Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Laxmi Nagar: The Cradle of Contemporary Art

I meet Parivartan Mohanty and Raj Mohanty, two young artists from Orissa, now settled in Delhi, at Sanskriti Kendra, Anandgram, New Delhi, where Ranbir Kaleka is shooting his latest video project. Parivartan and Raj are there to assist Ranbir. I know these artists for the last few years and have been following their works diligently. Raj makes small scale collages with found objects and mundane materials and he has a very strong sense of drawing. Parivartan is more aggressive in his works. His watercolors emanate a very special sexual energy and he profusely uses sexual imageries in his works. The sado-masochist tendency of our contemporary times is reflected in Parivartan’s works. Of late, both these artists are interested in doing videos and they are in the right place as Ranbir could give them tips on video making. I have not yet seen Raj’s videos though I could see three small pieces by Parivartan. He has got this irreverence for the existing aesthetic philosophies. And his blasphemous imageries need some kind of pruning and refinement. They would make it, I am sure.

These young gentlemen (they are gentle despite the aggressive nature of their works, which I like) live and work in Laxmi Nagar in East Delhi. Laxmi Nagar, for me is a general name for the places including Patparganj, Mother Diary, Karkardooma, Bharti Artist’s Colony and so on. This Laxmi Nagar has got a lot to do with the making of Indian contemporary art. From Connaught Place, Barakhamba Road (13th September 2008 Bomb Blast fame) leads to the major traffic intersection called ITO. Go straight, you reach Old Delhi, where Purana Quila is located. Take a right from the ITO junction, you get into Vikas Marg that leads to East Delhi. Vikas Marg starts with a long bridge that runs across Yamuna River and the road runs through the alluvial delta, and you find Laxmi Nagar where the recovered land ends.

During the 80s and 90s, Laxmi Nagar was a lower middle class colony, from where lower division workers came to the main city by their bicycles. Now with the arrival of Akshardham Temple, Metro (tube train) connectivity and the forthcoming Common Wealth Games (2010 AD), the feature of Laxmi Nagar has changed. Property values have been shooting up in the last few years, though it is one of the places closer to the city where one could find cheaper accommodation. When, Laxmi Nagar still was a lower middle class/working class colony the story was different. If you are an East Delhi (read Laxmi Nagar) resident, then none would any damn to you. Before the arrival of mobile phone networks, MTNL telephone numbers were the markers of your residential status. If the number started with ‘2’ you were done; you belong to the ‘god forsaken’ East. If it started with ‘6’ you were respected for you belonged to the ‘rich’ South. When mobile phones came and incoming calls were too chargeable, none used to pick up calls from East Delhi for those who had mobile phones then did not have anything to do with the East Delhi people.

If you are ‘Hindi speaking’ thereby ‘desi’ you call Laxmi Nagar/East Delhi, ‘Jamuna Paar’. If you are ‘English Speaking’ therefore ‘elite’ you call it ‘Trans-Yamuna’. There was a clear cut economic division even during those old days. ‘Trans-Yamuna’ people were basically journalists and business class who lived in ‘Samachar side’ (named after the Samachar Apartment where the journalists mainly lived/live). You can imagine who lived in Jamuna Paar. Interestingly, most of the migrant artists too preferred to live in Laxmi Nagar side. Laxmi Nagar could be the Moline Rouge and Monte Parnasse of Delhi. Laxmi Nagar could offer them cheap living facilities, cheap drinks, cheap vegetables, kerosene for stove (in New Delhi where would you find Kerosene for your stove?) and above all proximity with the city. Some pivotal works of Indian contemporary art took shape in the one room/ two room accommodations of this dingy place.

When I see Parivartan and Raj, I remember Gigi Scaria and Josh PS. They too started their Delhi life in Laxmi Nagar. They used to do a lot of odd jobs including painting greetings cards for some agency in Daryaganj, Old Delhi. The day they got some money, I saw their heads wafting through the milling crowds of the main street of Laxmi Nagar. On that particular day of their payment, they preferred to travel by cycle rickshaw enjoying a bowl of gulab jamun. Noted contemporary sculptor N.N.Rimzon too started his career in Laxmi Nagar. His pivotal works like ‘Man with Tools’, ‘Yellow Psalms’ and so on were made in a small two room house, where one of the rooms served as a studio and the other room doubled up as his drawing room-library-bedroom. Rimzon’s daughter too was born in this shabby little home. (Today Rimzon owns a huge studio, a former Biscuit factory in Trivandrum, Kerala).

Sumedh Rajendran, internationally known sculptor, came to Delhi as a student and he found his first home in Laxmi Nagar. With chiseled features, this handsome boy was given special care by his landlady for she nurtured the thoughts of getting her daughter married with Sumedh once he finished his studies! Artists couple Abhimanue VG and Merlin Abhimanue also were living in Laxmi Nagar before they shifted to their own house in Aya Nagar. Sculptors life Jyothilal and Sabu Joseph too were living in the same location.

Subodh Gupta, the wonder man who is the flag bearer of Indian contemporary art in International forums, came to Delhi as a migrant and found a cheap accommodation in the Patparganj-Mother Dairy area. His interventions in the art scene started from this East Delhi location along with Bharti Kher, Sanjeev Sinha and Sambhavi. Manjunath Kamath, after his education in Delhi College of Art, found out a place in Patparganj side and started working as a graphic artist for newspapers. He did his first solo show at Sridharani Gallery, working from this one room accommodation. Sujith, Prakash Babu, Aji V.N, V.P.Balakrishnan, Kiran Subbaiah and many others have spent their sojourns in Laxmi Nagar. Later artists like Pratul Dash, Tapan Dash, Sindhu RV and Rishi came and settled in this area before they shifted to their own residents elsewhere.

As a migrant art critic I too started my life in Laxmi Nagar, in a one room second floor apartment. Laxmi Nagar united all of us as we spent our leisure time together, cooking and sharing food, drinks and stories. None of us had basic facilities for a decent living. During the scorching summers, we slept on wet clothes or if it was a breezy night, on the terrace with the silhouettes of strangers lying huddled around. Every artist must be remembering their first fans, first coolers, first gas stoves, first tape recorders, first black and white portable television sets that they bought after saving money for so many months of parsimonious living. Now, when they switch on their air conditioners, they must be remembering the ‘good hot days’ that they spent in Laxmi Nagar.

For me, like many others Laxmi Nagar was the university of life. We all spent endless hours in the Lalit Kala Akademy library, reading, seeing international art. In the evenings we gathered in the cheapest canteen available in Delhi (LKA canteen) and drank several cups of tea, discussing shows, works of art and criticizing those artists who were ‘selling’ their works. We were not ‘commercial’ then. We all wanted to alternative art and we did not think that alternative art would become mainstream one day and bring a lot of money. Then we went to exhibition openings without invitations, and saw how the ‘elite’ grab free wine and bites by standing guard at the kitchen entrance. Stewards did not offer us wine as none of us looked ‘invited’. But we enjoyed the camaraderie of our ‘have not’ status. We learned a lot of lessons on party etiquette including cheek to cheek kiss, which we put to use these days. We have learned how to smell wine first and take sip then and smack the lips and say ‘its great’. We learned how to say toast and also we learned to smile while crying inside. We learned how to hug each other without crumpling ironed designer wears, as our rich ‘familiars’ embraced us from a distance. We learned to flirt and impress others and all these learned like Ekalavyas.

Laxmi Nagar still hosts artists like Parivartan and Raj. Laxmi Nagar must be giving them a lot of lessons to them also. Those who have moved out of Laxmi Nagar perhaps would never have felt like visiting those places again. If at all we now visit, that must be for doing a piece of video art.

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