Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Fault Lines in Geeta Kapur’s Support for the Biennale: An Open Article Addressing Geeta Kapur

(Geeta Kapur)

This note addressing mainly a statement made by the noted art critic, historian and theoretician, Geeta Kapur in the latest India Today (Malayalam) Weekly, is meant for clearing certain confusions that linger around in our scene of art criticism and history and the possibilities of their intensification thanks to the statements like this one made by Geeta Kapur. In her Indian Today article Geeta Kapur welcomes the Kochi-Muziris Biennale and she is full of praise for the two artists who have initiated it with the support of the ‘progressive’ LDF Government in Kerala.

I am so happy that Geeta Kapur supports such a wonderful initiative like Kochi-Muziris Biennale because we all are waiting for it to happen, of course not in the way that Geeta Kapur sees it but in a way that the politically and culturally conscious people from Kerala think/want it to be.

First of all Geeta Kapur, one of the rare personalities whom I revere in the Indian art scene, writes this piece not because she is so much impressed by the works (read organizational activities) of these two artists who have ‘initiated then educated themselves’ (about) this project, but because the project has gone into some troubles that include public fund abuse and non-transparency and she is ‘invited’ to speak on behalf of it so that the sagging image of the proposed Biennale could be revived and re-energized. Hence, Geeta Kapur’s statement has a very pertinent and contextual relevance. She does not volunteer to write it but she is ‘requested’ to write it. The tone of the statement is self-evident. (I reproduce her statement as an appendix in this blog)

Geeta Kapur has always had a very strong relationship with the Kerala artists. It became a bit more focused and patronizing when in the mid 1980s, a group of artists came around in Baroda and formed the Indian Radical Painters and Sculptors’ Association. The camp in Kassauli under the leadership of Geeta Kapur and Vivan Sundaram earlier and the association with Vivan Sundaram when he curated ‘The Seven Young Sculptors’ in 1985 and so on had strengthened her relationship with the Malayali artists. It continued in 1990s only to end abruptly with the advent of market boom in the new millennium. Though, it is not relevant to this context, I found it quite surprising that Geeta Kapur kept quite when a group of critics and artists organized a seminar in JNU on the ‘Radical Group’ and made a concerted effort to make it a ‘Kerala Radicals’ group. Geeta Kapur by not responding to this effort was in fact supporting the move it to make the Indian Radical Painters and Sculptors Association, conceived as a national movement against the retrogressive art practices then prevalent in India, a very localized movement. By calling it ‘Kerala’ specific, these critics and artists were denying its due place in the contemporary art history in India.

(Geeta Kapur in India Today Malayalam)

This is one of the reasons why I was surprised when I saw Geeta Kapur’s statement in India Today. She calls Kochi-Muziris Biennale a ‘miracle’. She says that both these artists ‘set time apart’ to travel the world to make it a reality. Also she says in a way of lamentation that most of us have failed to fulfil such a dream. And Geeta Kapur observes, “by linking the biennial event to the real/mythical site of Muziris, a flourishing port-city that ‘disappeared’ in the 14th century, this Biennale claims a cosmopolitanism of past and present civilizations and thereby gives avant-garde art a historical scope.”

One can discern how Geeta Kapur has carefully chosen words so that she would not challenge the historians’ position on Muziris (as it is still a controversial topic amongst archaeologists and historians) whether it was a real or a conveniently generated city of the 14th century, and put those who ‘requested’ her to write this statement into trouble. Also Geeta Kapur thinks that she has failed, along with Vivan Sundaram in realizing the Delhi Biennale dreams. She cites government apathy as the major reason and the lack of support from the government agencies. It is against this context of an assumed failure that she says the Kochi Biennale is a wonderful opportunity.

Now, what Geeta Kapur does not address or does not want to address is very much evident in her own statement. She says she was a part of the initiative to set up Delhi Biennale with Vivan Sundaram and ‘with the support of an exceptional set of artists and art historians’. This is exactly what the people who oppose the Kochi Biennale demand by calling it ‘transparency’. Geeta Kapur conveniently forgets that the major movement in Kerala going on today against the Kochi Biennale demands only two things, ‘transparency’ through the involvement of an ‘exceptional set of artists and art historians’, and if there is fund abuse, a legal probe into that. None demands the complete stoppage of the Kochi Biennale.

In this context, I would say, Geeta Kapur is either kept in dark regarding facts and the oppositional move or has been given a totally lopsided picture, which is convincing for the veteran historian. Now coming to Geeta Kapur’s stance on Delhi Biennale; after a series of seminars and debates in Delhi early last decade, on the last day of the seminar, Geeta Kapur declared that Delhi Biennale would remain not as an exhibition platform, but as a ‘platform to debate and theorise the future biennales’. She had not specified that she was speaking this out of frustration. We, then young people in the crowd, thought that she was theorising the positioning of Delhi Biennale and we would like to believe it in that way.

(IAF 2011, Delhi)

Why? Because, if we look at the bio-data of Geeta Kapur, we will come across that a majority of the projects that she has done so far are done in collaboration with the state and central governments, some of them with international collaborations through various Indian ministries. If so, it is quite unclear why Geeta Kapur and the powerful voices like her did not demand changes in the bureaucratic apathy? She cites that the Triennale went into trouble thanks to red tape-ism. But my question is why everyone took a desktop academic position throughout in their lives and never came out to fight it along with the thousands of artists who really want/ed positive changes in the bureaucracy? They are powerless people, whereas people like Geeta Kapur could speak on behalf of them. But they have never.

Yes, Geeta Kapur has protested when M.F.Husain was ostracised and Surendran Nair’s work was attacked in the National Gallery of Modern Art. But, she still holds a Padma Award. She could have returned the Padma Award to negotiate with the government of India to bring Husain back to his own country. I always wonder why.

Geeta Kapur in her statement forgets one basic factor: the preparedness of a land/country/region for receiving a grand project like biennale. I would like to cite the success of the India Art Summit (Now India Art Fair) in Delhi. Had it been in any other place, it would have been a huge failure? Why, because Delhi, after several international expos, exhibitions, triennales, film festivals and so on, was prepared to accept an art fair like this. It had/has the infrastructure. Last year IAF was the classic case for India when people got down from the metro at the Pragati Maidan metro station, walked down to the Pragati Maidan, queued up for hours to get entry ONLY TO SEE ART!!!


Did Geeta Kapur, a person who has been vocal about the subaltern issues and fringe problems and also very vocal about impermanent art, every think of Kochi’s preparedness? When the market was brutally invading the art scene, Vivan Sundaram stopped painting and turned to impermanent art and installations (which were then ignored and hated by the galleries) and Geeta Kapur was the one who theorised such activities. Now she fails to understand how the onslaught of the gloomy European and American art would affect the local artists and their thinking. Do we need to create more Krishnakumars? Then welcome to Kochi which still needs a lot of preparation and ground work for receiving and hosting the proposed Biennale.

To prevent the death and decimation of an existing culture and art practice, we need to prepare the artists living locally and working humbly from these places. A biennale would function as Hurricane Katrina otherwise; it might help the place to clear out and evacuate the squatters and bring realtors in place but it would be one of the greatest politico-cultural crimes. Abhilash Pillai, theatre activist and Professor in the National School of Drama says that the Bharat Natya Munch Mahotsav took more than a decade to consolidate its position as a world event. It grew slowly but in the process a tragedy occurred. The group theatres and their activities in Delhi slowly died out. Now even the group theatres work only for showcasing their dramas in the Bharat Natya Manch Mahotsav. Has Geeta Kapur perceived such an eventuality while writing the India Today statement? The eventual decimation of a local culture.

Geeta Kapur fails to understand one crucial thing in her statement. This proposed Biennale is hailed to have been marked as one of the major tourist destinations of 2012 by the New York Times. Also Hilife says that this is one of the five best biennales. Now, as a cultural critic, I expect Geeta Kapur a bit more perceptive about these things. She overlooked such promotional activities and its politico-cultural and economic implications. First of all, New York Times does not say that it is one of the best Art destinations. Instead, its Travel and Tourism section says that it is a tourist destination because a biennale is going to happen. The other promo is that the Kochi Biennale is one of the best five biennales. How can one biennale be (or in that case anything) adjudged as the ‘best’ when it has not even taken place or shaped up? This is sheer advertising strategy. Michelangelo Bendandi, who is the communication head of the proposed Biennale is a well known Public Relations Manager for the world corporate houses. If he wants, even the newspapers will declare that the Kochi Biennale ‘was’ a great success, many months before its actual commencement. Geeta Kapur fails to see finer details like this and the ‘pressure’ she has (which is quite clear when she says the progressiveness of the LDF Government) is so high that she cannot write otherwise. She does not even ask a logical question, why the previous LDF Governments could not allot so much of funding to the LKA and other academies so that at least the local artist would have been benefitted. Even when a progressive secretary and staunch Marxian thinker like Ajaykumar was the secretary of the Lalit Kala Akadey of Kerala, he could not do much thanks to the fund crunch. Where was the progressive thinking then? Why was this urgency to allot funds to a private agency which when the funds were allotted did not have ‘exceptional support of artists and historians’? Why Geeta Kapur did not raise such questions? We do not expect such flattering statements from the former editor of Art and Ideas and the former contributing editor of Third Text.


Towards the end of the statement Geeta Kapur speaks of the opposition that the biennale facing today in a facile way. She says that the opposition wants things to be mediocre (via LKA). And the suggestion is that those who lead struggle in Kerala are mediocre. Now, N.N.Rimzon is one of the leaders of this anti-biennale movement. Geeta Kapur has always been a promoter of N.N.Rimzon. Her book, When Was Modernism, ends up with the elaborations of Rimzon’s works. And beyond that Geeta Kapur does not speak anything of contemporary artists from Kerala. How can Rimzon be mediocre when she herself in her book says that he is the best? And interestingly, Geeta Kapur does not speak anything about any Malayali artists in her works after When Was Modernism book.

Also I would like to ask Geeta Kapur, as she is looking eagerly forward to the biennale, how many of artists from Kerala have found place in her shows after 2000 AD? How many artists from Kerala have found mention in her articles? Forget all, please show us a few lines that Geeta Kapur has written on the works of Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu.Why suddenly Geeta Kapur feels so much for the Kerala art scene?

I need not remind Geeta Kapur of the famous Marxian statement: “History repeats itself first as tragedy then as farce.” It is ironically interesting and interestingly ironic that Bose Krishnamachari launched himself as a curator with ‘De-curating’ in 2003. The theoretical pitching of the show was against the then prevalent curatorial practice in India led by Geeta Kapur. Bose’s immediate provocation was his exclusion from the ‘Century Cities’ (2001) at Tate Modern jointly curated by Geeta Kapur and Ashish Rajadhyksha. Bose’s resentment against Geeta Kapur made him a curator. Today, in a way, he needs Geeta Kapur’s endorsement to keep his claims right in place and high.


A Note on the upcoming Kochi Muziris Biennale 2012:

- Geeta Kapur, Art Critic/Art Historian, Delhi

In conceptualizing and advancing the 2012 Kochi Muziris Biennale with the progressive political support from State of Kerala, the two artists Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu have achieved something of a miracle. Two very busy, very successful, very important artists from the state who live in Mumbai and are widely traveled have set apart the time to fulfill a dream many of us have nurtured, tested—and failed to realize. That is, to host an international exhibition that reflects the contemporary strength of the Indian art scene and, on that basis, dialogues with international artists on home ground. The Kochi Muziris Biennale purports to this and adds yet another dimension by a sheer act of brilliance: by linking the biennial event to the real/mythical site of Muziris, a flourishing port-city that ‘disappeared’ in the 14th century, this Biennale claims a cosmopolitanism of past and present civilizations and thereby gives avant-garde art a historical scope.
I personally speak in such admiration for this project on several counts. One, because for decades many of us belonging to what is now the older generation tried to rejuvenate Triennale India begun in 1968 with such a keen vision by Mulk Raj Anand under the aegis of the Lalit Kala—trying to save it from bureaucratic decline that began in the 1980s. The Triennale, which takes place right under the nose of the central government has never revived—and is known only for its state of permanent delay if not also permanent decay. On a second count I speak with special admiration for the Kochi Biennale because I was very recently part of an initiative to launch a Delhi Biennale initiated by Vivan Sundaram (and he has long experience at collective/organizational activities over the decades) with the support of an exceptional set of artists and art historians. The Delhi Biennale project failed, among other things because of a lack of support from the city or state governments and their related agencies. For it is fact that however much one may elicit private finance, such projects every where in the world flourish only when state agencies support them.
When we heard that the Kochi Muziris Biennale was now launched and become a reality on a scale and style we could not have imagined even in Delhi, it was as if many decades of lethargy had been challenged and a creative vision redeemed by, and on behalf of, the Indian artist community. And it is no surprising that Kerala should have been the place to realize this. The LDF government saw its progressive and visionary possibility and most fortunately the succeeding government has seen this clearly as well. After all Kerala hosts the best conceived and organized international film festival and it now hosts a major international theatre festival; it is a hub of creative and intellectual enquiry-- and thus now the visual arts Biennale.
There are always detractors to be found in every such project and these include not only narrow-minded bureaucrats, but sulking artists who would much rather see an initiative turn mediocre (in the hands, say, of the Lalit Kala Akademi) and even die than bring credit to some other more energetic art practitioners among their midst. Everywhere in India we await with the greatest eagerness the realization of the Kochi Muziris Biennale as conceived by its two exceptional artist initiators who have intuited and then educated themselves into this project by evaluating what happens in the rest of the world and especially as it happens with such vigour now in Asia.


Sekar Ayyanthole said...

Dear M L J, Please this in malam also.good for young arts s in keral.congrags.


I have read her article and felt it was written purposefully to praise those behind the Biennale.There is scathing attack on the critics as well.

Rajendra said...

Alasssssss! Big Sigh!!!