Friday, May 25, 2012

UAF in Baroda- In the Reversed Courtyard of Indian Art Home

(Annurag Sharma, Founder Director of United Art Fair, Declaring UAF in Baroda)

I still remember, during the boom years, one artist friend living in Baroda telling me about his and his family’s decision to move to Mumbai. He had already settled there in Baroda with a studio and a home. Still he thought Baroda was not happening enough. Yes, it was like that. During the hallucinatory boom years everyone thought that things happened only in the metros. The feast was always on in Mumbai and Delhi, nights were the nights of revelry, or people thought so. Wads of cash came in folded designer shirts. Wife met husband at the transit lounges of airports. Future children were stopped by the thin latex skins. Hotel rooms became the cauldrons of sin. Baroda was not happening enough then. But today, Baroda could be called a happening place. That’s why the United Art Fair team decided to launch its road show in Baroda itself.

As an art hub Baroda was always there in the world map of culture. But on 6th May 2007, Baroda was noticed even by the hegemonic American news agencies. Rightwing fundamentalists were prowling the streets and one of the artists was victimized for his bold expressions. His name was Chandramohan and his takes on the lives of Goddess Durga and Jesus Christ had offended the sentiments of the religious fanatics. Baroda was in news for the wrong reasons. It was the intervention of the hooligans in the Baroda’s fine arts faculty and their vandalizing of works of art set the clock backwards for Baroda. On that black day, the future of the fine arts faculty was more or less decided. It was not going to capture its lost glory.

(Artists enjoying the talks)

In Baroda, Summers are severe and long. Post Chandramohan Baroda was like a flat land of hopelessness cursed to undergo an endless summer. Artists were feeling the heat of it. They suffered it silently. And elsewhere the party was on. Hard Caur asked, where is the party? Even if Daddy was angry, girls and boys wanted to party. They asked where was the party tonight? DJs scratched and rolled discs. Even the Pappus who could not dance proved that they are good dancers. Baroda stood in silence and watched in pain. The artists wanted to migrate as the gallerists were going elsewhere for talent hunting. It was not so a rosy picture once the economic bubble busted accidently. For the cities it was like a party stopped half way through. It was like a raid during an illegal rave party. Songs were stopped halfway, a piece of choreography hung in the air like a chopped limb and frozen in time.

Then Baroda smiled. It was the time for the prodigal sons to come back. And those who had taken the decision to move away regretted their decisions. Today they are all happy in Baroda because Baroda is a city where artists live without restrictions. Baroda is a place where artists could afford a life that is suitable to an artist. One of the faculty members and an independent artist living in Baroda says, “Somehow, artists are happy here now. Buyers and collectors come, pick up the works and even if they pay not so big amounts the artists could pull it off well.” Today in Baroda artists do not float on money but they all feel that they could work from this city and prove their worth even if the campus recruiting gallerists no longer come here on Mission Harvest.

(JohnyML with Parag Sonagre and Sandeep Pisalkar)

United Art Fair Founder Director Annurag Sharma showed green signal for Baroda because he was a person who had touched the right nerve of Baroda during the boom years. He was instrumental in transporting many a huge works by the contemporary artists fabricated in the Baroda studios. “I could see a vast difference between the artists who made it in the metros and the ones who lived in cities like Baroda. There were many successful artists in Baroda. But most of the successful artists got their works done in Baroda. There was a sense of tension there.” Today, the tension seemed to be over. Unlike in other cities where galleries sprout when business opportunities come up, it is one city where studios and residencies do a wonderful job. A few entrepreneurs had started artists’ studios namely Space Studio, Priyashree Studios, Rukshan Krishna studios and so on. Young artists are given a space here and in return they give a work to the studio owner; a beautiful arrangement.

Those who could afford an independent studio work from their own private studios. There are different kinds of studios in Baroda. The successful ones as well as the ones have good jobs and salaries work in highly polished studios. They keep the hardship and struggles of the youngsters a few paces away and keep themselves calm but busy in their air conditioned and sound controlled studios. If at all they are disturbed, they are disturbed by music only. One difference that music has got from an actual punch is that when it hits it does not hurt. So the artists live in a heavenly atmosphere. On the other side, there are artists who run their independent studios and these studios play the role of revolutionary hubs. Discussions are rampant here. There are studios where artists help each other. It is not so common a feature in art scene that an artist spreading out the canvases of an artist who is absent in the studio while potential people visit them.

(Bowni and Kakoli with other artists in the audience)

United Art Fair team took the decision to visit Baroda because we thought that if anything could come out unscathed from Baroda, it should be strong enough to survive the test of the other cities. And we are proven right. In Baroda we had a quick trip to the studios where we met enthusiastic youngsters spreading out works for our perusal. They kept calling me just assure that the team did not miss their studios. We saw the works and thought that these young and emerging artists were doing a fantastic job. Many had already found their mentors. Many are still waiting for that eventual miracle to happen in their lives. They tirelessly show their works and they don’t switch on the fans as they fear that the paper works spread out on the floor would fly away. We sweat our love for these artists. I love them and my team loves them all.

On 11th May 2012 the artists congregate at the ball room of the Surya Palace Hotel and the 170 strong gathering has a lot of things to ask. It was our first presentation and for us it was an absolutely unchartered path. We were not hugely prepared with our presentations. Our presentation was all about how an art fair worked and how we wanted to make a difference. There were innumerable questions and we were ready to take them one by one and more than answering them then and there efficiently (though we had done that) we were learning a lot for the future. When I announced that the price of the booth was Rs.35000/- a young friend got up and said that he had been taking money from his parents all these six years in the academy and how he could further press them to squeeze out another 35000 for a show? It was a very valid question. And we offered solutions. UAF Founder Director Annurag Sharma categorically told the young artists that he wanted all of them to be on board with or without money and it was his mission to have them all.

 (My parents have been supporting me...Now where shall I find this money? An agitated young artist)

Baroda was a litmus test for us. Each question raised by the young artists sounded absolutely relevant. Though they thought the money was quite big for them (remember, no gallerist is hunting now for the talent in the flat ground of Baroda), they really told us that it was not too high an amount when it came to the benefits such an investment would bring for them. We suggested solutions in terms of getting sponsorship or two or three artists sharing the cost. We even suggested that we could make one to one deals so that there could be a decent way of presenting works without letting one party become a loser. Many artists wrote to me after we came back from Bardoa. They all want to be a part of the United Art Fair and we welcome them all.

Thank you Baroda and we are happy to have all the young artists from Baroda. I want to specially thank the following names who facilitated us in different ways: Alok Bal, Sajeev Visweswaran, Satyanandmohan, Jitendra Bowni, Kakoli Sen, Priyanka Govil, Sachin and Shatrughnan Thakur. Thank you Sharmistha Kar, Sudipta Das, Mukesha Ganji, Maripelly Pravin Goud, Nityanand Jha, Prantik Chatopadhyay, Neha Takkar, Vandana Kothari, Harisha Chennangod, Deepjyoti Kalita, Pankaj Khalode, Ramgopal Kumawat, Kamal Pandya, Ajay Lakhera, Rai David, Preeti Agarwal, Kurma Nadham,Nikita Parikh, Tarun Gujjar, Jagannath Mohapatra, Anasuya Mohapatra, Kanika Shah, Dimple Panchal, Akshay Tijare, Rachana Badrakiya, Vibin George, Riya Chatterjee, Budhadev Mukherjee, Muktinath Mondal, Rahul Chauhan, Nirali Lal, Ganesh Gohain, Santana Gohain, Nandini Das, Rahul Mukherjee and all those young artists who came for the Baroda declaration.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Why United Art Fair 2012?

United Art Fair 2012 (UAF 2012) is the latest topic of discussion in the Indian contemporary art scene today. You like it or not, people of the imaginary hierarchy in our art scene now are anxious, curious and even ‘worried’ about the progress of the United Art Fair. They ask these questions: ‘We have enough art fairs. Why do we need one more? And what is the purpose of this art fair?’ Somebody, in a private garden party even wondered whether the organizers were going to run away with all the money that had been collected from the artists and settle in Dubai. Speculations are rife and that is how the United Art Fair is getting consolidated in the general imagination of the Indian contemporary art scene. For the beginners- UAF 2012 is going to take place between 27th -30th September 2012 at Pragati Maidan, New Delhi. Now read on.

The most important feature of UAF is this that it is of the artists, for the artists and even by the artists: You could call it a clear fair of artocracy. When we think of an art fair what comes to our mind is the picture of booths with the names of galleries largely written on the entrance of it and their favourite artists’ works exhibited in those booths. Often it is noticed that fairs are the places where galleries project the best from their artists kitty and flaunt the most fashionable and bankable works of the recent times. That means, generally art fairs are the platforms where galleries negotiate with the dealers, buyers, collectors and other art operators. Here in the United Art Fair we create a difference by letting the artists to be the movers and shakers of a fair. Unlike the other fairs, here artists from all over India and elsewhere decide what could be the nature of this fair.

Though we do not want to do away with the role of galleries from the art scene (you must be remembering the way Damien Hirst made some attempts to over step the gallery mediations and put his works directly into the auction houses), through United Art Fair what we want to do is to redeem the lost glory of the artists. Let galleries and other players in the art scene consider United Art Fair as a platform from where they could pick up the young and emerging talents from all over India. As Annurag Sharma, the founder Director of the United Art Fair puts it succinctly, “United Art Fair is a display of choicest scholars from India and elsewhere. Galleries and other players could do the role of universities. UAF is a bridge and a pathway between the young and emerging scholars and the universities. But remember, we are no coaching centre.”

Let us be very realistic. In our country with a vast population of more and 1.25 billion, even if a meagre fraction of this number is comprised of artists that would be quite a huge number. But do we have enough galleries to display all their works? In India, the number of galleries that could live up to its name is less than five hundred. And out of that there would be a hundred galleries that do a decent business. Out of this hundred there will be twenty galleries determining the trade and tendencies of the art scene by monopolizing art production, dissemination and consumption. That means majority from this five hundred galleries must be aspiring to become this twenty galleries in their mode of functioning. This causes a huge polarization of taste and tendencies. When all the galleries in India want similar kind of aesthetics and visibility, either they would run after the same set of artists or they would produce those artists who could be easily passed off as the clones of the established twenty odd artists. This has been the curse of our art scene for the last twenty years. This curse became more apparent during the first decade of the new millennium.

From this reality check what we understand is that a vast majority of Indian artists are not represented by any galleries at all. That means in this country, a contemporary artist’s position is no better than a tribal or a folk artist who, we generally believe that lack in promotion and recognition. Recently while meeting artists in Mumbai as a part of the United Art Fair’s road show, a few of them told me that they had been working for the last twenty years and nobody has helped them to showcase their works. According to them even hiring a public exhibition space like Jehangir Art Gallery or Lalit Kala Akademy galleries is a very tedious job. “There is even a gender issue in this,” says one of the woman artists I met Mumbai. “Woman artists lose their prime years in home making and when they are out of it and get back to studio practice, they are often looked down upon as Sunday painters or amateurs. No feminist scholars have addressed this issue.”

United Art Fair addresses this issue along with many other issues faced by the artists primarily by showcasing their works in well designed booths/walls, providing them with catalogues, attracting buyers, collectors, dealers and galleries for them. This is an open forum with a device to control the quality of it. There is a fee of Rs.35000/- (Rupees Thirty Five Thousand only) for a twenty five feet of booth/wall space. We have offered options to negotiate with us if any artist finds it difficult to join us with that kind of money. Quality control of the displayed works is done through a selection committee comprising of a group of well established artists and curators and the panel would be headed by myself. Trust me, I have been in the scene for the last twenty five years as budding writer to a struggler critic to an established polemicist curator. My judgment cannot go wrong always.

At the same time United Art Fair is not just a fair with young and budding artists only. We have invited established artists to take up stalls for themselves after convincing their galleries or representatives so that the young and emerging talents would get a moral boost up as they get an opportunity to present their works along with the established artists. To ensure the participation of our dear established mid career artists, I will be curating a special project within the United Art Fair. Big sculptures will be there at the sculpture park. And as the project director of the United Art Fair, I will be showcasing the best videos produced by the young and established artists in our video lounge. There will be a special section for short films and documentaries. Also the seminars will be driven by young and fresh thinkers. This is going to be an art fair that everyone in the art scene would like to grow up with.

This is a preamble to a series of blog postings that I am intending to do in the coming days as I have been travelling with the Founder Director, Annurag Sharma and my team of colleagues all over India to promote and create awareness about the United Art Fair amongst the artists’ communities. The response that we have received so far is tremendous. Someone has recently put it in this way: “This is poor artists’ fair.” I would like to look at this comment in a different way. Poverty is a situation created out of the imbalanced distribution of wealth. If one section of artists (call it a majority) is poor, then the responsibility of making them poor lies on the rich artists. Is it like that? Do we have an imbalanced approach here in our art scene? If there is, would United Art Fair not be a platform to discuss it?

I request all my artist friends to participate in this art fair. Money is not an issue. We can create money. Come and talk to us. Young, established, emerging, emerged, arrogant, humble, decent, deceitful, cunning, covert, Spartan, flamboyant and everyone is welcomed here. United Art Fair is a carnival of styles and ideas. And let me tell you, if I am dreamer and the founder Director of UAF, Annurag Sharma is a dreamer and all my team members are dreamers, we welcome you into our dream world. WE are going to make it a reality. We are going to make it the first artist driven quality art fair in the world. We are going to make it. Now it is up to you. Would you like to remain as a permanently complaining artist-viewer or an artist with his/his voice and style? United Art Fair is an answer. We are sure that we are going to project at least twenty artists from the young and upcoming artists every year. Imagine a situation each gallery takes care of ten artists from this fair? Don’t you want to be a part of this exercise? Come on join us.

(Next: In Baroda- In the Reversed Courtyard of the Indian Art Home)

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Boobs Feeding or Breast Feeding?

(cover of Time Magazine)

Times Magazine often decides who should be doing what. At least the people all over the world, who have the fixation about the United States of America, think so. If someone or something makes it to its cover page, that person or thing becomes a thing of beauty and a joy forever, at least to the ones I earlier mentioned. Times magazine represents the international hegemony of not only political aesthetics but also aesthetics of politics. That’s why this picture, a model breast feeding a child (model) becomes important and a thing to be discussed. Published in the latest issue, this cover page has raised several eye brows across the world. Eye brows because feminists generally do not shape their brows and they can raise them.

Are you Mom Enough? Asks the cover page. The article in question talks about the new age woman and the need for breast feeding. Breast feeding is something natural to all the mammals. What we call breasts is a pair of lactating devices seen quite visible amongst the female species. Human beings are vulgar in nature and they have made each part of the body a sexual device. You must be remembering how the cosmetic industry recently pitched in to whiten the vaginal areas by introducing a new cream. Vaginas world over Unite, you have nothing but to lose your blackness, the advertisement seemed to say. Feminists and the right thinking people got really angry on it. Market has become too intrusive; it creates desires to whiten your penises and vaginas. And to lose appetite and keep a zero size you can even shorten the length of your intestine through surgical operation. I am sure one day sex become quite exciting in the lacks than in the visible and the tactile.

So what is the problem with breast feeding and this cover page, you may ask. If you are a super mom you should breast feed. Cosmetic industry once thought that breast feeding caused the sagging of breasts all over the world and caused a sudden fall in female grace and beauty. The mammary glands became a quick obsession and women were asked to stop breast feeding to protect the beauty. Protect the beauty for whom? For men, of course. They are the permanent infants who want to play with the breasts of women right from mothers, to wives to strangers. Women are asked to use pin to puncture the prying hands while travelling in crowded buses because Indian men would like to grope whatever seen rounded in the female anatomy.

Feminists say that this article and the cover page in Time Magazine are objectionable because in the name of promoting breast feeding it is enhancing desires amongst men to play more with breasts. Look at the picture. A three year old boy standing in front of his ‘mother’ and sucks her nipple. The problem is that the whole world knows that this is a model and the child is not her real son. This very knowledge makes people think that there is something unnatural about it. And also nobody thinks that a three year old boy would be still having a staple diet on his mother’s milk. May be this cover page must be for a change. Often breast feeding is illustrated with a mother and infant suckling and both averting their face away from the gazing people. Here the case is different. Both the mother and son are looking at the gaze of the onlooker; yet it is not a political counter look. It is a kind of titillating surprise that they want to impart. Reason, a suckling mother would have tender feelings in her face and posture. Here the model stands a bit proud though that does not transform into a motherly pride.

Why this picture is offensive? It is offensive because it is pure sex that is connoted here. If you ask me if sex is something wrong, I would say sex is not wrong but open display of oedipal love is something objectionable. There is not a single man on the face of this earth who never had had sexual fantasies about his mother. I used to have. Because, mother’s body is the first naked woman body that any male see in the world. It is quite natural to push such scenes behind the mind. But in the subconscious it works and sexual fantasises come up when you are really pathetic in your mental state. And oedipal complex is something that anyone cherishes secretly. This picture is all about the open display of oedipal love. There is no women’s empowerment through breast feeding in it.

Now, in our Indian context, if you ask what is this fuss about breast feeding all about? Apart from the middle class and upper class societies, the majority of women in India are not concerned with their body mass index when it comes to breast feeding. They happily feed their children and I believe we have made legal provisions for the working mothers to have six months of maternity leave so that they could breast feed their newly born kids. No man in particularly sexual when he sees a woman breast feeding a child even in the public space. In fact, more than the breast feeding women, the men avert their eyes if they chance upon a woman feeding her child. In India, people do not take offense if a woman breast feed a child and a baby animal at the same time. But the Americans often see sex in everything.

But a three year old child is not breast fed by a young woman in public like the way Time magazine has shown. As a child I was very curious to play with my mother’s breasts. I used to wait even when I was seven or eight years old, at the door of her room where she changed her clothes. If I got a chance to go inside the first thing I did was squeezing her breasts. It was obviously a sexual act, which I did not know had sexual connotations. I had a happy breast fed childhood. Also like any other man who fantasizes drinking milk from breasts I too had it and I also tasted it as a grown up man. Let me tell you it does not taste that great.

Anyway, Time magazine cover page must be treated as super shit and it is all made for male gaze. It is covert sex or pornography in the name of promoting breast feeding. It has killed the innocence of that child (who knows a three year old does not have sexual fantasies). It has made the model yet another object of desire, nameless and faceless. The image is pornographic because it adds to the male fantasy that they have quick suckies behind the doors in the same posture (I have done that).

Postscript: Recently a friend of mine forwarded a joke via sms. It said: Why men look at women’s breasts? Answer: They can focus on two things at a time. 

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Our Children are Like Dogs in a Steppe

(Charles Darwin)

Artist, singer, home maker, an aspiring writer of art and culture, and my friend, Bhoomika Jain from Gurgaon asks me this question: How do you address a generation that is totally disconnected from the rich heritage of this country called India? What is that particular point where they get a revelation about their own socio-cultural and historical heritage? How does one address the very aspect of this disconnect and connect at all?’ I don’t know whether I am qualified enough to speak on this particular topic of cultural disconnect or not. However, the rider Bhoomika attaches with these questions gives me a relief; she has asked me to speak from the point of view of a parent who understands this cultural disconnect of his own kids.

I have written thirty chapters titled, ‘To My Children Series’. When I started writing that series a year back, my idea was to address this very same disconnect that my children would develop with my life mainly because of the difference between our mother tongues. I started off from a purely linguistic angle thinking that disparity in languages must be one reason that makes children to develop an aversion for their parents’ past. But as the series was developing and almost turning into an ‘autobiography of an unknown Indian’, I realized that it was not just linguistic disparity that caused cultural disconnects. I understood, while I was tracing the relationship that existed between my father and myself, that there was an innate tendency in every human being to go back like an investigator and find forensic evidences that connected himself with a larger context and continuity of events.


I am not a Darwinian and I do not agree with the notions of natural selection and survival of the fittest. Nor do I believe that talents are genetic in nature that gets perpetuated from generation to generation. In this sense I am closer to the Marxian theories that argue man as a product of his materialistic circumstances. We often see the children of singers becoming singers or showing a talent to sing. We see doctors’ kids turning into doctors as they grow up. We see children of actors and actresses becoming well known actors and actresses of their own merit. And we decide that talent is genetic and is passed from one generation to another. Interestingly, while we make this generalization, we don’t see the fact that thousands of kids born to singers, actors, dancers and so on do not follow their parents’ paths nor even show their talents, and opt for a totally different life. What do we say about them?  That’s why I like to believe in what A.R.Rahman said about his formative years as a musician.

A.R.Rahman was born to a R.K.Sekhar, a music arranger of yester years and a good music composer. Sekhar was one of the best arrangers of the South Indian music industry so that he was always in demand by the famous music composers. They devised the tunes and handed over it to Sekhar. He did the rest of the magic. Result was that Sekhar could not compose much of his own compositions. Hectic schedules affected his health and he died young leaving a family of small kids behind. A.R.Rahman was interested in Harmonium and keyboard as a child. He was a like a fish swimming in water. A fish does not know that it is swimming. It is just being. Rahman was like this fish. He grew up amongst these instruments and when he touched them they gave him music in return. I could site people like Dr.Balamuralikrishna, Kunnukudi Vaidyanathan, L.Subramanyan, Sivamani and so on who grew up in music and could handle most of the instruments without training. (I remember knowing a friend in my pre-university classes who could play any musical instrument with flair and ease while I was struggling with Tabla for years). Once his father was dead and gone, to support the family, Rahman started playing key board for orchestras of famous musicians. Ilayaraja, the famous music composer was the one who took Rahman into his fold when he was just thirteen years old. And Rahman says, one has to practice for ten thousand hours to become proficient in any (musical) instrument.

(Young A.R.Rahman with his keyboard)

Ten thousand hours. When I was reading his biography, this mention of ten thousand hours caught me by force. I thought it was easy to practice daily two hours rigorously and it would take around seven to eight years to become a good player. But do we have that kind of time with us? That’s why we say we should start learning things when we are kids. Kids are not preoccupied with too many things. They can find two hours to practice anything. But ten thousand hours of practice is a real thing and my argument is anybody could become anything if one could practice it for ten thousand hours with total devotion and inclination. Hence, it is not just about genetics. Talent is not just a genetic code passed from a parent to child. But I am sure at some level, the talents are present in the genes. It manifests at some stage in the lineage; that’s why a totally dumb pair of parents could produce children with exceptional skills for acquiring knowledge and implementing it in various field. Milieu shapes children and makes men and women of talent out of them.

Though I argued my case about children becoming talented, my idea was to find their connection with their past and heritage. I am always amused when I look at dogs. Even if they are on a marble floor they make a few rounds as if they were trying to catch their tails before they lie down for a good nap. I made some studies on this dog behaviour and found out that the dogs were originally from grassy lands in the forest areas. Before they were domesticated, they used to live inside the thick fields of grass. They wanted to make it sure that their area was clear of enemies. To keep a watch on the approaching enemies they made a few rounds on the grass so that the grass got compressed and a crater like area was formed. From this crater he could see enemies approaching through the tall grass around. This movement has been coded in the dog genes. That’s why, the scientists say that they move a few rounds before they sleep even today even if they are in their cosy dog houses.

(Sleeping Dog)

Hence my argument is that in every human being there are some past codes stored. At some stage these codes are activated and that drive the human beings to go out in search of their past. Though many do not set out for a journey to make a deliberate connection with their past or the rich heritage of their country, there are some junctures that make them aware of their past heritage. Today’s kids are brought up in a different milieu. They are connected to the world in a different way through internet and other communication devices. When they are exposed to a variety of cultures and forms, they do not take any particular interest in the so called authentic culture or life style. If somebody imposes these things on them, they just rebel and refuse to take in the arguments for cultural heritage. I would say, in our cultural context also (just as in the politico-economic contexts) our children live in a conflict zone. They are taught about the cultural heritage in the school level, through books, television programs, from grandparents and so on. But out there, they are exposed to a totally different corporatized culture. When you are young there is a tendency to embrace the new and vibrant. Youth like to be in Today. And often ‘today’ is presented as a zero-conflict zone. Hence you take everything unquestioningly.

There would be a snapping point at some stage when the children (they could be now forty years old) realize the need for their cultural heritage and past. Then they become dogs in a steppe. They start moving round and round.  Their journey starts then and there of that snapping moment. There  are a few reasons that cause a thought process in a human being in order to remove the cultural disconnect and  activate the process of getting connected to the cultural heritage. The reasons could be the following: Love, Accident, Death, War, Pestilence, Injustice and Migration. If you look at all these ‘occurrences’ in your life, you could see that there happens a sudden jolt, a rupture and a tendency to connect with something ‘different/new’. That’s why when you are in love you feel disconnected to the present and crave for a past that was golden and less of conflicts.

 (Bhoomika Jain)

A child becomes a man or woman when he/she faces birth or death. I always wonder, especially when I go to the Parents Teacher Meetings in my son’s school, why the parents are over concerned about their kids’ education. I have come to the conclusion that when a parent is over concerned about the general knowledge of his/her child, I am sure, during his/her youthful days this parent was not giving a damn to general knowledge or rocket science. The birth of their children has changed them. Their journey starts then and there.  Hence, I am sure that at some stage, these kids are going to go back and learn about their cultural heritage and learn a few things about that. And above all they would be proud of their past not in a fanatical way. Then we cannot say it for sure that every human being who faces a rupture in life starts the journey and finds it. No, there is no democracy, fraternity and equality in intimately private experiences.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Between Black and White Artists- The Brown Ones’ Dilemma


My friend, artist, problem solver, mentor to many young artists and above all a great human being Somu Desai, who lives in Pardi, near the industrial city of Vapi, a border district of Gujarat with Maharashtra, asks me a very pertinent question: Why many artists are still enamoured by the White/Western world? Why do Indian artists need endorsement from the white world? When shall we stand on our own feet? Somu Desaid adds in his facebook message that he knows it is a sensitive issue to talk about but he is very keen to know my opinion about it. I am also aware of the fact that it would be a very touchy issue for many that certain observations from my side could even sound like coming out of a perennial xenophobia. Hence, I would like to be as balanced as possible while answering this question raised by Somu Desai.

The simplest answer to this question could come from understanding a phenomenon called the ‘Stockholm Syndrome’. This is a strange and complex psychological situation in which a captive/hostage feels absolute sympathy and love for the captors. In a hostage situation, after spending a few days with the captors, the hostages develop some sort of bonding with the captors. The captives start feeling that they are made hostage for a justifiable cause and the captors are not criminals but true crusaders for a greater cause. This is a reverse form of trauma, which adversely affect a captive freed out of certain captured situations. If we look at our social relationships, we could see how this syndrome is operational in multiple ways.

 I could cite certain examples from our popular culture, which replicates the real life situations. In our popular movies, a young girl with a free flying soul happens to react to a certain situation in a very aggressive fashion. However justified her action is, as the audience is pushed to gaze at the situation through a pair of male eyes (refer the discussion on male gaze in movies by Laura Mulvey) and forced to feel that the exercising of her free will is totally unjustified. At this moment, the male/hero enters the scene, totally disgusted by her action (almost replicating the disgust that we as audience feel at this moment) and slaps her tightly. She looks at him with a sense of wonder. In the next scene or if the next scene is not a song scene that shows their growing fondness for each other, after a few scenes, we see the same girl now absolutely domesticated and obedient to the highhandedness of the male protagonist. In our daily lives too, women are subjected to male domination and they perpetuate this admiration for their male tormentors by doing rituals and pujas for the longevity of their lives. Similarly, old servants are seen so attached to the household and its male heads and they are even ready to sacrifice their lives for the well being of that family.

Both these cases are prime examples of Stockholm Syndrome. However, the powerful dominates you, you develop an affinity and respect for the mighty one (Politics and religion also thrive in this syndrome as the masses are made to believe in their raging and tormenting leaders and gods). When western colonialism came to India first as trade possibilities and then as governance of an ungovernable land and people, people started believing in the illusion that only the white people could govern well. Despite the heavy subjection, the subjects under this colonial rule thought that these white people were here for our common good. This was operational in socio-political and cultural and economic spheres very effectively because the relationship between the colonial masters and the subjects was always based on the binaries of existence and projected realities.

(Nature-Culture binary in Devdas poster)

These disparate and condescending binaries started off from the very separation of nature from culture. Nature and culture were pitted against each other as opposing ideas. While nature stood for all uncouth (uncooked/raw) and unrefined objects/behaviours, culture stood for everything that was cooked and refined. In a theoretical level, villages were viewed as nature and cities were viewed as culture. In the same way, women were considered as nature and men were taken for culture. So the colonial masters called their subjects as ‘Natives’, the unrefined people from ‘nature’ (natal, nativity, nature and so on have the same linguistic root that connotes ‘birth). As western colonisers were white in complexion, they infused this idea amongst people that all what was white was always good/culture and all what was dark was always wrong/nature. The white was the tamer because he was sophisticated, he had sophisticated weapons and was in possession of scientific knowledge. And the brown was the tamed who lacked in sophistication and knowledge.

That does not mean that the Indians were a pack of uncouth people living in a dark age when the colonial masters arrived. Indians too were sophisticated in their own ways, their world view was considerably different from that of the occidental guests. Their governance was developed enough to control and develop new kingdoms. The White colonial masters found that India was a country full of chieftains and kings fighting each other for maintaining their supremacy, often victimising the ordinary people who belonged to the working class, through heavy taxations. The British colonial system found this situation quite fertile enough to perpetuate not only their economic interests but also their political ideologies. That was how the British Empire too the charge of India from the East India Company. Taking the infighting between the local kings as a socio-political advantage, the British gained the confidence of people by offering them a peaceful life. The British, unlike the former colonisers in this land became a part of the general life of India, often imposing his presence through better knowledge, industry and power.

 (Indian Railways- A British Introduction)

The influence of Stockholm Syndrome starts at this juncture. The British had introduced rail, postal service, health services and so on. These positive measures imparted a feeling that the British were here for ruling us permanently and whatever they would do were the right things to be done. If you look at the change in dress code even in the rural areas from the late 19th century onwards, we could see that even the ordinary people wearing an overcoat and a cap. The British had consolidated power in India and they imparted the idea that the powerful was the right people and white was always right. White possessed better knowledge and skills. They prepared people thinking like white in brown bodies for the functioning of the British government locally, through an ideological educational system. Slowly, our mindset was transformed considerably. Despite all the subjections, we thought that the British was always good and white was right.

The power and influence that the British left on Indian psyche was so strong that after they left India in 1947, the new government of India literally perpetuated and replicated the very idea of British Rule in different ways. Our leaders started living in the bungalows that the British had left here. Our leaders started behaving like the British/White people in brown bodies. Despite the strong influence of Mahatma Gandhi, the majority of Indian population thought that British was right especially when the democracy was going to dogs during the post independence years. Like the hostages freed from captivity, many Indians thought that the British were far better than the Indian rulers. They nostalgically thought about British rule. They wanted to become the upholders of the western values because they thought that it was better than any other system.

(Rajnikant retaliates against the heroine by speaking English)

The colonial footprints are now not just fossilized imaginations or museum pieces. They are very strong even today. Our films have been very influential in perpetuating this idea of white being always right in many ways. When a ‘cultured’ girl offends the hero by calling him an uncouth person, the hero bursts into a long dialogue in English to the surprise of the heroine. This invites a round of applause and hysteria amongst the audience because, English language shows sophistication and power. If you speak in English, you have the power and you could say utter nonsense in accented English and get away with it. That’s why many of our artists who abroad for studying for six months or one year, come back with an affected accent. They think that the white is right and to be on the right side they should speak in accented English.

In fact, today we live in an absolutely different world. The borders are now porous though thanks to international terrorism migration has become a bit difficult. However, the internet has opened a different world for many people in the world. I always feel that chatting does not have an accent; it has only spelling mistakes or deliberate abbreviations. Yet, we have not come out of the colonial hangover. Even our media tend to call our artists ‘Indian Damien Hirsts’, ‘Indian Picassos’ and so on. It comes from the feeling that to be international or to be globally accepted you should be attached to a white western name. This comes from our colonial Stockhome syndrome. Many of our artists also believe that getting the endorsement of the white world is very important because he/she still believes that the power lies in white people. And indirectly he/she admits his inferiority as an Indian (it is a very personal complex and is not shared by all Indians) before the white people. That’s why, even a white backpacker is treated like a Richard Gere or Brad Pitt when he gate crashes in parties in India.

 (Brad Pitt)

Some may argue that in today’s world there is no white and black divide. But it is just an illusion. Unless and until the black/brown/yellow worlds believe that they are right in their own ways and the whites are right in their own ways, and none is superior or inferior to another, the white supremacy and the brown servility are going to remain there. I am not an advocate of fanatic nationalism. Love, sex and dhoka are beyond nationalism. And I believe love, sex and dhoka are the fundamentals of all creativity.

There is a misconception amongst the Indian artists that to be an international artist, he should emulate some art language created by a white Euro-British-American male artist. He does not understand the simple fact that the white man’s art comes from his own experiential and materialistic realities. Even if we say that now we have an ironed out world and the tastes and living realities are uniform all over the world, our experiences are difference as much as our realities are. We find an ironed out world only inside the malls, high end pubs, hotels, five star hotels, airport lounges and so on. And be sure people do not really live inside malls and airport lounges. During the boom time, many artists who were continuously jet setting took the illusion of living off suitcases in the airport lounges for their permanent reality. They suffer today and suffer acutely.

(Somu Desai)

I conclude this article with two more observations: First, be proud of what you are should be the first and foremost ethical value that an artist should inculcate in his life and practice. He should be political and spiritual at the same time. He should have a tongue to speak up when there is injustice around. He should have a spirit to meditate when his meditation would do greater good to a larger mass. And above all he should respect his own art. Two, veteran artist and scholar, K.G.Subramanyan, in one of his interviews says that being local is the most important thing to be international because whatever we call international is actually local in their own terms.

But unfortunately, Indian artists do not (most of them) listen. They still believe that a backpacker from the US is either Bill Gates or Brad Pitt in disguise. 

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Money is Money, Honey- Art and Money

(Money girl - source net)

Research scholar, art critic and a budding curator, Premjish Achari writes to me asking a very pertinent question regarding art and money. He formulates the question in the following fashion: With the advent of art boom in India, most of the art players including the conscience keepers of the scene, the critics, have developed a tendency to look at the price tag of a work of art than the work itself. Debates on aesthetics, the relevance of art as a socio-political tool and so on have taken a backseat as art today is treated as a commodity. My question is, is it going to be like this for a long time? Do we need to develop new strategies to understand this phenomenon or the theoretical tools developed by Marx, Frankfurt School or Frederick Jameson are still good enough to analyse this situation? If art becomes a commodity, what all does it become what all does it lose in the process of becoming a commodity?

Succinctly put by Premjish, these questions address a wide range of issues faced by the art scene/s all over the world. Premjish asks whether art is going to be a commodity forever or is it a passing phase? Interestingly, after the international market recession hit Indian shores and affected the art scene quite badly, the regular players ask the same question but in a different mood: Is this recession going to be a permanent feature or is it a passing phase? These questions show the two sides of the same coin. Art is a commodity, whether you like it or not and there is money in art. Only issue is, the money that has been poured into art/business, is slightly dried up now. So the concern is, is it going to be like this forever or is it going to change for the good? While Premjish’s concern is to de-link art from money and take it more as a vehicle of human sublimation and redemption, the other group’s concern is to link art back to its commodity status.

(Cave paintings from Bimbedka, Madhya Pradesh)

At the outset itself, let me put it quite straight- art has become a commodity and there is a business involved in art. Andy Warhol had once famously said that the best form of art is business. Perhaps Warhol was expressing the materialistic conditions of his times when the US was gaining undisputable position as the leader of the world economy. However, we also know that the art of art is hiding art. Today, this dictum is changed- today the art of art is splurging on it, if not by the artist, but by the buyers, collectors, dealers and so on. Any sociological enquiry would take us to the very basic fact that in the beginning art was not a commodity and over a period of time it became a commodity with monetary values attached to it. When did this transition exactly happen?

It is said that art came as an expression of human activities, sentiments and emotions including hunting, love and fear. Those people who lived in the jungles did not think of art as a form of commodity. They drew images on the cave walls or inscribed messages on the rocks, carved shapes in wood and so on. These activities should be seen as a part of human beings’ cognitive development vis-a-vis his environment. Then as settlements developed, these expressions got religious and ritualistic dimensions. This also shows a transition of this human activity (of making something that we call art today) from individualistic pursuits to collective engagements. When art became a tool of proto-religious practice some kind of organizational aspect came around it. Art became a part of the establishment (in whatever forms) and the artist became a man of ‘status’ patronised by the respective establishments. This helped in developing guilds with a master craftsman/artist at its head and innumerable apprentices under him.

(Andy Warhol)

The words, ‘patron’ and ‘patronage’ are very important in understanding the transformation of art from a human expression to commodity. Once artistic expression became a part of the establishment, the establishment heads automatically became the patrons of such ‘artists’. A new social relationship was developed between the artists and the patrons in the evolving socio-religious structures. This relationship gave some sort of permanency to artistic activities and even outside the religious practices, art came to have a relevance and reason at least for the artist who had pursued it. Sophistication of expression, derivation of visual linguistics and grammar, evolution of patters, symbolic logic of representation and so on evolved as a result of this process. And the patrons helped the artists to ‘codify’ their times visually and permanently for the sake of the posterity. The development of religions and their insistence on the notion of life after death (a visible life here and an invisible life beyond) might have induced a desire for ‘eternity’ (which could pass from this life to the other life) amongst the artists as well as the patrons.

The origin of commodification of art could be traced somewhere here in this historical interface of religion and social life. Both in the western and the eastern societies we see temples and religious centres, including the caves selected for spiritual recess, becoming the centres of art. In these sites art became a prime thing thanks to royal patronage. Art that was an integral part of the architecture became a visual symbol for the opulence of power and glory of the patron. Kings and emperors wanted to tell the world about their glory and ‘eternity’ through commissioning works of art. Though we see, artistic process is commodified (as it is paid by patrons), the very result of it (the works of art) was not commodified. Patronage for art became a very strong political, religious and social symbolism of power. A cursory glance at the history of the Medici family in Rome would tell how art patronage was an integral part of political, religious and social manoeuvrings.

(Cosimo di Medici)

In the post Renaissance period, with the waning of fiefdoms all over the world and the proliferation of industrialization and colonial incursions, guilds were shattered and the genius of the individual artist was recognized (artistic genius started evolving by the 14th century). But in the new socio-political scenario, artist was a loner and destitute though fired by genius was devoid of materialistic support. Stabilization of power brought economic profits for many kingdoms, fiefdoms, colonial governments and so on and they all now wanted to ‘promote’ the art and culture by patronizing the individual artist. This also was partially led by the idea of ‘eternity’ of the yester years. If you remember, most of the travelling artists of the colonial period did the same thinking that the local chieftains and royalties would commission them to do family portraits and related glories.

Stabilization power not only brought economic surplus but also it brought the abstract notions of tradition and culture. Conservation and preservation of certain values and the objects that embodied those values became an imperative for many of the patrons. This was the origin of museums. It started off as a house of curios and slowly developed into the museums that we know today. When something could be collected and preserved, or when something could be detached from its functional role and brought as an object for aesthetic contemplation, it assumed the value of a work of art. That means museumification of objects led to the idea of detaching the functional value of ‘art’ from its locations and turning it completely into an object of aesthetic contemplation. In that sense, works of art commissioned by the patrons from the individual artists became ‘alienated’ (in the Marxian sense) objects de-linked from their actual function of documenting a family history or locality for establishing ‘eternity’. This private commissioning of works for preservation, therefore alienated aesthetic contemplation seems to have given commodity status to a work of art.

(Louvre Museum, Paris)

Even in this situation, the preserve-able works of art were not commissioned for ‘exchange’. Any object becomes a commodity when it assumes the power of exchange for value. Hence, we should say that art became a commodity when the patrons started exchanging/bartering/ or even buying and selling works of art for the sake of preservation. That means there happened a further alienation; in this context the buyer does not commission a work of art, instead he ‘collects’ it for the sake of keeping or further exchanging. At the same time, these activities gave the buyer the assurance of ‘eternity’, ‘social status’ and so on. By this time, individual artists were also growing up as strong social presences. They were not just artisans and apprentices in guilds. They were individuals with clear cut political, religious and social affiliations. In that sense, these individual artists were expressing their ‘opinion’ through their aesthetical expressions. Those who acquired the works from these artists were in fact endorsing that view of the artist or finding those views akin to those held dear by the ‘buyers’ themselves.

Works of art got a pure sense of commodity with the advent of galleries, which in fact was a by product of the house of curios or museums. Galleries came to play a major role in art scene by 19th century, as places of aesthetic contemplation and places of buying and selling art. The patrons now could visit a gallery, look at a work of art at their own leisure. They were entertained by the gallerists. They could meet the artists, make friends with them, meet people of equal footing in the society and so on. Slowly galleries became hubs of art activities as artists find the galleries and easy option for finding patronage without moving around with their wares like hawkers. Though galleries came in as a by product of museum thinking, it did not have anything to do with museum as a philosophical discourse. Galleries were commercial places brought in by the changing social realities of the times.

(Karl Marx)

However, pure commodiification of a work of art happened once the museums and galleries started developing a nexus between them and their practices. By the 20th century, galleries had taken a strong position in the chain of art production, dissemination and consumption. The more powerful a gallery became the more its presence felt in the scene. Slowly it led to the arbitration of taste and the birth of gallerists as taste makes or connoisseurs. The rich and powerful, who now became patrons of art for their own reasons (of which surplus money and profit take a major part) did not have much time to mingle with artists or their environments. Gallerists and other taste makers (critics and writers) decided the buying tendencies for them. It was a happy situation. Artists needed money and the new buying class mediated by the gallerists and art critics and other taste makers provided a good ambience for producing and buying art. Selling in the secondary market was yet to come.

Secondary market sales therefore art as a pure commodity which has a resale value and an appreciation unlike many other commodities (other than real estate) was the new phenomenon. When any commodity whose production is less compared to the demand, secondary market become operational. In the case of art, thanks to the auction houses, gallery-museum nexus, works of art came to have an investment potential. It is much nuanced a phenomenon than said. A work of art assumes investment values when it is treated as an abstract commodity with attributable values than real values. Attributable values are proportionate with history, culture, nationalism, status, politics, power, religion, biography, name, fame, fortune, myth and so on. Each buyer in the art market has a reason from a basket of reasons to pick up a work of art. The very same reason could be applicable for many others. Hence there is a demand against a short supply as works of art are not produced in assembly line (boom made it an assembly line production, which was the flipside of it). This disparity between demand and supply causes increase in the price, which indicates the investment value. And it is projected that in the pyramid of art hierarchy, an artist who has the potential to reach a museum (as a collectible), he is the one who is to be collected. This causes a flurry of activities in the secondary market. When he is in absolute short supply, people look for someone who works like ‘him’. This leads to a speculation that every artist is capable enough to reach ‘museum’.

(Frederick Jameson)

This is what exactly happened during our boom time (2005- 2008); hopeless speculation and mindless buying. The market players including the gallerists (those who were taste makers of yester years just fell from that position to just hawkers), critics, writers and everyone was asked to do lip service for the secondary market activities. Everyone became a star because of the projected short supply and everyone’s fate to be in a museum. This situation is bound to change.

Coming to the other aspects of Premjish’s questions: Art cannot be now reversed from its commodity status. What could be changed is the speculation that says everyone is a great artist and bound to end up in museums. To clear the situation, we need to demarcate investors from art collectors. What is common in both the parties is their tendencies to offload works of art as and when they feel it. What is uncommon about them is their ways of purchasing and keeping a work of art. When an investor buys a work of art, he goes by the words of the ‘seller’ who masquerades as a consultant. A consultant, as she is a part of the machine called market, would tell the investor that X or Y is going to be a museum artist in the coming future. With the help of chart and data, she would prove that her arguments are fool proof. Hence the investor puts in money thinking only about the profit that he is going to make in the coming five years. The gap between buying and the five years wait gives him enough satisfaction as a ‘collector’ and as a ‘cultured’ person. But a collector is absolutely different in his ways of collecting. He would not go by a consultant’s words. He has his gut feelings about an artist and he is always a student of his collection. He may collect an artist who would never reach a museum, still he would be happy about his collection. He offloads some of the works from his collection when he grows tired of those works. He either makes use of the funds to buy new works or create room for other works to breath freely.

(Premjish Achari)

Art as a socio-political tool is an effective notion still. So long as a work of art is produced by a human being, who is not ‘programmed’ like a cyborg, he/she is going to express his responses to the social events and situations in his works of art. They become subtle or volatile registration of the same, whether he is bought by a collector or an investor. Real art writers and critics would find him at some stage even if he is living in a forest. Problem of our country, as far as art is concerned, is the lack of funding for independent projects. Artists become addicted to money matters and deviate from their chosen path when they are allured by the glitter and glamour of the art market. If there is funding, artists could do their work and be happy. In those countries where funding system is prevalent, artists write projects, apply for funds and do their works. Only those people who have intelligent projects get funding. In this world everyone cannot be a successful artist, if success is measured by monetary gains. Finally, art market is an irreversible phenomenon. We could use Marxist, Neo-Marxist and Jameson-ian theories to analyse and understand this phenomenon and implement them as corrective tools for larger common good. I am optimistic about that day when more and more artists turn towards sustainable art projects. I am sure there would be a day when artist would step out of their studios and do agriculture or retreat from this maddening world and like the sages of our golden times become the conscience our society. 

Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Curious Case of Subodh Gupta

(Subodh Gupta)

Delhi based photography artist and my dear friend Anurag Sharma asks me, after reading my take on the tendency of artists copying themselves, about Subodh Gupta. He asks whether Subodh’s works that have kitchen utensils as their major component could be called ‘self repetitive’ works. Close to the heel of this question, my former student and artist Vaibhav Sharma writes to me a very long mail to tell me how he looks at the whole issue of artists’ tendency to be self repetitive. In this mail he takes up Jitish Kallat’s ‘bone’ works as a point of reference and debates by saying that couldn’t it be a sort of ingenuity that helps the artist to do make different forms and shapes through the repetitive use of a catchy material.

Perhaps I have been always waiting for these questions. If anyone raises the issue of installation, style and repetition in the context of Indian contemporary art context, can there be a situation that does not invite a question on Subodh Gupta or Jitish Kallat? There cannot be one. Many, in their circles must be asking these questions quite loud and harsh and must be debating it with due vehemence and clarity. However, many would not dare to ask these questions because as these artists have been transported to certain levels of godliness vis-a-vis our art scene, very few dare to question them in public. It is not just about ‘questioning’ them in a negative sense, but raising questions so that the artists feel the responsibility to answer those questions, of course in a responsible fashion. I am happy for these questions put to me because it tells the artists indirectly that ‘Look, here there are people who are watching you. You just cannot get away with anything that you do.’

To anybody who looks at the recent works of Subodh Gupta, it would be quite natural to think that Subodh repeats himself, not only in methods and materials but also in ideas. It is very easy to hurl an allegation and step back. But we need to address the contexts in which Subodh, consciously or sub-consciously, feels the pressure to repeat his own methods and materials. To address this issue we need to look at the creative practice of Subodh in its entirety. Also we need to see how Subodh as an artist evolved during the last two decades as an artist whose name rings familiar when uttered even in the international art circles.

(Subodh Gupta giving a lecture)

I remember Subodh giving an interview to some foreign corresponded a few years back (which is available in youtube and you may check by youtubing Subodh Gupta there) where speaks of his childhood and his encounters with Indian mythology through films and other popular cultural forms. This is a pointer to understand Subodh’s personality formation and the ways of his thinking. Though the comment might be a momentary response to a question asked to him by a foreigner in a foreign location surrounded by not so familiar people, the sudden establishment of his connection with Indian mythology should be taken both as an anchor of his cultural outlook and as a context of his creative understanding.

Subodh comes from a Hindu family and milieu soaked in Hindu mythology. When you are a child you tend to believe in demons, angels, gods and their various incarnations. You believe in the largeness of life and the life before and beyond life. You develop this idea of magnanimity through the medium of your innocent imagination.  You don’t differentiate much between you and the mythical characters. A young child could speak to his invisible companions because those invisible presences are so real for him. As he grows up he loses this sense of reality and is replaced by a strong sense of material realism. You grow sceptical and negate the existence of gods and demons. You develop your social thinking that leads you to a political thinking. You become so frustrated and disturbed by the existing material realities and you feel like breaking everything down and creating everything new. But soon you realize your incapability of doing so. Shamed by your own impotence, you leave your place and walk to another land in order to gain strength and visibility so that you could go back and facilitate changes in your own place.

(Subodh Gupta with one of his works)

You are political till you have this idea of changing. Self perpetuation of the existing reality is a stagnated situation and you want to change it. Subodh Gupta comes to Delhi with this fire in his mind. His early works (including the theatre and films he has acted in) have the fire of a young man who wants to change his reality. Like anybody who comes to an urban centre where opportunities beckon you like the displayed dishes in a sweet shop. Only you need to gather enough money and momentum to buy those sweets. Opportunities are abundant. Subodh also had seen these opportunities and he knew that he needed to find out ways to make use of those opportunities. And opportunities came through contacts and affiliations.

In a performance work he did during the initial years of Khoj in late 1990s Subodh lied down on a clearing covered all over with mud. Before doing that he had created a huge hut out of dried cow dung cake. This mud/sun bath and cow dung cake hut that reminded one of the domes of a nuclear plant was interesting because this was how Subodh was introducing his past and its present and the huge possibilities to a larger audience in Delhi. It brought the mythological affiliations he had besides the rural milieu within which he had grown up. This work had set the tone of Subodh’s future works. And that’s why when his major solo show happened with the Nature Morte gallery in Delhi, he could bring the lathis, bicycles, milk cans and so on casted in aluminium and bronze.

(Work by Subodh Gupta)

As far as Subodh was concerned at that particular juncture of success in his creative life in Delhi, he was coming out as a political artist with a sheer sense of cynicism towards the aesthetic object. This Bihar rural boy with no linguistic skills (Subodh’s speeches for the scholarly audience could be compared to the speeches of Lalu Prasad Yadav, former Bihar Chief Minister and Central Railway Minister, who had given lectures in high end institutes like IITs and IIMs regarding the topic of effective management after his successful stint as the central Railway Minister) was responding to the urban public’s taste in a critical way by placing something totally non-palatable before them in highly solidified sculptural forms. The lathis (long sticks) that he used were emblematic of the violence as well as the quotidian like of a rural Bihari. The milk cans and cycles were the daily reality. How they could be brought into the plush houses of the art collectors. Subodh was successful in getting even his cow dung cake hut into the dining room of one of the richest collectors in India. How could one afford to have cow dung cakes in a posh dining room when cow dung cake cooking is considered to be quite ‘vernie’ and ‘desi’ for the rich and the sophisticated?

Making the rich and the sophisticated to buy the rural Biharis’ lota (a metal pot that is used both for drinking water from and washing bottom after toilet use)  and to go gaga over their latest buy of Subodh Gupta was a critical ploy used by Subodh Gupta in late 1990s. His political aesthetics became quite handy as he could find not only lathis and cycles and many other things from his repository of images from the rural life and imaginations. Bringing the urban middle class and all his vagaries and cleverness to survive in the big bad world, and also the ultimate survival of the politicians in this country called India, Subodh meticulously chose the images like Bajaj Scooter (the pre-globalized Indian’s ultimate dream of mobility), and the Ambassador car (the arrogance of a nationalized economy embodied in the body of a car which could masquerade both as a powerful symbol of political supremacy and an ordinary man’s taxi) for his sculptural renditions. And it was first time in India that someone casts the whole object into another medium. A car could be made in a factory but what about a car that could be casted in a factory and render it completely useless as a car and elevate into the level of an aesthetic object? Subodh did it and it was quite political move in art.

(Ambassador- Subodh Gupta)

But this was that juncture when Subodh slowly turns into a victim of the revenge of the urban art collectors who strategically makes him into a celebrity of sorts. Though one, with the increased visibility naturally turn into a celebrity, the mechanizations behind this image boosting was a result of the investment point that the rich and powerful had seen in Subodh at that point of time. But Subodh was a rebel. He shirked off such attributed glamour by turning his attention to the plights of the NRIs in general and the NRBs in particular (Non resident Indians and Non Resident Biharis). Ambassador cars that ply as taxis near the airports, the luggage tied on their carriers, the baggage trolleys and so on became a part of Subodh’s paintings and sculptures at this point. With this introduction of image ensemble in his works, Subodh was talking about the labor export and migration of the Biharis since the time of colonialism. He knew that poverty, illiteracy, hostile climates, bad governance, feudalism, casteism and so on had sent the Biharis as indentured labours in foreign farms. Subodh, consciously or sub-consciously brought all those discourses in his art. I don’t think it was addressed fiercely by the Indian critics and curators as they were more interested in Subodh as a celebrity than a politically inclined artist.

From here Subodh turns his attention to the utensils. It is here that I would like to underline Subodh’s upbringing in a Bihari Hindu household and in the milieu of mythologies. In mythologies kitchen utensils play a great role. It is totally connected with food and satisfaction. Most of my readers must be knowing the story of Akshaya Patram (the vessel that could bring forth any amount of food. Krishna eats a grain of rice from it and sends all the visitors full and happy). If you visit any rural household one could see the way the people give respect to their utensils. They keep it clean and arranged. They literally do installation art with their vessels and utensils. A society that lives a hand to mouth existence, kitchen utensils are very important. Even the pavement dwellers keep their utensils arranged and clean. In the Indian dowry practice, especially amongst the middle class and lower middle class sending the bride away to her bridegroom’s house will not be complete affair if there are not enough kitchen utensils in her dowry package.

(Painting by Subodh Gupta)

Subodh was trying to bring all these experiences in his works when he was taking up utensils as his dominant imagery. He used chimtas, vessel racks, huge eating plates and so many of their permutations and combinations. Even he could develop a whole city on the move out of vessels and motor mechanism. It was fine till then. I have feeling that when you reach some stage of your glory, you tend to perpetuate the same glory. You become worried about your own status. Then you need to replicate the same situation again and again. Subodh seems to have fallen victim to this idea of perpetuation of existing situation, which he was completely against, when he came to Delhi first time. Now he realizes that he is Subodh Gupta brand and the brand needs the brand identification marks. The utensils have become the byword for his brand value.

(Spirit Eaters-Performance organized by Subodh Gupta)

I should explain why and how Subodh has lost his political edge: When he was introducing the quotidian materials with sufficient cynicism, he was aspiring for the changes that he could bring forth in the society, at least to his own society through a cultural discourse. For that he wanted to remain terribly political but cleverly subtle on the expressions of the same. This strategy worked well for him. But when he realized at some stage that he could replicate and magnify the already saturated images not only in his memory but also in the public memory, he lost his political edge. Now it is like a play. Give him anything he could replicate them with utensils welded together. It is like someone practicing juggling. First you start with two balls and then you increase the number. You get some kind of fun out of doing it. But a juggler muses the public only up to certain extent because they would move on as other spectacles in a carnival or mela appear before them.

(Line of Control- Subodh Gupta)

Postscript: You may ask me then what about Christo who covered objects and cars and then Reichstag of Germany. I have the answer. Christo idea of packaging came as a response to the packaging culture of the west. It was sort of reaction against the commoditiy fetish-ism of the society. But then he wanted to cover the ‘un-coverable’. German parliament, the seat of power was considered to be beyond all creative and critical interventions despite the cruel histories involved with it. Christo fought a legal war with the government and that lasted for almost twelve years. Finally he could cover it. A work of art transcends itself into a political dialogue when the artist consciously does it. Of late, Subodh has started attempting at food and waste as a concept. But orgy of the rich happens often on the waste of their own richness including food. Subodh’s critique of the same through the large scale paintings of unwashed vessels and the eating performance does not turn effective mainly because today Subodh’s personality is considered to be closely connected to that orgy culture. Subodh needs to take a sabbatical as even his negation of the very aspect of paintings through bronze casting the reverse side of canvases seems to be falling only in the zone of spectacle and juggling in the carnival. Subodh Gupta should sit under a Bodhi Tree. Perhaps he too wants it. That’s why recently he did a  ‘bodhi tree’ of utensils.