‘Keshav ji, you created me,’ says A.Ramachandran, veteran artist and scholar. Keshav Malik turns back from the front row and greets A.Ramachandran. ‘I am a back bencher always and most often artists do not like what I say,’ A.R continues. His talks enliven and add lightness to the grave atmosphere that has been filled by the ruminations of three speakers namely, Ella Dutta, Prayag Shukla and Kishore Singh on art criticism and art writing in India. The venue is Kiran Nadar Museum, South Court Mall, Saket, New Delhi and the occasion is the felicitation of Mr.Keshav Malik, octogenarian art critic and poet who still remembers the first line of art criticism that he had written almost six decades back, on his 88th birthday. It is interesting to see the tall figure of Keshav Malik sitting elegantly amongst the contemporary cutting edge works displayed on the walls of the KNMA.
Malik has been around in the scene of art criticism and art writing for quite some time. Prayag Shukla remembers how artists from far away towns and villages used to come to Delhi only because they knew there was an art critic called Keshav Malik. ‘The most accessible art critic,’ says Shukla. ‘And also a gentleman’. Malik has never hurt any person through is criticism. He is an aesthete par excellence. His way of seeing this is just looking. That was what he used to do as a young boy who was sent to Florence, Italy to do his schooling. He kept looking at things without an intention to grab the meaning. The more he looked, the more the innate qualities of the art that he had seen revealed to him. He never thought then that he was going to be a full time art critic at some stage in his life and would remain one for the rest of his life.
(Veteran artist A.Ramachandran speaking from the audience)
That is the reason, now in retrospection we should understand, why Malik still keep seeing the works of art irrespective of the name, fame and age of the artists. Go to Keshav Malik-ji. Get a forward written. You have crossed several hurdles at one go- that’s the way artists still believe. I do not know how much patience he has to look at ‘contemporary’ art today. But he likes paintings and he says that he spent and still spends his life looking at paintings.
What happens to such an art critic who is so benevolent and democratic and gentlemanly in his nature? Coming from a well to do family with connections with powers that are/were, Keshav Malik had inculcated the Nehruvian idealism in him. For a brief period, the crucial period of independence and partition, Malik was a personal secretary to Jawaharlal Nehru. The story goes like this that after a meeting with a cultural impresario of those times, Uma Vasudev, Malik was introduced to the editor of the Hindustan Times and he was given the assignments to ‘cover culture’. So he started ‘covering’ culture. That was how Malik became an art critic. But he persisted and widened his knowledge through constant reading, travelling, visiting museums and seeing a lot of works of art. Irrespective of his ‘high’ social standing he mingled up with struggling artists of the time. Artists thought that a paragraph in Malik’s column that mentioned their names and works, or a forward by him in the catalogue was a passport to success.
(The felicitation panel- L-R- Roobina Karode, Kishore Singh, Prayag Shukla and Ella Dutta)
Such influences are rare in our times; the times where every failed poet is an art critic and every failed art critic, a curator and a failed curator, a consultant. When you fail in all these and when you have more than enough money, you start a galley and make compensations for what all have been lost. It is not rule but exceptions are rare. But democracy, leniency and gentlemanliness will not always help the critic’s life worth following. ‘Malik ji is one art critic who has never taken a stance,’ says A.Ramachandran. For a moment it sounds like an accusation. But A.R changes the tone of his speech. He says that Malik has never hurt anybody. He wrote on good, bad and ugly art works. ‘Whenever he failed to respond to a work of art or an artist’s works, he wrote a poem for them,’ comments A.R.
Perhaps, A.R does not want to hurt Malik on this auspicious occasion. But there is a grain of truth in what A.R says. The present day critics or scholars or art students do not refer to the writings of Malik. Has democracy, leniency and gentlemanliness paid off? Do Padma Shri and other high honours satisfy him? I do not think so. Malik belongs to a pioneering generation. Charles Fabri was the one who started art criticism as a daily staple of readers of culture. It was a time when Richard Bartholomew, K.K.Nair (Krishna Chaitanya), Santo Dutta and Malik were active. People who belong to these two time frames and who had seen them in person, speak of them reverently and remember what they have written. But somewhere a critic like Malik fails to flow into the minds of the contemporary generation. Is it because that he wrote for anybody and anything? Is it because his writings went to poetic heights when he did not have anything else to say? Had he been deceiving himself as an art critic all these years by containing his ‘right to critique’ within his poetic opulence? Or is it the fate of an art critic? Just to maintain social relationships or just to hold the durbar of an impresario, you need to be benevolent to one and all?
(Keshav Malik listens good words spoken about him. Sangeeta Singh on the right)
I am told that when Malik walked in artists thought the god had come in their midst. It was the same when Santo Dutta or Richard Bartholomew or K.K.Nair or Charles Fabri walked into an exhibition space. Artists gasped. They became anxious till they see the next day’s paper to see what those giants of art writing had written about them. In fact, Malik could have exercised restraint at that point of time? May be he is more a poet therefore a humanitarian. He considered everyone equally. As an art critic with two decades of experience behind me, I feel that an art critic, however famous or accepted he is at his time, is bound to fail in the long run if he becomes too lenient towards his broad aesthetic preferences. An art critic is not a God. That’s the primary lesson each art critic should learn. But today where are those art critics? They are all either working in backrooms of galleries and museums or they are all claiming themselves to be curators in facebook.
Prayag Shukla, who writes mostly in Hindi and has been actively writing on art for the last four decades is more perceptive when he speaks of Malik. Shukla came to Delhi in 1960s with an intention to become a writer. He struggled and it was people like Malik and their devotion to art that gave him enough courage to struggle further and establish his career in the field of art criticism. ‘In every other art form, critics have the freedom to sit and watch. Only in art one has to stand and watch to do criticism. In that case Malik is one art critic who has walked and stood a lot in our scene of art criticism,’ says Shukla.
One feels such tribe of art critics have become a thing of past; art critics who read and writes poetry and art critics who write poetry when they don’t feel like hurting artists with harsh criticism. Ella Dutta, another veteran art critic and art writer laments how the new generation has gone away from pursuing art criticism due to crass commercialisation of public mediums and shrinking of space for art critical writings. Kishore Singh, an art writer and consultant with the Delhi art gallery speaks of the new avenues where art criticism has migrated into. It has become more inclusive in a sense that involves artists’ lives, their cuisine and their life style. Art criticism is dead and long live art criticism. Also Singh cites how two of the major newspapers published from Delhi where Malik has contributed his columns now have done away with their art critical pages completely.
Malik listens. People who have crossed a certain age do not feel challenged as they see life and death, fame and glory, material opulence and penury with equal detachment. At times they take things absolutely in a detached way and at times they take things too seriously. Malik, after speaking a bit about his formative years, reads out a few poems. He is serious in his recitation. Delhi has a mushaira culture (poetry recitation culture). When poetry gets up people sit down and say wah wah. But today, when poetry gets up, people too get up and walk out. They attend their missed calls and face their angry spouses’ angry words. Recitation ends. Fellow artists speak good words about Malik. A.R remembers only Malik had come for his first group exhibition in Delhi. Malik with a photographic memory still not sepia tinted looks straight at A.R and tells him what those images were. Everyone is impressed.
(Invitation for the program)
Then starts a documentary on Keshav Malik by artist Sangeeta Gupta. I should not be harsh but I need to tell her that documentary making is not her forte. Documentaries have a language of their own. Either she should stick to that or she should break all the norms and should come up with something really catchy. With fast running subtitles from right to left, with shaking camera movements and poor sound quality, the documentary does not do any justice to a man who has stood all his life of lucid and clear writing. Sangeeta Gupta should have called her work a loose anthology of interviews.
Post script: Kiran Nadar Museum wants to set high professional standards. Hence the invitation card says that the program is strictly one hour in duration; thirty minutes speeches and twenty minutes documentary. The evening started at 6.00 pm though mentioned as 5.30 pm, and went on till 8.00 pm. Setting professional standards is a good thing. But we are Indians and we have a tendency to talk beyond the stipulated time. So let us be open and be proud of it. Otherwise stick to the schedule and be completely professional.