Tuesday, September 30, 2008
Laxmi Nagar: The Cradle of Contemporary Art
I meet Parivartan Mohanty and Raj Mohanty, two young artists from Orissa, now settled in Delhi, at Sanskriti Kendra, Anandgram, New Delhi, where Ranbir Kaleka is shooting his latest video project. Parivartan and Raj are there to assist Ranbir. I know these artists for the last few years and have been following their works diligently. Raj makes small scale collages with found objects and mundane materials and he has a very strong sense of drawing. Parivartan is more aggressive in his works. His watercolors emanate a very special sexual energy and he profusely uses sexual imageries in his works. The sado-masochist tendency of our contemporary times is reflected in Parivartan’s works. Of late, both these artists are interested in doing videos and they are in the right place as Ranbir could give them tips on video making. I have not yet seen Raj’s videos though I could see three small pieces by Parivartan. He has got this irreverence for the existing aesthetic philosophies. And his blasphemous imageries need some kind of pruning and refinement. They would make it, I am sure.
These young gentlemen (they are gentle despite the aggressive nature of their works, which I like) live and work in Laxmi Nagar in East Delhi. Laxmi Nagar, for me is a general name for the places including Patparganj, Mother Diary, Karkardooma, Bharti Artist’s Colony and so on. This Laxmi Nagar has got a lot to do with the making of Indian contemporary art. From Connaught Place, Barakhamba Road (13th September 2008 Bomb Blast fame) leads to the major traffic intersection called ITO. Go straight, you reach Old Delhi, where Purana Quila is located. Take a right from the ITO junction, you get into Vikas Marg that leads to East Delhi. Vikas Marg starts with a long bridge that runs across Yamuna River and the road runs through the alluvial delta, and you find Laxmi Nagar where the recovered land ends.
During the 80s and 90s, Laxmi Nagar was a lower middle class colony, from where lower division workers came to the main city by their bicycles. Now with the arrival of Akshardham Temple, Metro (tube train) connectivity and the forthcoming Common Wealth Games (2010 AD), the feature of Laxmi Nagar has changed. Property values have been shooting up in the last few years, though it is one of the places closer to the city where one could find cheaper accommodation. When, Laxmi Nagar still was a lower middle class/working class colony the story was different. If you are an East Delhi (read Laxmi Nagar) resident, then none would any damn to you. Before the arrival of mobile phone networks, MTNL telephone numbers were the markers of your residential status. If the number started with ‘2’ you were done; you belong to the ‘god forsaken’ East. If it started with ‘6’ you were respected for you belonged to the ‘rich’ South. When mobile phones came and incoming calls were too chargeable, none used to pick up calls from East Delhi for those who had mobile phones then did not have anything to do with the East Delhi people.
If you are ‘Hindi speaking’ thereby ‘desi’ you call Laxmi Nagar/East Delhi, ‘Jamuna Paar’. If you are ‘English Speaking’ therefore ‘elite’ you call it ‘Trans-Yamuna’. There was a clear cut economic division even during those old days. ‘Trans-Yamuna’ people were basically journalists and business class who lived in ‘Samachar side’ (named after the Samachar Apartment where the journalists mainly lived/live). You can imagine who lived in Jamuna Paar. Interestingly, most of the migrant artists too preferred to live in Laxmi Nagar side. Laxmi Nagar could be the Moline Rouge and Monte Parnasse of Delhi. Laxmi Nagar could offer them cheap living facilities, cheap drinks, cheap vegetables, kerosene for stove (in New Delhi where would you find Kerosene for your stove?) and above all proximity with the city. Some pivotal works of Indian contemporary art took shape in the one room/ two room accommodations of this dingy place.
When I see Parivartan and Raj, I remember Gigi Scaria and Josh PS. They too started their Delhi life in Laxmi Nagar. They used to do a lot of odd jobs including painting greetings cards for some agency in Daryaganj, Old Delhi. The day they got some money, I saw their heads wafting through the milling crowds of the main street of Laxmi Nagar. On that particular day of their payment, they preferred to travel by cycle rickshaw enjoying a bowl of gulab jamun. Noted contemporary sculptor N.N.Rimzon too started his career in Laxmi Nagar. His pivotal works like ‘Man with Tools’, ‘Yellow Psalms’ and so on were made in a small two room house, where one of the rooms served as a studio and the other room doubled up as his drawing room-library-bedroom. Rimzon’s daughter too was born in this shabby little home. (Today Rimzon owns a huge studio, a former Biscuit factory in Trivandrum, Kerala).
Sumedh Rajendran, internationally known sculptor, came to Delhi as a student and he found his first home in Laxmi Nagar. With chiseled features, this handsome boy was given special care by his landlady for she nurtured the thoughts of getting her daughter married with Sumedh once he finished his studies! Artists couple Abhimanue VG and Merlin Abhimanue also were living in Laxmi Nagar before they shifted to their own house in Aya Nagar. Sculptors life Jyothilal and Sabu Joseph too were living in the same location.
Subodh Gupta, the wonder man who is the flag bearer of Indian contemporary art in International forums, came to Delhi as a migrant and found a cheap accommodation in the Patparganj-Mother Dairy area. His interventions in the art scene started from this East Delhi location along with Bharti Kher, Sanjeev Sinha and Sambhavi. Manjunath Kamath, after his education in Delhi College of Art, found out a place in Patparganj side and started working as a graphic artist for newspapers. He did his first solo show at Sridharani Gallery, working from this one room accommodation. Sujith, Prakash Babu, Aji V.N, V.P.Balakrishnan, Kiran Subbaiah and many others have spent their sojourns in Laxmi Nagar. Later artists like Pratul Dash, Tapan Dash, Sindhu RV and Rishi came and settled in this area before they shifted to their own residents elsewhere.
As a migrant art critic I too started my life in Laxmi Nagar, in a one room second floor apartment. Laxmi Nagar united all of us as we spent our leisure time together, cooking and sharing food, drinks and stories. None of us had basic facilities for a decent living. During the scorching summers, we slept on wet clothes or if it was a breezy night, on the terrace with the silhouettes of strangers lying huddled around. Every artist must be remembering their first fans, first coolers, first gas stoves, first tape recorders, first black and white portable television sets that they bought after saving money for so many months of parsimonious living. Now, when they switch on their air conditioners, they must be remembering the ‘good hot days’ that they spent in Laxmi Nagar.
For me, like many others Laxmi Nagar was the university of life. We all spent endless hours in the Lalit Kala Akademy library, reading, seeing international art. In the evenings we gathered in the cheapest canteen available in Delhi (LKA canteen) and drank several cups of tea, discussing shows, works of art and criticizing those artists who were ‘selling’ their works. We were not ‘commercial’ then. We all wanted to alternative art and we did not think that alternative art would become mainstream one day and bring a lot of money. Then we went to exhibition openings without invitations, and saw how the ‘elite’ grab free wine and bites by standing guard at the kitchen entrance. Stewards did not offer us wine as none of us looked ‘invited’. But we enjoyed the camaraderie of our ‘have not’ status. We learned a lot of lessons on party etiquette including cheek to cheek kiss, which we put to use these days. We have learned how to smell wine first and take sip then and smack the lips and say ‘its great’. We learned how to say toast and also we learned to smile while crying inside. We learned how to hug each other without crumpling ironed designer wears, as our rich ‘familiars’ embraced us from a distance. We learned to flirt and impress others and all these learned like Ekalavyas.
Laxmi Nagar still hosts artists like Parivartan and Raj. Laxmi Nagar must be giving them a lot of lessons to them also. Those who have moved out of Laxmi Nagar perhaps would never have felt like visiting those places again. If at all we now visit, that must be for doing a piece of video art.
Monday, September 29, 2008
The Bearable Slowness of (art) History
Have you noticed the unbearable fastness of contemporary history? I am not talking about the general history; but the contemporary history of art as you and me are involved in the making of it. Artists, events and works of art are caught into the storm of a dizzying pace that takes everything forward. In contemporary history, there is no slow down button, there is no reverse key, here we have only the ‘play’ button which often plays things in ‘fast forward’. There is a fatal irreversibility about art and artistic events, in a sense this irreversibility reflects the true nature of history. We see artists and their works traveling all over the world, art events taking place before our eyes, narratives and myths made out around the life and works of the artists and soon we realize that there are several layers that make this contemporary history a bit intangible. Things fall over each other, overlapping the sense of time and space and leave us in a ‘high’. Contemporary art historical awareness is something akin to the feeling of being in a discotheque at night. You are aware of everything happening around, the music, the lights, the drinks, friends and strangers jiving to the music, talks, whisperings, embraces, hot kisses, groping at corridors, quick making outs in lavatories, the dread of vomit at the washbasin mirror. You become too familiar to your own self in a discotheque and this familiarity makes you to hate yourself.
For me art history, which I understand through books, internet, reproductions of works, museums, old catalogues, biographies, movies etc, is all about a slow paced time and space. I see artists, works of art, events, not so important details of the individual lives of the artists floating in a space, which could be touched, felt and perhaps rearranged to our purpose of understanding. Unlike contemporary art history, de-layering is possible in the remote art history, not because we are away from the time and space of its actual occurrence, not because we have methodological and scientific tools to interpret the events, but because history allows the interventions of imagination in a personal level, which could enter the layers and create a narrative, a very intimate one with the very history itself.
I think about Cezanne, the master artist of 19th century France who gave scientific explanations to the impressionists, post-impressionists and even to the cubists. Cezanne speaks of forms and colours and he imagines a still life as a composition of basic geometrical forms. I look at the ‘apples’ of Cezanne and the hills that he has painted and I try to discern cubes, triangles and squares in those works. Yes, I can see them or at least I believe I can see them. I never imagine Cezanne as a young man. When I read his history, despite the photographs, I imagine him as an old man (some one like Himmat Shah but different in nature and articulation) sitting in a huge chair and speaking to you in a very grave voice. Same is the case with Matisse. I see him as a patriarch with his losing eye sight, cutting colour papers into various shapes and making collages. I can see Matisse and Benode Behari Mukherjee sitting in the same room and sharing their ideas about art, sipping hot tea or a shot of whiskey, with the music of Ray Charles and Steve Wonder playing alternatively in the background.
Why France? Just look at that old sketch by Abanindranath Tagore (Please tell me if this sketch is by someone else). All three Tagores (Abanindranath, Rabindranath and Gaganedranath) are seen doing their respective saintly activities, while art historian and scholar Anand Koomaraswamy is seeing something seriously. Other intellectuals of the time are also portrayed here. It is a galaxy of creative minds, towering intellectuals and transcended human beings. The setting is the front veranda of the Jorasanko home of Tagores. Do they always sit like that, together, contemplating, minding their own business, occasionally getting into a chat that too not about ordinary things, only philosophy and aesthetics? May be not. But I can enter in this piece of art and be there, gaze at them, listen to them. My deadlines, the speed of my life etc don’t affect me at all. In history one can liberate oneself from the clutches of the flux of contemporary-ness.
The images from history, not the narratives alone, too make us think about history as a slow paced thing and offer us space for imaginative entries. I remember a group photo of the Bombay Progressive, taken sometime in 1947. F.N.Souza, M.F.Hussain, S.H.Raza, Ara, Bakre and Gade are the people seen in the picture. These are the people who created so much of furor in the Indian art scene in the 40s and 50s. But in this photograph they look so calm and cool, perhaps their eyes carry the fire of angst and rebel, and their postures show their hopes of survival. A 2002 photograph also comes to my mind. This is taken in somewhere at Nariman Point in Mumbai. It is a photograph taken for the advertisement (and also to mark the occasion of being together) of the ‘Bombay Boys’ show curated by Bose Krishnamachari. Artists namely Bose Krishnamachari, Jyothi Basu, Riyas Komu, T.V.Santhosh, Sudarshan Shetty, Sunil Padwal, Sunil Gawde, Baiju Parthan and so on are seen in various poses. They are all very conscious about their impending future and they exude confidence in this picture. You feel like talking to them there sitting on the side walls of Nariman Point where youngsters in love spend their time clutching each other as if it was the last day in their life and the sea down there represented their objecting families.
Picasso was one of the ‘jet setting’ kinds of artists of the 20th century. But I can walk with Picasso in history and talk to him because in history he does not look so busy. Through the pictures and other narratives I can see his activities, find reasons for his tantrums and whenever I am offended by his character I can turn to his girl friends for solace. In Francoise Gilot’s famous book ‘Life with Picasso’ (which was later made into a movie with Anthony Hopkins playing the title role), she narrates how Picasso used to enjoy his girl friends fighting for their rights on the artist, very much in his studio, while he works unperturbed by all what is happening around. I can just be there and see this fight and later on see how Picasso etching his ceramics with the bones of the fish which he has just eaten. Later I can fly with him to Madrid, walk along the streets with a jubilant crowd cheering him from the sidewalks, and go to watch a bullfight in progress.
What about our contemporary artists and their history? A 2002 photograph of the Bombay Boys tells us how we could re-interpret things in history because we have our license to imagine. Contemporary history is a flux, it is not settled, the narratives are not sediment-ed, none is able to catch the true spirit of the immediate history. It is all about speed. But I am sure after a few years, things would start settling down, we will then look at several artists of our times with a different eye because their lives become detached from the immediate events where they hold the power to control it. In history people lose their power to control their destinies- it is the reader who controls their destinies. Look at the most colorful artist of history, Andy Warhol looks meek and controlled in the annals of history, or even in the reels of films. Jean Michael Basquiat looks quite heroic in history and the flux of his struggles have been erased or glorified. But we are left with out own devices to interpret them.
I look around, see the artists, friends, their works, and their histories so far. May be I cannot discern their stories from actual histories, though I can distinguish their art from their lives. I am like that person who went out to look for a rare flower, which is said to cover up a whole area during the spring. I walk and look at each flower for its rarity but in vain. My walk takes me to the top of a hill and I think that I would find the flower there at the peak. But I cannot see it. Then I just look down….yes it is there the whole valley is filled with those rare flowers, it looks like a carpet of flower. It was the same flowers that I left behind while searching for the rare ones. I missed them then…but from this distance, from this detached viewing and from this advantageous position, I can see them now and I can imaginatively flow into them, above them, across them and if need be just neglect them and look at the clouds above my head.
Sunday, September 28, 2008
I visualize Hyderabad through the works of two young artists namely Om Soorya and Sujith SN. Perhaps, these are the two artists who brought attention to the Hyderabad art scene. Even before them, C.K.Rajan, a former Radical Group Member and a participant in the prestigious Documenta had settled in Hyderabad by the early 90s. But then there was no worth reckoning art scene in that city. Rajan’s decision to settle in Hyderabad was sheer issue of survival. He was teaching there in the Hyderabad University and was doing his works silently. In late 90s he exhibited the works in a solo exhibition titled ‘Mild Terrors’ at the Siddharth Hall, Max Mueller Bhavan, New Delhi. His image collages were really looking futuristic therefore out of place in a scene which was dominated by paintings, paintings and more paintings. Except for a few friends like us none had noticed Rajan’s work then. I believe Bose Krishnamachari included him in his famous ‘Double-Enders’. In 2005, I curated him in one of my group shows titled ‘High Fly My Beloved Birds’, conceived as a tribute to the departed sculptor and friend Asokan Poduval. Later Documenta and ‘Spy’ happened in Rajan’s life. Now he is a famous Hyderabad based artist.
Hyderabad is still not a lucrative place compared to Baroda or Bangalore, the places where the youngsters would like to hire studios and work from. By the beginning of the new millennium Alex Mathew, again a former Radical Group member, after finishing his Baroda stint went to join the Hyderabad University and he could attract a lot of young students to the university. You may think that I am talking only about Malayalis. Yes, I am talking only about Malayalis because not many Hyderabad artists have come up in the national level. If I am not wrong, Rajeswara Rao is the only other artist hailing from Hyderabad made it in the larger scene of Indian contemporary art. Om Soorya, after his education in the university decided to settle there and Shalini Sawhney of Guild Gallery, Mumbai gave him a big break. Now he is a FICA Young Talent Award Winner and currently he is having a show with the Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi. Sujith S.N, a young artist who did his Masters in Hyderabad was promoted initially by Dilip Narayanan of Open Eyed Dreams Gallery, Kochi and later he was picked up by Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai. His recently concluded show in Sakshi got critical as well as market acclamation.
I have never been to Hyderabad. Perhaps, I have looked at the Hyderabad airport from the windows of a Kingfisher flight as I had to break my journey there while traveling to Kochi. Though I looked out for traces of the city as seen in the works of Om Soorya and Sujith, I could not make out much as all the airports have that detached business-like coldness. Till today, for me Hyderabad is a city of lights and structures, repetitive motifs, undulating landscapes, squares and circles, and an all engulfing layer of dust. I imagine the city in this way because this is how Om Soorya and Sujith present their city in the works. Perhaps, Hyderabad has got two versions in my mind; Om Soorya Version and Sujith SN version. And both of them transcend the everydayness of the city into mythical and magical.
Standing in front of the works of Om Soorya, displayed at the first floor space of Vadehra Gallery, I see Hyderabad and a few enthusiastic youngsters whom I had not seen before in Delhi. Om Soorya comes forward and gives me a warm embrace. I could feel his happiness because it is after a long time that we meet. His first major solo show, ‘Random Mirrors in the City of Villagers’ in Guild had a catalogue write up by me. Om Soorya likes my writing and now he is profusely apologetic. His catalogue is written by Noopur Desai, a former gallery executive of Vadehra and he says that he had asked her to produce a write up which would extend the thought process that I had put together in his first catalogue. Never mind, I say. Then he introduces those young enthusiasts to me. They are Om Soorya’s friends who have come all the way from Hyderabad to attend the opening. They are all artists. I meet Suresh P and Kedar Dondhu, both of them are settled now in Hyderabad.
Why Hyderabad? I ask them. They have a ready answer: with the success of Om Soorya and Sujith SN in the scene, those who pass out from Hyderabad University have now grown confident and they have hopes about being picked up by gallery majors elsewhere. Besides, the living cost is less and the ex-students are also allowed to use the library facilities of the University. Alex Mathew, Rakhi Peshwani and a few young teachers inspire these young artists to work harder. Sarada Natrajan teaches art history there and she also inspires young students. I overheard at the bar someone from Hyderabad speaking to a friend of mine that the days of ‘struggling’ are over. “Why should one romanticize struggle? Why can’t one live a good life and produce art?” He asks. I could feel the alcohol induced confidence in his words. I want to tell him that struggle is not all about money. Art is a spiritual struggle; a perpetual struggle with one’s own self. A never ending struggle with the angels and demons in the world of creativity. Rajan still struggles though he is materialistically improved after a long period of ‘struggle’. Success has somehow intoxicated the youngsters, I feel. Hyderabad is not different in this case.
Kedar Dondhu is a Kashi Award Winner. “Why everyone paints the city?” I ask him. “I don’t paint the city. My works are different. But I believe my works too are inspired by the life of Hyderabad,” he introspects. This city must be having something, which intoxicates the youngsters to paint only the city city and more city. “Where have the native Andhra Pradesh young artists gone?” I enquire as I am slightly confused. “They all go into animation industry because there is quick money in it and they don’t want to struggle,” says Kedar. I sigh, at least one person is there who still thinks about ‘struggle’ in a different sense. With no major galleries around, it is interesting to see how these young artists keep their spirits high. “There is one gallery Hastha. And whoever does a show outside Hyderabad as a norm by now does a preview in this gallery. So we get to see the works and a lot of discussions happen around the works,” Kedar informs me.
The bomb blast occurred near Qutub Minar in the afternoon (27th September 2008) has made many people stay back at homes. The gallery looks slightly desolated. But the Hyderabad youngsters are not challenged by the thinness of audience. They are here to feel the ‘Delhi Opening’. That is another high for them and I am sure that they would collect a few stories and a few experiences that a night and a day could provide them, and would go back to their beloved city of Hyderabad. I am sure, one day I too would go there and see what makes this city tick and also what keeps these youngsters in a perpetual high. Then, I would be holding this young artist Om Soorya’s hand and telling him, “Dear friend, the pressure on you to paint more and more was palpable in your Vadehra show. It is time that you come out of these paintings, repetition of images and the confusion about what to include and what to avoid. Your paintings are like a powder keg ready to explode at any time. It is time for you to think about other mediums, which could accommodate your thoughts on the city. If not people would say, ‘Oh….Om Soorya…city and lights….’”
Om Soorya takes my hands in his and looks into my eyes and says, “I like the way you put things. You talk like an artist. When are you going to do your ‘works of art’?”
Resisting a deep passion to kiss him, I say, “Soon.”
Saturday, September 27, 2008
Romeo Must Live
I am not planning to talk more about the jail food. I want to tell you about a particular incident took place in the art class in Tihar. After doing the rounds in barracks where the under trials are left to themselves, after making broken conversations with them, after visiting the de-addiction wards, isolation cells, vocational training unit and the library our tour ends in the art class where the artists talk to those inmates who are interested in art. These boys either copy from picture books, or try to recreate their favorite film stars from memory or try to capture the essence of the nature around them by painting sylvan landscapes. Some guys have a hand and eye for art and many do not. But there is no competition amongst them. They all do their work with a kind of sincerity and vigor that stem from their perennial need to kill the ennui of a confined life.
On my third visit I noticed this boy. Let us call him ‘Raj,’ the ultimate romantic hero’s name Bollywood, who always tells his interest of pursuit, ‘naam to yaad hoga’ (you may remember my name). However, our Raj is far from his filmy counterpart. Sitting cross legged on a carpet spread on the floor, he looks malnourished and eternally troubled. His long limbs and benign face do not show any signs of his past crime/s. He gazes at the image of a girl, which he has just painted with unskilled hands. I found some kind of blankness in his eyes. I felt his gaze penetrating through the paper, crossing the lawn, escaping the eagle eyes of the watchmen, jumping over the high wall and going somewhere else, where he was free like a breeze. I looked at the picture before him. The image did not look like anybody though I could feel that he had done it with a lot of love, care and passion. The contours were so delicately done as if he feared any further pressing of the graphite tip at it would hurt the real girl in his mind.
I go and sit near him and he looks at me with a startle in his body. “You are in love with this girl, friend,” I say with a smile. And he nods his head in approval. Now I am surprised. “Yes, I am in love with this girl,” and he tells me the name of the girl. Let us call her ‘Kiran’. “But how come you are here?” I ask him while scanning his body, looking for the usual evidences seen in the physique of a criminal; scars, burn marks, healed stitch marks etc. His skin is clean and I could not find any traces of crime. I insist him to talk about his life and he tells me the story. And the story of this eighteen year old boy goes like this:
Hailing from a shanty town in North Delhi, Raj was madly in love with Kiran who was his neighbor. Like any other shanty town story goes, Raj was a school drop out and Kiran was still studying in school. Raj’s daily routine involved the escorting of Kiran to school and see her back home. Rest of the time, he spent in doing odd jobs. One day Kiran told him about the villain in her life. Another boy from the same area, who happened to be a friend of Raj, used to stalk her whenever Raj was absent from her vicinity. The day Kiran revealed this to Raj, the villain had teased her in a very bad way. While telling the incident Kiran was in tears and Raj was in fire. As he did not have any other model than the Salman Khan-Shah Rukh Khan characters to emulate, Raj acted as any boy of his age and background was expected to act. He went and challenged the villain, asking him to meet for a ‘duel’ at a remote place in that evening. The villain, who too had no other role model life than Bollywood villains, took the challenge in due valiance. And they did meet in that desolated space in that fateful night. A scuffle ensued and Raj was prepared for any eventualities. Unlike in films, the villain was stronger than Raj. He caught Raj by neck and he was choking. Raj pleaded with the villain but the villain did not heed to his pleas. Finally Raj took out a pocket knife which he had hidden in his waist and stabbed the villain several times.
“I stabbed only to hurt him so that I could escape from his clutches,” Raj told me. But the villain succumbed to the injuries. Raj went into hiding and the police traced him on the very next day. Ever since he is in Tihar. He does not know when he would be free. It could be three years, seven years or life time. His parents come to meet him once in a while.
“Does Kiran come to meet you?” I asked.
“Yes, once in a while.”
“Do you think that she would wait for you till you get out of this shit?”
“I don’t know.” Raj’s fingers moved along the contours of her face. He looked at the image intently and I could see his passion, love, pangs and the longing for being with her.
“Bhaiya…I will wait for two more months as my court case is going on. If they convict me for five years or seven years, I don’t have any hope. But once I come out, I will be a different man. I will join the underworld,” Raj said to me with a lot of determination and I could see his disillusionment with the society and law.
Raj imagines himself as a righteous person as he stood for the rights of his beloved. Going by the cultural make up of a populace also by the popular ideological constructs about man-woman relationship in a society, Raj believes he is right and he is wrongly confined. If the Bollywood heroes could go scot-free after a lot of bloodshed and killing, why should he alone be punished? They too have done all those for their lady loves. Then why why why me only? Raj seems to ask. And his retaliation to an unjust society is to act against it when he can exercise his free will. There is no redemption.
I looked at the girl’s image again. In front of my eyes the image started melting and fading. Raj also might have felt the same as he held the paper tightly in his hands. The artists and officials were busy interacting with other boys. Raj did not give any damn to anybody or anything. He got up, rolled up the paper in his hands and walked off.
Against the setting sun, I could see this wounded and caged boy’s mind roaring like a sea of storms. No art could redeem him. But ironically, all his redemption rested on that one piece of paper with the painted image of Kiran’s face.
Friday, September 26, 2008
Exemplary Existential Executives
“Johny was in London, Johny was in Zurich, Johny was in Thailand and he wants more. Isn’t it the attitude, Johny?” Kanchi asked me. I said I understood her point. There must be an indirect psychological pressure on me to be ‘pretty pleasing’ in my writing these days. When I talked a gallerist friend of mine in Mumbai, she told me, “You have made enough enemies through your writings. Now please don’t make any more enemies.” Another friend from the Jawaharlal Nehru University had told me once, “Where has that Johny gone?” When I was in Paris to attend a show opening, a Paris based Indian artist (quite senior) patting on my shoulders commented, “Finally, you too became a darling of the system.” I smiled.
Looking back, I could see my writings had (I believe, at times it still has) some kind of arrogance and forthrightness. Then I was not particularly catering to any reading public. I was expressing what I used to feel about art and what I used to see. I had a nebulous audience, who enjoyed the kind of arrogance and energy my writings used to emanate. That defined ‘JohnyML’ as a writer. And nobody had asked me then the system of economics in which I used to function from. Today, with the flourishing of art market, I am clear about my audience, the consumers of my writings and the kind of expectations that they have in my writings. I was in a Chaplinesque phase. When the unexploded bomb shell has to be defused, Chaplin looks on to his right side for handing over the responsibility to his subordinate and finds that he is the last one in the row. So he has to go and face the bomb. I was the last one in the row and I never thought twice before making a comment in my writings. Now the scene has changed. But I look at my right side, there are many but all of them are looking at their right side and it is an infinite chain. None wants to commit.
Kanchi’s comment reverberates in my mind as I sit to write this piece. I have always liked this girl, one of the few girls who addresses me ‘tu’ (a too familiar term of addressing someone in Hindi). I met Kanchi first time over emails. She asked me whether she could write in artconerns.com. I welcomed her and she did a couple of pieces. Once she sent me an article with a claim that she had done a good study using the theories of Clement Greenberg. She pronounced the name, Clement Greenberg in such way that she was sure that I wouldn’t be knowing who this person was. I told her politely that I had gone through Clement Greenberg at least twelve years back. In her mails she always qualified herself as an ‘expert’ in Indian Modern and Contemporary Art, Curator, Writer, Artist etc etc. One day I told her that Kanchi Mehta should be known as Kanchi Mehta and the people should recognize her name through her works not through a chain of qualifications fitted behind the name. She found sense in my comment and next moment she removed all those baggage from her tag line. Then onwards we are friends, though I don’t believe in friendship. In art field, there is no friendship, there are only ‘interests’ and ‘relationships’. It is like war and diplomacy. Everything is strategic here.
I don’t know whether there is a strategic relationship between myself and Kanchi, but ever since we met we have some kind of understanding between each other. I would qualify Kanchi as one of the ‘new existential youths’. Obviously she is not a confused and dazed Desi as she has definite opinion on Indian contemporary art scene as an insider. Two glasses of red wine would make her unwind in a group but she has tremendous control over what she says, may be a trait she picked up from being a professional working with many galleries as a consultant and manager.
I call Kanchi a contemporary existential person because I have seen many young girls working in galleries in managerial posts going through the same existential dilemma. Like many of them Kanchi too is an academically trained artist (Sir JJ School of Art- 2000-04) and she holds a Certificate from Christie’s Art History and History of Art Market. So she is caught up between two things- creativity and market. She knows how the market functions and how an artist works. The dilemma then is an artist cannot work like a market professional. If at all he/she works, it would be after gaining considerable acclamation and success in the market a la Damien Hirst or Subodh Gupta. Kanchi is existential because she does not want to do any job other than making art and curating shows. But somehow the need for financial independence makes her to join the bandwagon of gallery professionals (or existentialists looking good in their executive outfits).
Somehow I always fail to fathom the depth of their existentialism. Belonging to an older generation, we had different existential problems. Job related existential problems were not featured in our minds as there were no jobs to hold or aspire for. Our existential enemy was society and we had been fighting against this so called society. With the flourishing of the market, the society has now got a concrete shape and for us fight has become a some kind of spiritual compromise, which we call in different terms like, ‘maturing’, ‘having a philosophical outlook,’ ‘being professional’ etc. Kanchi’s existentialism is unfathomable as it is a fight against the dynamics of market and economy. They are very much inside, they can spend Rs.70 for a cup of coffee in the cool climes of Barrista or Café Coffee Day and talk endlessly on alleviating the poverty of this country or the disparities and injustice existing in this society. This existentialism is spectacular and Kanchi belongs to this spectacular existential generation.
Kanchi falls back on to my past writings and its (by now) ‘imagined’ verve because it is there she finds the angst which is similar to her own. “May be it is easy to preach, I also go soft on many issues as I need to be here,” she says at the end of the chat and I could see she is tired. I look at Kanchi’s bio-data, which is quite impressive and showing this to any agency she would be absorbed easily. But scrolling down the Microsoft word page, I see her profile ‘as an artist’. She has done sculptures, installations, photography and has participated in a few shows including the Kala Ghoda Art Festival, to which she was one of the organizers in 2007. I believe, the existential Kanchi (or the existential girls in the art scene) comes from this part of the bio-data. Inside her she is always an artist. But she wears the mantle of an art administrator and public/client relation executive in her working hours. She is also a teacher of art history in Rachna Sansad Institute of Fine Arts. Besides, she holds a part time assistant director’s post at the APT Global Artists Pension Fund. In the carnival of spectacles, she is a consumer who has too many choices to make. But it is not easy to leave the carnival and go in recluse. Mumbai is a maze and it is difficult to get out of its festivities.
I have come across girls chucking their cushy jobs as gallery managers and going to ‘do full time art’. There is a tremendous struggle out there. Stepping out of the carnival is a difficult choice to make. “I want to quit,” says Kanchi. I could hear hundreds of girls like her saying the same thing. After quitting what are they going to do? Another gallery? Another cushy job with a huge pay packet? Or another fathomless pit of struggle and masochism? Kanchi exemplifies a time and space; perhaps she represents the unseen side of Indian contemporary art scene; the green room agonies before flickering plasma computer monitors.
Thursday, September 25, 2008
Beauty of Blasphemy
This time Abhay himself has come out as a curator. His show with Felipe Cama, Fernanda Chieco, Mansoor Ali, Narendra Yadav and T.Venkanna is called ‘Loosen the Tie First’. This tongue in cheek title reflects the spirit of the works featured in the show. Before I enter into a discussion on the works, I should say the ambience of the gallery. The high ceiling of the gallery dwarfs the viewer considerably. Suddenly, you look a diminutive figure whether you are an Atul Dodiya or a Subodh Gupta or a Jitish Kallat. You may be ‘somebody’ in the field of Indian contemporary art. But in Abhay’s gallery you are just a viewer as you are thrown into a space which you feel, does not have a beginning or end. You see only the dwarfed selves of your fellow beings, gazing at the works that grow vertically and horizontally within the space. If you don’t talk about the scale of the gallery for the nth time, I swear you are not in your senses or you are an absolute cynic, both you become after a few rounds of drinks.
‘Loosen the Tie First’ warns you with certain consequences, going by the international professional standards, for there are some explicitly sexual/erotic imageries in it. Felipa Cama is from Brazil and his works are sexually explicit. He collects images from the spam mails that crowd your inboxes offering you a date with Britney Spears, casting doubts on your performance level in bed, asking you to enlarge your organ size etc. Cama culls out these desire inducing images and makes lenticular prints out of it. From one side they look like formation of digits in computer programming and from another angle they look smudged porn pics. The illusion of the virtual space is coalesced with illusion of porn and desire in the virtual space. It is a critique of desire and desire machines. I am reminded of the videos titled ‘Silence’ and ‘New Indian Porn’ by Chintan Upadhyay.
Another Brazilian artist Fernanda Chieco presents a series of drawings, where she makes the images of nude men and women in acrobatic postures. Their bodily pores become the fields of bacterial growth. These apparently alluring images in fact present us with bizarre situations in which the notion of a perfect body is violated and re-articulated. The baseness of body and the possibilities of transcending it through acrobatic posturing become ironical. These works too encapsulate a critique on contemporary desires related to human body. T.Venkanna, an artist based in Baroda too takes ‘porno’ as a point of departure. His canvases become the fields of sexual ambiguity, obsessive nature of sex and the ambivalent approach that all we have towards explicit sexuality in public domain. His canvases are secret thereby faded images of our own self projections; the dungeons of our inner imaginations.
Narendra Yadav uses scientific but simple installations to explain how cognitive imagination and actual objects that spur off such imaginations function within a given context of engagement. The externalization of the organs, mainly brain and heart (reason and feeling) in their objectiveness helps the viewer to develop their own personal associations. These organs which are in a constant movement create ruptures in the act of cognition. One has to ask a few questions to oneself or to the people around to understand how these organs move in a particular field of ‘presentation’. The scientific simulation of movements looks partly humorous and partly serious.
Mansoor Ali perhaps intends to generate a critique on the political avarice of our contemporary times. He uses chair as a predominant imagery. The used and abandoned chairs are brought inside the gallery space to create a tumbling tower. One is forced into a doubt whether these chairs are tumbling down or constructively going up. One high chair, which is rendered dysfunctional creating multiple hand rests resemble the architecture of Indian parliament. The other chair is a mutant one with one upholstered part and the other with wooden seat and backrest. The mutation is conscious and is intended to evoke particular responses from the viewer and in this Mansoor is successful. But that is the major drawback of these works too for the viewer cannot go beyond the intentionality of the artist as they are too evident.
Though modest in scale ‘Loosen the Tie First’ looks ambitious and deliberately sacrilegious. Though the works individually generates a field of discourse, together they do not forward a composite argument. May be that is not the idea of the curator. Anyway, the Mumbai art scene seems to have taken the efforts of Abhay quite seriously and in the coming shows too, I hope, Abhay would be able to stick to his mission and vision.
Monday, September 22, 2008
About Art Collectors’ Dilemma and Other Things
Actually after saying hello to the audience, I was in a real dilemma though I had done some mental notes. However, I started off with a sweeping statement that Indian art scene had always been in a dilemma. During 80s and early 90s Indian artists did not expect to get money from their art. What they wanted at that point of time was to get a chance to exhibit. If they were lucky they would have got some mention in some art critic’s regular column. And again providence was too much in favor of them, one or two of their works would have been picked up by some stray collector. Art collecting was all about sheer snob value, part taking the cultural heritage of one’s own nation. Then in the late 90s art market started showing kind of movement with the young ‘cool collectors’ coming into picture. It took another five years for many to actually understand that there was actually an investment potential in art. By then the scene had already changed with too many real and professionals playing their roles very well.
Now the collector is in a real dilemma. The financial analysts and the auction power houses say X and Y and Z are the best artists to invest. The galleries also play up to this scene. As these X, Y and Z are handled by a limited number of people, their works are not available in the market. Those who really want to have their works either do not get them or have to wait for many years by that time the complexion of the scene would change completely. Hence, galleries, consultants and curators together conjure up another set of artists and promote them to certain levels. The market then again gets into a panic mode to collect these artists. Speculation on certain names sets the pulse rate high in the art market. People like me get phone calls from the so called art collectors, asking whether ‘this’ artist’s works are available or not, only because this particular artist is picked up by one of the major galleries. If a very influential gallerist visits any artist’s studio located in any part of the country, there would be frantic phone calls for that artist’s works.
So I posed a question before the audience: Who is a passionate collector? Who is a passionate investor? A passionate collector is one who collects a particular artist or a set of artists for the sheer pleasure of collecting them. May be he/she wants to set up a museum in future. When he/she needs to find funds for collecting some other works, they may offload a few works from their collection in the secondary market. A real collector works in this format. A passionate investor is one who invests money on a particular work of art/artist, not for aesthetical reasons but for the financial possibilities that work offers. A passionate investor need not think too much about the aesthetical values of the commodity that he buys. At times he does not even need to see the work of art that he buys. The consultants and the galleries would apprise him of the situation and he goes by that. And like any other player in the field of economics, he knows well when to put this work back to the market and reap his profit.
The dilemma occurs when the demarcating line between the passionate collector and the passionate investor fades. These days the term ‘passionate collector’ is a stand in word for a potential dealer. He/she comes with a lot of passion, convinces somebody of their wish to have a ‘particular’ work. Then the next moment they hand over the same work to other three ‘passionate’ people like them and make their money instantly. The passionate investor too does the same at times, not even giving enough time for the work to sink in the public memory. There is no surprise these days when you see a work of art ‘collected’ from a gallery (primary market) appearing in an auction held within weeks. When the passion is only for money, we have to accept one thing that what drives the market is investment and profit.
A work of art has its aesthetic status only when it remains the artist’s studio. The moment it is brought into the public domain, it ceases to be an aesthetic object and starts off its journey as a pure commodity. However, the commodity value of the art is negotiated and enhanced through critical interventions, which these days, again are done with monetary gains in mind. It is a TINA (There Is No Alternative) situation. In this TINA situation, it is better to think about art as a point of investment, a cultural investment that would in shorter or longer terms would make profit. This TINA factor should not be disparaged or condemned. If we do so, we all become hypocrites. Artists may not agree that they are making their works for financial gains and their point also should be accepted for the simple reason that once their works move from the primary market, further gains (deals) are not shared with them.
Sanjay Bhattacharya underlined the fact that an art collector should go by his/her gut feeling and love for art. He also requested the young art collectors not to buy works according to the colours of their sofas and curtains. Art collector Anita Navani said that whenever she bought a work of art, she went by her instinct rather than the sellers’ opinion. However, Navani said that it is a Seller’s market and the buyers are often befooled. Sushma Bahl said that the buyer/collector also should do basic studies before they buy a work of art and they should be more intelligent than the seller.
This morning, when I write this piece, I ask myself, then what is the role of art writers and critics in this profit driven scenario? I have the answer; unlike any other commodity, art increases its commodity value through critical, intellectual and cultural negotiations. Though the prices are hiked by the auction houses, the real value is created through the histories and myths generated around the works by the critics and art writers. They are the unacknowledged legislators of the art world.
Saturday, September 20, 2008
Drawing Lines- Between Romance and Ideology
Minal Damani’s solo show at Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi is quite impressive. The show is titled ‘Drawing Lines’. Minal has been working on this project for the last one year, meanwhile I visited her studio located at Gotri, Baroda twice and saw how her initial confusions turning into certain convictions about our geo-political situations. This show as a whole shows the artist’s skepticism on the human drawn boundaries in the world map. The lines affirm the political boundaries and they, at present stand as forced anachronisms on the otherwise ‘opened up’ outlook of the human race. These lines once stood for national pride and when the ‘nationalist’ ideas turned aggressive and fundamentalist in nature, these lines became a hindrance to natural human exchange, both in emotional and cultural levels.
Geo-political boundaries are not simply lines drawn between nations, these lines of division appear in our day to day lives, even without our knowledge, making schism between religions, races and individual human beings. Consciously or unconsciously, we too participate in drawing these lines as the mediatized culture informs us daily that any one could be a potential threat to our property and security. Continents have been divided into nations and nations have been divided into states, and states have been divided into racial factions, races have been divided into ethnic specificities and ethinic specificities have been divided into fundamentalist individualism. We are turning selfish day by day; the more we think we are an open world, sharing culture, food, fashion and our concerns on world democracy, the more we become fanatics of a closed world. We want to become insular and we want to have secluded identities. Lines…lines and lines.
Minal is aware of this growing factionalism both in the domestic and international spheres. She, as a Bombay girl witnessed the serial bomb blasts and the resultant fragmentation of the society on religious and political lines and later as a Baroda bride, she witnessed how fundamentalists forces drawing lines between people using fire as their medium. They are charred lines and they smell of burnt human flesh. Like many conscious citizens Minal too is hurt morally, though not physically. But unlike the conscious citizens who often prefer to suppress their moral agitation in sex, serials and shopping, Minal opts to paint her angst in subtle ways, using lines and colors, bringing out the images of world map and the globe as if they were a play of jigsaw puzzle.
I am reminded of a moral story told to me by mother. A saint painted a world map on the one side of the paper and on the other side he painted the face of a man. Then he tore it up into several pieces and asked one of his young disciples to join each piece to make the world map. The boy tried several times and each attempt turned futile. Then with a smile the saint asked the disciple to join the pieces to make the man’s face, which he could do in no time. The saint turned the page and showed how the map is done once the human face is made with ease. The message was: ‘Whatever your culture, creed or race be, if you are good, the world is going to be good.’ Minal’s works are consciously made like jigsaw puzzles of the world map. The artist has deliberately given the suggestions within the paintings how someone has painstakingly arranged the maps back; a romantic vision of an aspiring peace lover.
There is some kind of psychological deliberations in Minal’s act of painting. She makes her images like jigsaws in order to render the viewer (the participant in ideological divisions) into the status of infants. This attribution of infancy to the viewer takes him/her to the primal innocence, where an insatiable quest for knowing, searching and playing exists. These aspirations are not driven by ideological mediations. It is a quest for order and peace; in play one finds joy and freedom. Suddenly a divided world appears to be in ‘order’ before the eyes of the viewers. The implied ‘disorder’ is left open to be manipulated by the game logic of the viewer, which too is unfortunately or fortunately premeditated through collective consciousness about pre-dictated boundaries. But, then that is a fact that we cannot now wish away.
Minal is a romantic as in one of her paintings she asks for a boat. Titled ‘I Need a Boat in My Home’, she paints a romantic landscape, undulating with patches of greenery, divided by a smooth flowing river. The river could be time, the flow of culture, ideas, political interests etc, and two identical pieces of lands are separated by this river. Minal asks for a boat, she wants to cross the river and reach the other land or at least she would like to sail through this river to understand what sceneries both the shores could offer her. I am reminded of a story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Titled ‘Light is Like Water’, this story is about two boys who sail through a river of blue light. They live in a place where there is no river. But they want a boat and their parents by a boat for them. One day, in their parents’ absence, they take out a bulb from its holder and a blue river of light flows out from the holder. The boys set their sails in this blue river. They believe in this blue river because their teacher had told them that electricity was like a river, when the switch is thrown on, it ‘flowed’ like water. One day the boys invite the whole class for a boat ride their home. They switch on all the lights and they drown in the flood of the blue river. Here we have a yellow/sepia toned river in Minal’s work. I don’t know if we set sail in this river, ever we would be able to come back to the shores as we have forgotten the truth of shores as we have already taken refuge in the flow of ideologies.
I like Minal’s romanticism especially seen in her drawings. A thousand hands join to become a flower; a flower of fingers. And from the hands that open like an umbrella there comes a rain and in her body contours the setting sun casts its golden touch. These works are touching and exciting, a strange sense of desire and passion to have sensual pleasures are evoked by these drawings. The physical union once I had in an ideal time, which would never come back with the same passion, is evoked with the touch of rain in Minal’s works. I found the works that resemble the shapes of the continents slightly literal and overstated. Perhaps, they could have gone into any other medium than painting. But then I am not the final judge.
Friday, September 19, 2008
An Artist of Possibilities
I met Shafi Quraishy, a young painter now based in
Then I saw Shafi in
“Where is your Viswanathan-Hair?” I asked him. “Oh…now you have it, so I decided to go for a hair styling,” he said with a smile. I liked that and now he sounded like a Malayali with his perennial sense of black humour and cynicism. From nowhere he looked a struggler. But he told me that he had been trying to find his foothold in
Shafi studied painting in Trissur Fine Arts College, Kerala and then shifted to Cholamandal Artists village in 1995 and spent around eight years there. He started off his career in abstract painting (obviously he is influenced by the Cholamandal milieu). But he has something to add to this observation. When he was studying in Trissur, the major art discourses were centered around
When I look at the works of Shafi I find a strong painter in him. He moves from theme to theme. He seems be in an experimental mode always. A few paintings that he did in the last two years show his interest in environmental issues. He paints moon and its surface using violent brush strokes and gives a suggestion of the US Flag along with a child in mother’s womb. The sight in total is gory and indicates some kind of chaos. In another painting one could see a grown up man crouching in mother’s womb. Shafi seems to brood over an impending crisis of human race and his perennial wish to go back to the mother’s womb. His colors resemble those of Goya and Chardin. A pervading sense of violence is felt in all the canvases of this phase. This violence is palpable in the more figurative works of 2008. In the latest works Shafi invests his energy for finding out the sense of cruelty inflicted by man on man. He uses the images of
What I like in Shafi’s works is his ability to create energetic abstract fields of color. The works he did in 1995 and later in 2006-07 reflect his strength as an abstract painter. In a work titled ‘The Deep- A tribute to Jackson Pollock’ one could see how Shafi uses a painterly field to create a similar feelings evoked by a Pollock painting. Shafi does not imitate Pollock. He likes the physicality of the action paintings and his works have a lot to do with the energetic strokes that he makes. What he needs at this stage of his career is some kind of support from galleries. Also he needs to work on his concepts. There is a little bit of wavering and confusion when it comes to the choice of subject matter for his figurative paintings. May be one can watch out this artist as a future promise.
His works could be viewed at www.shafiquraishy.com