Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Contemporary Art is Dead, Long Live Folk and Tribal Art: New Weihe at the Saffron Block

(Hugo Weihe, the New CEO of Saffron Art)

Hugo Weihe, former International Director of Asian Art at Christies recently took over as the CEO of Saffron Art. Good news. But what struck me first was that current international trend that indicates foreigners coming to Indian shores, taking up highly paid jobs, depriving Indian experts of their reputation, opportunity and livelihood at one go. Indians have this perverse satisfaction of keeping the fair skinned foreigners as highly paid servants for the simple reason that they had once subjugated our forefathers as chaprasis and table boys. Okay what if they are paid today in dollars or pounds, after all it is all from an Indian kitty. Foreigners often feign that they come with expertise (as the world has mistaken white skin for excellence, oh dear Lord) and they could hide their shame in openly saying that their countries are facing some economic crunch and there are a lot of downsizing going on in huge firms. This may sound very cynical, especially when coming from me, who has been a stringent critic of Indian contemporary art and its bubbled up market that got burst a few years back for the right reasons.

More than my apparent cynicism what made me glued to this interview of Hugo Weihe, which otherwise I would have neglected for it being yet another piece of bravado, was Weihe’s claim to build the Indian market from the ground up. That’s it, I said to myself. As an Aam Aadmi Party volunteer what I do is exactly the same; start at the ground level and work upwards. Like any other AAP volunteer, I too believe that redemption of India democracy and the establishment of a corruption free society in India starts from the grass root level. Now when I see a foreigner, a white man, saying that Indian art market should be built from the ground up, I sit up and take note. But my democratic elation had a very short life for what I found in the rest of the interview was his ideation around getting Indian antiques up in the market. What’s that, I ask myself. Did he really mean to say what he has just said?

 (Gond Art)

Saffron art is a homemade brand and we should be proud of Minal and Dinesh Wazirani for their efforts in bringing up the prices of Indian contemporary art works through carefully crafted marketing techniques and at times by clear rigging of the market through sophisticated ways. One and half decades old Saffron Art, now has grown into a global brand so that now it could easily invest in Weihe, who had done a lot of things for the Asia section at Christies. It is heartening to see that Weihe really wants to do something for bringing the Indian art market back on track, which had been derailed and left there to rot for the last six years. But I was appalled to see the wordings and the craftiness with which Weihe answered the questions put to him by the reporter. To a question directed to him about his moving from an international brand to a relatively regional branch, Weihe says that he has always been moving towards India as he had put a lot of effort into the Asia section at Christies. I found that it was an answer that has minimum sincerity that too entirely related to a career move.

I have my reasons to suspect Weihe’s claim that he has always been looking at Indian art. He never says that he has been looking at Indian contemporary art. As you read on the interview, you come to know that Weihe is a person who blatantly promotes the idea of grass roots but his grass root has a lot to do with the grass-grass-roots where the works of art from the past flourish rather than the works of the modern and contemporary Indian art. I read the interview with a shock because Weihe does not even address the modern section of Indian art, which in fact has been the main sustenance of the Indian art market during the winter years since the global meltdown. If we go by Weihe’s argument, we are soon to embark on a scenario where there would be no Husains, Razas and Souzas, Gaitondes, Padamsees and Brootas. We are going to face a scenario where modern and contemporary art has no role. That means in the coming days, the market for modern and contemporary art would further collapse. Only one consolation is implied in Weihe’s answers and it is nothing but that Indian modern art market will be free of ‘fakes’ for some time to come. When there is no market for the originals what is the use of producing so many fakes?

 (How to make this an antique piece? A Very Hungry God by Subodh Gupta)

If so, what does Mr.Weihe plan to promote? Reading between the lines as well as right from the lines we could see that Weihe has only praise for the latest infatuation of Saffron Art; the folk, tribal, antique, miniatures, decorative and native art. If you add furniture, the scenario becomes all the more clear. Weihe while keeping a tactful silence over the modern and contemporary art, emphatically says that the future market is for tribal and miniature art. He is all praise for the Indian museums like Prince of Wales Musuem in Mumbai where a lot of antiques and miniatures are presented. He is happy that a lot of school children are visiting these exhibitions. His only worry is that there is stringent law in place regarding the exporting of antiques, national treasures, miniatures and so on. Once you work on the relaxation of it, then things will be smooth for the exporters of ‘Indian’ art. Folk and tribal also find a good space in Weihe’s plan of action. Still the question remains: what is the role of our contemporary artists in such a market scenario? I am not asking Mr.Weihe to answer it but the question should be answered by somebody.

It is quite sad to see that Weihe’s interview is shared and celebrated in the social media mostly by the contemporary artists. Without understanding the content of his interview and the intent of his job, these artists celebrate his arrival at the top of Saffron Art establishment. They hope that this man would alleviate them from the present state, in vain. But there are people, very intelligent people, the movers and shakers of Indian art market who had already seen this coming. It was Mr.Anupam Poddar, who withdrew from actively collecting contemporary art a few years back and started putting his energy behind the folk and tribal art. It is said that Ms.Kiran Nadar also has a good stock of traditional art in India. If you see the way many of the galleries have made their course changing, we could see how most of them shifted to tribal and folk art. How they easily shifted their parlance from cutting edge to folk and tribal. Decorative art and art without author also have become the new fad and also traditional furniture takes a lot of space in the art market today. When Shalini Sawhney started her Guild Gallery in Alibaug, she reserved a good space for folk, traditional, tribal, miniature, decorative arts and traditional furniture. As a market sensitive gallerist, I believe it was the right move she did well in advance. May be people like Shalini have already seen it coming and in its crest Mr.Weihe.

(New indications? A work by Jagannath Panda)

I am not really worried about the Indian art market because the Indian middle class take a lot of time from now to understand art or feel the need to collect art. But their apathy will not stop artists from making contemporary art. As we know contemporary artists cannot make folk and tribal art. Nor can they make furniture. They can become tribal in their attire but they cannot make Gond or Warli art. No one explains why Indian art market should move in this direction. Where will then the contemporary artists go in this scenario? Mr. Weihe says that art events like Kochi Muziris Biennale would bring a lot of difference in the Indian art market but he hastens to add that it would promote tourism. What a joke that is. Does he expect folk and tribal art in the Kochi Muziris Biennale? But KMB is not a trail blazer. It is a follower of the market. Hence, I will not be surprised if I find folk and tribal artists in the forthcoming KMB and also a devoted furniture section. This new interest in folk and tribal art also explains why the doyens of Indian contemporary art market like Peter Nagy, left the scene or divested his shares in the art market. Have some Indian contemporary artists been already advised to change the track and bring in some folk and tribal elements in their works? Now the Indian contemporary art galleries need to explain a lot to their artists before they down the shutters or shift to folk and tribal art. May be they need not answer at all. I know many artists will never ask why because they will wait; if the scenario changes for good, why create enemies? 

Thursday, July 2, 2015

My Tryst with Hair Dyes and Mairu Complex

Those who dye their hair, forgive me, for which I do not hold you in bad light. This piece of writing is to see how my reluctance to dye my hair is seen in public, interpreted and at times judged. I had my own oops moments as far as dyeing of hair is concerned. Once, in Delhi, at the Lalit Kala Akademy premises I was standing with a well known novelist from Kerala whose novels had once ignited our youthful affection for anarchy. Reading his novels, many had left home to the shores of Haridwar and those who were already living in Delhi had attempted to see the life around in a new light. The power of his writing was so infectious that we all used to think us as souls having wings of dragonflies and body of French ghosts.

There at the Akademy, he was standing before me, against the sun and its weak rays were passing through his mop. I found a violent tint in his semi dark hair which had once set the hairstyle trend of Mallu rebels inclined to consuming anything that was a contraband, including literature and drugs. Foolish I was and naïve to the ways of the world, I blurted out a question that in the coming days would give me goose pimples of embarrassment. I asked him in all my innocence, why his hair was violent. For a moment he was startled and his human reflex took his right hand over his head to see whether everything was right over there. I repeated the question and he smiled as if he knew what I was asking. He must have obviously taken it for my arrogance and impudence but being a soft spoken person he answered me something through a wry smile. Later in the evening, someone informed me that the hair color was caused by the fading hair dye. Sense dawned upon me at that dusk but it was too late. The novelist had vanished and I wanted to apologize to him.

(Malayalam actor Mohanlal, 56 years old)

The story of hair dyes starts at home. It was long back when my father was around the same age as I am today. He had a thick moustache and fast receding hair line. His mop was dark and moustache white. It was a daily ritual for him to blacken his moustache with an eyebrow liner pencil. Standing before a mirror, he did this ritual religiously to his satisfaction. This transformation of a white moustache into black was an interesting metamorphosis and generally we children take our parents’ transformations quite naturally. The only hair dye that I used to know then was having the same brand name as the almirah we had. I saw that in many other products including the refrigerator, an enviable luxury that always one of the rich families possessed in the village. We used to go to these houses to collect ice cubes and those household people generously distributed ice cubes to such curious school kids. I think it is the only brand still holding the attention of the consumers when it comes to hair dyes.

My father lost patience with his moustache and life as a whole and departed when I was hardly fifteen. Ever since my contacts with the grown up men were deliberately kept in minimum and those intimate friendships that I had with those elder men made me believe that men had black moustaches and black hair. My knowledge of hair dyes was limited to the eyebrow pencils. Then slowly I grew up. I was concerned about my falling hair when I was in my late teens. Each time, when I saw a few strands of hair stuck on to the oil stained towel, my heart sank to the unfathomable depths and from there looking up I could see only a noose hanging from the roof. I knew that hair fall could cause suicidal tendencies in men than pimples do to young girls in their teens and later. Then as the thoughts of revolution and love overpowered me in due course of time my obsession with hair, hair falling and hair colors was kept on the back burner only to simmer up and down in some lonely moments when you existentially entered in the twilight zones between a frivolous life and a future life with an assumed mission. Hair was one of the deciding factors in those moments. A philosophical blurting out of the word ‘mairu’ (literally meaning a strand of hair but gloriously said as an expletive in Malayalam) helped in easing out things and you once again became a normal human being who wrote poems and love letters for imaginary girls.

Today, when I go out to meet people as a part of my party work, some of the people whom I meet recognize me and exclaim how I have grown old. As my partner says, age is a number. But it is not necessary that people know that maxim and measure up others by that scale. They count the age not in numbers but by the change in the color of your facial hair. It looks like they feel a secret satisfaction when they see me with a lot of white hair. To my surprise I see most of them with dark and thick hair. If something has changed in them it is just their coarseness caused by village life (despite the riches they have already amassed) and the horizontal expansion of their body mass. Those who do not recognize me, often young women and men, call me uncle and I look around to see whether it is aimed at me or not. One of my fellow party workers has a full white beard and mop and another one whose age is sixty plus, has thick shiny black hair on his head and a beautifully crafted and painted moustache above his lips. It is not fair to call him uncle as an eligible guy like me stands right in front of them.

I was the happiest man when I noticed my first white hair. The perennial need to grow up and gain respectability in the field of art and journalism must have been the reasons for seeing some white hairs in my head and moustache. The first one I noticed was on a Holi Day in Delhi. The exact year was 1998. I was 29 years old then. While I was closely inspecting my hair after a colorful festival, I chanced upon one single strand of hair that had gone white. My happiness knew no boundaries. One of my artist friends was with me and I proudly declared my coming of age. He smiled at me. The white one was there above my left ear and I immediately looked for a similar on above the right ear. Being an art critic and historian, symmetry was a perpetual concern. Upon seeing one there too I heaved a sigh of relief. That was my first tryst with white hairs. Then it grew rapidly and they say stress causes a lot of hair loss and color loss. That cannot be really true. People who are having really stressful lives sport good hair. And people with no stress go really bald all over. It could be genetic and chemically induced. Whatever be the case, white turning of my hair had given me a great reason to celebrate. My moustache turned white in a funny way that friends started calling me a ‘seal’; that sea animal which has got some white hair hanging over its mouth. Today I believe my hair has gone white evenly.

I do not use any dye. I love my white hair. Some people say white hair is very sexy. It is not just white hair that turns them on; it is real salt and pepper, the right mix of black and white. I do not believe so. There could be people having turn ons on white hair, black hair, no hair, sparse hair and so on. The world has different tastes. But somehow people today have started believing in black hair. They all have attached their health and wealth with black and thick hair and facial hair. Thanks to improved life style and chemically supported life patterns people look younger than the previous generations. Sixty is the new forty, they say. It is true to an extent as we see all fifty plus men romancing twenty something lasses in popular films. Men do not age these days as they too are addicted to youth enhancing products. Women also do not age these days as they depend too much on the same. Healthy life styles and conscious image building keep many people perpetually young. Well known film stars who have gone old by the age of forty do not look bald a day. They all have used expensive technology to grow their hair back and black. Baldness and white hair have become a thing of past. And if someone insists on these two, either they must be idealists or misers. Only problem with artificial hair is that you cannot have hair raising experiences as they do not respond to emotions; they respond to caring. Having artificial hair must be like having sex with a sex toy; it gives a similar effect but no feel; something similar to the experience of a dog  tearing off a pillow, in absolute concentration and joy.

Of late many have started addressing me the way they address an elderly person, which often surprises me as my body image is different in my mind. I think I am still young looking and the mind has not yet absorbed the body image I have at present. Surprise gives way to acceptance the way tragedy composes a person into the tune of calmness. Recently, while I was travelling by a bus and was looking at the whatsapp messages, a school boy passed by to the next seat was heard exclaiming that this uncle is also using whatsapp. I wanted to retort but I smiled into my phone. The other day I was standing in front of a restaurant and was taking a selfie. I heard some girls and boys and giggling and saying, ‘Uncle, super’. It is still an ageist and sexist world. But it’s okay. The only satisfaction that I have in the world of hair dyes and wigs is this: At least I am truthful to my mairu.