J.Swaminathan, Abu Abraham, O.V.Vijayan and so on. According to Gajwani, Indian cartoonists had more powerful lines than the professional artists. As a person who has seen Delhi’s art scene from the close quarters, Gajwani could have taken sides but he chose to remain aloof but at the same time visiting almost all the exhibitions in Delhi, irrespective of the artists’ gender, age or fame. “Young artists may have less wisdom but their potential to move towards it is immense,” says Gajwani and also he believes that experiments are done when one is young and if one keeps experimenting throughout the life the whole idea of life would be lost. “At some point one has to find the way.”

(work by Gopi Gajwani)

Gajwani had found his way in music and he almost felt that his art was like music or rather music itself. Each work of Gajwani is conceived like a musical notation in the artist’s mind and what he needs to do is to transfer those onto the painterly surface. He quotes Michael Angelo who had said that the judgement of the artist should be stronger than the work itself. Where to start a colour and where to end it without breaking the rhythm and movement is more important than playing with colours for the sake of doing it. If a painting is for looking at, then of course you have all the reasons to keep on looking at Gajwani’s paintings. If you are there to read meanings out of his paintings, may be it wouldn’t be that pleasant an experience. I resist myself from force reading meanings out of his works and try to see what makes an artist pursue a language and create symphonies while constantly breaking patterns. Many abstract artists fall prey to their own patterns and mediums. Gajwani seems to negate patterns in all his works. He had started working from a small room at his home and he still does the same though the size of the studio has increased. “I could grow with all the great masters including Tyeb Mehta, Swaminathan, A.Ramachandran, V.S.Gaitonde and many more. Art was the only concern for all of us though most of us had to struggle as art was not bringing any money to us. J.Swaminathan had the courage to silence the big star of art theory at that time, Clement Greenberg in one of the formal gatherings held in Delhi. Art critics were stars then. Then slowly the degeneration set in. I will not blame anyone for decaying is part of life and that is applicable to art too,” says Gajwani. When one is too good there are possibilities that he/she suffers silently a lot. Gajwani is too good to fault as a human being and his works are not just meditative silences but the painterly transference of his silent sufferings too.  

Monday, January 16, 2017

Let Your Mother Inaugurate Your Exhibition: Never Invite Celebrities

(This picture is for representational purpose only. Image source net)

Art shows, especially the ones organized either by the artists themselves or by the big institutions are very important events for them and all the well wishers around them. I am not discounting the gallery exhibitions that too are formally inaugurated. These days, galleries in the metro cities like Mumbai and Delhi do the common openings so that the people could travel from suburbs and other places one time and catch up with most of the shows. Such shows are ‘opened’ at a particular time, mostly without any ceremonies that would mark the occasion. Perhaps, the ‘inauguration’ done in such spaces is often by people who enters the gallery first or pick up the beer or wine glass first. But for an individual artist who books/reserves a gallery space with his hard earned money and puts in all efforts to mount the show, print a brochure, run around to invite friends and fellow as well as senior artists and the press, it is a very important occasion. For individual artists or artists’ groups such inaugural moments are very important and they preserve those moments very clearly not only in their social media pages but also in their memories forever.

As a senior person in the art scene I too get invitations to attend the inauguration of exhibitions and at times I am asked to inaugurate the show as well. I agree to inaugurate certain shows because the artists consider me as an ‘important’ person (though I do not consider myself so important and let me assure you that it is not false modesty for I am okay with people neglecting me completely when I walk into a gallery on an inaugural day or any other lean day following the inauguration) and definitely not a ‘celebrity’. If somebody mentions the word celebrity in their over enthusiasm to impress me by making me feel about my own celebrity status in their eyes, I politely dissuade them from using that term for I have clear notions about what makes a celebrity and what makes someone important in a given field of profession. So many people in the art scene consider themselves as celebrities for the simple reason that their photographs quite regularly in the newspapers, which are further proliferated via social media pages. But I cannot blame them for having that feeling because for the general public, the aam janta, someone who appears in the media regularly should be a celebrity backed up either by culture or habitual criminality (political and business people have their own reasons to appear in the media regularly).

I learnt the distinction between a celebrity and an important person when I was studying in London. One day I saw my lady professor walking into the tube carrying her cycle and standing near the space marked for the bicycles in the train compartment. She looked extraordinarily ordinary and had it been somebody else I wouldn’t have even noticed her. This incident woke me up to the fact that each time I travelled in the public transport, the person standing or sitting next to me could be a scientist, a poet, an artist, a professor or a singer. They were all important in their own fields but they were not celebrities. Had they been celebrities they would not have been travelling in the public transport was my simple logic. Many years later I saw a picture of the former British Prime Minister, David Cameron while in that position travelling by tube, leaning against a bar and reading newspaper. I did not know whether it was a photoshopped picture or an actual one but that image had impressed me. But in India, our celebrities do not dare to be out in the public for the unruly behaviour of the public. Celebrities too are human beings and they do not like to be pinched and punched.

That means important people could be normal people and are recognized as important ones in a common group. There is a tribal identification there. But celebrities are famous therefore easily recognized but hardly seen out in the public. That’s why most of the celebrities, even if they are so familiar to the people, remain aloof and mysterious, making people read even the trivial-est of gossips about them. I always think of celebrities as locomotives, the steam engines of the yester years. Train spotting was a favourite pastime for many people during the early part of the last century and it continues to be so in certain parts of the world. Steam engines with their grandeur and power had been visible to people and yet unapproachable. Hence looking at those round-faced ‘rogues’ with distinct names, was a thing of amusement and pleasure. Celebrities are also like that. Unfortunately, our art has a limited constitution and the celebrities from this field are not easily recognized once out in the streets. May be artists know this fact and that’s why most of the ‘inaugurations’ feature some celebrity as a chief guest, apart from a couple of senior artists.

Inviting celebrities, especially budding film stars who need more eyeballs on them even if they are from the impoverished artists, film stars who are currently jobless who also need attention from the public, film stars who obliges some big shot who has some distant connection with this artist whose exhibition is to be inaugurated, is a great passion for the artists who want their inaugurations to be remembered forever. By doing this they do not know what injustice they are doing unto themselves. In my opinion, no celebrity should be invited or allowed to do any kind of art inaugurations.  I am not against celebrities as such but the fact is that their presence in an opening of a show would mar not only that evening but also the artist, his/her grace, the dignity of the works displayed as well as the people who have been invited to attend the function. Our society is generally dumb and it thinks that whatever the celebrities say are ultimate statements about art or culture. The dumb statements made by the celebrities often put them into trouble though.

An exhibition is an artist’s right and a privilege and he/she should not pawn that opportunity for some small time titillation of getting photographed with some dumb actor or actress or politician. Most of the well meaning people because of the human frailties soon swoon the moment they see some celebrities at a hand’s length. I had once seen two good old ladies in a bus that ferried people from the waiting lobby to the aircraft bay. Actor Anil Kapoor was in the same bus and these two ladies who looked like tight lipped Victorians changed into two she-monkeys jumping for his attention mentioning the actor’s name loudly in their conversation, sending him covert glances and all this while the dignified actor stood straight hiding his gaze behind the stylish shades and even twitching any of his facial muscles positively fearing that the old ladies would get encouraged. So that’s what happens when a celebrity comes to inaugurate an exhibition. He/she would make polite statements and pose for photographs (and the pathetic thing is that most of the actors physically tall and the artist with his vertically challenged physique literally get dwarfed in all the photographs making that glorious day in his life a shame forever) and just go. With him/her goes the public leaving the artist and his unattended works there in the gallery, with only a few die hard friends for winding up the day before they go for some cheap dinner at the back lanes.

Now, it is the time for me to tell you who should you invite if at all if you want to have a formal inauguration of your exhibition. The best way is to inaugurate yourself and let other friends of yours to light the rest of the wicks. If you are married you could make your wife to inaugurate for she is the first casualty of your aesthetics and she should be acknowledged publicly. The best person who could inaugurate your show is your parents who willed you to this earth. If your father is dead, let your widowed mother inaugurate the show. If not, invite that artist who when you were in your village still confused about your future in art, goaded and guided you to a big city college and supported you in thick and thin. He may not be English speaking and glamorous but you owe your art to him. Do not go for these unworthy celebrities. Art should be venerated by those people who worship in the temple of arts, not the casual tourist who visits those temples only he/she is invited. Art opening should be attended by people from your villages and do not care whether your fellow artists appreciate your works or not. Take the canteen boy who brings you tea in the gallery and show him each painting and gift him a drawing when you wind up your show. Do such acts of simplicity, your art will grow. But do not invite a celebrity to your art opening. 

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Art Hangers: The King Makers in the Art Scene

An art show comes alive through the contributions made by many people. Art exhibitions as a whole belong to artists though there are several others who play a pivotal role in getting the shows up. While one does not discount the role of the gallerists and curators, one could say for sure that exhibitions are also enriched by the creative contributions of the exhibition technicians. In the cash rich art establishments in the developed countries the involvement of exhibition designers has been honoured for a long time but in India exhibition design by and large falls directly on the shoulders of the curators. During the short period when we had an art market boom certain foreign exhibition designers were imported from the west to add some creative as well as monetary value to the shows. Soon their presence evaporated with the fading of hard cash from the market.

Whenever there are display complexities involved in putting a show together having an experienced and skilled technician-cum-designer on board is always good. Presence of a rich market is a prerequisite for the artists to create complex works. Even the size of the works is directly proportionate to the size of the studio that an artist has. Though creation of a work of art and creativity in general are not determined by material circumstances, the size and complexity in the execution of works of art have a direct link with the material conditions. This explains why most of the works done in India till mid 1990s are not huge in size. Most of the artists must have also experienced the pleasure and pain of carrying their works on their shoulders and displaying them as neatly as possible with the help of die hard friends in the crudest of gallery facilities. Also I need to add here that the flourishing material circumstances need not push an artist to make huge and complex works though such incidents are exceptions. 

Changes that have manifested in the making of art as well as displaying them in the shows are not innocently art centric matters. They have a lot to do with the changes in the general socio-cultural changes facilitated by economic redistributions and availability of spaces where works could be housed for whatever purposes besides turning them into absolute commodities. However, I do not intend to get into the detailing of those aspects but make use of the space for bringing certain unsung heroes in the gallery establishments into focus. While some of the artists make their works so complex that it demands the presence of the artists during the time of display, a ploy that works well for the artists who look forward to free travel and a bit of limelight for themselves during the opening of the show, we forget and almost keep the people who do the 'hanging' of the works in the galleries.

Let me call them 'art hangers'. I have this perennial itch to call them hangmen but the fear of the negative connotations I abstain from doing so. These art hangers are either hired by the galleries on a regular basis or if the gallery has regular shows they are trained from among the gallery staff. Art hangers are not just the people who hang works but the ones who know carpentry, framing, lighting and assembling. Though technical know how is important for this job what one needs here in this work is a sense of aesthetics, rhythm, harmony and balance. I have worked with different kinds of art hangers and most of them surprisingly flaunt their flair in the above mentioned qualities; of course not in words but in the way that they handle the work. Coarse and unsophisticated art hangers could easily be identified the way they carry a painting to the wall. The skilled and sophisticated ones would never let any part of their body touch the painterly surface or poke the fingers into it. They do not keep a work of art against another one and no sharp edges would be allowed to come near the works. With a mere look they could see the level of the work without using mercury levels. If a curator's design flaws at places they would subtly come up with suggestions which would make the show a class apart. The light men too know what works need a cool light and which one looks good in bright light.

These art hangers generally do not get any mention anywhere because they are treated as mere technicians while the imported exhibition designers are given royal treatment and profiles in art magazines. However, I have noticed how the traditional art hangers differ much from the exhibition designers. While the latter give importance to the final output, the former are sensitive to what they are working with. I have been given surprises by these art hangers as they talk about the artists whose work they hang. They also know the other works of the artist, the style variations and so on. Some even know a bit of art history! Recently I was touched by the gesture and decision of an art hanger; I had decided to place the image of goddess Durga, a drawing out of five drawings of an artist depicting different aspects of life at the lower end of the row. I placed it and showed the art hangers how to do it. But one of them subtly told me that it would be good if we placed the Durga image on the top. I had a different logic in keeping the goddess as the lady frame but his was purely devotional, which I thought made sense because he was then approaching the work as a viewer. In another instance he came up with a solution in an issue that I faced while displaying an artist with a painting and a decorative wooden base that the artist wanted to go with it.

Art hangers are but unceremoniously dismissed once the show is up. They are called again only to bring it down. Perhaps they do not expect more than that. They know their roles and are happy in delivering them successfully. But when I see them marching in and out of galleries in silent files I deeply feel for them as hardly anybody remembers them when they look at an impressive work of art placed perfectly on the wall and lit up correctly. A painting kept leaning a against a wall is a beggar; when it is displayed on an easel, it's a common man; on the wall displayed well and lit up adequately a work of art is a king or a queen. Art hangers are king makers in the art scene.

Monday, January 9, 2017

The Cultural Problem that Kochi Muziris Biennale is

Kochi Muziris Biennale is one of the art spectacles in the world that has helped people in redefining their views on art. For those who thought art was just painting and sculpture, the KMB came as a rude but surprising shock and going by the reports so far one understands that people from various walks of life flock in to see these exhibits not because they are so enamoured by their power to 'move' but because they 'understand' that art could happen in such extreme conditions created by the extreme situations in the world but at the same time they could keep their emotions and responses under check for the sake of keeping sanity while insulating themselves with a sense of euphoria, ephemerality and a 'this-too-shall pass' kind of detachment. Analysing the general viewers' profiles, the comments that they leave in the social media page of the KMB and the carefully chosen photographs of the viewers that the organisers prefer to post there reveal how a compromising and conforming sort of viewership is developed by the KMB exactly the way the totalitarian regimes use political, aesthetical and religious propaganda in order to develop conformity, compromise and agreement.

There are three kinds of viewers that the KMB management wants to project using their propaganda machines. 1. The students and teachers, 2. Families, friends and social groups including relatives, 
3. Politicians, celebrities and influential people. What becomes so disturbingly relevant here is the absence of those viewers who are faced with existential questions or are bewildered by questions that definitely have answers but are not able to grapple with them for the time being. The removal of existential viewers could be understood from two different angles: one, they are not important in the scheme of the KMB's image projection and basic philosophy. Two, the existential viewers are no longer interested in the spectacular art exhibits created by the KMB participants.

Let's go back to the first three categories of pictures. Anybody who has gone through the basic propositions made by the French theoretician Louis Althusser, understands how ideological state apparatuses work in the society. Ideological state apparatuses or ISAs are those wings and concepts of the state for creating and maintaining non-rebellious citizens. These machines include home, schools, hospitals, police, jail, bureaucracy and so on. Now look at the photographs on the KMB page: they are of families, schools, bureaucracy and celebrity establishments. A Biennale that claims radicalisation, refamiliarisation and restructuring of art here is seen pathetically imitating the ideological state apparatuses by projecting school children, families, celebrities and bureaucrats as its main consumers. It underlines two things; the KMB, despite its all claims is a conformist and non-rebellious apparatus, blunting the edges of the otherwise rebellious viewers like school children. The school children (as they are brought by the teachers from schools) are in their uniforms and at times so tellingly in their scout uniforms. They are made to walk in files like rebellious but controlled people in front of the ATMs and beverage corporation outlets. They are mostly controlled by the nuns who apparently in their habits tell the others about their religion, purity, discipline and so on. 

The other set of photographs and videos are by the politicians and bureaucrats of which a majority think about the Biennale as a part of the State's tourism promotion policy (rightfully so) directly convey the idea of the state's looming presence in the functioning of the Biennale. In the three editions so far the KMB management has not even once expressed its views on the various anti-human and anti-ecological activities happening in the state and challenged it with some cutting edge questions. Instead what the Biennale does is the maintenance of criminal silence on things. With such complicity the KMB still highlights it as the biggest radical platform for art in South East Asia and the majority in the art establishment believing in it is the biggest irony that can ever happen in the cultural history of India. The secularists in this country vocalise against the appointment of 'Hindu' scholars at the helm of affairs in various cultural departments conveniently forgetting that the Biennale does the same by holding hands with the left and right governments without ever feeling the prick of conscience or ever sensing the irony at all.

As a part of the shocking appropriations that the KMB has been doing in order to project it as the radical platform, Banta Singh of Punjab is being brought to Kochi to sing his anti-establishmentarian ballads. Most of the people in India may not know who Banta Singh is though a touching biography has been written by Nirupama Dutt. Singh' s daughter was raped in a field. He went to court against the rapists who were from the upperclass and caste. They retaliated by chopping off his legs and hands. Now just a torso Singh sings on radical left and leftists platforms. The KMB brings him to Kochi not as a part of its radical vision but as an entertainment with a difference! It can't be otherwise, for the KMB remains aloof from all the social-political issues of the country while carefully extracting and exploiting the cultural outcomes of such atrocities happening elsewhere. An unsuspecting Banta Singh would sing for the KMB but it would be as pathetic as a talented folk singer rendering his most beautiful songs for an elite audience having dinner and have nothing to do with the content of the song. There is nothing wrong in Singh singing in Kochi but for the KMB it is yet another tourist attraction.

The curator Sudarshan Shetty talks about inclusivity of the KMB. Inclusion and inclusivity are notions that developed against exclusions and exclusivity. There is an etymological confusion that overpowers theses notion: inclusion is an action that operates against all conscious exclusions while inclusivity is a forced state and exclusivity is a choice. Various subaltern forms are included in the KMB platform as act of 'perceived' rebellion. It is against the exclusions by the mainstream. But by doing this the KMB becomes an 'exclusive' platform that does inclusions. In fact inclusion in today's context is a euphemism for appropriation. At the same time being excluded and funding an articulation from exclusion is a political stance. However Shetty seems to be clueless about this. He brings in bands, folk performances and what not to the KMB platform in the name of inclusion but what he destroys is the exclusive and very special nature of those performances. Bringing folk performances to the centre stage of an art Biennale is never an inclusive act because it does not support the 'contemporary' aspect of Biennale but remains a traditional form with its exclusive characteristics. The forced inclusions look like a tourism calendar where Kerala is identified with a Kathakali head and a white woman getting an Ayurvedic back massage.

Let me conclude this essay by mentioning a bit about the museumification or museumisation of objects/events/performances/ideas and so on. An object in a museum is called a dead object. One does not necessarily read dead as physically dead but could see it as notionally dead like brain dead or locked up or paralysed. An object when removed from its location and function and kept in a place for particular contemplation turns it into either a godhead or an artefact. The former is called reification and the latter is called museumisation. But are interrelated. However, in both the cases the objects/events/performances are removed from their original locations and dysfunctional-ised. That means removing an object from location and function gives it some kind of art value when placed in a museum. The KMB is an itinerant museum where folk forms are brought in for performance/ display. That means they are dysfunctional-ised. Reducing some live art form into a mere spectacle may sound good when one believes completely in inclusion and inclusivity but by doing so one deprives them of their exclusivity and autonomy; that's what malls do to retailers by getting the glossy ones into the premises of malls and choking small business into death. Perhaps it also means that the centre fails to hold; the KMB's modernity and contemporaneity cannot stand on its own without the protective cover of tradition and difference.

(Image Courtesy: All images taken from Kochi Muziris biennale Facebook Page)