In 2007 November, I met a tall smart looking guy, though a little on the plump side, at Partapur, District Baswada, Rajasthan where I had gone to meet my friends doing Sandarbh Artists workshop led by none other than the bad boy of Indian contemporary art, Chintan Upadhyay. This guy was wearing a pair of dark goggles and a bandana around his head so I could not make out his real personality. If he had a few tattoos on, I would have taken him for a Harley Davison biker on the desert roads of Rajasthan. I thought he was looking at me from behind his dark glasses, which had made me a bit uncomfortable in the presence of my wife and a couple of girl friends present there. Finally nicotine called truce between us. On the way to check out a site to do some site specific work I asked him a cigarette. He was more than willing to offer me one. That was how we connected, Somu Desai and me.
(UAF Preview at Zero Kilometer, Pardi)
I was so impressed by his forthrightness, energy and ambition to do things that I came back and wrote a piece on his character where I tried to contain him behind a disguise, Moon D. Moon in Gujarati, Somu’s mother tongue, is Somu and D is Desai. My piece on Moon D had aroused a lot of guess works but I was reluctant to reveal the person behind the disguise till Somu himself was prepared to come out and face the art scene in India. Today, I am writing a blog again on Somu Desai. I feel that if I don’t write this I would be doing a great injustice to my friend and his verve in doing things for his own village, Pardi near the industrial town in Vapi in Gujarat, bordering Maharashtra. Pardi is geographically located near Daman and Sylvasa, the Union Territories. This blog is an appreciation of Somu’s efforts to bring the small town artists in the mainstream and his meaningful engagements with the local audience community. During the last five years Somu has been successful in attaining both the goals.
(A New Audience Community at Zero Kilometer, Pardi)
When I took the charge of United Art Fair, both Somu and Chintan came around and said this much: “Go ahead, we are with you.” In a scenario where artists are swayed by the mood swings of gallerists, such an assurance coming from artists like them was really invigorating and rejuvenating. Chintan, the bad boy of Indian contemporary art (there are two reasons for him being called so: One, his school master used to call him ‘bad boy’ for his ‘good’ behaviour in class. Two, he always feels that he is in a subversive mood and subversion is not always deemed as ‘good’ behaviour) always thought that something like the UAF was always needed in our scene. If I am in a thanksgiving mode I need to mention a lot of names here but I am restricting myself with these two artists because it is all about Somu Desai’s efforts to bring an otherwise neglected area like Pardi into the mainstream art scene in India.
(Somu's Studio- now a gallery in Pardi)
On the same night, it was moonlit and cold, a Sardarji doing timber business and living in Partapur gave the Sandarbh members a party. Firewood cracked and the faces that came around it glowed. The whiskey glasses were filled and emptied in regular intervals. Somu stood near me and I found he was not drinking. Nor was he eating non-vegetarian food. His huge frame looked distinct as he abstained from both. Above all he was/is a bachelor. If at all you called smoking a vice, he had that. Timber was stocked in the shed nearby where we stood. Some touched one of the timbers and asked did I know what wood it was. Clueless as in the case of many things, I looked at him and smiled. He said it is saal and it came from a place called Sylvasa, near his home. I did not know then that I was going to spend many nights in the Sylvasa forest resorts with many of my artist friends in the days to come. And it did happen in the years that followed.
(Somu Desai amongst the Viewers)
Zero Kilometer is the name of Somu’s studio in Pardi. Initially I was involved in the establishment of it. But distance and involvement was preventing me from going fulltime on this venture. I asked Somu to continue with his passion and he kindly relieved me of my responsibility. Today, Zero Kilometer is a hub for the artists in Pardi, Vapi and Amalsad. Even artists from Mumbai and Baroda visit Somu in his studio. The story of establishing this studio is magical and realist. Somu is a problem solver and he has proved that if there is a will one could convert anything and everything into a studio.
(The gallery view at Zero Km studios)
Zero Kilometer started off as a residency program. Somu’s idea was to bring artists from all over India (later ambitions grew and the parameters became global and today Somu is a founding partner of Ceagel Artists Residency Program in Scotland with artist Lynn Macneze Beckett and he travels every year to conduct workshops there in England and Scotland) so that the local artists get a flavour of the pan-Indian art. Somu biked around his village and found a dilapidated housing complex near the Pardi Railway station. After talking to the owner of the building, he took possession of a floor and converted it into a studio and Sukesan Kanka was the first residency artist. Sukesan’s stay in Pardi attracted more artists to Somu studio and slowly it became a hub and Somu wanted a bigger space for his studio. He found out another dilapidated structure near the railway track and converted it into a studio. Around six artists from the region started working there with Somu and he introduced them to Delhi and Mumbai art scene through potential friends and gallerists.
(That broken wall is the door to Somu's office)
Somu is like Bob the builder. He asks his friends, Can we fix it and they say yes we can. Then he goes ahead. Whenever I have something to organize the first name comes to my mind is Somu. Anything and everything becomes handy in Somu’s hands. For example, when Chintan wanted to store his huge sculptures, Somu just pitched in and said he could do it. What he did was to go around and meet a few farmers in the area who had huge sheds that were used only during the mango harvesting time. Rest of the year these sheds were lying vacant. Now Somu says that Pardi could handle any kind of art work both in making and storing. The best example is the present studio where Somu has done the preview of the works that he and his nine fellow artists did for the United Art Fair.
The gallery that you see in the pictures was the storage of Somu’s studio, which was later converted into individual studios for the Zero Kilometer artists. This section with no such state of the art facilities was converted into a temporary but decent looking gallery, according to Somu, just spending a few thousands of Rupees. Some plywood was lying there from huge crates that brought Chintan’s sculptures. The plywood was cannibalized to make walls and local choona was used for painting the wall. No special light was available so Somu brought some tube lights. Some carpets were brought from the local pandal guy. Sofas were arranged from home. Food was locally prepared by friends and there was Karoke booth for enjoyment. What more do you need for an exhibition opening.
(From the Display at Zero Km)
As you see in the picture, the people who came to see the exhibition are not the up class freeloaders whom we bump into in the urban galleries. These people are sincere and encouraging. They may not be buying works of art but they could now appreciate what their children would do if they choose to become artists. Artists who take a degree in fine arts only to become a part of the textile or stone cutting industry from this region could now think a different future for themselves. Their parents could also take pride in their works. According to Somu, the local industrialists have already taken interest in artistic activities in the Zero kilometre. At the same time he says that he is surprised to see that the local people’s interest even in the nude paintings. “They did not show any disinclination to my works that show my own nudes,” says Somu.
(A Video work at Zero Km)
K.G.Subramanyan once said that what we deem as the local is the real global when it comes to anything. If so, Somu’s experimentation in Pardi is really a global art activity. Without intellectual arrogance and jargon infested posturing, Somu could develop a local studio where artists could work, exhibit and interact with a new local audience community. Interestingly, Somu does not wait for the funding agencies to fund him. He is Bob the builder. He shows that together we could do many things.