Being optimistic

Marie Claire asked me to write a piece on the Indian art scene that wasn’t snarly. It’s in their anniversary issue, which is out on the stands right now.

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Yup, that’s me at the bottom of the contributors’ page.

Since there doesn’t seem to be a link to the piece, here is the unedited version (the printed version had to be snipped to fit):

Fake bones, real blood, metallic teddy bears, hardened glue, kimonos, a man in a dress, a pair of trousers made of steel wool, a photograph of a plastic folder — until recently, few would have thought that these things could be art that would be highly valued by collectors and critics. But these are just some of the elements that contemporary artists have used to create works that have won praise and drawn stares.

Walk into one of the country’s well-respected galleries or a private museum (like the DEVI Art Foundation in Gurgaon or the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in New Delhi), and what you’ll see displayed is starkly different from what most of our parents and grandparents understood as art. Contemporary art is a very different animal from the paintings, sculptures and photographs that informed the imagination of the earlier generation. If the art gallery has never struck you as a particularly exciting space, try walking into one and you might change your mind. Especially if it has works by artists like Sheba Chhachhi, Shilpa Gupta and Ranbir Kaleka. Today’s artists have little time for convention. It’s the era of technology and the challenge is to use it in a way that doesn’t overwhelm a viewer but still articulates complex ideas and inspirations. Kaleka, for instance, projects moving images on a painted screen, creating an intriguing medium that can only be described as “video painting”.
Chhachhi uses lightboxes and layers to create works that have the enchanting effect of the old-fashioned magic lantern despite the fact that the technology is distinctively modern. It’s impossible to predict what Gupta will use in her work. A few years ago, she created an interactive piece that used the viewer’s silhouette and it was a joy to see everyone from a toddler to a grave and goateed gentleman equally hypnotised by how they were literally becoming works of art courtesy Gupta. While talent like that of Chhachhi, Gupta and Kaleka is rare, they are among a set of artists doing inventive work that isn’t inaccessibly erudite or a copycat effort. These artists’ work is rich in both meaning as well as visual appeal. Take a look at Manjunath Kamath’s charming little sculptures and animations or Reena Saini Kallat’s unnerving video “Preface 2010”, which shows a blank page get imprinted with the Braille version of the Constitution. (The ink used is red and so it looks almost as though the page is being shot and drenched in blood.)
The greatest challenge for the Indian art world is to keep finding new artists. Talent-spotting is a perilously difficult task in any creative field and in art, it becomes all the more problematic. Whereas abroad there are museums and an artistic establishment that is independent of the commercial circuit to recognise upcoming talent. In India, it falls upon galleries to not only find artists and market their work, but gallerists also perform the role of labelling newcomers as promising or otherwise. When it comes to young artists, there’s also the problem of pricing. If Indian galleries price their works modestly so as to attract local buyers, then the valuation seems laughably low when they show these artworks to foreign clients (at art fairs, for instance). Price them according to the international art market, and the amounts seem ridiculous to Indian buyers.
Perhaps the greatest cause for optimism when it comes to contemporary Indian art is that it’s making an effort to not be an exclusive space, but rather one that attracts people from all walks of life to experience art. This year saw Mumbai’s (largely) Colaba-bound galleries trek up to the suburb of Bandra to create a joint exhibition for the first time. There’s an undercurrent of idealism in newer entrants that pays little attention to the market. Take the Clark House Initiative, for example, which is a collective that started modestly and recently showed works by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. The art of graphic novels and illustration have had champions like Libera Artisti, Pop Culture Publishing and Manta Ray Comics. With a surge of interest in what used to earlier be dismissed as “comics”, Indian illustration has become hip both at home and abroad, as evidenced by graphic novelist-turned-artist Sarnath Banerjee being selected to create a public art piece for the London Olympics.
In many ways, the Indian art market is a conservative one but what’s enthusing is that the world of Indian art — the artists, viewers and gallerists — are not. It’s impossible to tell which of the toasts of today’s artistic town will have future connoisseurs raising their glasses to them, but there’s no doubt that Indian contemporary art has come into its own.
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