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.