Tuesday, April 29, 2014

United Art Fair 2012 Series: Part 4: JohnyML’s Warrior Angels

(Yanam Takam and JohnyML at the UAF 2012)

In big events we tend to forget small contributors. Do you remember the pandal decorator in the movie, Monsoon Wedding? Played by Vijay Raaz, an accomplished actor who is on a coming back trail with his Bollywood directorial debut after a long hiatus imposed upon by a narcotics case registered against him while travelling abroad a few years back, this character in Monsoon Wedding eats marigold flowers to show his anger and swallow up his angst. When the larger scenes take place, these people retire to the background. I should draw parallel between the backstage contributors of any event with the wedding bands. These people come from very poor backgrounds, often rehearsing their music under some bridge or tree, and they wear ill-fitting decorative clothes. Holding the brass band pieces in their hands, they lead the wedding processions to the marriage halls. One good thing about their lives is that they get to see beautiful and rich girls dancing to their tunes, from close quarters, who otherwise are inaccessible to them except in their wild and weird dreams. Once the procession enters the marriage hall and electronic music and well dressed and cool DJs take the baton from their poor cousins, the wedding party almost forget these poor souls. They squat out there waiting for their payment to come; their presence is felt in the darkness by the shining clothes and the light reflecting brass bugles. Artist Krishen Khanna has painted their lives in details during the initial years of his career. I have always felt that curatorial team members are like these band musicians. They lead a great procession and the moment procession reaches a certain point, they are left behind, often unacknowledged and payment denied or delayed.


I do not want to treat my curatorial colleagues in United Art Fair 2012 the way the band players are treated by the wedding organizers. I want to acknowledge them because had it not been their support and selfless work I would not have been able to mount a wonderful art fair, which was United Art Fair 2012. I do not believe so much in chance and luck as I am believer in hard work. Those people who have seen my hands (they pretend that they could predict my future and I am naturally interested like any other human being who just wants to have a peek into the unknown future. I do it for fun mainly because, from my experience, I have learnt that hard work and preparation only helps to a cultural and social migrant like me in a strange city) tell me that my hand is not artistic; they belong to a hard worker. Their observation has never been wrong. However, immediately after joining the United Art Fair 2012, when I got a call from Yanam Takam, a young art professional from Meghalaya, I was a bit surprised. Yanam has been a friend since 2008. After her post graduation from the Arts and Aesthetics Department from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, while preparing for further studies, she joined Gallery Ragini. My association with Gallery Ragini runs back to its inception and I have a good working relationship with the gallery. Later Yanam shifted jobs but remained in Delhi doing art consultancy works for individuals and organizations.

(Shilpi Shankar)

When I got a call from Yanam I was surprised because it was almost on the second day of me joining the UAF organization. She told me that she was looking for a placement and if something came across I should consider her name. I mentioned that I was with the UAF but still I was not sure whether the UAF really wanted more people to join. I assured her that I would keep her in my mind if any chance came on my way. I should say here that I had already decided that I would take Yanam as my first assistant whether Annurag wanted her or not. There was an incident that led to my decision on her. One day while going back from Lado Sarai, Yanam asked me whether I could drop her on the way. I asked her to get in my car and I dropped her near Saket Metro station from where she told me that her house was in walking distance. It was winter and the road was looking deserted. I was a bit apprehensive about leaving her alone at the road side at that hour; though it was hardly eight in the night. I asked her whether I need to walk her to home. She said she was fine and she fished out something from her handbag and showed it to me. It was something that looked like a Pepsi or Coca Cola can. I asked her what it was and she told me that it was a can of pepper spray. If somebody came near to her she was prepared to spray it at him. Once again I made sure that she was confident enough to go alone and drove off. All the way I was thinking about the plight of a girl (I was not thinking that she was from the North-East and it was an added qualification to be attacked in Delhi) in a big bad city. I thought of that girl who was prepared to take on her attackers with a pepper spray can. My mind was heavy and once I reached home I called her to know whether she was home safe. (It was my over protective nature for a girl who in fact spent late evenings in partying. Yanam has always been a very courageous girl).

I spoke to Annurag and he was ready to meet Yanam. It took no time for her to become one of the strong presences in the office. She did her work diligently and meticulously, more importantly, without any complaint. I remember one very interesting incident that showed the critical bend of Yanam’s mind. One of the team members, who actually doubled up as the chief co-ordinator of office affairs and a marketing person whenever such services were needed, was very much into dieting and physical exercise. Every noon, when we all came around the table for sharing our lunch, this young man used to bring out his cucumber, tomato and sprouts to make a very fresh salad. He continuously spoke about dieting and showed off how little he ate. After making the salad he sent it around the table and everyone picked one spoonful from it leaving almost nothing for the young man who really prepared it. He was all the more happy to show that he was eating less. But the reality was different. He ate from every plate and filled his stomach more than he could. One day while he was in his usual liturgy over his dieting, Yanam asked him one simple question: “Are you happy?” There was pin drop silence in the conference room. Yanam, at time had faced some racial comments from some of the colleagues. Somebody commented on her height and somebody commented on her North Eastern identity. But she learned quickly to ignore the insults as she was more focussed on the work than on the people.

(Manali Deyondi)

Shilpi Shankar was the next one to join. Hailing from Bihar, Shilpi had just passed out from the Art History Department at Jamia Millia Islamia. She was looking for an opening and she thought she could join the UAF 2012 team. Recommended by one of her teachers, she came to the office to meet me and I directed her to Annurag Sharma. He was so lenient and immediately he asked her to join. Shilpi was a quick learner and she was very keen to work with the artists. She took directions from me and Annurag and executed them immediately. In fact Shilpi became very popular amongst artists through facebook and other mediums of communications that she was using to contact the artists. Following Shilpi, Manali Deondi, again a Jamia Millia Art History post graduate joined the team. She also proved to be one of the best team members. One day, Seema Jain, yet another post graduate from Jamia Millia Art History department walked into my office cabin. She told me that she had come to meet Manali, her close friend. I spoke to her and was about to say that we would see there at the United Art Fair 2012 at Pragati Maidan. But she looked into my eyes straight and asked me when she was supposed to join the team. I could not have said no to her. We wanted people to work for us and art history education was an additional qualification that these people got. They were freshers in the scene but the way picked up the nuances of the job was really amazing. Shreya Magon was already working with the UAF 2012 before I joined. I made her the communications chief. Kamini Sharma and Nita were also working diligently with the team though they were in charge of the logistics part of the UAF 2012. Mr.O was supposed to be working towards co-ordinating the North Indian artists. But he proved to be too slow for a project like United Art Fair 2012. A few other boys joined but they came in as unskilled workers with basic understanding of computers. They too picked up their work fast though I was not co-ordinating with them directly.

Yanam, Shilpi, Manali, Seema and Shreya were my core team members. There was no office politics or bickering amongst them or the already existing logistics team. In fact we did not have enough time to indulge in office gossips or rumours. But there were pressures on me to take a couple of other people into my team. I was not comfortable with the idea mainly because the person who was seeking a job in the UAF 2012 was married to another person in the same organization. I told Annurag that a husband-wife team working in the same organization for the same purpose would eventually create ego clashes amongst the other members. I knew the person who was wanting to come in but I politely dissuaded her from joining. Annurag did not put pressure on me either. But the girl was really offended. She could not believe that I could reject her application. She immediately started a slandering business against me. But I tolerated it because her husband was already in the organization and moreover there was seriously no time to attend such small irritations. My team worked 360 degree. They were not only working towards co-ordinating with the artists in getting works and details but also helping in creating a huge catalogue for the UAF 2012, which Shaiju Augustine had beautifully designed.

(Seema Jain)

Had it not been these young girls in my team, who were quick in learning and executing, it would have been impossible to produce the UAF 2012 in that scale and in that flourish. If UAF is a brand today, one cannot forget the contribution of these girls in making it. If anybody thinks that UAF 2012 was a flop, they should ask a question to themselves, if it was a flop, why five famous curators took it on their shoulders and flopped it again? If the brand was really a non-starter why the Indian Art Resurgence Pvt Ltd bought it and decided to take it to a different level? There was obviously a conspiracy to highjack the UAF brand even when myself and my team were working towards its success. We will read about it in the succeeding chapters.

Monday, April 28, 2014

United Art Fair 2012 Series: Part 3: United Art Fair 2012 is Now Free

(Annurag Sharma speaking at Baroda artists meet in May 2012)

You may live in Delhi and die in Delhi. Still there will be places in the city that you never visit. It is true with many places that we dwell. Imagine the number of places that the foreign tourists have visited in India. But as Indians, we tend to visit all those places which are given either in text books or tourist guides. However, we all write our cities with our lives even if we do not move into it or around it. Most of us are born to be stuck in one place. After seeing Marco Polo, the great traveller writing about all those cities that he had visited, the emperor asked him why he did not write anything about his own city, Venice. Marco Polo famously said that whenever he wrote about a city he was writing about Venice. Had it not been United Art Fair 2012, after living in Delhi for almost seventeen years then, I would not have visited this place called Gopinath Bazar in Delhi Cantonment. United Art Fair 2012 office was operating from a building in Gopinath Bazar and it was in the same building Annurag Sharma’s United Art Logistics Private Limited functioned.


My Chandigarh Seminar was a wonderful experience. The city welcomed me with huge hoardings with my larger than life face blown up on them. It was like film hoarding and I thanked the digital printing technology for giving me such an opportunity that often is a prerogative of film stars and politicians. Art critics’ faces are not to be shown in such large scale. But these days, if you travel in Tamil Nadu, you could see even the local babies’ birthday parties are announced publicly by such hoardings. In Kerala, I have seen billboards with the faces of newly married couples. Private albums have taken a backseat now. The once private has become now public. Everyone gets a few days of importance and fame thanks to the digital printing technology. The longevity of such hoardings depends heavily on the tolerance level of the public as well as climate. In Chandigarh I had told the audience that now Indian art history seemed to have come to a full circle as today the focus was on the art critic than on the artist. Had it been elsewhere, these hoarding would have generated a huge controversy. But in Chandigarh, it seemed that the people were tolerant enough to see the face of an art critic in such a large scale.

(Baroda Artists Meet for UAF 2012)

Back in Delhi, I was once again approached by Annurag Sharma and his brother Gaurav Sharma. Finally I decided to go to the United Art Fair office on 8th May 2012. I still remember the dress that I wore for the day- a pair of blue jeans and a white khadi kurta. I did not have any clue how to get to their office. Annurag had given me enough directions but I did not want to drive such a long way. Someone had told me that I could get down at the Dhaulakuan Metro station and then take an auto to Delhi Cantonment. I thought that was an interesting idea. I went to New Delhi Metro station, changing two lines and got into the Airport Metro run by the Reliance Company. The station looked more like an airport than a normal metro station. There were different levels of security checking and once I was inside the chair car of the Airport Metro it was almost empty. It took me to Dhaulakuan in less than fifteen minutes and I took an auto to Gopinath Bazar at Delhi Cantonment.

The United Art Fair team was waiting for me in the conference room. Annurag Sharma was smoking a cigarette. The rest of the team members sat there with notepads and laptops open. I sat and looked around. All of them gave me half smiles. I recognized the young man, let me call him Mr.O, who had first brought Annurag to me, with his notebook and pen ready. Mainly the team comprised of the members from the logistics company. From their half smiles I could make out that they had already judged me. The judgement was something like this: “Come on man, we have been sitting here for the last six months and the project has not moved an inch. Now, we are not convinced with your looks at all. What are you going to do, a miracle or something eh?” The shifting chairs, hushed up talks and covert smiles made me uneasy for a while but I knew that I was going to take them off guard. Annurag introduced me to the team. Then he explained the idea of United Art Fair 2012. It was supposed to be a purely artists driven fair and no galleries will be involved. I understood. Then Annurag brought out a booklet, which had already gone to many artists, which I did not know at that time. Opening the booklet, Annurag told me that artists would pay Rs.35000/- for hiring nearly about eighteen square feet of space. They will be given a small desk and chair at their booth. If the works were sold thirty three percent commission would go the organizer.

They all looked at me. I broke silence with an emphatic no. I told them clearly that it was not a workable idea. I knew the ground reality and I was constantly in touch with the young artists. Most of them were literally struggling to make their ends meet. Many by that time had taken up jobs in different agencies. I told Annurag and Team that artists would not pay this amount to participate in the project. My argument was simple, if they had that kind of money they would have found out ways to exhibit their own works in independent shows and would have found their clients. But Annurag was adamant and he wanted to have a high quality fair that excelled all the other fairs. I told him two case scenarios that would make the fair a worst example of all fairs. First of all there will be application with the prescribed amount from those rich people who have taken up art as a hobby and do not get chances to exhibit with the galleries. Second lot will be coming from those desperate artists who will find the money somehow and will participate. In both cases, I argued that good quality works will not be there. It was not because that I did not believe in the art of self taught artists or the desperate ones but as an art critic and curator I knew how the art scene worked. The market boom which had just gone by like a storm had combed almost all good artists for the galleries. Now, they had seen the good times for a while and bad times were staring at their faces. In that scenario none was going to risk Rs.35000/- for participating in United Art Fair 2012.

(Parag Sonagre, JohnyML, Sandeep Pisalkar at UAF meet in Baroda)

Annurag is adamant by nature. He told me that the applications would come and we just needed to promote the program. When my deliberations failed, I had two options before me; either walk out or take it up and prove to them that it was not a feasible idea, and then come up with a viable alternative, if possible. So I asked them what they had done in the last six months. Annurag looked at his team members and the team members looked at each other and a few of them furiously went on typing some imaginary programs in their laptops. Virtually nothing had happened during the six months from November 2011 to April 2012. Someone produced a file with a few applications that came with the full amount cheques. But considering the scale of the venue and the negligible number of applications, I was sure that it was going to flop. However, I put on a brave face and told them that we could start our campaign from Baroda, a sort of artists meet in order to explain the plan of United Art Fair 2012 and to get the feedback from the artists. Baroda came to my mind because I knew that on 10th May 2012, the annual display of the Fine Arts Faculty was going to start. During the annual display time Baroda used to be very active with the presence of not only the student artists but also of the artists and art players from different parts of India.

Annurag agreed with the plan. But something really funny happened. He asked his secretary to book tickets for Baroda and from his talk I could make out that he was thinking about going by train. I waited the charade to take its own course. Finally I told Annurag and his team this much; I would not mind going to Baroda by train. But I could assure you the failure of the fair in that itself. I explained to them that if someone asked how we came and if they come to know that we came by train, they would never believe that we were capable (at least financially) enough to conduct a fair of that scale. The next moment I heard Annurag apologizing to me profusely. He told me that he was lost in thought and that was why this idea of train came to his mind. I was sure that he was giving me a sort of test or rather he was checking whether I was strong enough to demand what I deserved. But I was ready to walk to Baroda, if time was on our side, provided they too walked with me at my pace. The team members went into action and arranged our trip to Baroda. Hotel bookings were done, conference hall was booked and through my contacts I informed most of the artists in Baroda that we were coming for an artists’s meet.

(UAF 2012 Delhi meet)

We reached Baroda on 10th morning and unfortunately, Ranjit Singh Gaekwad, the Maharaja of Baroda, a friend of fine arts faculty and an artist himself had passed away on that day. The annual show was postponed for a day. But we went on with our program and we held our artists meet to a packed hall. Annurag spoke to the audience. Through a power point presentation I presented my case. When the money part came, as expected, the enthusiasm of the artists died out. They all expected that United Art Fair 2012 would work wonders for them. In the open discussion, artists grilled me and the organizers on the money part. They refused to take part in the project. There was a wonderful dinner arranged at the venue. Everyone had dinner and most of the artists came to me personally and said that they would want to be a part of it only if we could reconsider the money part. They told me that they were literally struggling. Annurag also got the same feedback. I did not know Annurag closely then. Back in the hotel room, we spoke, and still he was very enthusiastic about the project and he hoped that the artists would pay money and would take part in the project. Over a few drinks and dal and rice, I told Annurag once again that it was not going to work. But we had more places to go.

The next destination was Delhi. At the Russian Culture Centre at Feroz Shah Road, we did out Delhi meet. Many people attended and they all raised the same question. Why should they pay money to participate in an art fair like this? It was here in Delhi some of them dubbed United Art Fair as poor man’s art fair. After our Baroda visit the word had spread like wild fire. With JohnyML at its helm, it was going to be a fair of artists who had not found their pace in the gallery circuit. Rumour mills were working overtime. There is a tendency in India to make the original as rich man’s and the imitation as the poor man’s. Amitabh Bacchan is therefore rich man’s Amitabh Bacchan. Rajnikant becomes poor man’s Amitabh Bacchan. In Tamil Nadu while Rajnikant is rich man’s Rajnikant, Vijaykant is poor man’s Rajnikant. India Art Fair was/is rich man’s fair. And if United Art Fair happens, then obviously it is going to be poor man’s art fair. It was an interesting comparison. Sensing this, while giving my speech at the Russian Culture Centre, I told the audience that I wear poor man’s clothes and I wear mostly white kurtas. I wore white kurta not because I wanted to look like an ordinary man or in the extreme case like a politician. But I wanted the world to know that I was clean. If a white clothes is stained it would show immediately. And while doing the United Art Fair, I wanted to remain stainless. I was making this comment against the backdrop of my fight against the KMB Controversy.

Delhi respone was also not favourable despite the lavish dinner and abundance of liquor that we served the audience. Annurag was a good host and he was throwing money to make people happy. Though the applications were not coming in and people were turning all more sceptical and almost hostile to the program thanks to the financial rider attached to it, the artists’ meet programs were becoming hugely successful. We travelled to Jaipur, Bangalore, Kolkata, Bhuvaneshwar, Mumbai, Calicut, Goa, Trivandrum, Guwahati, Chandigarh and so on and from all these places we got tremendous response but yet they were not ready to participate. In the meanwhile, artists, with the help of facebook were making contacts with each other and trying out different permutation and combinations, and suggesting us that they would participate in groups with the same amount. In the meanwhile, followed by the artists feedback Annurag was also suggesting for a slab system with reduced amounts for reduced display spaces. Still it was not working for our favour. Artists were contacting both Annurag and myself, requesting to make some feasible arrangement. And we had given a deadline for applications, which was 30th June 2012.

(from the UAF 2012 Delhi meet. L to R Mrinal Kulkarni, Sumedh Rajendran, George Martin, JohnyML, Annurag Sharma and Mukesh Sharma)

By the time the team had grown slowly into a full-fledged curatorial team with Yanam Takam as the head of the team. Annurag was the real slave driver and he was making all efforts to make the team function properly so that the applications could come in. The team had created artists lists from different zones in India and was making individual phone calls, ranging from commands to requests to humble plea. I was in asking Annurag to get full sponsorship from somewhere so that we could make the entry free against some donation of works from the artists towards the company and a commission share if sales happen. I even suggested that we could approach the galleries to help us in sales so that their artists also could participate free of cost in the fair. But Annurag was keeping his fingers crossed. As an investor he hoped against hope that the applications would come. Myself and my curatorial team as the team comprised of all art history postgraduates, knew for sure that such a scenario was a distant possibility. Finally the D-day came. It was quite a dramatic day. Annurag was screaming at one and all. I was in closed door discussions with him; sometimes it was just about smoking together in silence. At around 4 pm we all came inside the conference hall. The girls were ready with the status updates and files. Every one presented her or his case. Annurag looked at me and I looked at him. Nothing was there to hope. The total number of applications came with cheques were less than seventy. And our expectation was still 500. At six o clock in the evening, Annurag thumped at the table and then took a deep breath, looked at everybody’s face and said, “United Art Fair is now free for all artists,” he paused. A sense of relief was felt in everyone’s face. There was a smile of rejoicing there though it was not so vociferous. “But it is going to cost me my life,” Annurag added. That was the birth of United Art Fair 2012. The news went to the facebook and next moment onwards our phones never stopped ringing for almost a month. 

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Sunday Thoughts: On Goodness


“Wait here, I will tell you which vehicle you need to take,” a marigold garland seller tells me. It is an early morning and I am at cross road. I am supposed to reach my son’s school for the PTM (Parents Teacher Meeting). The road that leads to Suraj Kund and then further up to Aravali Hills bordering Delhi and Haryana is frequented more by private cars and trucks that transport boulders and building materials. Public conveyance is near to nil. I see women going somewhere to work asking for a lift to the truck drivers. The trucks look ominous and the drivers and helpers look like nether world creatures. Sleepless, work worn, dishevelled and dirty they pick up passengers from the wayside to earn some extra bucks. Delhi is the rape capital of the country and crime rate here is too high. Still, goaded by the pressures of survival women risk their dignity and security by asking for lift in these vehicles. The marigold garland seller chases the same trucks for selling the flowers. He does brisk business. In India, however unwashed they are, the vehicle drivers believe in gods and buying a garland is mandatory. It assures the god that they are paying their due respect. God, if such a power exists, is the only saviour these rickety vehicles that ply often at nights overloaded with materials and even contraband.

The school is around six kilometres away from where I stand. Things have changed for me for a month by now. I travel often by public transports which I used to dread but now I find it easier and more humane. My pockets have never been picked, yet I am over conscious about it. I take care of my pocket even when I am absolutely lost in thoughts. Picking pocket in Delhi’s buses and trains is an outcome of the imbalance seen in the society. Economic liberalization has widened the gap between the rich and the poor. While the rich make more money at each passing moment the poor struggle to meet the ends meet. Picking pocket and other petty crimes are the art that the dodgers have developed to survive in a ruthless big city. But I cannot let my pockets open for them to be picked out of a sheer sense of generosity and human love. But today I am ready to travel even by a truck or a packed vehicle because I have to reach the school by seven thirty in the morning.

A car pulls up and I walk up to the driver and ask for a lift. He is willing to take me for ten rupees. But he needed more passengers. Some at the wayside are ready for the ride but they haggle with him for a lesser rate. He is adamant. I look at the faces of the people. Many of them seem to have spent the night there itself. Their clothes are dirty and sleep still hangs over their eyes. Soon the car is packed and the driver is happy. He is going to make eighty rupees extra today. This is how many drivers make some extra money even if they are the drivers of private vehicles. Given a chance, they pick up people from the wayside and make some money. They do not feel remorse because they know that they also need to survive. At the face of survival ethics often does not work. I get down at the gate of the school. Other parents and kids are already there. Many of them are just getting out of their cars. Happy families come in different kinds of cars. The security man stops me at the gate. He has seen me coming out of a ‘shared’ car. He asks me where I was going. He too believes in hierarchy. For him the parent/s of a student in that school cannot come for the PTM by a shared vehicle. They should come in their own cars. His suspicion is genuine because he measures me up with his own devices. Recently I went to a shop to buy rice. I was wearing a saffron kurta. The shop owner patronizingly asked me, “What do you want, Baba?” He took me for a mendicant. I did not judge him because had measured me up with the devices of experience he had.

After the PTM, I come out of the school wondering how I would travel back the same six kilometres with no ‘shared’ vehicles seen on the road. The complexion of the traffic has changed. Now the road has more private cars with single occupancy. Women and men drive the cars and most of them are on phones. I wait there for a few minutes hoping that a driver-survivor would appear before me from nowhere. Finally, I decide to walk back. After a few yards, a red Indigo Sedan pulls up by the road. I move further to the side to give space to that car, not out of modesty but out of fear for my life. I look at the car. The man who drives the car looks like a senior executive. White full sleeved shirt and a dignified look. He gestures me from the car as I go near. “Where are you going?” he asks. “I want to go to the main road,” I answer. “Get in,” he says. I get in the car. He obviously is a gentleman in his late fifties. I keep his briefcase on my lap and sit at the front seat. “I think you are not from this area,” he says while driving. “I belong to Kerala but I have been in Delhi for the last 20 years,” I tell him. He looks at me. “What do you do?” he asks. I do not want to tell him that I am an art critic or a curator which, from my experience I have learnt, would bring more questions. So I took the easy route. “I am a journalist,” I say. “I thought so. When I saw you walking I thought you are either a journalist or a professor. And I knew that you ‘happen’ to be here with no conveyance,” he says. He has measured me up with his own devices.

Out of courtesy I ask him what he does. He says that he is an IIT Bombay educated Engineer. He has his own office. This gives me a little confidence to tell him a bit more truth about myself. I tell him that I too am on my own. I used to work with newspapers but I now I spend more time in reading and writing. He is enthused. He insists where I want to be dropped. I tell him not to bother and wherever he wants to go drop me there and I would find a way out. He tells me that he would drop me at Mathura Road. It is the main road that connects Delhi and Haryana that as the name suggests goes to Mathura and then Agra. He drives slowly, perhaps ten kilometres per hour. I realise that he wants to talk. “You should have written some book on the current political developments,” he says. Such books get read a lot these days, he adds. “Yes, I have recently written one book on Arvind Kejriwal,” I tell him. He slows the car further down. “What is your take on him?” he probes. “In the book I treated his political career so far and the situations that brought a person like him out in our political scenario,” I tell him. “Now, what do you think about him?” he asks. I hesitate because I know that is a sort of trap. If he happens to be a Modi supporter he will lecture me down. If he happens to be an Kejriwal supporter he will come up with more stories about him which I have missed out in my book on him and eventually it would make me small in front of this person.

“See, as an IIT-ian I too was a staunch supporter of Kejriwal. But he turned out to be a disaster. He is a Haryana bania. He knows his business. Now he is doing his political business,” he says. I listen. He comes up with his direct and indirect experiences with Kejriwal. He is a disappointed man as he feels that Kejriwal has ditched people like him. “See, if he loses this election, he will not get time to sit for a moment. Hundreds of cases have been already on him and he will spend his rest of his life running between courts. Other politicians will make it happen,” he asserts. I do not ask him which political outfit that he supports now. The car after fifteen minutes (a stretch that could have been covered in seven to eight minutes in normal speed) reaches Mathura Road. He stops the car at the red light. Though he had asked my name the moment I got into the car, I had not done the same. Now before I get down I ask his name. He tells, J.S.Chaoudhary. I ask him whether he is facebook. He says yes, but adds that he is very ‘rare’ out there. I once again thank him and go to my way and he to his.

I do not know how to explain it. I obviously do not want to deem it as a miracle. It could be a chance. A person in a car sees me walking, stops it for me and invites me in. He knows for sure that the particular stretch of the road does not have public conveyance. So he was just showing his humanity. And from my looks- long hair, salt and pepper beard and moustache, gamti walah shirt, black jeans and leather sandals- he might have taken me for someone educated and belongs to the tribe that thought like him. But whatever it is, his is an act of goodness. In a city where people suspect each other and even kill each other for parking spaces these acts of kindness are rare and valuable like a very precious gem. Then, as usual I ask myself whether I deserve such kind of goodness from other people. Then I think that may be some past deeds of mine (in this life only) may be paying me back through this. I remember one incident suddenly.

I was driving back from Old Faridabad with my son. On the way, I saw an old woman standing at the way side. For a moment I looked into her eyes and realized that she needed help. I pulled the car over to the side and walked up to her, and asked whether she needed help. She said yes. She wanted to go to Badarpur Border (Delhi-Haryana border at south east). I asked her to get in the car. In the car, she told me that she was living in North Delhi and every weekend she went to Old Faridabad to attend some religious congregation. She was profusely thanking me for the help. I just smiled. I drove half a kilometre further from where I had to take a turn towards home, to drop her at the border. She came out of the car, folded her hands at me and said, “God, in whose form, have you come before me?” I was embarrassed but she was not. In fact, she was not seeing me in me but her deity who apparently had manifested before her in the form of JohnyML in his car. I told her how to get the bus or metro and drove back to home. May be that incident was paying back to me. Who knows?

But I do not completely believe in that. If you do good you receive good. Yes, that is a scientific thing. The good deeds that you do are a physical force. Once exerted, they are bound to come back to you in another from. It is an energy that cannot be created or destroyed. It exists. So it is bound to come back to you. But what about those people who despite of their good deeds suffer in living hells? Why people, despite their good deeds do not get justice. Why the rick with all their avarice and all other deadly sins get away with their atrocities? So if someone tells me that the deeds of your past life bring you suffering or flourishing in this life, I am not ready to take it. Past life cannot determine the quality of the present life; that would be a cruel justification for poverty, deprivation and disease. What I could say is this much; keep doing good things, as they are the forms of energy its repercussions are bound to come back but always not in the expected forms. People will measure you up, the way you do it to them, but it all depends on the kind of benchmark you have created for yourself. The security man’s understanding about the world is black and white. For him, poor people travel by shared vehicles and the rich come by their cars. The poor should not be let in a big school. If you have long hair and beard, and you are wearing a kurta, the shop keeper will call you baba or the metro security man will frisk you a bit a extra. They have their pre-fixed ideas about life and people. The man in the car who gave me lift had a different benchmark about the people. I am not judging, who is better and who is worse. But goodness is your benchmark; the readiness to see the pain in other’s eyes and help.


PS: A pious man was abused by a rogue opponent. The latter called him all sort of filthy things. But the pious man retorted with most pious words. A witness to the fight wondered at the pious man, “Look man, he called you shit eater and dirt eater, you call him but sweet eater and fruit eater. Why so?” The pious man told the witness, “He abused me with the things that he eats and I abused him with the things that I eat.” 

Friday, April 25, 2014

United Art Fair 2012 Series Part 2: Hunting for a Project Director


The news of an art fair was in the air by the end of 2011. After the success of India Art Summit, which later became India Art Fair, had brought in a lot of hope in the recession hit art market and in many other cities other art players and entrepreneurs were also planning to start other art fairs. In Mumbai, Rajendra Patil, the secretary of the Bombay Art Society and the editor of Contemporary Art Journal, had already gone ahead in establishing India Art Festival. Though it was moderate compared to the scale, visibility and access of India Art Fair, India Art Festival also had made its mark at least creating a mixed buzz in the market. While India Art Fair catered to the well established galleries from India and abroad, its Mumbai counterpart was, though aim for the same, catering to the small galleries and individual artists who could shell out money to participate in the fair. Both the fairs, like all the other fairs take place all over the world, were based on the same concept of space selling. They create a great platform with state of the art infrastructural facilities for showcasing the works of art and galleries could hire space paying a good amount of money to the organizers. India Art Fair had its first three editions at Pragati Maidan, the industrial expo halls, in Delhi and later it moved on to a ground owned by the Small Scale Industries Department, Government of India, near Okhla industrial area. India Art Fair in Mumbai also followed the suit by moving from the Nehru Centre to a ground in the Bandra-Kurla industrial area. While India Art Fair struck gold with this change in location, India Art Festival in Mumbai is reportedly suffered financially by the similar move.

Against this backdrop, the news of having one more art fair was received by the art people by a mixed response. Personally speaking I was not at all interested in the news for the simple reason that I had no connections with art fairs. The only connection I had, if I could say it was a connection per se, was with the India Art Festival in Mumbai where they had invited me as one of the speakers in a seminar. I was by default one of the jury members to adjudge the best artists amongst the fair participants, along with Nanak Ganguly and Seema Kohli, who had helped the fair in instituting a Rs.One lakh worth of price for the best emerging artist. From a huge variety of average works it was difficult to select one artist as the creator of the best works. My mind was on the works of a young artist Sasikant Dhotre, who does his works using colour pencils and crayons on paper in order to create highly finished illusionistic paintings of the rural household women in Kolhapur in Maharashtra. I judged him as the best and the other jury members also did not have any other artist to consider. Dhotre was declared the winner and today, he is one of the highly sought after artist in the parallel art market in Mumbai. The mainstream galleries have not yet shown any interest in his works.


Besides, I had my own reasons to be away from the news of a new art fair in Delhi or rather there were other reasons for me not showing any excitement about it. I was editing the Art and Deal Magazine at that time. Though it was not a fulltime occupation, my mind was all bend on making that magazine better than what it was. The office of the magazine was at Haus Khaz village in South Delhi. Though, Siddharth Tagore, the owner and publisher of the magazine arranged an office room for me inside his Art Konsult gallery, I was not so keen to go there every day. I was mainly operating from Musui Art Foundation, where I have a wonderful studio space and a growing archive of books and research materials. I was extremely happy in that space and I hardly ventured out of that space, except for seeing exhibitions. The second reason was that I had been assisting the senior sculptor, K.S.Radhakrishnan in curating his mega project on Ram Kinkar Baij. Commissioned by the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) the Ram Kinkar Baij Retrospective was a thoroughly researched and well mounted exhibition for which K.S.Radhakrishnan spent almost four years in researching and documenting. It was wonderful working with him and I could learn a lot from travelling with him to the places where Baij’s works were located. We also did a documentary with a group of film and photography enthusiasts in Kolkata. The third reason was a bit more exciting and depressing at the same time. The recession hit Indian art market, as aforementioned was anxiously looking forward to the fourth edition of the India Art Fair and the already announced Kochi-Muziris Biennale.


Kochi-Muziris Biennale, from the very beginning was mired in controversies. The idea was mooted sometime in June 2010 and the funds were given by the state government of Kerala to the organizers of the then proposed Biennale. Some of the artists and activists in Kerala took objection to this transferring of funds citing the lack of transparency. I too was keenly following the developments happening around Kochi-Muziris Biennale and once it was formally declared in Kochi in 2011, Kerala art scene was vertically divided into two; one half supported the Biennale and the other half opposed it. Sitting in Delhi, I preferred to join the opposition. The organizers were my friends and it was painful to go against them. However, I thought that if art could not set an example of transparency what else could do that for the world? Thinking in those lines, I engaged myself in creating a public debate around the proposed Biennale and the concept of Biennale in general. It soon became one of the major controversies in Indian art scene. In the beginning, as the opposition was happening in Kerala and the medium of communication was Malayalam, it was absolutely a Mallu-centric issue and many in other parts of India did not even come to know that there were problems brewing up in the organization of this Biennale. However, once I started articulating the issues in the medium of English, through my blog and facebook, more and more people came to know about it. Crisis is always a best opportunity to recognize the real friends; it was applicable for the Biennale organizers as well as for me. There was a huge polarization in Indian art scene, in which the majority went in support of the Biennale.

For me it was an eye opener. Most of the people thought that my objection to the Biennale came from a sort of rejection. They believed that the organizers did not invite me to be a part of the Biennale so I was hell bent on tarnishing it. Only those people who keenly followed the controversy could understand the nuances of the allegations raised by the opposition. Rest of the people believed that it was the usual case of ‘sour grape.’ The artists’ community behaved really strange at that time. The organizers had not yet declared the possible participants from India. Each one who had made some name in the scene hoped that they would be invited to be a part of the Biennale. Hence, even the closest friends started dissociating with me, thinking that any kind of affiliation with me would have marred their chances of getting represented in the Biennale. But I held my fort intact along with a few real activists in Kerala. It was winter 2011. The studio used to be really cold. After posting each blog against biennale, after commenting and replying each abusive comment that I got in facebook publicly, I used to sit alone and literally shiver out of dread and out of the enormity of hatred that people had developed for me. I should say that I recognized my real friends then. They stood with me even if it was not so much in open. In the meanwhile, I received a Rs.250 Crore defamation slapped on me by one of the Biennale organisers. I was almost mentally preparing myself to go behind bars.

How could I have thought of a new art fair at that time? I had not even thought of it. My mind was preoccupied with the Biennale controversy, Ram Kinkar Baij Retrospective and Art and Deal magazine editing, really in that order. There were pressures on the people who had accommodated me in various capacities in certain places to remove me and divest me of all chances in the art field. However, they stood with me and they were my real anchors at that time. Even if I had not taken any interest in the new art fair, even if I did not enquire who were behind it and what was its name, as an art person news travel unto you whether you want it or not. In February 2012 on the day Ram Kinkar Baij Restropsective opened at the NGMA in Delhi, as I was hanging out there in the gallery, obviously with a sense of elation for having assisted KSR in such a mega project, an acquaintance from the art scene approached me with another man and told me that he would like to introduce the other man to me. We were introduced each other and this person whom I knew told me that the other man was the ‘person’ behind the new art fair. I looked at him and searched my memory whether I had seen him anywhere in the art scene. I could not locate him. His name was Annurag Sharma and he told me that he would change the art scene in India. May be he wanted to meet me again.


I was not new to such situations. Over the last twenty years in my active career as an art critic and curator, so many people with fat purses and good business background have come to me with magnificent ideas. This had become a regular feature especially during the boom years. They all wanted to make a ‘difference’ to the art scene India. They all wanted to ‘promote’ young artists. They all wanted to set up feasible parallel systems to the existing gallery practice. Their intentions, as I understood, were good. But the motive, as I realized equally, was to make quick money. While most of them knew that any business needed time to turn investment into profit, only when they came to the art scene, they thought that they could make quick money over night. Even several galleries sprang up during the boom years with the same idea in mind only to be closed by the time market boom took a bad bashing. I did not count Annurag Sharma, on my first introduction, much different than the usual lot that used to come to me seeking advice and support. My experience was so interesting with such people that I could not have taken even Annurag Sharma seriously. I smiled at him and went ahead with that evening’s business.

The controversy around Biennale did not die out and I was getting really disappointed by the art community. Hence in March 2012 I declared in facebook that I would not express my opinion about the proposed Biennale any more in public as the art community, instead of entering into a healthy debate, indulged in mudslinging and name calling. It was so depressing to see your name tarnished and abused every morning in facebook. In Delhi the cold days continued. It was when I got a call from the Chandigarh Lalit Kala Akademy Chairman, Diwan Manna, inviting me to be a part of one seminar organized by the academy. The theme was ‘landscape’. I was happy to accept the invitation because I wanted a break from the ongoing controversy. The program was supposed to be by the end of April 2012 and I readily agreed. In one of those days, while I was preparing for the seminar and researching the aspect of landscape in Indian contemporary art, I received a call, again from the same art scene acquaintance who had introduced me to Annurag Sharma on the opening day of Ram Kinkar Baij Retrospective. I had even forgotten that chance meeting. Now what he wanted was a formal meeting between Annurag Sharma and myself. I thought of it and agreed but I was reluctant to call them to the Musui Art Foundation. Instead I decided to meet them outside.


The meeting took place sometime in late April 2012 at the Cafe Coffee Day in New Friends Colony, Delhi. I chose this place for meeting because since 2009 I was making all my meetings in that coffee shop. In 2009, my studio, kindly arranged for me by KSR and Badal ji, a senior Bengali theatre activist, at Chittaranjan was demolished for redevelopment. I was sitting at home for almost two years as there was no place to go. Hence I fixed up all my meetings at this Cafe Coffee Day. On that day my acquaintance and Annurag Sharma reached the place sharp on time. For the first time I saw my acquaintance behaving like a secretary to Annurag Sharma. This young man whom I knew took out a note pad and pen and kept on the table and then ordered coffee. Annurag Sharma came to the point directly. He wanted me to be on board in whatever capacity. The art fair that he was going to organize was called ‘United Art Fair.’ I laughed. He was puzzled. I asked him whether he was meeting the right person or not. He looked at me curiously with his big eyes from behind the glasses. I told him clearly that I did not have any prior experience in organizing mega projects. Moreover I was a very bad at selling things. I could produce a wonderful show and I always believed that selling should be done by someone who was good at client relations. Galleries were doing it efficiently. I had more than enough opportunities to develop my marketing skills. Over a period of twenty years, as many did, I could have engaged in selling activities and worked on commission basis. But I have never yielded to the allure of that kind of money. It is not because that I hate money or I do not like making money. But I strongly feel that if you critically write about an artist and then try to take commission from arranging certain sales, it is absolutely wrong. I had done a lot of sales during the initial years of the market boom. But I have given the whole money to the artist, whether you believe it or not. Even now desperate artists call me to sell their works and take my commission. I do not practice it.

“This is also my first art fair,” Annurag Sharma told me. He was countering me with my own argument. I was sceptical about the proposal so I asked him when it was going to take place. He said 27th September 2012. I was shocked and I did not know how they were going to do it five month’s time. “We have done the basic works, so you just need to take over it and continue,” he assured. I played with the spoon in the cup and looked him. He just got up and walked out. I turned my attention to the young man who had brought him to me. I asked him whether this Annurag Sharma was serious at all about this fair. He told me that he was serious and he was ready to put in any kind of money. But only thing he lacked was the right person at its helms. Why couldn’t he find another person in the market? I queried. The young man smiled. I knew that great organizers and great marketing personalities were there in the art scene and if he had money he could have hired anybody. Why me? Annurag Sharma came back. I had seen him standing there and smoking, through the glass wall of the shop. His body language showed a bit of impatience. He seemed to want my answer then and there, and also he was not going to take a NO from me. Did you think about it, he asked. I smiled at him again. I told him that I was going to Chandigarh for three days and once I am back I would give him an answer. He said he was positive about me in joining him. I did not give any answer but I told him that we would meet again at the Musui Foundation once I was back from Chandigarh. The meeting was over. They left. I came out and my mind was not divided. I focused on the theme, ‘landscape in Indian contemporary art’ and in a few days time I was in Chandigarh. I had forgotten Annurag Sharma and the United Art Fair. 

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The History of United Art Fair 2012: A Preamble

(JohnyML and Annurag Sharma in 2012)

27-30th September 2012. May be most of us have forgotten these dates. These were the days when young artists from all over India travelled to Delhi, many of them to participate and many others to see, cheer and be a part of that euphoric event, which had created a landmark in India’s contemporary art map. This event was called ‘United Art Fair’. Started by Annurag Sharma, Director of the United Art Logistics Private Limited, a Delhi based packing and moving company that specializes in handling art works, I was the Project Director of this mega event. Newspapers and the visual media hailed it as an unprecedented event. They were surprised at the kind of footfall that Pragati Maidan, the Industrial Expo venue of Delhi, received during the four days of the art fair. Galleries took a wait and watch stance and majority of them were sceptical about it. There were covert moves to thwart it from the very beginning as it could pose a challenge to the vested business interests in art marketing. They felt, it was reported openly and secretly, that the United Art Fair did behave like a huge temporary gallery, which put the artists directly to the buyers and collectors. They also feared that such efforts could minimize the role of the middlemen, an assumed position of the galleries today, therefore they wished all ‘failures’ to the United Art Fair 2012. Annurag Sharma and myself had taken all efforts to reach out to the galleries telling them that we were against the existing market system and we posed no challenge to anybody. On the contrary we invited them to be a part of the whole project by picking up and supporting at least some artists who were featured the first edition of the United Art Fair. Though I had made some declarations beaming with self confidence that I could help the artists to cross a desert without the help of a camel (more about it in the coming chapters), my intention was to create a bridge between the artists who were not represented by the galleries and the mainstream galleries. I conceived the UAF 2012 not only as an one point shopping plaza for a variety of art works but also as a pick up point for the galleries. But galleries were sceptical about it. But they could not resist once the fair started; most of the galleries came to ‘pay a visit’ and were flabbergasted by the sheer scale of the fair and the huge body of good works. But things went wrong once the first edition of United Art Fair was over. Annurag Sharma ran into a huge financial loss. I walked out of the organization.

It sounds very simple. But the story of the United Art Fair 2012 is very complex. Complex stories always have some dramatic beginning and more histrionics filled endings. Let me start this series on the United Art Fair 2012 with a couple of dramatic scenes.


(Annurag Sharma , Photo. Gireesh GV)

Scene I
Location: The conference room of the United Art Fair office at the Gopinath Market, Delhi Cantonment.
Date: 3rd October 2012.
Purpose of meeting: De-briefing the pros and cons of the United Art Fair 2012.

Till 25th September 2012, this conference room was one of the most active places in any of Delhi’s private institutions. But on that day a pall of gloom loomed large over everybody’s head. Annurag Sharma accompanied by his wife (one of the directors of the United Art Fair 2012) sat in absolute silence which was more frightening for the rest of the team members than comforting. On the opening day itself of the fair complaints were pouring in. Some artists did not find their works at all in display. Most of the people who came for the opening, including the press reporters found the absence of labelling quite baffling. The immediate verdict was this: The fair is good but there is a huge organizational failure. The media that has been supporting the UAF 2012 with half page articles turned around and became bitter critics. One of the online art journalists literally trashed the fair (more about it in the coming chapters). While the participating artists, at least majority of them thought it was a very successful event, the galleries heaved a sigh of relief as it could not make any money. The model that the UAF 2012 forwarded, an artists’ driven art fair, had proven to be a non-feasible model, at least they thought.

The general verdict was reflected on Annurag Sharma’s face too. He bumped out a cigarette from the packet which was lying on the oval shaped table and lit it. I too followed the suit. One could hear the heavy breathing of everyone else. Nervous team members rolled their eyes at each other. Some toyed with their pens and note pads. Some looked deep into their lap top screen wishing that they could disappear into the digital world at that instant never to return to that office again. Finally Annurag Sharma broke the silence.

“I am in complete debt today,” said Sharma, quoting a figure, which ran into crores of rupees. “Somebody has to take the responsibility. Now I want to analyse the situation. According to me, the infrastructural and logistic arrangements were fool proof. And the curatorial part was in a mess,” Annurag Sharma stopped. I waited with my muscles going tight all over. I clenched my fist and controlled my breath. “I want to congratulate Mr.X, who handled the infrastructural part efficiently. And also I want to congratulate Mr.Y, who did the logistics part without any flaw,” he paused. “Now, I want to know why the curatorial team failed miserably.” Annurag Sharma stopped and waited for the concerned person to answer.

The concerned person was JohnyML, myself. I was the Project Director of the UAF 2012. I was the curatorial head. I was not surprised as Annurag Sharma put the blame on my shoulders. I could see a sense of relief spreading across the room. Now at least there was one person to take the whole blame. I looked at my curatorial team. Five young girls (more about them later) looked at me; I could see agitation, disgust and anger in their eyes. A question raised to their team leader was as good as a finger pointed at them and at their integrity, sincerity and devotion to the fair. The girls looked at me expectantly. They wanted me to perform some miracle so that we all could be exonerated from the blame. I cleared my throat and spoke up.

In this brief scenario, I do not want to go into the details of what had transpired between the team members and myself on that fateful day. But the gist of what I said was this: I appreciate the infrastructural facilities created. I congratulate Mr.X for doing it efficiently. But the logistics team was too poor to handle such a grand scale project. They failed to classify the items they had stored well a month before in the storages. They failed in their assessment in delivering the works at the venue on time according to the requirements of the curatorial team.

To prove my point, I showed them the blue print that we had created at the conference room a week before. It had virtually created a full layout plan taking the number of works and their sizes into consideration. But the logistic team had miserably failed in following the blueprint. Mr.Y, who was the head of Annurag Sharma’s United Art Logistics Company with proven work efficiency, with his trademark Samsung Tab got up and said that there was no logistics failure in the United Art Fair 2012. He parroted the boss’ words: The failure was from the curatorial side. Annurag Sharma also did not like the way I put his efficient track record in logistic in the firing line. Mr.Y said, “Logistics never fails.” “Logistics could but curatorial team will never,” I retorted.

By that time I had decided to tender my resignation on the spot. I did not want to prove anything to anybody as I knew well that the whole of Indian art scene knew that it was my leadership with the lovable support given by Annurag Sharma brought an enormous number of artists together on a platform, that too within five months. FIVE MONTHS! But I kept my calm. Anger was raging in my heart. Annurag Sharma once again said that the fair had incurred a huge loss and what the team members were going to do for that. I immediately said that I did not want the salary which was due for that month. And I never took that money. That was the day I walked out of the United Art Fair office. A couple of times again I went back to that office, after the polite requests done by Annurag over telephone. But I found the whole situation suffocating. The people who were joking with me till the last week were now behaving like absolute strangers. Office politics was rampant. And some of them talked in hushed tones the moment I turned around. Enough was enough. In the second week of October 2012 I flew to Ahmedabad for teaching at the National Institute of Design. I suspended my facebook account temporarily. Well wishers were searching for me. Friends residing abroad even started calling me at odd hours just to know whether everything was okay with me. I assured them that everything was fine with me. Yet, everything was not fine with me. I was trying to swallow the blame and was trying to live up to the prestige that I generated by creating a brand, which in its third edition today has been bought by Indian Arts Resurgence Private Ltd.

(JohnyML, photo: Krishan Ahuja)

Scene II

Location: Delhi
Date: Any date after October 2012.
I had already been getting calls from anxious artist friends. They wanted to know whether I was still with the United Art Fair. Hearing my negative answer they were worried about their works. Would they get it back on time? My answer was in affirmative. They will definitely get the works because it was with a logistics company. Even if it had failed in delivering works at the Fair venue, they would return the works to the artists. I had full faith in Annurag Sharma and there were very minimum reasons to hate him. If he was angry on 3rd October 2012 meeting at the office, I could understand, it was all about his pain at losing a lot of money. I called up Annurag and asked him to give the works back to the artists on time. He assured me that he would do so. My team members were still working in the office, most of them waiting to get their due salaries and then leave it forever. For almost five months I was continuously getting calls from the artists who had either not got their works or got the works in damaged condition. I am thankful to all the artists who participated in the UAF 2012 because had it not been their faith in me as a person and art curator and critic, they could have easily manhandled me for cheating them. They could have definitely done it because I have always been a person who goes around without body guards or security arrangements. Artists showed their faith in me.

Rumour mill was on in those days. I was getting calls from Annurag Sharma and another friend who positioned himself as a mediator between us. Annurag Sharma wanted me to be back in the organization. He said that I could continue as the Project Director but Peter Nagy will be there as the Artistic Director. Besides, there will be at least four other curators to do different sections. It was very difficult to eke out the names from Annurag Sharma as he was reluctant to divulge the names. But in Delhi nothing stays in its belly. Soon the names of the curators came out: Peter Nagy (head), Alka Pande, Ram Rahman, Meera Menezes and Mayank Kaul. I said to myself, “Peter Nagy and all these famous and influential curators took so many years to become JohnyML.” It has always been like that in my career. I start something and when the policy of the organization changes I leave it there and walk out. Someone takes my position, ruins it and leaves without leaving a trace or taking any responsibility. But somehow I was happy for the selection of curators because I thought they could prove or disprove me with the UAF 2013 (second edition). If they could pull it off efficiently, then I stand guilty of failing the UAF 2012 through ill-conceived curatorial aims. If not, I could stand holding my head high. Today, I am very proud of myself as I hold my head high especially when I think about the UAF 2013, which was reportedly a curatorial mess, poorly attended and made very minimal business, making Annurag Sharma lose his properties and high end private cars. Was I wrong or are these five curators wrong? By the time you finish reading this series on the UAF, you will have the opportunity to arrive at your own judgements.

One of the rumours went like this: JohnyML is ‘kicked out’ of the UAF organization. And ‘We’ did it. Rumours are supposed to travel at light’s speed. It reached my ears in no time. I knew the person who said it. But I kept quiet because I did not want to talk anything against a brand that I had created with the help of the artists in this country. Moreover, I have been so accustomed to this phrase ‘kicking out’. Many people have said it to me, sometimes as a covert threat, sometimes as a challenge, that they would ‘kick me’ out of the scene. In 2009, eight galleries under the leadership of Shireen Gandhi, the director of Chemould Gallery issued a veto order against me. The crux of the order was this that without their permission I should not curate any shows with artists from their kitty. I should take ‘permission’ from them to do my work. The memo signed by eight gallerists came to me by an email and I gave a very befitting reply to those who sent me the letter. The content of my reply was simple. Go to Hell. But I said it in elaborate terms. Nobody can stop an individual from doing his work in this democratic country. So I took the ‘kicking out’ thing quite sportingly.

The second rumour was in fact not a rumour. It was a fact file in the form of an email. It was not sent to everyone but to some selected people in the art scene. I happen to see one such mail sent to one of my friends in which Ram Rahman, who claims himself to be a crusader of truth, had listed out the ‘wrong’ things done by JohnyML to the UAF. As JohnyML had done such and such things and had brought a huge loss to Annurag Sharma, they have taken over the UAF. I have never seen such a mail filled with cowardice in my life. If Ram Rahman was truthful to his life and career, before he entered the ‘corpse’ of the UAF (killed by JohnyML) like a hyena, he would have taken a minimum professional decency to call me up and ask me the simple question: What exactly, JohnyML, happened in the UAF 2012? Why you decided to leave the organization? Even maid servants before they take up a work in some house cross check with the other maids who had worked there before about the working conditions and behaviour of the mem sahib and sahib too. But that minimum commonsense was lacking in Ram Rahman who today bays for a newspaper journalist’s blood for accidently putting his name in her report regarding the UAF 2014. Ram Rahman did not even care to look at the website of the UAF 2014, in which the director clearly speaks of the five curators who did or undid the UAF 2013.

United Art Fair was not my choice. It was United Art Fair’s choice to have me at its leadership. I was reluctant in the beginning. But once I took the plunge I did it with all my spirit. In the following chapters I would bring the whole history of the UAF 2012 and who all have helped in creating it as a brand. And like in a court I tell you, I say only truth and I will not say anything other than truth in this hi/story.



Tuesday, April 22, 2014

One Who Learnt Art in a Law Court: The Life and Art of Kumar Ranjan

(Kumar Ranjan)

Aaya Nagar is the southern end of Delhi and a few kilometre from there India’s current international trade hub, Gurgaon that falls in Haryana starts. The metro station that takes you to Aaya Nagar is Arjan Garh. Get down at the station, take a left turn and you hit the road that leads to Aaya Nagar. It is still a village dominated by Jat and Gujjar communities. No autos or cycle rickshaws ply on this road because village pay with lathis and fists than with currency notes. A few rickety Maruti Omnis provide the feeder service for the people, the ones who are ready to pay ten rupees. The side lanes are narrow as the villagers do not want their boundary walls to be broken down for widening the roads. Hence, often the traffic stands still on these roads. Local businesses thrive on either side of the road; from chana walla to fruit juice sellers, vegetable vendors to hardware dealers do well here. There is a pervading sense of non-belonging in most of the faces that you see on the roads. The local youngsters zoom past by their motorized mean machines and open jeeps that blare out Punjabi songs. That itself is a signal to keep off not only from the vehicle but also from the occupants in them. Migrants who live there have learnt to live with the reality and they just do not mess around with the locals. Even in this carefully created insular society a sort of multi-culturalism thrives. People from different parts of India have found their dwelling here. Aaya Nagar is a place trapped between the cosmopolitan Delhi and mega-polis Gurgaon. And one may feel that it would remain like that for centuries. Kumar Ranjan, a young artist from Jharkhand lives here.

Kumar Ranjan, for those who regularly visit art openings and discussions, is a familiar face. But all the familiar faces in the art scene are not well known artists. They are familiar because they attend most of the art dos not because they want to be a part of the glitterati and chatterati, but because they feel that they need to make up with what they have lost. They are the people who have been denied opportunities and chances to make it big and they are the people who have been even denied their right to art education in the established academies. Kumar Ranjan, however is not a failure amongst such visible yet invisible artists. He came to Delhi for the first time in 2002 and then came back again in 2008. Now he has chosen to be a Delhi based artist and it is his sixth year in Delhi. Kumar Ranjan is not a failure because he has a good studio in Aaya Nagar, though rented out from a banker couple from Jharkhand. He has made his own house in Faridabad and has put it on rent. He is married and has a nine year old son. He misses his wife and child who are with his parents in village. But he has made it a point to be in Delhi because it was in Delhi he finally found his vocation as an artist. All what he has earned so far is from art and he is proud of it. But all these do not make is story interesting because there are so many artists like him who has migrated to the big cities and become moderately successful. What makes Kumar Ranjan’s story interesting is something else besides his art. It is his story that I am going to recount here.

I like Kumar Ranjan’s art. When I first saw his works in the absence of the artist in one of the galleries in Delhi, I had asked the gallerist about the artist. The naive language and the playfulness of strokes seemed to hide the real angst of an individual that I had felt while seeing his works. I thought he was more like Bhupen Khakkar, who refused to be ‘realist’ because what he knew naturally was not realism. Bhupen could have trained himself to be academically perfect; he could have polished his skills. But his polishing act itself was his works and they were charged with the artist’s world view. I found such sincerity and straightforwardness in Kumar Ranjan’s works. Graphically they were not perfect, they were not figurative and narrative. But the works had it all in an entirely different way. A person with trained eyes could see that. In one of the openings, a few years back, Kumar Ranjan came to say hello to me. Since then I have been seeing him and his works in the galleries and outside the galleries. As I am genuinely interested in those artists who see more than they exhibit, or rather work more than they display, I took a special interest in Kumar Ranjan’s works. Those were confusing at time as they did not show a chronological development. I thought the artist was jumping fences of his own mood. As such there were no influences in his works so I could not have said that he was chasing a dream of success. The more I looked at his works the more I thought I needed to know the artist. Then finally I met him at his studio on a Sunday afternoon.

Hailing from a remote village in Jharkhand where the sonic ambience was that of the birds and animals than those of the horse power engine vehicles, Kumar Ranjan’s only familiarity with art while school was seeing some of the magazine illustration and some reproductions of M.F.Husain. His parents were school teachers and the four boys they had were of different talents. The eldest one aspired to be a writer; but at the age of twenty four he committed suicide. Parents did not interfere in Kumar Ranjan’s life after that incident even when he told them that he wanted to become an artist. A drawing teacher in the Navodaya school where he completed his higher secondary education told him of Santiniketan. So Kumar Ranjan packed his bag and found himself at the Bolpur Railway station. He walked into the Kalabhavan premises, sat for the practical examinations. Now in Kumar Ranjan’s own words, “If I could get the face right, the hands were not happening. If I could get the hands right the head was not happening.” Result was simple; he did not get admission in Santiniketan. The same ritual repeated almost all the major art institutions in India. He applied in Baroda and Delhi College of Art but in vain. He was not just getting it right. “Whenever they asked me to draw human figures, I was drawing some human figure in my mind, like a village artist,” remembers Kumar Ranjan.


Kumar Ranjan’s real art education was done in court premises. You may be surprised to know how it happened. After a series of rejections, he had been informed by one of his friends that Patna College of Art could be the next place to try. He also told Kumar Ranjan that some bribing would make the things possible. Kumar Ranjan was ready to bribe anybody to get into a fine arts college. He did bribe, not the authorities but his friend. His friend forged a signature and made some attempts for admitting Kumar Ranjan in the college. Indian authorities are very diligent when the bribe is siphoned elsewhere. He was caught and the university filed a case against him. Now it was Kumar Ranjan’s responsibility to prove his innocence. To attend the court hearing he started visiting Patna regularly. It was here he came in contact with the local artists and art students. With them he started sketching and painting. He learnt the techniques of mixing colours, making canvases and also finding different qualities of art materials. Interestingly, he was living with the same friend who had got him into the soup. Finally in 2006, Kumar Ranjan was acquitted by the court after finding him innocent. But by that time he had learned the basic skills. In between court hearings, giving test in other colleges, Kumar Ranjan once walked into the Triveni Kala Sangham in Delhi where he was told that they did not teach the beginners but they admitted only those people who had the basic skill. Their job was to prepare them to be professional artists. Loaded with experience and a burning passion to become an artist, Kumar Ranjan finally reached Delhi, this time but with a determination to live in the city.

The earlier works of Kumar Ranjan were done in large jute clothes because he did not know how to prepare a canvas. In his village there was no possibility to get prepared canvases. So the easiest surface available was jute clothes. Patna had taught him about acrylic paints. He collected enough paints and started working. Initially the surfaces were filled with people or people like figures. Then slowly he started emptying out of the surfaces. It became a string and random human figures hung from them. It was then Kumar Ranjan found out that his visual images needed the support of some texts. He wrote some cryptic words on these pictorial surfaces, at times in speech bubbles and other times scattered in the surface. The figures were not having any hagiographic details. As he progressed in his working both in style and use of materials, he started bringing more and more defined figures into his canvases. Once he had shifted to Delhi, art material problem were solved and he started working in proper canvases. In Delhi he found something more, something which would become a defining feature of his works. While strolling along the streets of Delhi, near Mehrauli he found an enamel signage of a bone setter. In India the local wrestlers still double themselves up as physiotherapists and bone specialists. Their advertisement often showed a well muscled man in his underwear with limbs in bandages. Though it is the pahalwan (wrestler) who sets the bone, the signage showed the pahalwan himself as an injured person. Painted by local artists, these advertising enamels exuded a strange naivity verging into comedy. But Kumar Ranjan adopted this figure and also created a female counterpart for him, with more or less the same physical attributes.


In many of his figurative works, Kumar Ranjan portrays the protagonist with a pressure cooker attached either on his body or as an emblem on his clothes. Also he presents them having a torch light in their hands. Pressure cooker, according to Kumar Ranjan, is the emblem of the human emotions. Each human being is a walking pressure cooker, about to release all the pressures welling up in him or her. Torch is emblematic of a search for redemption though the image comes from his childhood memories. As a child he used to use the torch to look into the darkness and also to frighten the other children. When he came to Delhi, this part of his memory also came with him which he started transporting on to his canvases. Besides these figurative semi-narratives, Kumar Ranjan also takes a lot of interest in machine drawings and paintings where he converts the human beings and male-female relationship into certain mechanical devices. Human body gets extended to machinery and these machine parts are intricately connected often giving these drawing some sort of erotic charging.

Male-female relationship also comes to play a very interesting role in Kumar Ranjan’s works. He admits that his depiction of female figures is tinged with some sort of sadism. He also says that he does not see women as objects or he does not have any intention to demean them. But for him, female figure is something really enigmatic and it is his ‘failed’ attempts to understand a woman. “I am enamoured by women’s presence. I am not so keen about their body but I am attracted to their presence. This presence is an enigma. I become absolutely helpless before them. It is my helplessness that comes to appear as cruel treatment of female figures in my canvases,” says Kumar Ranjan. However, in his erotic drawings, which he does not do often but only on rare occasions, he is extremely sensuous and unapologetically open. What intrigues the viewer is his logical identification with gay and lesbian relationship. As many people see it in their lives, it is not a theoretical position for Kumar Ranjan. He says that he used to enjoy male company and has always been curious to know about the girls who like other girls not just as friends but as something more than that. Kumar Ranjan, however says that he is not a gay. But he believes that there could be very sensitive relationship between men as well as women even amongst the heterosexuals. One of my personal favourites in this series is ‘Anita’ where one could see two girls trying to measure up their physical beauty.


Kumar Ranjan has been invited to be a part of Vadehra Gallery’s FICA show and Raqs Media Collective’s Devi Art Foundation show. While he is happy with FICA and its attitude in promoting artists, he is not at all happy with the way Raqs Media conducted their program at Devi. “What Raqs wanted was their own promotion,” Kumar Ranjan does not mince words. He says that FICA participation has done a lot good to him. It was after the FICA show that he started getting invitation from other galleries to participate in group shows. Some of the collectors were very benevolent to him. Kumar Ranjan says that whether there is money or not, his whole aim is to paint; perhaps his life’s mission itself is to paint. “I am not thinking about living in a big house or buying big cars. They are good. But having a studio is important and decent amount of money to live. If I have these two things then I am happy.” He goes to art openings to see how people see art and also to see how he sees art himself. “I want to see myself from another person’s perspective. Galleries and openings give me that space to divide myself into two different personalities. I am often silent and I learn a lot from these occasions.” Kumar Ranjan however is not cynical about these openings. He enjoys these evenings and says that his aborted art education is still on even in these gatherings.

Kumar Ranjan, unlike many artists of his age (mid thirties), does not complaint about anybody. He is not anxious about the returning of art market boom. He does sell his works but never yields to the pressure of the gallerists who ask him to paint in a certain style. “I work two or three themes at once. I flit between ideas and rendering styles. It may appear different but the difference is only superficial. Inside all these works, it is the same spirit working; the spirit of an artist, that is me and my life in Aaya Nagar.”



Sunday, April 20, 2014

Sunday Thoughts: Baby Haldar’s Less Ordinary Life

(Baby Haldar with her books)

Sometimes, when you are in a busy street, quite unexpectedly a family approaches you. There is a man, a woman, a couple of children and some baggage. They ask you whether you speak Hindi or Marathi. Caught unaware you may say yes. Then they tell their story. It is the usual story. They just came from a remote village as they could not live in their village anymore. Poverty has driven them to the city. They do not know anybody here. Could you please help with some money? They point out to the children. The children look at you with their wide eyes. By the time you brain comprehends what has just happened, a sense of disgust comes filling your mind. You feel that this is the same old story. They are the migrant poor, one family amongst many that come to the city from somewhere and join the milling poor in the city. They are just exploiting your goodwill. They do not want to do any work. It is a different form of begging. By the time you reach this conclusion, you have already walked off. Still the faces of the children haunt you for a while. Then you forget that too. You do not have time or mind to think about these people. You don’t want to listen to their stories. Or do they have a story at all? Isn’t it the same as the ones that you have read in the feature stories in the newspapers? Forget them.

They do have stories. As we think, those stories are the same kind of stories; the tales of famine, exploitation, failed crops, growing debts, land grabbing by the corporate houses, loot, rape, natural calamities. The list is too long and you just do not want to listen to that. But these are the people who have just survived the calamities both natural and man-made. They did not commit suicide like many others do. Instead, they have packed up their things and moved to a city, hoping that one day they would make their lives there. Death looms large over their faces and only hope lies in the horizon that still shows the silhouettes of skyscrapers under construction. Tomorrow, if they are lucky here, they are going to disappear behind these buildings. They become a few amongst the many urban poor who too had come to the city the same way, or in a better way. But the result is the same. However, I feel their stories are different. Each struggle looks like the one that has gone before and the one yet to come. But they are different. And each person has a different story that we do not care to listen. You never know the poverty stricken woman who had come to you seeking help a few years back could turn out to be a writer of international repute one day. While you continue with your well paid obscure life, these people rise up from their obscurity and write their lives. Though it is a rare phenomenon, when it happens they hit you right at your guts. The visceral reactions that their recounted lives generate in you cannot be measured using your already felt emotional parameters. Is it of shame, remorse, repentance or disgust?

The story of Baby Haldar, a domestic help who became a writer of international repute with her first autobiographical book, ‘A Life Less Ordinary’, which was initially published in Bangla, then in Hindi and later on translated and published in English by Urvashi Bhutalia of Zubaan Books, reminds you of one of your encounters with the urban poor. Baby Haldar too had come to Delhi/Faridabad like an urban poor looking for a job. She was literally escaping from a violent marriage and uncaring relatives. She wanted to stand up in her life and do something with it. But she had three children by the age of twenty from a ruthless husband. But when she decided to leave, she took the children along and migrated to a strange place, where after a few years of toiling found her place as a domestic help in an old scholar’s house who treated her like his daughter. The rest, as they say, is history. I would like to recount her story here for you.

Baby Haldar was born to a lower middle class family. She was born in Kashmir and later she spent her childhood in Dalhousie. Her father had a job that took him to different places. Finally he brought them to Murshidabad, Kolkata and left the family there. Her mother waited for him endlessly. He had already taken another woman as his wife. One day, taking her youngest son with her and pushing a ten paise coin in the hands of Baby, the mother walked out of the house, never to return. The burden of the family fell on the young Baby. She and her siblings were taken by her father but the step mother was not so kind to them. Though some of the relatives treated the children with kindness, it was not sufficient for the children to grow up. Her father married again. By the time Baby became fourteen years old, they married her off to a twenty four year old man with no particular job. Baby started off her life in a poor shanty but before she could know what the meaning of marriage was, she became pregnant. Domestic violence was a permanent feature. Baby was fiercely independent but she did not know how to exercise her rights. Finally, by the time she got the courage to walk out, she picked up her children and travelled to Faridabad where two brothers lived. By the time her real mother had been brought back but she did not feel anything for that woman, though she wanted to feel.

In Faridabad, she faced a new reality. She was a woman without husband and her sisters-in-law treated her very badly. Finally, she got the job as a domestic help somewhere in Gurgaon. But the woman at the house treated her like a slave. But the dog in that house loved her. When she was about to leave that job and went to collect her things from the servant quarters, the owners did not allow the dog to come out and say bye to her because they feared that the dog would feel bad and it might create a bad effect on it. Baby got a job at an old scholar’s house. He, Mr.Prabodh Kumar was the great grandson of Munshi Premchand, the legendary writer. He found out that Baby spent a lot of time cleaning his bookshelves. He asked her about her education and once he knew that she wanted to learn and write, he encouraged her. To resume reading was really a tough task for her. But she did start reading and later on writing. The pages she wrote were full of her life, its woes and her dreams. The landlord was touched by her story. He sent it to his friends in Kolkata. They too liked it. Finally it started getting serialised in a Bengali magazine. Soon it became a best seller book Bengal. The Hindi edition followed and then the English edition. Now Baby Haldar is an internationally reputed writer and she is currently working on her second book. But she still works as a domestic help in her mentor’s house, whom she considers as her own father or rather the family considers her as their own daughter.


Baby Haldar’s story, the history of her life is very inspiring. It should be inspiring to all those women who think that their lives, despite all the facilities they have is full of pathos and they are absolutely helpless and victimized by the society and the family members. One does not need a proper job or a cushy life to become a writer. If you have the will to live and the guts to face life, and above all if you have the urge to put those experiences in any one of the mediums of expression, you could become a Baby Haldar. We treat domestic helps as wretched women who are forced to do such work. Their woes start from the very roots of their lives. But those who come up for air and breathe it afresh survive not only as human beings but as creative human beings. Baby Haldar is an exceptional woman amongst the domestic helps. But I think that if one is given a paper and pen to any poor person in this world and asked him or her to put down their thoughts without heeding much to the style, they would come up with exceptionally touching autobiographical literature. But writing is one of the cruellest of acts. It needs guts. It takes courage to face the society as a writer who ruthlessly reveals his or her innards in public. Even the poorest of poor however is afraid of the society for no reason. So they do not write or express at all, even if they are asked to. That’s why Baby Haldar is exceptional. She dares to bare and in that baring act, she gives a different dimension to her life not only as a domestic help but also as a creative writer.