This article first appeared in Mint Lounge.
The Kolkata Frieze
There are two “B”s in the Bengali alphabet. They look and sound exactly the same. The alphabet also has one obsolete vowel and a curious accent called the “biswarga”. The biswarga, pronounced “bishorgo”, can be replaced by the exclamation mark, making it one of those elements of the Bengali alphabet that isn’t essential. Kolkata-based artist Jayanta Roy punned on biswarga when he titled his 2009 exhibition B-Swarga.
“We say many big things about how art can change the world, but it’s as useless as thebiswarga because there are so few people who are actually interested in and affected by art,” says Roy. “If you look in Kolkata, they are only interested in nostalgia and pretty pictures, not contemporary art.” While his art has received acclaim, not many share Roy’s dismissive attitude towards the city’s art lovers. After all, Kolkata’s enthusiastic viewing crowd remains one aspect of the city’s art scene that hasn’t suffered a decline.
Despite the fact that it has thrown up barely a handful of reputed contemporary artists in the past 20 years, Kolkata retains the reputation of being the most cultured of India’s metropolises. “There’s such a strong cultural ethos in this city,” says Rakhi Sarkar, director and curator of The Centre of International Modern Art (Cima), Kolkata. Sarkar is also a managing trustee of the Kolkata Museum of Modern Art, which is expected to open in 2013. “People ask me why Kolkata should be the place for a museum of modern art and I tell them, it’s the only city in India that can sustain a cultural institution of this magnitude,” she says. Sarkar does admit, however, that the city’s art scene has suffered over the past decades. “There were a combination of factors, like the reticence of artists and the fact that Bengal went through an economic low since the 1960s,” says Sarkar. “It wasn’t that there weren’t good artists but they weren’t nurtured properly and there was little scope for them.”
Bengal art entered the spotlight in the early 20th century thanks to artists such as Abanindranath Tagore and Nandalal Bose of the Bengal School. By the 1920s, however, modernism was the new favourite. From the Calcutta Group of the 1940s to the pop modernism of Jamini Roy’s paintings and the communism-inspired idealism of Somnath Hore, Bengal Modernism spanned more than three decades and was a dynamic movement. The last of the golden years were in the 1960s. Artists such as Bikash Bhattacharya, Ganesh Pyne, Meera Mukherjee and K.G. Subramanyan had a lasting impact upon the next generation.
“The history of modernism in Bengal art is very strong,” says artist Paula Sengupta, who also teaches at Rabindra Bharati University and heads the Kolkata chapter of Khoj, the New-Delhi based collective that supports experimental art projects. “In fact, I’d say it was too strong. That was such a dominant period that a whole generation of artists, from the 1970s onwards and particularly in the 1980s and 1990s, spent their time following in those footsteps. That’s the beginning of the bleak chapter in Bengal art.” While the 1970s and 1980s saw artists elsewhere, such as Vivan Sundaram and Nalini Malani, experimenting with multidisciplinary practices, Bengal art, more so from the 1980s, curled into modernism and resolutely persevered with it, uncaring of becoming outdated.
With Indian art finding favour in the international market in the noughties, artists who had developed their styles in the couple of decades past rose to stratospheric heights. Established centres of art such as Mumbai and Vadodara attracted talent from all over the country and provided platforms for people with innovative practices such as Atul Dodiya, N.S. Harsha and Pushpamala N. Some emerged from places not known for modern art. Subodh Gupta, for example, studied at Patna University. When he decided to make a move, he chose Delhi over Kolkata. In 1997, he became one of the founding members of Khoj and developed his now-famous style of sculpture.
Bengal, by contrast, suffered a creative drought in the last two decades. “There was a waning where Bengal art was caught in its own vibe,” says art historian Tapati Guha Thakurta. “The art world in Calcutta became more impoverished, both financially and in terms of creativity. Bengal artists tended to fit into one of two moulds: that of Bikash Bhattacharya or Ganesh Pyne.”
Kolkata’s contribution in the past 20 years is limited to a handful of names, of which the most famous today are Chittrovanu Mazumdar, Jogen Chowdhury and Paresh Maity. None of Bengal’s younger artists have reached the international stature that the likes of Dodiya and Gupta have attained. Few have the reputation of being consistently innovative. “The modernist period was so dominant in Kolkata that those who were doing more contemporary practices found it difficult to find a voice,” says Sengupta. “What happened as a result was that these practices didn’t see gallery spaces but went on in campuses and fostered an environment.” Artists such as Partha Pratim Deb, who found little support from commercial spaces for his art in the 1980s and 1990s, turned to teaching. As a professor in Rabindra Bharati University, Deb has been the mentor to some of the most exciting artists working in Bengal today, such as sculptor Adip Dutta and installation artist Sanchayan Ghosh.
The silver lining is that some of those who persevered in the silo of Kolkata’s art world have developed distinctive styles. While the rest of contemporary Indian art races towards new media, Bengal artists are more interested in reinventing and reinterpreting conventional artistic practices, such as sculpture and painting. Dutta’s fascinating fibreglass and steel wool sculptures or Debnath Basu’s curious paintings exploring the mechanics of the human body and language are heartening examples of a contemporary Bengal school. However, these artists are far more low profile than their peers from other parts of India. Ghosh, for example, believes he should be undercover and only his art should be in public.
“I’d like to say there are exciting times ahead,” says Sengupta. “I think there are more of this younger generation doing contemporary work than there were from my generation.”
The current art scene is encouraging. While Kolkata is yet to shake off its modernist fascination, there are a few determined initiatives to introduce a contemporary flavour to the city by galleries such as Akar Prakar, Gandhara and Aakriti, along with the recently opened Harrington Street Arts Centre and Experimenter. Khoj’s Kolkata chapter was set up in 2005, and provided a platform for experimental works. In 2008, Cima began Studio 21, a non-commercial space for workshops and multidisciplinary works. “Things are changing,” says Noni Khullar. She and her husband Deepak opened the Harrington Street Arts Centre last year. “The visual register of Kolkata was quintessentially modern, but recently there has been an attempt to reconsider this visual register,” she says.
All the gallerists are buoyed by the enthusiastic responses they get from viewers who often return to see the same exhibitions. “I may not have a good quality printer here and most of our artists and curators may be from outside but the quality of interaction you get from the average Kolkata viewer is amazing,” says Priyanka Raja, who started Experimenter in 2009 with her husband Prateek.
The biggest challenge for gallerists, however, remains finding the talent. “From what we’ve seen, in Santiniketan, for example, they’re one generation behind,” says Raja. “The works done by the young artists mostly don’t compare with works done by similar age groups in the rest of the country and internationally,” she says. “Even if the practice is technically strong, there just isn’t enough awareness of the ideas circulating in the world around them. I don’t think they’re thinking.”
The concerns in Kolkata’s art circles today are no different from those of contemporary Indian art in general: how to develop an Indian visual art tradition that is distinctive, current and not derivative. “A lot of contemporary art from India being shown abroad and here in commercial metros is art by Indians for the Western eye, the way the West wants to see India and in the visual language they understand,” says Pratiti Basu Sarkar, chief administrator of Cima. She doesn’t believe the current trend-makers in art will lead the way because they are too involved in a system dependent upon Western approval and market forces.
It could be that Kolkata’s artist community will provide contemporary Indian art with a definitive direction. Perhaps the city’s distance from international trends and commercial success will prove to be a blessing in disguise. Perhaps the enthusiastic viewing culture will goad artists. “It’s been a late evolving for the later generations of Bengal artists,” says Guha Thakurta. “But the aesthetics are here. There are so many different registers of creativity in Kolkata. Everybody’s an artist here.”