Friday, April 29, 2016

A Brief History of the Performance Artist Shantanu Lodh and His Times

(Shantanu Lodh)

I just could not read what must be going on in his mind by the looks in his eyes. They stare at me like two shiny black silver beads. Those are the eyes of Shantanu Lodh who has been bedridden paralyzed since October 2015 after a road accident.

Last week, Indian Express newspaper told us that Shantanu was on the road to recovery. The photograph accompanying the news bit was an old one but it suddenly gave us a new hope. He would struggle back to normalcy; we would see the good old Shantanu Lodh who paused each sentence with a typical Bengali ‘eh’.

Rare are such friends like Roy Thomas, a contemporary artist, former colleague of Shantanu in the Mira Model School where this trio ‘Atul Bhalla-Roy Thomas-Shantanu Lodh’ taught in late 1990s, who would stick to a friend in any dire situation. Roy Thomas has been visiting Shantanu in the GB Pant Hospital in Delhi and also in Alwar, Rajasthan where Shantanu is currently being rehabilitated at the Sapna Foundation.

Who is Shantanu Lodh, many youngsters and senior generation artists may ask. Ten years is not that a long period, yet many must have already forgotten him because after a scandalous and curiosity evoking performance at Khoj in Delhi in 2005 Shantanu almost went in missing partly due to familial issues and partly by choice. In January 2012, Shantanu participated in an exhibition, after much coaxing and cajoling, curated by me at the Delhi’s Gallery Ragini and was titled ‘A4 Arple’. A suitable reminder of Shantanu’s daredevilry in art I exhibited his works next to the ceiling.

Shantanu did not come to the exhibition opening. 

(Shantanu Lodh at the Sapna Foundation, Alwar)

Almost two decades back, much before the officially sanctioned, authorized and publicly celebrated ‘aesthetics of vandalism’ or street art pieces started appearing on the walls of Delhi, in the Kalkaji-Okhla-Alaknanda belt people spotted the presence of certain illegible symbolic presentations and started wondering who could have been the person behind. Those who knew art history understood they looked something like the works of AR Penck, the German artist. Banksy was unheard of then. Qualifications and nicknames like ‘space occupier’ were not even mentioned anywhere. But someone was stealthily occupying the walls of Delhi.

A senior artist, who was living in that area one day, asked me over for a drink and there she introduced the artist behind the mysterious paintings on the Delhi walls. A fat, large eyed and somewhat potbellied young person with thinning hair and fleshy lips was there at the drawing room who reminded me of the young Diego Riviera, the legendary Mexican muralist. He was Shantanu Lodh. We became friends. The senior artist was patronizing him.

After a couple of weeks, when I met her again in the absence of the young artist, she told me, “He could be the next Krishnakumar.” I smiled.

For the beginners I should say who Krishnakumar was. K.P.Krishnakumar was one of the students in the first batches came out of the Trivandrum Fine Arts College in mid 1970s. A young, sturdy and stout Krishnakumar had the charisma to be a natural leader and in his times he led a pack of artists. Then he went to Santiniketan, an unlikely place for him, studied there, worked there, got into a few scandals and came to Baroda in mid 1980s to officially found the then nascent ‘Indian Radical Painters and Sculptors Association’, which is known in its short form, the Radical Group.
Historians and the members of the erstwhile Radical group are still at each others’ necks when it comes to pinpointing the circumstances that led to the formation of the Group and also to the anointing of K.P.Krishnakumar as the leader of the Radical Group. This group, in their manifesto declared that the artists of the group stood against the ‘retrogressive aesthetics’ prevalent in the Indian art of that time. The retrogressive aesthetics that the group members referring to was that of M.F.Husain, Raza, Souza and of their ilk.

The poetic justice was finally done when Krishnakumar, KM Madhusoodhanan and NN Rimzon (though not strictly a Radical Group member but a sympathizer) who could fit together in ‘Pond Near the Field’, a five persons show in the Kiran Nadar Museum that collects a vast number of ‘retrogressive’ artists and their ‘retrogressive aesthetics’ which the Radicals stood against. Time is the great leveler, if not money would, don’t worry.

K.P.Krishnakumar committed suicide in 1989 in Kerala. That incident brought the curtains down for the Radical Group and the members took another decade to recover from the shock. Many went into hiding, some switched fields and some went into sheer cynicism and yet another lot still live like Radicals, fitting neither here nor there; living anachronisms.

The senior artist was finding another Krishnakumar in Shantanu Lodh.

What did she mean by that?

Was she saying that Shantanu could lead another ‘Radical’ movement in Indian art scene? Or Shantanu was as strong an artist as Krishnakumar? Or Shantanu will suicide at some point? Or simply he was a good boyfriend material? 

(Indian Express report)

Shantanu’s Krishnakumar phase was short lived. The way a Bengali understood Marxism and the way a North Indian middle class woman interpreted it from books were two different things. I believe that was the reason why Shantanu walked out of his first patron in Delhi. Many years later I heard that one of the reasons why Manmeet, his estranged wife and artist, walked out on him was his obsession with what he understood. A liberal Communist, Shantanu took the liberty to wake his wife up at odd hours to discuss art and revolution.

When people assume themselves as Sartre and Beauvoir, they forget that the 20th century intellectual giants too had their eating, shitting and sleeping times out of the Parisian cafes.

Whoever ejected or rejected you, you had somebody there at Mandi House in 1990s. Mandi House was the physical whatsapp group of the yesteryears, as far as the migrant artists in Delhi were concerned. You could go there, sit in the library or in the canteen and wait for your friends to come and they did. During the summer months, you could sneak into the Sahitya Academy library halls to catch a nap in the temperature controlled interiors.

I had come to Delhi in mid-90s with no acquaintances or friends. Someone had told me to go to Mandi House. I made my life in Delhi because I went to Mandi House. I met everyone there. Shantanu too went to Mandi House. And his life and art was shaped in that place.

Shantanu perhaps never wanted to become a school teacher. But to live and survive in Delhi one had to do something. Shantanu had to live here. And the best was to join a school where his friends taught. Atul Bhalla and Roy Thomas taught in the Mira Model School in Janak Puri. Shantanu got the job there as an art teacher.

These three young and emerging artists were moving in three different directions. A heavy bearded Atul Bhalla was struggling to find a language of his own through his paintings and watercolors. Roy Thomas was more like a traditionalist who painted with the severity and sincerity of a painter. He had already finished his experimental stage by making huge paintings on tarpolin. Now he was painting canvases and was sort of managing between school and studio. Shantanu was the unmarried one amongst the three and was considered to be ‘more radical than others’ and could easily move into the intellectual circles, ripples within the ripples created in Mandi House and then spread out to Max Mueller Bhavan, British Council and Santiniketan, a rich neighborhood in Delhi where some godfathers and godmothers of Indian art scene lived.

Working in the same school, drawing more or less the same salary and doing their art created a healthy competition between these three artists and I believe that it was Shantanu’s presence that created the present day Atul Bhalla and Roy Thomas. I do not intend to say that Shantanu taught them something or showed them the way. But Shantanu did show them the possibility of doing and hoping; and at times simply showing the mid-finger. Atul Bhalla grew into a conceptual artist and Roy Thomas, a fine painter. 

(Poster of performance or Performance poster of Shantanu and Manmeet)

There is an artist who lives in Old Delhi and comes to Mandi House every evening. Even today he does it. I do not know for how many decades he has been doing it. His name is Susheel Kumar. Though many of the contemporary performance artists do not remember his name as he was not pushing himself so hard to be in the mainstream and was rather very critical of it, he has to be acknowledged for his contributions to Indian Performance art scene. Susheel was the one who inspired the conceptual and performance artists in Shantanu Lodh and Inder Salim Tiku.

Susheel grew cynical to the fledgling contemporary art scene and moved around as a living critical vehicle than a doer of art before withdrawing to his own shell of silence. His pivotal performance was carrying a Buddha head in his hands and walking from the National School of Drama campus to the Lalit Kala Akademi premises in Mandi House. It did not create such cry and hue because India was still tolerant even after Babri Masjid.

Shantanu took up the threads where Susheel had left it. He collaborated with large hoarding projects in and around Mandi House and mostly the hoarding featured the pictures of both Shantanu and Inder Salim. ‘Hum Tum Ek Kamre mein Band Ho’ said one of the hoardings. It was a criticism on the galleries in India (retrogressive art!). Art was held captive in galleries; that was what they wanted to say. Inder Salim shot up to fame when he cut the tip of his finger off in a ‘secret ritual’ performed in an undeclared location which was privy only to people like Susheel. The selective leak of the chopping off of his finger spread far and wide giving a new halo to Inder Salim as a ‘legitimized’ practitioner of performance art in India. Inder and Shantanu performance together against the gallery practices when they dressed themselves up as two waiters who served wine and cheese during the gala openings of art shows.

Manmeet was happening in Shantanu’s life. 

(Shantanu and Maneet performing in Delhi)

Manmeet Devgun passed out from Jamia Millia Islamia in late 1990s. And she did not want to paint. What she carried around was a camera and photographing artists was her initial hobby. She too hung out in Mandi House.

A tough Punjabi girl falling in love with a soft Bengali boy should have come with an expiry date as it has been the case with a few other couples that I know personally.

Manmeet was a tough girl to chop off both Devgun and Lodh from her name. Shantanu helped her in liberating herself as an artist. The new millennium found them working together in a few projects that scandalized the ‘still conservative’ art community in India. The first one was the ‘Kissing in Public’ poster project done sometime in 2003. The idea was mooted and executed during a show curated by me in 2003 at the Arpana Art Gallery, Delhi. The show was titled ‘Dreams: Projects Unrealized’. Though the present crop of conceptual artists do not have a clue about the curatorial practices that prepared the ground for them was coming from me, the stalwarts of Indian art came to visit the show and went back dazed.

It was in this show Shantanu and Manmeet released their kissing poster which was later to be pasted all over Delhi. They did it and it was immediately removed or scraped by an uncaring public.
In 2004, I had grown disillusioned about Indian contemporary art and was thinking of quitting. 
Money had become the deciding factor of Indian contemporary art in that year. It continued to be the same for another seven years. I had to survive so I went to work in a Newspaper in Delhi. One day in 2005, I got a call from Shantanu inviting me to Khoj. I was working as a political journalist. 
Reluctant I went there. I saw among people, dust, smoke and the air thick with the smell of sweat and the beats of music, Shantanu and Manmeet in stark nakedness letting their bodies to be ‘vandalized’ by the viewers. You could write or painting on their bodies.

There was not an inch of space left in the bodies of Shantanu and Manmeet. I felt like crying and I was humbled. I stood there smiling at them. They came to me, looked into my eyes and we stood there saying nothing. I was just reminded of the famous performance of Marina Abromovic; she placed seventy two different torturing tools which had been used by the perpetrators of punishment all over the world. She stood naked before the crowd and asked them to torture her the way they wanted using those tools. Initially they were reluctant. But someone started; a pinching here or there. Within a few minutes Marina stood there like a ravaged land, her body bleeding all over. People rejoiced in torturing her. The context was art. And they were just participating in the ‘process’ of making a memorable piece of performance art. Though painful, Abromovic proved her point. Given a chance, any human being could be worse than the horrendous and hideous torturer in the world.
In the crowd in Khoj in 2005, I saw what Abromovic saw in Serbia in 1974. Shantanu and Maneet called their performance with this title: ‘Hamam mein Sab Nange hai, par Hamam Hai Kahan?’ (In the public bath everyone is naked but where are those public baths?) They were referring to a socio-cultural situation that decimated the beauty of openness and transparency in social life. More or less in the same time Chintan Upadhyay had also did one performance piece ‘Baar Baar Har bar Kitni Bar?” (Again and Again, Each Time and How many Time?) In this performance done in Baroda, Chintan sat nude and asked people to smear turmeric powder all over him. 

(Shantanu Lodh performing in Delhi with a German artist)

Shantanu and Manmeet started living together. His father moved in with them after Shantanu’s mother’s death. Shantanu was attached his mother and he used to think that he looked exactly like her.

In the Mira Model School, he called us a few people (around seven of us) and did a performance for his mother. Shantanu did not want to make that performance a spectacle. It was a Sunday afternoon. He had made his preparations.

In a tank we saw a few dark fish with sharp thorns coming out their heads. Shantanu stood before the tank. Took out a pair of scissors and cut off a few curly locks from his hair. He placed it on the tank and put a few strands into the water. Then reverently he pushed his hands inside the water in an attempt to catch the fish. First, they slipped away. Then they began to attack. Shantanu began to bleed. He took out the bleeding hands and dropped the blood on the hair and stood in silence for a few moments.

It was a performance that he did for his mother. We did not ask for the meaning. But Shantanu told us that Bengalis ate the fish that they loved.

The erotic connotation was palpable. The Oedipus angle was too profane to discuss at that moment, which however I did when he did the next performance at his home where he lived with Manmeet and his father.

(Chanchal Banga, an Indian artist based in Jersalem, Israel also had performed a ritualistic act by tonsuring himself with a coarse razor in full public view)

(Shantanu in one of his performance pieces)

Shantanu called ‘I Slapped my traditional Father’.

It is a series of photographs in which we see him in a very special tea ceremony. Here Shantanu is the son/servant with no clothes on serving his full clad father/master. The real life son standing before the real life father nude becomes blasphemous only when the father is in the advanced stage and the son is still young. Here is a Yayati moment and a lot of Oedipal complications. I have written extensively about it and you may read it in

Then Shantanu was not seen for a long time. We were looking for him. We heard that he was separated from his wife and child. As usual, wife takes all what the man has created, including children, and makes him flee. None of us was surprised as making and breaking were quite normal in the art scene.

Then I heard that Shantanu had gone in to some spiritual path. It was a very ironic course but very predictable one. A staunch materialist is the one who is prone to become a spiritualist in a given moment. The stronger materialism, the stronger is his fear to resist the spiritual calling. When the wall collapses, he just tumbles over. It happened to Shantanu. Peace is a birthright, hence I did not look at his spiritual course skeptically. As Sree Narayana Guru had once said to a Yoga practitioner, I too thought it was good for ‘fine bowel movements’. Yes, it was good for his bowel movements. Shantanu shed a few kilos and looked happy and trim. But with body mass he lost the zest for art making too. May be he was making a different art.

(Another performance by Shantanu Lodh)

Shantanu is paralyzed now and if we could believe a best friend like Roy Thomas, Shantanu is on his way back to his old self.

I believe, his very act of resisting death itself is a way of showing mid finger to the Indian contemporary art scene.

Once, I was instrumental in organizing a small camp for the ‘nange bhooke’ (naked and starving) artists of my generation in a big bureaucrat’s house in Delhi. Kaushal Sonkaria, Abhimanue VG, Mithu Sen, Shantanu Lodh, Shijo Jacob and a few others were in the camp. They were given canvases to paint.

Shantanu did his classical act. He, a la Kasimir Malevich, painted a hand showing the mid finger sign (we have it in whatsapp now) on a white surface using white paint. He went on working it for three days (we were given food packets as remuneration). From a distance it looked like a white canvas. Once you moved closer you could see the mid finger glaring back at you.

The bureaucrat came, looked at it and understood. Herself being a painter could not kick him out but kept her words for a later occasion. To my surprise, on the fourth day evening, when the dignitaries were supposed to come and see the paintings, Shantanu picked up his canvas, pressed it diagonally, creating waves across the canvas and making the wooden stretcher jut out of four corners like a badly broken human limb, kept it on the easel and walked off. The bureaucrat came and in fully fury she asked me to re-stretch it. I refused and slowly by the time the bureaucrats came Shantanu’s painting was removed from the lawn.

The irony was, after a few months, I saw the same work neatly stretched and exhibited in one of the exhibitions conducted by the ‘bureaucrat’. I think the organizer’s eye had missed the mid finger code hidden in it. I was happy to see it.

I would like to see Shantanu back. But at the same time I know that Shantanu will never be the same one.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

A New Approach to Contemporary Art Market Needed: JohnyML/Aksharananda in Conversation with Mandeep, the Gallerist


This interview could have happened in any city in India. Here is an art historian, critic and curator, that is me, JohnyML who would like also to be known as ‘Aksharananda’ meeting a gallerist who could be a man, a woman or someone who belongs to the third gender. But one needs a name, so let’s call him/her, Mandeep. I choose a Punjabi name because if you add ‘Caur’ then it becomes a female name and if you add ‘Singh’ it appears as a male name. Like many other new gallerists, Mandeep too is confused about his/her choice of art. What to showcase, what to promote and what to sell; these questions keep pestering him. So s/he has questions for me.  With more than two decades of work behind me, I have the confidence in tackling the questions of a gallerist. Excerpts from the interview:

Mandeep: You just now told me that you would like to be called ‘Aksharananda’. But we all know you as JohnyML. Why you opt for a name change?

JohnyML/Aksharananda: Recently, I was sitting in my study with my Guru and was flipping through a contemporary art journal with around thirty articles, features and snippets in it. Out of curiosity we started looking at the brief biographical details of the writers. Suddenly something struck us. We came to know that out of the thirty writers twenty eight have stated that they are art critics and ‘curators’. Sometimes, people qualify themselves as ‘cultural theorists’. But I wonder who actually gives them these titles? Is it possible to assume such titles without peer group validations? I am sure that these titles are not given by any universities or such authorizing establishments. Such claims make me very curious and amused.

Now coming to the intended change in my name, I would say, ‘JohnyML’ is the identity of Johny M.L as a person. JohnyML, which is written without space or dots is a pictogram of sorts from which people could understand the identity of the person as an art historian or art critic. ‘Aksharananda’ is a name that like because of its connotations. ‘Aksharananda’ literally means ‘Immortal Joy’. But there are various ways of interpreting the word. It could be ‘one who finds joy in immortality’ or one who revels in ‘letters’ (akshar). I am a person who finds joy in letters/writing. Hence, this name is the essence of my being and existence.

Mandeep: Let me address the first part of your answer. Why do you say that writers could not claim themselves as curators or cultural theorists?

JohnyML/Aksharananda: If you direct one film in your life, you are called a film director provided in the rest of your life you do not do anything worth reckoning. If you happened to sing a song for a movie track, you are eternally known as a playback singer even if you never sing another song for a movie and work as a bank officer. It is a boon and curse at the same time. Most of the people who claim themselves as curators have not done any curatorial practice in their lives. Arranging a show is not curatorial practice. Even this is true in the case of art historians and critics. You cannot claim to be an art historian or art critic unless and until your works have historical approach to your subject and a few critical points to forward. Today, review writers and feature writers call themselves art critics. In my view, they all should stick to the ‘art writers’ category. So is the case of ‘cultural theorists’. One could be called a cultural theorist only when his/her theories make substantial course change in the very thinking about a particular subject. We make ourselves fools by making such claims.

Mandeep: Coming to the second part of your answer, don’t you think it self-contradictory when you assume a new name? Isn’t it as good as some claiming like a cultural theorist?

JohnyML/Aksharananda: There is no self-contradiction here. The name ‘Aksharananda’ is not self-congratulatory in nature; it is more like a self-clarifying one. It is not a title and with this name I do not get more respect or fame than I am getting today.

Mandeep: But it sounds like a purely Hindu name and the qualification ‘Swamy’ invisibly precedes it. Do you have any Hindu ‘thing’ here?

JohnyML/Aksharananda: Malcolm X, the famous black power leader had assumed a new name el Hajj Mallik el-Shabbazz as he got converted to Islam. People change their names when they convert. As I said before, name is an identity and the new name is the essence of the self. There is something interesting about assuming a new name. When you get your first name, you cannot bargain for a better one as you are too small to understand the annunciation. But when you assume a new name, you have the freedom to choose the name that reflects your inner self. My existence cannot be separated from my relationship with the letters. So I choose a name ‘Aksharananda’ which reflects my joy in dealing with letters.

Obviously there is a Hindu ring to the name. I am born in a Hindu family and was brought up as a god fearing boy. Later when I could think for myself I started following other religions also. But there is nothing wrong with Hinduism (what has gone wrong is the ways in which it has been interpreted over ages) so choosing a Hindu name (ironically slightly displacing the Christian name that I carry) is quite natural to me. Our sannyasis, when they take ‘diksha’, they forfeit their ‘poorvashrama’ (the former life in the material world as a householder or whatever) and become a new entity by assuming a new name. This too is a sort of conversion. I am not converting myself into anything. I am just assuming a new name that expresses the essence of my being and existence.

Mandeep: So good to know about that. Aksharananda ji, as a new gallerist I am caught in a web of advisors. What I am supposed to do with all these advisors?

JohnyML/Aksharananda: Our art market is going through an interesting phase now. I would call it a ‘secret art market’. As popularly believed market for contemporary art is not dead and gone. It is still there but the gallerists and the artists have got into a different agreement mode. They all undersell their works without letting too many people know about it. It is a buyers’ market now. You can get good contemporary artists for the price that you want. But only the patient ones are buying. They are ready to wait for a number of years. But the real investors are only looking at the modern masters because there is quick money in there.

So the apparently feeling is that there is no market for the contemporary artists. It is true that the demand for the contemporary works have been considerably reduced. Hence, most of the contemporary artists and their supporters are waiting for some new money to come into the market. Perhaps, you are one of them. So everyone will hound you and they all want their pound of flesh from you. It is always better to seek expert opinion than to heed to unsolicited advice. You will never get good advice from a fellow gallerist as all of them keep their cards closer to their chests. This is where art historians and art critics come into play. They understand the intrinsic value of a work of art which would turn into money in the real market. Following their advice is very important. Failure of the Indian art market is also caused by the shoddy treatment it gave to its historians and critics.

Mandeep: I attend seminars and curator’s talks etc. Each time I come back with a shattered mind. First of all I feel that they do a lot of unproductive dialogues which for a business person like me is next to waste. But at the same time, I am challenged by the intellectual depth displayed by the speakers and discussants. I come back thinking that I should get into such kind of art. But my clients come and ask me the same old stuff, Raza, Souza, Gaitonde and so on.

JohnyML/Aksharananda: It is unfortunate that our seminars and critical talks have become the avenues for chewing dried cuds pushed into our mouths by the Western academic scholars. These jargon infested dialogues, to be very frank, have not helped our art market at all. Someone will come up and say that ‘we have been discussing the positional palimpsest of argumentative silences embedded in the diasporic experiences of the postcolonial subjects in the evolving material contingencies of the post-global economy and politics’. We are supposed to make out based on our brain power. If anyone believes that such kind of seminars and curators’ talks would help the general art scene, I would say they are just delusional.

A few years back, the ‘famous’ critic and curator Hans Ulrich Obrist came to Delhi and interviewed around hundred artists in a Marathon program. He did it in several countries. In my view such things would help him to get into the Guinness Book of World Records; it will never help art, artists or art market. What we need is writing of history and good criticism because good criticism is the raw material for history and good history is the raw material for an active critical practice. These two only eventually help in validating the works of art when they come to the auction circuit. These seminars and curators’ talk would never help. If anybody has a different opinion, they could come out with it.

Mandeep: As I said before, I want to exhibit young contemporaries despite knowing the fact that there is no active market for them. Some of the clients are interested. But most of them are still asking for masters? How do I run my business if that is the case?

JohnyML/Aksharananda: If you want to exhibit young contemporaries, you should do it. When you trust your own act, your clients will trust in your decision. Most of the galleries in India are like seasonal showrooms. If Gond art is the trend of the year, they will not think once to push a Subodh Gupta into the store room. That is the curse of our gallery scene. You should believe in the art that you showcase and sell. You should have the patience to give at least five years to the artists who you choose to promote. Most of the people ask for masters because they are interested in money or status.

Mandeep: How do you assess the buyers of art?

JohnyML/Aksharananda: To tell you the truth we cannot categorize art buyers or collectors into watertight compartments. Still attempts have been done to categorize them. Accordingly, there are three types of art buyers; buyers, investors and collectors. Buyers buy art because they know it as a temporary possession and in the next opportune moment they will offload it. Their interest is neither in art nor in the artist but they trust in their ability to choose the best and sell it further. You do not call them dealers because they do not scavenge the secondary market for works. They buy from the primary market and move in the premium circuits of art and culture. Next is the investor category. Investors are interested in art exactly the way a developer is interested in a piece of land. There is no serious emotional attachment here. Their advisors tell them what will appreciate and depreciate. They make parallel calculations in various investment points and choose art for investing if that proves to be better point of investment in the given time. Investors know the pulse of the market and if any investor offloads his particular collection, then one could read a lot of market implications from that act.

The third category is the most reliable category; Collectors. They collect art because they are seriously interested in collecting a few things and one of which is art. They really do not think of making money out of them after certain time. Even if they do, they do it via auction houses and never through secondary market or through dealers. Collectors are not driven by the fanciful claims of the markets. Recently I came across an art collector who buys a work of art if there is an image of a woman sitting on any surface. She has already got more than thirty paintings of such a subject, done by different known and sparely known and absolutely unknown artists. A collector is driven by an internal aesthetical logic than the external monetary logic. People who walk into a gallery looking for a trendy artist are not seriously looking for art but the trendiness of that trendy artist. A real art collector would reach the artist first before he/she reaches the gallery and makes the purchase mostly through a devoted gallery. Collectors also make it a point, in case they are collecting from a gallery, at some stage that they meet the artist whose works they have been collecting for a long time.

Mandeep: Other than selling what is the role of a gallery?

JohnyML/Aksharananda: There is a difference between a gallery and a museum. Galleries are the places to showcase the work and sell. The public is always welcome but the pitch is on sales. A museum is a place where people get a three sixty degree idea about art, through audio-visual programs, guided tours and literature. If galleries could fulfill at least a part of it, it is a welcoming change. But galleries need not necessarily take the burden of social outreach and so on. The world does not need such charities. What a gallery should do is to cultivate its clients and receive the layman with a smiling face.

Mandeep: What do you think about Khoj, Experimenter Kolkata, Sunaparanta Goa and all?

JohnyML/Aksharananda: The war of Mahabharata had started with so many rules. For example after sunset there shouldn’t be any attack. If someone had lost his weapon, he should not be killed. If someone’s chariot was broken, he should not be attacked. Also it was imperative to spare the one who runs away fearing for his life. But slowly, as days went on, the rules started getting violated. Then it was free for all. Certain sections of our art scene is like Mahabharata; a lot of rules but they get violated as we go on.

In my view, the above mentioned institutions have a very clear role to play in the current art scene. But converting rest of the galleries into their line of thinking and paving way for creating a homogenized art practice is a wrong thing to do or promote. Organizations such as Khoj plan out their programs depending on the kind of funds that they are getting. If they are getting fund for promoting ‘art and science’ they cannot syphon it to ‘art and gaming’ or vice versa. If they are getting funds for public art, they cannot use it for setting up an art lab. Due to this tremendous amount of aesthetical ad hocism has crept into their programing. Khoj has moved from a community art lab to a corporate art management set up.

The other establishments, as they organize various seminars and talks, promote a different kind of aesthetics which is neither skill-based nor absolutely knowledge based. Many of such works come out of the misunderstanding of both (skill and knowledge). This urgency to be at par with the European left over is astonishingly strange. But I would like to see it as a part of the whole cultural scene where various streams of art making and discourse take place. They too are needed though they take place in controlled environments and in the milieu of mutual agreement.

Mandeep: Can one show young contemporaries despite zero market response and at the same time do secondary market dealings of modern masters in order to make money and run the show? Is there any kind of ethical conflict there?

JohnyML/Aksharananda: There is no need to feel ethical conflict there because this is what even the most established galleries practice. They show highly experimental contemporary art and get their money from working in the secondary market. It is better to make money from the same market than doing coal mining business and putting part of the profit to promote art and culture. This is why I always say that there should not be differences amongst the galleries; they all do the same, selling. Gallerists’ job is to sell well. Aesthetics, curatorial practice, criticism and art history should be left in to the hands of the qualified experts from the respective fields.  

Monday, April 25, 2016

Requiem for the Deferred Desire: A Comparative Reading of the Works of A.Ramachandran and Gabriel Garcia Marquez


In 1989 Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote one of his grand novels, ‘The Major in his Labyrinth’ based on the life of the ageing conqueror Simon Boliviar who spends his time in a hammock, fighting torturous mosquitos in the hot and humid weather of Bogota. In 2004, the great Columbian novelist who had lived on this earth to ‘tell a tale’ came out with another masterpiece, this time in lesser length and was titled, ‘Memories of My Melancholic Whores’. It tells the story of a 90 year old retired journalist who seeks sex and finally falls in love with the young prostitute who comes to give him pleasure. The world Marquez is populated with ageing patriarchs, generals, autocrats in absolute solitude, sinners, prostitutes and saints; all of them invariably go through the Proust-ian moments of recollections, sometimes exquisitely poetic, at times staggeringly surrealist and at other times unnervingly raw. When I stand in front of the latest suite of twenty one watercolor drawings of the veteran artist, A.Ramachandran, I cannot help but thinking about Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Both these veterans perhaps did not go around the world (as many do to gain new experience and themes); they looked at the same place, exactly the way Orhan Pamuk does in his novels, with renewed and ever-renewing eyes and saw what was beautiful and evolving there. Marquez had his Columbia and Ramachandran has his Udaipur.

 (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)

In his autobiography, ‘Living to Tell a Tale’, Marquez recounts how the mundane newspaper reports that he was handling on a daily basis as a political journalist, supplied him with the most bizarre and surreal to make his meanderings through the history of conquests and colonialism that made and broke and then again made the Latin American countries, their politics and the socio-cultural ethos. He could not have been anything but a story teller. Ramachandran, at the age of eighty one, still remains a story teller, the way Marquez was. Years ago, when Ramachandran was a young man looking for the verdant beauty of nature which was not there in Delhi, which he had chosen as a karma bhoomi, place of work in 1964 after his education in the sylvan Santiniketan. He lived in history and his story has been evolving through the rich narrative and symbolic visual traditions of India which were not away from the ‘gruha’ or ‘vastu’, architecture of the human habitat. He considers himself as the Vastupurusha, the god of the abode and the supreme creator. Like his understanding of art as something that is not separated from the living and lived realities of human beings, he makes his symbolic presence felt in every painting and drawing that he has been doing since late 1990s. Perhaps, Marquez was realizing the old Patriarch in him through the creation of several generals and retired journalists.

 (From the Earthen Pot series by A.Ramachandran)

If such comparison between two patriarchs from two different geographical locations, using different mediums of expression is possible (I simply would like to overlook the fact that Marquez is dead and gone) obviously it calls for the reference of Magical Realism that Marquez’s works are generally connected to. Ramachandran is a naturalist and less a realist though his naturalism is really magical. Marquez deifies ordinary people through exemplary acts and exceptional narrative styles. The repetitive nature of Marquez’s novels, which is recognizable to the English reading public through the translations of Edith Grossman, his official translator, however does not diminish the effect of magical twists and turns that render each reader a child who despite knowing the fact that the magician would pull out a rabbit or a dove from his hat, willingly suspends disbelief in order to gleefully enjoy the narratives of Marquez. So is the case of Ramachandran. There is a repetitive nature to his works; from his magnum opus of the yester years ‘Yayati’ (1984-86) to the latest suite of watercolors one could see this, exactly the way a musician would elaborate his raga with slightly different inflexions here and there, for many number of years without putting the ‘rasikas’ into boredom. Repetition for both Marquez and Ramachandran is a way to assert their belief in life and life’s forces and its magical revelations. May be in the most mundane, suddenly one could see a divinity coming up.

  (From the Earthen Pot series by A.Ramachandran)

Yes, it happens both in Marquez and Ramachandran. Look at the ‘The Sleeping Beauty and the Airplane’ included in the collection ‘Strange Pilgrims’. Marquez sees a beautiful woman who just passes by in an airport lobby. He is enamored by her beauty. His mind is preoccupied with the thoughts about her. To his surprise, she turns out to be his co-passenger in the next seat. She comes and orders the airhostess to wake her up before the landing and sleeps off. She gets up before landing, put a little make up on her face and once the plane lands she walks out as if nothing has happened. In fact nothing had happened. It was only the narrator’s feverish imagination that had made his travel miserable and exciting for him at once. In Ramachandran’s paintings and drawings, we encounter such women. Art historians have time and again said that these women are from the Lohar and Bhil community, a kind of nomadic community living in Udaipur whom Ramachandran has taken into his pictorial scheme as models. But they transform in the encounters in the exhibition halls where they appear as Draupadis, Gandharis and many other mythological women. This magical metamorphosis makes Ramachandran’s works as alluring as his brush-man-ship and Marquez’s pen-man-ship.

   (From the Earthen Pot series by A.Ramachandran)

Sometimes when you read the stories of Marquez you shiver in an unknown and inexplicable feeling or fear. It is just like opening a coffin of a friend or a relative after twenty years or so after his death and seeing the body intact and luminous. Should you be afraid of that body? Shouldn’t you be happy that he/she still remains the same as you had left him/her years back? Is there some kind of saintly touch in that person that made his body intact? I feel the same shiver going through my spine when I stand before the latest suite of twenty one watercolors by A.Ramachandran. Titled ‘Earthen Pot: Image Poems-2016’ this body of the works shows how an eighty year old artist still carry the flame of creativity and above all the drive of Eros within him. But ironically, there is some sense of deception that Ramachandran has used in order to hoodwink the ‘inappropriate’ drive of desire in him. We have seen Ramachandran taking different forms of creatures (crickets, bugs, bees, turtles and so on) and witness or partaking in the action of his paintings. At times he even holds a mirror to the heroines of his paintings in the shape of a satyr. The male witnessing here is not voyeurism but active expression of desire or a sort of watchfulness; a patriarch’s perennial urge to keep his flock together. But, ironically, the Ramachandran incarnate is like foetus curled up in an earthen pot, absolutely oblivious of the things that going on around him.

    (From the Earthen Pot series by A.Ramachandran)

Ella Dutta, art critic and a longtime friend of Ramachandran has done her best to write a catalogue as beautiful as possible and quite befitting to the works that she is writing about. But Dutta’s awkwardness is visible in each line as she tries to interpret Ramachandran’s foetus position as the eternal dream of the creator whose dream itself is the creation. In way, she is not too far from the perspective that I have developed through comparing Ramachadran with the literary giant, Marquez. In his story titled ‘I Sell My Dreams’ Marquez narrates a woman who dreams calamities, catastrophes and celebrations alike and still survives in the high society. Ramachandran as foetus takes that godly power of dreaming things around him. And what does he dream? In his eternal creative dreams, he conjures up fertility symbols like flowering trees, waiting woman for her beloved and various images of birds, bees, insects and so on as the agents of the changing ‘ritus’, seasons. She refers, invariably the Ragamala paintings and the Barah Maha paintings and poems which Ramachandran also uses as one his various inspirations. Dutta attributes the centralized flowering tree as a phallic symbol, which is not a bad allusion though. She also pitches her arguments on three pivotal imageries as said before, such as waiting women, trees in bloom and the sleeping Ramachandran as foetus. The recurring image of a chameleon climbing the tree is read as the presence of a dangerous predator.

    (From the Earthen Pot series by A.Ramachandran)

Keeping all respect for a senior critic like Ella Dutta, I would like to make a different reading to this new suite of Ramachandran’s watercolor drawings. Dutta speaks of a pervading melancholy in these paintings; yes, it could be caused by the absence of the lover. But I would say it is also a wistful waiting all wet. It is not simply melancholy but a love prank, which amounts to irritation. While looking at the drawings on the walls of the Vaderah Art Gallery, I was continuously singing the song, ‘Ambva ki chayya mein, mangal gaaye, barkha ki rutu aaye, jhoola julaye’ (Under the canopy of the mango tree, let us sing some auspicious songs while swinging as here comes the Rainy season) in the voice of the vivacious Shubha Mudgal, singing the same in raag Khamaj and Deepchand taal. I had listened to this song more than a decade ago and it came to me as absolutely evoked by the drawings. The ‘ritu’, seasonal aspect is there; but it is not the season of rains. Outside I could see sunlight weaving fiery threads everywhere entangling the human beings like insects fallen to a spider’s web. Here, the women in the watercolors are also entangled in a desire and which is not realized corporeally but the artist has given enough suggestions that he intends a prolonged session of love making and the offer still lingers in each metaphor and symbol he uses in these pictures. The sleep that he is having inside the pot (a mortal mother’s womb) is deceptive. He sees it all.

     (From the Earthen Pot series by A.Ramachandran)

A closer look reveals that the central image of the trees which are in full bloom is nothing but a displaced metaphor or a surrogate female body (unlike the phallic image that Ella Dutta contends). How do you make love to your beloved? You touch her/him with the tips of fingers, you touch her/him with the tip of your tongue, you peck at the lips, cheeks, chin, ear lobes, nape and the back, while your hands move all over his/her curves, the undulating landscape of corporeal passion, bodies in heat. Nothing is closed then; every pore of the body is opened. Everything is filled with the juices that are heard of otherwise. Every imaginations that you knew never existed in you comes out into full view and play. You torture each other eking out the best pain and pleasure in the world. You gag and bound, you turn into an animal, and fly like a bird. You move like a lightning without heeding to the aching joints and ligaments. And now look at the works of Ramachandran. A wood pecker is pecking the bark of the tree. And you know a wood pecker does not peck softly. And in all forms and all shapes it pecks. Look at the insects that crawl all over the petals and stamens exactly the fingers of the lovers move. Look at the buds, don’t they look like the throbbing tips of the male organs? Look at the flowers that are partly open, do I need to tell you how they look like? There is a chameleon in every painting. In the symbolism of Indian traditional art and astrology, chameleon is a creature that has the power to move slow, patiently and covertly, till it gets its prey or pleasure. And the phallic way that Ramachandran has painted them making their hold on to the bark of the tree as good as a slow but steady embrace of the lover.

    (From the Earthen Pot series by A.Ramachandran)

Ramachandran sleeps because he has allowed the Eros of his mind to come out and play. The life force is all the more pronounced and here is a rasa leela in twenty one frames. He prefers to call it Earthen Pot- Image Poems. I would call it Earthen Pot: Erotic Poems. Also I would say, Ramachandran has come out with the best erotic drawings of the century, which without even once showing human genitals and other pleasure points have achieved the heightened sense of erotic impact. The women in the drawings remain pristine and longing; perhaps that’s what the patriarchs want. They find love in these women who have desire but do not have worldly ways to express them. Ramachandran gives them the chance to experience the best erotic pleasure ever without losing their modesty or dignity; and even not staking his six decades long artistic career. These most subtle and wonderfully aesthetical drawings give a new dimension to Indian erotic art. As a partriarch, Ramachandran sleeps on as if nothing affects him. Yes, it is his dream and in his dream he could conjure up everything that he wants. The satyr in his earlier works and the creatures are left to do what they are supposed to do. They no longer carry the head of Ramachandran, who is watchful and guarded. Now they have their head but their heart is controlled by the artist who sleeps the sleep of creation. Or perhaps, it is tiredness also. The age factor is realized when he paints the snails moving painfully slow near his pot/pod/shell/womb. He does not want to subject these women to any kind of fantasies. But fantasies are made up of the same materials used for making dreams and desire. They will wait and that eternal wait is like the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ by John Keats. They remain eternally beautiful and desiring and Ramachandran would remain in his eternal deception as a sleeper. Let’s wait for him to wake up again and recount the stories of his melancholic whores. 

The Artful Lives of R.Vijay and Waswo x Waswo

(The Artful Life of R.Vijay book)

Jiddu Krishnamurti, the world renowned philosopher, was once asked whether he would have remained the same had he not been ‘found out’ from his native Chittoor district in Andhra Pradesh (Madanappalli in the then Madras Presidency) by the Theosophists Annie Besant and Charles Leadbeater, he said that he would have been preaching the same philosophy along the shores of Andhra Pradesh if he was not ‘found out’. Some people are like that; chosen men and women. If they are meant to create an ocean, even if thrown in the middle of a desert they would conjure up a sea there. I cannot say it for sure about R.Vijay, the now well-known collaborator of the Indian-American artist Waswo X Waswo. Had it not been for Waswo, R.Vijay would have definitely remained an artist but an assembly line artist, like many whom Waswo had seen in Udaipur in Rajasthan, working as small cog wheels in a dwindling tourism souvenir industry, but definitely with a different name.

R.Vijay was Rakesh Vijayvargiya, says the author Annapurna Garimella in her convincingly written book on the artist and his creative collaborations with Waswo X Waswo. Titled ‘The Artful Life of R.Vijay’ this book is a first of its kind. Behind every successful artist in the world there should be a very patient, talented and self-effacing assistant whose story often largely remains untold. Waswo is a well-known name in the national and international art scene and he understands that his success as a visual artist is mainly depended on the stylistic finesse which is a combination of the various Rajput miniature traditions and a bit of kitsch-iness of the bazaar art imbibed and employed by R.Vijay under his direction. Waswo is a scientific western mind that looks for perspective while R.Vijay is a traditionalist Indian miniature painter whose sense of perspective depends on the importance of a character/image within the apparent or latent narrative of the painting. The direction and execution must be difficult and not devoid of conflicts. However, Waswo’s success cannot be assessed without the artistic presence of R.Vijay, therefore this book is a rich tribute to an artist who had been lying unrecognized in the inner streets of Udaipur till Waswo happened to his life in 2006. Indian art book market will be flooded with such books if all the artists would prove to be as lenient as Waswo.

 (Waswo and R.Vijay)

Unlike many art history books or even monographs written by certain cultural theorists in our country, this book is lucidly written with a patient research gone well into revealing the life and times of R.Vijay. Born in 1970 in Udaypur, Rakesh comes from a family of traders and administrators in the erstwhile royalty and while growing up he did not have any particular lineage to lay his claim as a would be artist except for his uncle Ramgopal Vijayvargiya (1905-2002), an academically trained Rajasthani modern artist. Perhaps Rakesh was in awe of his uncle and wanted to be an artist. He apprenticed himself under a pitchwai painter namely Sukhdev Singh Sisodia and later studied Lakshminarayan Sikaligar. Rakesh excelled himself in painting flora and fauna. He was making money and his family too developed a confidence in him but he was not an artist who had a name nor was he intending to sign his paintings with the authority of a modern contemporary artist whose signature was the value of the painting that he made.

Rakesh reluctance to sign his works even after he started working with Waswo in 2006 (which he does after much persuasion later) in intricately entwined with the history of the artists who make souvenirs for the tourism industry. The art factories that produce works of art do not emphasis on individuality but style, which for them is the faithful repetition of the conventional, leaving no scope or chance for innovations and experimentations. This further has a history behind as the court painters and masters developed their kalams (styles) and those who belonged to those kalams followed the style faithfully that even a little change of it looked utter blasphemy. Artistic proficiency of a young apprentice was determined by his ability to reproduce the ‘style’ without wavering or pepping it up with a personal touch or change in color. Economic factor in a newly developed tourism market which was mostly driven by the interest of the western patron was one of the reasons why artists self-abdicated from personal expressions in the miniature market for the western patrons liked the ‘typical’ Indian style than the modern ‘touch’ of the contemporary artist. Rakesh was not different and he like many others worked for contractors and shop owners who in turn claimed the ‘authorship’ of most of the works that he sold.

 (Dr.Annapurna Garimella, author)

Waswo met Rakesh via Rajesh Soni who has been hand painting Waswo’s photographs for a long time. Waswo had already established his working style in India by then. Being a gay artist, the ‘erotic masculinity’ of Udaipur was one of the reasons why Waswo chose to work from there. He published two collections of poem embellished by miniature paintings and a set of independent pictures were also commissioned by him which had in a way ‘established’ the Waswo style. While seeing the works in Waswo’s computer Rakesh realized that it was his works that became the hallmark style of Waswo. The meeting was destiny driven. The shop owner had not revealed the identity of the artist who worked for Waswo. But now he was there in his studio by chance. A proposal for collaboration was suggested and the rest is history. Slowly and steadily Rakesh Vijayvargiya became R.Vijay and today Waswo’s works cannot be called Waswo Works unless it is co-signed by R.Vijay.

The publication is a benevolent act that traces not only the history of miniatures that helps in understanding the style of R.Vijay but also the history of the collaboration between a homosexual Waswo and a heterosexual R.Vijay. Waswo’s Indian experience has always been ridden with conflicts. He is not a deliberate integrationist but his attempt to integrate has always been met with troubles. The ambivalent relationship that the adopted country maintains with a differently sexually oriented artist Waswo in turn has put Waswo also in an unpronounced predicament. Despite his wide acceptance as ‘Chaccha’ in Udaipur and great appreciation as Waswo X Waswo by the Indian art scene, his works are interpreted as the attempts of an Orientalist who still carries the colonial hangover which is expressed by his fedora cap, linen suit and box camera. This self-representation as the benevolent other and his efforts to conjoin his visions with the popular mythological and modern visual references however meet with critical firewalls, that keep Waswo always on the edge.

 (Work by Waswo-R.Vijay)

R.Vijay is a meeting point of the ‘other’ Waswo and the ‘our’ Waswo. Their combination is like the city of Istanbul; half western and half eastern. R.Vijay is the Indian side of Waswo and Waswo is the Western side of R.Vijay. At present with a body of works to support their collaboration, they cannot be seen separately nor can we dispute the mutuality between these artists, which reflects even in the common sharing of the sales proceedings. The fact is that Waswo cannot be Waswo without establishing R.Vijay, in the long run. It is not just a director-actor combination either. Waswo knows what he wants to; he is photographer, serigraphy artist and poet. R.Vijay knows what he does. One could see how both Waswo and R.Vijay try their best to integrate themselves in the mainstream art of India via making a series of tribute works referring to the visual specificities of a series of successful Indian artists from A.Ramachandran to Aji VN. Atul Dodiya is one of the contemporary artists in India who has successfully made or still making a series of visual quotations from various artistic and literary sources and integrate himself within various cultural and aesthetical streams. This gives not only legitimacy but a sort of protection from cultural vandalism even.

One would wonder how a good number of works by Wawo and R.Vijay, which were shown in public exhibitions in India left unhurt without attracting the moral police forces in India. Waswo profusely selects Indian mythological themes and executes them via R.Vijay. He appears as Goddess Laxmi, Goddess Durga and so on. But somehow the playfulness with which this artistic duo executes their works has helped them to get away from the ire of the moral police here. However, Waswo’s relationship with India is still not at ease. In his comic book done in 2011 ‘The Evil Orientalist’ and his exhibition ‘It All May be Removed at Will’ (2012) he expresses the fear of getting attacked for being the ‘Other’ and also for being an accidental ‘Orientalist’. The latter terms Waswo uses to lampoon himself but not many critics have taken it in that spirit. But Waswo becomes Indian through R.Vijay, exactly the way R.Vijay becomes international through Waswo. The othering process ceases to be in play when they are together but when Waswo is alone he faces what an unsuspecting westerner faces in most of the Indian cities; callous looting by the locals. He faced it in March 2015 when he was removing his works from a show in the Kochi Muziris Biennale. The local trade unions charged him a fortune for moving his works and even stopped him from taking it away on his own. Waswo responded by breaking his works on record which went viral and became the headlines in the newspapers. The conflict goes on and we as Indian citizens should be ashamed of that. We forget that Waswo is one artist-collector who has an immense collection of Indian modern and contemporary graphic art and has shown in travelling exhibitions all over India. A thankless society as we are, it may take a more time to understand the human side of an artist beyond ideological coloring. The story of R.Vijay perhaps gives us a lens to understand that artistic collaborations, when placed in an even scale, do work on humanistic and environmental concerns than colonial master-slave relationships.

(work by Waswo-R.Vijay)

I would like to go back to the initial question that was put to Jiddu Krishnamurti by some skeptic. What would R.Vijay do now if Waswo moves away or he decide to break away from Waswo, the way Jiddu had done with Annie Besant? We cannot say that R.Vijay would go back to the tourist souvenir factories and become a faceless and signatureless artist once again. We cannot also say that he would do the same as he is doing with Waswo at present. But one is sure that R.Vijay has finally found his identity as an artist through Waswo. Finding one’s own identity is a sort of liberation. R.Vijay has a long way to go and I am sure and wish to have their collaboration flourish in the coming years.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

A Home, A Print- A Work of Art from the Time of Ravi Varma to Now

(Raja Ravi Varma)

Hundred and twelve years back, an Indian artist thought of making the then contemporary art democratically available to anyone who had liked to have one at his/her home. Raja Ravi Varma was his name. The story of Ravi Varma Press may sound so fresh and contemporary even today when we compare the circumstances within which Ravi Varma had initiated a new ‘popular’ art movement in India. Though several historians of Ravi Varma’s life say that it was his ability to give ‘human’ forms to Indian gods and goddesses in the classical and the neo-classical European style, with draperies added or altered in the Indian ways that had helped the proliferation of his works amongst the general public for these ‘works’ satisfied their demand for ‘gods’ and ‘goddesses’ in their personal altars, one should not overlook that fact that Ravi Varma had been led by a perennial urge to see his works in all the households in Indian subcontinent. True, (Hindu) religion was the binding factor in a culturally varied geographical formation like India in the late 19th century. But Ravi Varma’s desire for making his works ‘popular’ was much above his need for giving ‘form’ to Indian pantheon. Religion was channel that he adopted insightfully so that he could remain in the good books of the (Hindu) patrons who had been relieved of their Mughal indebtedness in aesthetics and culture and was coming strongly under the democratic influences of British colonialism.

In our times when we lament the collapse of an organized art market and the irresponsible behavior of galleries in offloading their artists, once again Ravi Varma becomes a beacon and we have definitely got something to learn from his idea of making art democratic. This is a fascinating story. There are two Ravi Varmas; one, the Ravi Varma who worked based on the demands of the patrons and provincial governments. The second Ravi Varma was an artist in the modern individualistic sense who preferred his private studio to the atelier given to him by the royal court. Ravi Varma was as much as a civilian artist as he was a royal court painter. He was more like a travelling painter who moved from one kingdom to another not in search work but on invitation. Each time, he established his private studio where he and his brother Raja Raja Varma (who himself was an accomplished landscape and portrait painter) painted and chronicled their lives (mostly by the younger Varma) carefully giving a lot of attention to the business plans, proposals and funds. Had Ravi Varma found his satisfaction in remaining a court painter, he would not have even thought of establishing a printing press in 1894. Had he been painter of Hinduism alone, he would not have chosen a theme like ‘Birth of Shakuntala’ as the first print from his Pune press.  Shakuntala was not a goddess. She belonged to the literary traditions of India therefore he was closer to the cultural memory of the populace.

 (an Oleograph print from Ravi Varma Press)

The most important thing that Ravi Varma did was going against the normal logic of the market (that is, tightening the flow of commodities in the market and thereby increasing price); by making oleograph prints he decided to flood the market with his works (rather the works done by him and later multiplied by mechanical agencies). His logic interestingly, was much akin to the corporate logic of the present world; find the most populated market places in the world and introduce a new product for the cheapest and competitive prices. The best example is the mobile phone software and hardware markets all over the world. While the big corporates of Europe and America restrict their products in their own limited markets, through global economy flow, flood the most thickly populated markets like Mexico, India, China, Brazil and so on with hardware and software for cheaper prices. The more people consume, though the profit margin is less per consumer the aggregate consumption brings them mega profits. Consumers get competitive prices when the number of companies that provide same service in the same market. Ravi Varma, being the pioneer in making his print works cheaper, did not have to face much competition from other artists or companies. Varma made the works available and affordable. The culturally shared thematic in those works encouraged people to buy them and preserve them, if not worshipping them.

The competitive markets in the present world often use shared cultural values in order to sell their hardware as well as software. A product is not sold for its consume-ability but for its ability to satisfy a cultural need felt by a hollow population. The advertisements created by these product selling companies always play upon cultural festivals, religion, nationality, literature, celebrity icons and universally accepted values to pitch the products into the market. So when we buy a piece of chocolate, we are not buying a sweet confectionary but an idea of love and sharing.  When we choose a telephone service provider over another one, we choose the idea promoted by the advertisement. Jewelry and gold are sold on the basis of human emotions. Insurance policies are sold through sentimental domestic values. A motor car could stand for nationalistic values for no reason provided the brain behind the advertisement has enough logic to connect with a four wheeler and an abstract concept called nationalism. Ravi Varma, as a keen seller of his works knew that a product is always sold and bought when a value is shared through that. Perhaps, he was the first businessman in India who did not have to advertise his wares for the products made cheaper and available were their own advertisement too.

 (People in rural Maharashtra still cherish old oleographs from Ravi Varma Press- pic courtesy IE)

When art develops value in the market, because the movers and shakers of the economy know where what product should be idolized, it is natural that the common logic makes the sellers to make some products rare and unavailable in order to increase price, therefore we see the price of the contemporary art going high a few years back. When supply could not match demand, a lot of sub-standard look alikes started appearing in the market and those were also able eke out a price. Rawest of fruits could be sold as ripe ones with yellow packaging in a market blinded by profit making. In art too it happened. Instead of lowering the prices of the works of art, citing less availability of the quality works, the prices were hiked up to the skies. Raja Ravi Varma, in his time had done the opposite. In fact, there is no anthropological evidence to show that people were really waiting for Varma’s works to appear in the market. They were happy with crude idols, paintings done by artists from Kalighat, Batala prints of Kolkata, souvenirs of different kinds etc. Varma saw the market and he provided them with what they wanted but did not know it existed. This was a very clever marketing of one’s work through very democratic means. Varma moved vertically and horizontally in the market. The vertical movement helped him rise in stature and wealth amongst the patrons while the horizontal movement helped him to evolve the businessman in him and also gain appreciation from the larger audience, which he definitely had craved for.

Artists of any time need applause and public recognition. Indian art market and art market elsewhere made artists and art works rare and also facilitated their exclusion from the larger societies. Today with social networks, an artist could have a minimum five hundred followers from different parts of the world. But this scattered constituency of admirers never takes the form of real recognition in a tangible society within which the artist operates. Today’s artists are made through exclusion. But Varma became a celebrity by taking an inclusive approach. He, by making his works cheaper and available, worked in a corporate way, involving a lot of agencies and middlemen who too reaped wealth through commissions. In that sense Ravi Varma was not just an artist but a businessman at large. He was also functioning as a large museum operator whose approach was different than a conventional museum operator. While the latter asked the people to come towards the museums, the former took his wares among the people and made them buy, keep and look at them with reverence. If someone expects to meditate in the Rothko Museum, what does a person do when he looks at a Ravi Varma oleograph and goes into a deep prayer or meditation? Varma knew the answer.

 (Ravi Varma press preserved)

That answer is still inaccessible or incomprehensible for many of the contemporary artists who still believe that they could sell their works for exorbitant prices either by select selling or by making their works rare. In whichever case, this situation gives birth to various cartels that handle works of art and its market, which would remain exclusive and undemocratic. After the collapse of the contemporary art market, we have several mid-career artists now selling their works from studios for finding funds to run their families, studios and other activities. They short sell their works compared to their prices in the boom market. Instead of balancing and correcting the market follies, this situation has further aggravated imbalanced situation though it is not seen in that light. Provided, if an art market boom happens again exactly the way it had happened a few years back, definitely the works that have been sold from the studios of the artists are going to coming back to the secondary market, collapsing the primary market. That means, we have to accept the fact that there will not be a primary market, which is a supreme market with right economic practices, in the future. Primary market will be replaced by art consultants, artists, curators and other middlemen. The secondary market will take the role of the primary market.

Though it would prove a difficult scenario for many, this future possibility would allow the artists much more autonomous than being the contracted slaves of the primary galleries, which has been the case till now. The same autonomy will come to the critical and historical authority of the critics, historians, consultants, connoisseurs and so on provided they could engage in the ethical practices in the newly evolving art market. The difference of such market from the existing market would be that this will not run on the profit making business model. While the artist and the consultant/curator could sell the work and divide their economic profits (not in the real profit of market logic), the dividend for the investor (if that concept remains in the evolving market) will be based on auction houses and other secondary market activities. In this scenario, artists will not be forced to do more works or less works. Internet could make them visible and the freelancing critics, curators and other operators could assess the works for the direct buyer. In the worst case scenario, the former gallerists could fall from grace and become ‘consultants’ without a gallery spaces to ‘show’ the works to the public and do community reach out programs! I do not know how many of them would come down to that! Intelligent galleries would control the price today and now.

 (Sri Chithra Art Gallery Trivandrum, Kerala, where Ravi Varma's paintings are housed)

Raja Ravi Varma again shows the way. Varma was the first one to gain autonomy not only as an artist but also as a business man. He had to go through several trials and tribulations before he could really establish as a printing press owner who produced the prints of his works and pumped them into the market. The agents played smart and natural calamities forced him out of work. However, he could collaborate with visiting British artists to improve the quality of his prints. Varma was moving towards establishing his own gallery; rather a private museum of sorts so that the ordinary public could walk into the gallery and see his works. Despite the criticism that the succeeding generation of the Bengal school artists leveled against him that he was an artist who copied western naturalism, Ravi Varma was the first Indian artist who wanted his gallery/museum. The government of Travancore got into a contract with him in the late 19th century that he would make two paintings each per year for the government and against which he would be rewarded by a museum in Thiruvananthapuram. The government did not honor its word and an angry Varma wrote a strong letter to the Diwan and severed his contract after six years. Though the Chitralayam (Art Gallery) in the name of Ravi Varma came much later, Varma was the first one to fight with the establishment for his autonomy.

Our contemporary artists could a lot from Ravi Varma. First of all they could develop a dual system of working; in the first one, they could work for their patrons or sell works to the patrons and get their wealth for sustenance and furthering their art activities. In the second system, they could produce works for the consumption of the masses in dirt cheap price. If we go by the Varma example, only a common philosophical or cultural thread would make every Indian citizen an art collector. And the work of art should come in cheap prices. We do not live in Ravi Varma’s times. Technology and outreach have changed, so are the modes of consumption. To find a common thread like Hinduism would be politically incorrect in these days. During the post globalization scenario with high level of economic disparities, it is extremely difficult to integrate people in terms of politics or religion. Even nationalism would not do though a majoritarian political scenario is possible through that. So what could be the common factor?

 (A signed serigraph by MF Husain)

The most logical answer would be this: art and artist are the common factors that would integrate a country aesthetically. How is that possible? To make this possible, the artist and art works should become a part and parcel of our finer cultural senses. May be hundred per cent proliferation cannot be achieved in this sense. But a majority could be inclined to art and aesthetics. This is possible only when artists are given due space in the society. Also art works should be given in cheaper prices. Again the question is how. It is possible if the artists become much responsible than statesmen. They should grow to the level of visionaries within the world of visual aesthetics. They should be constantly finding avenues of expressing their individualities as well as integrating the craft and folk traditions within their scheme of their works. Larger concerns of ecology and humanism should activate them to do their works rather than the amassing of wealth. Once the artists become those special creatures of nature, a country as a whole would take heed of them. This needs a larger sense of vision, madness, individuality as well as inclusionary thinking. Artists should become sages of their own merit and right. Once that status is achieved everyone in the country would feel like keeping a work by any one of the artists or a few artists of their choices.

It is possible only when a work of art is sold in cheap prices and could be made available in places where one would buy finer things to embellish their lives. We have innumerable printing devices and technologies today. Artists could make limited or unlimited edition prints and with the artists’ signature agencies could sell them. To sell a print, the maker of the work of art needs a wonderful life to be wondered at by everyone and the aesthetic presented in the work should be exceptional. There cannot be monolithic parameters in setting the aesthetic tone of a country which has one and half billion population. Our galleries have tried selling signed prints by famous artists. But such attempts have always failed or have not taken up the way they should have been, mainly because the artists’ as well as art’s constituency is limited and none prefers to buy a signed print when he/she could afford an original. Art could be saved only by people. When people take up art as mediums of sublimation in/of their own lives, art would become a part of their lives and then they would need more art objects to see constantly. Now its place is taken by screen savers, wall papers, cheap calendars and other innumerable visual materials. We need them to be supplemented with a little bit of art (we cannot replace the wall papers and ever changing screen savers completely).

 (Why dont you have a work of art at home?)

Again, I would say, it is possible. If literature of the world masters  could be sold for hundred rupees in the traffic junctions and in Columbia (when Marquez was alive), his book releases were also celebrated in the streets by road side vendors of his books, then an artist work also could be lauded by the mass provided if they are made available cheap. Cheap does not mean cheapness. Affordable does not mean that replaceable. They mean works of art that could be bought at will by anyone without thinking twice about the monthly household budget. Wouldn’t it be possible? In my view, it is possible. The poor folk of Indian subcontinent in the late 19th and early 20th century parted with a few annas to buy their Ravi Varmas. If so, the people who would spend a couple of thousand rupees for a Sunday meal would definitely think of skipping it for buying an interesting piece of art. And we have printing technology and also we have print making artists who make original works of art in an affordable medium. If there is a will there is way. If Ravi Varma could dream of a country where every house having a print of his work, then definitely we could too….A home, a print, if not an original piece of art.