(Dhwani se Shabd aur Chinh at NGMA, New Delhi, display view)
When I look at the exhibition ‘Dhvani Se Shabd aur Chinh’, with the works of a large number of artists from the Indian South culled out from the collection of the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, my memories go back to an exhibition at the same venue around nineteen years back. The name of the show was ‘Indian Contemporary Art: A Post-Independence View’ and was put together by Delhi’s Vadehra Art Gallery and the NGMA. The occasion was the golden jubilee celebrations of India’s independence. I was shocked to see that there were no works of KCS Panicker who had singlehandedly established an art movement as well as an art village (Neo-Tantric Art and the Cholamandal Artists Village respectively) in this show. I approached the director of the Vadehra Art Gallery, Mr.Arun Vadehra and according to him the absence of Panicker was due to ‘circumstantial factors’. With some amount of journalistic fervour and moral agitation as an art critic hailing from Indian South, I approached the then director of the NGMA (I remember it was Anjali Sen) and asked why KCS Panicker’s works were absent in a historical show like that. They informed that other than giving the gallery space, the NGMA had nothing to do with the exhibition. In my article written in the same year (1998) in the Malayalam Vaarika from the Indian Express Group, I had discussed how the ‘Brahminical’ North wanted to suppress the ‘Dravidian’ South and its modern art history.
(work by Jankiram from the show)
Today, ‘Dhvani se Shabd aur Chinh’, almost after twenty years corrects the historical faults that the NGMA had done during the golden jubilee celebrations of India’s independence. The National Gallery has a vast collection, mostly untouched by the in house as well as invited curators. Somehow during the last sixteen years when Mr.Rajeev Lochan was the Director of the NGMA, all the retrospectives were about the Bengal School. I cannot complain because those retrospectives were mammoth in size and deep in curatorial thoughts and presentation. But it had often raised the question in the minds of many people why there were no other retrospectives than the so called artists accepted by the mainstream modern and contemporary art history of India. Jitish Kallat’s was the last one to happen and we had Subodh Gupta and Anish Kapoor in the previous years. While it is always good to have such exhibitions which are to be ‘block buster’ and ‘chart buster’ shows, in the case of the National Gallery it has been a fact that what used to get burst was the expectation levels of the organisers. During the last sixteen years when Mr.Lochan was in chair the foot fall was bare minimum. But with the new Director General, Adwaita Gadanayak (despite all the ideological burden that he has to carry whether he wants it or not), the National Gallery seems to be on its way to make certain corrections (so far definitely not in the usual BJP way) and of late the ‘aam’ artists in Delhi have started crossing the threshold of the NGMA, which has been an extremely elite and English speaking domain for more than quarter of a century.
The present show has a rich representation of the Indian South artists though the emphasis is on the ‘Madras School’. The presence of the works of KG Subramanyan, A.Ramachandran, Ravinder Reddy and so on have helped to push the boundaries of the Madras School or the Cholamandal aesthetics. At the same time, the in house curatorial attempts fail on this count because they couldn’t cull out many other major artists from Indian South from the NGMA collection. But if we look at the show as a dominant ‘Madras School’ show, then definitely it is an interesting show and a must watch exhibition. The curatorial team of the National Gallery has taken great pains and efforts to create additional structures to define spaces and establish niches and pedestals to raise the works to greater visibility and some sort of divinity. The works of late Nandagopal are displayed with elegance and exclusivity as the innate themes of the works demand. So many works that were functioning almost like garden sculptures in the lawns of the National Gallery are cleaned and brought into the gallery. Imagine, most of works spread in the lawns unattended and uncared for have been the works of the artists from the Indian South. Once they are in the gallery, we get a chance to see them in their art historical context.
(work by Nandagopal)
Some rare paintings of KCS Panicker, Jayapala Panicker, KV Haridasan, AP Santhanraj, P.Gopinath, C.Douglas, J.Sultan Ali, Janakiram, Ramanujam and so on are on display. Each historical exhibition like this tells us that the artists did their best work when there was no market or they were not heavily depending on their works to eke out their living. The very history and philosophy of the Cholamandal Artist Village inform us that the artists were not thinking about making money out of their creative works but from the works that they created in terms of craft but never compromising their aesthetical profundity. Cholamandal thus created a benchmark for the artists and taught them how they could survive when there were no takers for their art; not even the state patronage. But some egalitarian souls were in the advisory boards and purchasing committees of the national cultural establishments and they were instrumental in getting those works collected even when there was no private patronage for them. So today we have a rich collection of the works done by the artists from the Indian South in the establishments like NGMA. The difference is that while the so called Brahminical art historians who led the scene (like Geeta Kapur, Gulam Mohammed Sheikh and so on) tried to suppress these works, the ideological Brahmins find no problem in showcasing them. The shift from Amrita Shergil and Family to KCS Panicker and the Indian South art really shows a paradigmatic shift in the art historical discourse in India.
Till recently V.Viswanathan’s works were not really ‘looked at’ by the Indian art movers and shakers. Then one day he was picked up by the Nature Morte and the Kiran Nadar Museum; then his fate changed. How does this happen? This kind of picking up of artists who are physically frail with failing health for promotion by the art market shows how inhuman their approach is; age and the imminent death of any artist with a considerable period of work/ing history help the auction houses to add yet another vintage artist in their lot. So here is an artist who has worked for more than fifty years, hasn’t enjoyed real success in terms of fame and money, but with a gigantic oeuvre is a treasure mine to be dug into. Now they could create new stories and histories around him/her and give birth to a new golden goose. But Viswanathan’s works done in late 1960s are precious gems and a good number of them are in the collection of the NGMA, which is decently displayed in this exhibition. So are the works of SG Vasudev and P.Gopinath. Unfortunately there is no list of artists or an illustrated catalogue, which is a must for these kinds of historical exhibitions. There is a small take away pamphlet which does not have much to offer. So I am not able to do justice to all the artists either. There are so many sculptors and painters from Indian South in this show who are no longer even mentioned in any kind of modern art history in India. I wish I had all the names for ready reference in my hand. What I could tell you at this juncture is to go and see the show.