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.

No comments: