Review: Sheba Chhachhi’s Evoking the Pause

This review was first published on Mumbai Boss.

Water Show

Given the limited number of respectable galleries and art spaces in the city, it would be unfair to say there’s been a glut of Sheba Chhachhi exhibitions this year. However, considering that the number of solo shows Chhachhi had in Mumbai until 2011 was zero, two exhibitions in a year seems to verge on over-exposure.

We tend to be impatient viewers, hungrily hunting for novelty and ever ready to dismiss repetitions. Chances are there will be some who will walk through “Evoking the Pause” at the Bhau Daji Lad museum and complain about how similar much of it is to “Luminarium: A Prelude“. It’s true that there are similarities in technique in a number of the works but be patient and look beyond the obvious resemblances to understand the stories that have inspired Chhachhi’s art. They are poignant and simple in their melancholia, notwithstanding Chhachhi’s love for phrases like “beyond normative boundaries”.

“Evoking the Pause” is a mini-retrospective of Chhachhi’s works from the past eight years. Unlike Jitish Kallat, who turned the experience of seeing an exhibition into a treasure hunt, Chhachhi has helpfully drawn up a map in which the works of art are pointed out clearly. Tucked into different nooks of the museum are photographs, videos and installations. Chhachhi’s work is striking in its sophistication but the emphasis she places on traditional crafts and lingering mythologies connects her art to the mission of the Bhau Daji Lad, which is committed to preserving the history of local communities. She’s developed a distinctive and unique medium for herself, one that uses photography, video, found images, lightboxes and screens to create a modern version of the pre-cinema magic lantern.

Take the placement of “Ganga’s Daughters” as an example. These powerful portraits of women ascetics are placed in a room that has cabinets full of figurines of male sadhus striking freakish yoga poses. On one wall are nineteenth-century paintings of demure Indian ladies and they seem positively wilted next to Chhachhi’s vibrant, saffron-clad women. The installation “Mistri ke Haath” shows the hands of a man who made tiles. How ironic then that the work lies prostrate before the bust of David Sassoon, who we can thank for the beautifully-tiled watchtower in the nearby Jijamata Udyan.

Chhachhi’s faux books—they are actually lightboxes—are curious, beautiful works. They look like books but you can’t flip through the pages. It’s chilling to think this might be the future of the book: a static beautiful thing, fixedly open to tell only one story. Fortunately, Chhachhi’s stories are worth remembering and re-reading. Her books use both traditional artistic techniques and modern technology to talk about issues related to both the past and the present. “Ultanag”, which shows the story of Krishna ridding Yamuna of a serpent’s venom, is a myth about reducing the river’s pollution, which is precisely what is needed today.

Our favourite book was on one of the piles in the installation titled “The Water Diviner”. One page showed an image from a miniature painting of Radha and Krishna on the banks of the Yamuna. Instead of painted waters, however, Chhachhi has a photograph of the Yamuna today, festooned with garbage. On the facing page is a description of a pristine forest. It is interrupted by a news report about 40 men beating up women in a bar, in an effort to safeguard Indian tradition.

The highlight of “Evoking the Pause” is meant to be the two installations on the first floor of the museum. Both fill the building’s enormous rooms with shadowy darkness. “Neelkanth: Poison/Nectar” shows a miniature cityscape made of small aluminium towers. At the heart of this “city” is a screen that shows a neck that seems to be constantly swallowing. “Neelkanth” refers to the myth of how Shiva swallowed all the poison that rose out of the sea during the Samudra Manthan. It is eye-catching but the references feel too forced and the images of garbage repetitive. “The Water Diviner”, however, is an enchanting installation. Piles of newspapers, files and books crowd a room to recreate the sense of being dowsed in water. Blue light casts strange shadows and on one wall, a video shows specks swirling in water. The specks become a swimming elephant. We’re willing to bet someone will be booking a holiday to the Andamans the moment they leave the show.

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Review: Excrescence

This was first published on Mumbai Boss.

Abnormal Outgrowths

Tushar Joag's "Bombay to Shanghai Post Box"

Chances are you’ve never used the word excrescence in conversation but after seeing the show titled “Excrescence”, we think it might just pop up in your social chit-chat because the art on display is thought-provoking and worth talking about. Curated by Maya Kovskaya, this group show is inviting, engaging and erudite, but not inaccessible.

“Excrescence” has works by Ashutosh Bharadwaj, Sheba Chhachhi, Han Bing, Tushar Joag, Prajakta Potnis and Wu Gaozhong. The title of the show can mean either “an abnormal outgrowth” or “a disfiguring addition”. Every work in “Excrescence” responds to this idea and fills the gallery with a silent anxiety. The most cheerful piece in the show are Tushar Joag’s drawings and the “Bombay to Shanghai Post Box” (see image). They are part of his series titled “The Unicell Project”, in which he imagined public service items like the letterbox and the lamppost as superheroes.

The idea of something rotten or toxic looking beautiful appears repeatedly. In Han Bing’s gorgeously technicolour photographs, landscapes with sylvan trees and neat homes are seen reflected upon polluted, dirty water. Prajakta Potnis’s wonderfully ominous “Still Life” photographs (see homepage image) show fruits and vegetables in a fridge but instead of being fresh, they have mysterious, icky clusters growing on their surfaces. Wu Gaozhong’s photograph of rotten organic compounds that look pretty and ethereal are excellent complements. Potnis has also done site-specific “interventions”, which you’ll miss if you don’t keep your eyes peeled. We’ll give you a hint: look very closely at and past the switchboard.

Our favourite work in “Excrescence” is Sheba Chhachhi’s fascinating interactive video, “Bhogi/Rogi”. It’s been years since Mumbai had a chance to see Delhi-based Chhachhi’s work and this one work gives you an idea of why she is considered one of contemporary art’s brightest minds. Stand in front of the video and an image of you will be projected upon the screen. See what happens to it as the images change. Made in technical collaboration with Thomas Eichorn, “Bhogi/Rogi” taps into our narcissism and fascination for technology. Your glee at seeing yourself distracts you from noticing how the idyllic image of a field of yellow mustard flowers turns into bubbling oil and then disturbing red globules. The video keeps changing, shifting from consumption to disease to violence and back to consumption. Having seen “Bhogi/Rogi”, we’re now extra dubious about genetically-modified food.

There is a handout that you can pick up once you enter the gallery and it’s a daunting document, beginning as it does with a quote by Ludwig Wittgenstein and going on to salute other philosophical heavyweights like Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag. Keep it with you and read it after you’ve seen the show. It’ll all make sense.

Review: The Trophy

This review was first published in ArtSlant.

Trophy Hunting

From The Trophy, by Ruben Bellinkx

Generally, when you walk into a gallery, you expect two things: light and silence. Enter Gallery Maskara and you’re plunged into a darkness that is made all the more eerie by the whirring noise of projectors playing Belgian artist Ruben Bellinkx’s 16mm films on loop. “The Trophy” presents a set of videos that Bellinkx has made over the past five years, beautifully displayed in the cavernous gallery. All except one use animals (predictably, animal rights activists aren’t enamored by the artist’s work but Bellinkx took great pains to ensure the animals were much happier and settled than the videos they starred in). The first work that greets the viewer shows a dog and a chair. Further inside is a table whose legs are on the backs of four turtles. In the depth of the gallery is the work after which the show has been named — featuring a reindeer and a wall. Ensconced in a niche above the door is one work that may initially seem out of place because it lacks the leit motif of animals. The black and white video shows water streaming, seemingly out of a lamp, and bathing a table with light and water. It’s a hypnotic video, made all the more dramatic by the fact that it’s tucked deep in an unapproachable, dark corner. You can’t go up close. You can just maintain your distance and stare at its continuous loop as you try to work out its meaning.

Actually, the connection between all the works in “The Trophy” isn’t the presence of animals but rather the fragility of what we know as human civilization– the human effort to dominate the uncontrollable aspects of nature and create an orderly pattern. Civilization is supposed to be proof that we’ve left the bestial side of ourselves behind. “The Trophy” isn’t entirely convinced. Through his videos, Bellinkx wonders whether the orderliness that we value as a sign of evolution isn’t an illusion.

Every video in “The Trophy” shows a symbol of human civilization – a table, a wall, a chair – but they are each redefined by natural elements. The most violent work in the exhibition is the set of three videos showing the chair. In the first, one dog is seen with the chair. It wags its tail, sniffs around, and watches the immobile and unresponsive object. In the second videos, two dogs join the first one and the pack attacks the chair. The last video shows the three dogs panting but at rest, with the chair reduced to splinters all around them. Given that the chair is a well-established symbol of authority and power, the central theme of this work is quite obviously an attack upon civilization. There are also disturbing ideas of the destructive quality of a crowd mentality and the terrible effects of miscommunication. After all, the solitary dog was quite friendly. It’s when the dog received no response for its friendly gestures that the pack entered the scene. But does the dog know that a chair doesn’t have the equivalent of a tail wag? Is the pack being manipulated by someone (like an all-knowing artist, for instance) to destroy the chair?

In “The Table Turning”, a table moves slowly on the backs of turtles instead of being rooted to a spot. At first, the image is simply cruel. It looks like an attempt to domesticate the animals but when you consider how the table is rendered useless by the turtles, the power balance shifts in favour of nature. Yes, they carry it on their backs but they’re not immobile and crouching inside their shell. They move, and with a certain degree of coordination, to render the table dysfunctional.

Manipulation is one of the major themes of the show. In the video showing the table under a shower of water, it looks like the water (a natural element) is falling out of the lamp (a man-made element). Look closer and you realize that this is an illusion. The lamp simply appears to release water. In actuality, it has no control over how much water washes over the table.

The illusion is most powerful in “The Trophy,” which is as clever in execution as display. Two screens are arranged so that you can’t see them simultaneously. One shows a reindeer mounted upon a wall. Within seconds of standing before it, you realize the animal is alive. You can hear the breath, see the flare of the nostrils on occasion. Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of seeing this half of “The Trophy” is the complexity of the power dynamic that Bellinkx sets up between the viewer and the work. To be mounted while alive should be a painful experience, almost akin to a crucifixion. But the reindeer’s face shows no expression. It looks down regally and impassively, as though it is lording over the scene.

The second scene shows the other side, literally. The reindeer’s body, neck down, stands steady and still on the other side of the wall. There’s an occasional tail twitch. Bellinkx has placed the animal between the death pose of the mounted trophy and the vitality of a reindeer standing on its own four legs. It’s a strange, disconcerting and yet fascinating limbo, much like the entire exhibition.

Review: Gallery SKE for Gallery BMB

This review was first published in ArtSlant.

By Sakshi Gupta

The speedy rise of GALLERYSKE as one of India’s more important galleries is, in many ways, a testimony to how quickly Indian contemporary art has soared in critical estimation. Choosing to leave the modernist masters and conventional art practices to others, GALLERYSKE concentrated on looking forward. Its focus was on finding and promoting new artists whose work used new media, sculptural installations and performance art. A showcase of the gallery’s artists should be exciting, unconventional and full of novelty. Despite a few interesting pieces, most of the selection made by curator Bose Krishnamachari for “GALLERYSKE for Gallery BMB” doesn’t quite live up to that promise.

Zakkir Hussain opens the exhibition with a mixed media work on paper. Hussain’s untitled triptych is full of violent imagery, recalling descriptions of torture particularly in the first and second panels. Yet, despite the macabre note, this piece isn’t particularly memorable. The mutilated body has been seen in a variety of avatars in contemporary art and Hussain’s efforts don’t stand out in comparison. Similarly, Sakshi Gupta’s emaciated animal sculpture inevitably invites a comparison to Bharti Kher’s famous sculptures and falls short. Gupta’s other piece, a weird and impossible skeleton, is much stronger and benefits from dramatic lighting, even if it does look like something Tim Burton may have concocted for “The Corpse Bride.”

Avinash Veeraraghavan’s prints and Navin Thomas’s video, “While Your Were Sleeping” are works that needed an introduction for the viewer to appreciate them. Veeraraghavan is interested in creating patterns and using repetition and layers to tell stories. At first, Veeraraghavan’s imagery looks random but once the eye settles into the geometry of his piece the suggestions of dark and violent tales emerge. Unfortunately, themes like castration and repressed sexual identity need to be treated with more inventiveness than Veeraraghavan displays, particularly in the video titled “My Inexplicable Love for Cotton Candy” which repeatedly shows (among other things) a rose blooming and circling knives.

“While Your Were Sleeping,” the only work by Navin Thomas, might easily be missed by many visitors. Not only is it tucked away in the belly of the gallery, but it’s niche is so dark that you have to grope around to find the headphones. The gadget seen in the video is a toy Thomas found in a market of Chinese manufactured toys in old Delhi. The toy sings an Iranian song. If you don’t knows this background, however, then all this video shows is a bit of junk whose tinny speakers leak a cheerful song with gibberish lyrics. You wouldn’t recognise the rusty little gadget as a cultural traveller. All the sophistication of centuries-old artistic traditions of Iran, China and India is contrasted with this product of their contemporary cultures and politics: a mechanical toy that has decayed and looks like nothing recognisable as it sputters recorded noise. It’s a shame the show didn’t have more of Thomas’s works because he is among the more exciting artists in the GALLERYSKE stable.

Srinivasa Prasad’s “Tailor Mama” is perhaps the most charming part of the show. It’s an inventive hybrid of a sewing machine and bicycle, complete with a set of jewel-bright spools of thread. Although “Tailor Mama” is quite obviously a fantastical piece, it’s easy to imagine a man cheerfully riding it through rural India, as the accompanying prints show. The installation displays the sense of enterprise that marks the self-employed and is simultaneously tinged with a sense of nostalgia because the present is characterised by mass-produced, machine-made goods. Prasad’s two “Nest” photographs share that sense of melancholia. The first picture shows a bare, leafless, lifeless tree. In the second, there is a nest in the tree’s branches but it is quite obviously not something built by a bird and hence looks ridiculous. “Nest” shows the artist intervening in an effort to hold on to what has been lost and attempting to replicate nature, without success.

On the whole, “GALLERYSKE for Gallery BMB” feels unsatisfactory. This is partly because the insight it offers into the works of the five chosen artists feels too cursory, and the artists have not been aided by the manner of display.  Even if they were given proper contextualization, not all of the pieces are eloquent or impressive enough to make an impact.

While white space is important and large works need breathing room in order to be appreciated properly, the exhibition design of “GALLERYSKE for Gallery BMB” leaves the gallery looking oddly empty in parts. It’s as though there weren’t enough works to hang on the walls. This is a problem that Gallery BMB has had on repeated occasions as the artworks negotiate the passage-like central section of the gallery and the gallery’s side-wall.  One interesting area of the gallery is the aforementioned niche in which Navin Thomas’s video “While Your Were Sleeping” is on display. However, rarely has this bit of the gallery been used in a manner that doesn’t make the exhibited art look like either a neglected member of the show or an afterthought that couldn’t be housed elsewhere. Thomas’s interesting video feels similarly abandoned in the dark corner and it’s a shame.

Review: Section Yellow (again)

This was my first review for Art Slant.

Pretty Paperwork

As a Pakistani who is married to an Indian and lives in India on a tourist visa, Bani Abidi is intimately familiar with the visa application process. In her new solo show at Mumbai’s Project 88, it shows. Section Yellow is composed of  works made over the last few months including a video, two series of photographs and a set of photo-text montages. All the elements tie in with one another, though some manage this better than others.

The montages are meant to punctuate the larger narrative that is set out in the video “The Distance From Here.”  They offer a closer look into the minds and lives of the people seen in the video. Intriguing as they are, next to the largeness of the other works in the show, their format feels too small even though they manage to achieve Abidi’s intention of literally drawing the viewer in. Unfortunately, the montages feel like Abidi is making her viewer walk the plank. There are too few of them and each one ends abruptly.

When one enters Project 88, the montages probably go unnoticed because they are obscured by the enormous projection screen that hangs in the middle of the gallery. It’s fitting that “The Distance From Here” occupies pride of place because all the other pieces in the show are in some way derived from it. For those who are familiar with Abidi’s oeuvre, the video is simultaneously a departure as well as a continuation of earlier work. However, it doesn’t have as strong the vein of humour that characterizes many of the artist’s earlier pieces. The video shows people waiting in a room, and then going through a security check before queuing up for a visa interview. Although little happens by way of plot, it’s tense. You sense the anxiety and nervousness of the applicants as they wait.

This theme of waiting and the power wielded by the authorities in civil society is one that Abidi has been exploring for the past few years. In 2006, she made the video “Reserved,” in which a city ground to a halt in anticipation of a VIP’s arrival. “Security Barriers A-L” (2008) was a series of drawings in which Abidi presented the security barriers she’d seen in her native Karachi that were designed as much to allow some people entry as to pose an obstacle to others. “The Distance From Here” connects neatly with these themes. Abidi’s starting point for the video was the visa interview process in Islamabad where a shuttle bus takes applicants to the diplomatic area. The process of unsettling the civilian begins there and continues with the waiting, the security checks and the lines. “The Distance from Here” is a contemplative piece and needs to be watched more than once to pick up the details of storytelling. There are no plot points. Instead, the story advances through the expressions of the actors who are remarkably unself-conscious in front of the camera.

A number of the applicants carry folders of documents and all of them in the video have to queue up in a narrow space that is designated by yellow lines. Abidi arranges different photographs of these straight lines to create geometrical shapes in the “Exercise in Redirecting Lines” series. It’s a strong work that takes the concrete idea behind the yellow lines and turns them into abstract, almost meaningless shapes. The folders of the applicants are photographed on a white shelf and this series, showing those humble plastic folders, is outstanding. They’re visually powerful. The aqua palette of the folders surfaces out of the white background to great effect. Formally, it’s fascinating to see how the folder is abstracted into a landscape or seascape. You can’t help but return to them and notice details of how certain parts are blurred, how the light bounces off some areas, the gleam of the plastic, the softness of the paper. Who’d have thought paperwork could be so pretty?

Review: Section Yellow

This review first appeared on Mumbai Boss.

Dividing Lines

Think back to the last time you were waiting to be interviewed for a visa. Remember dressing up so that you look like you’re visa-worthy, waiting to meet a dour official, carrying a file of every possible document to prove your financial worth and respectability? Chances are, you didn’t consider yourself to be a work of art while sitting around in the visa office. Unless, of course, you’re Pakistani artist Bani Abidi. Delhi-based Abidi has been interested in the way power dynamics play out in everyday life for a while now. Last year, she made a short film that showed streets getting clogged as the traffic waited for an unseen VIP to pass. A recent set of drawings showed her fascination for the neat and clean geometry of everyday security devices, like the intercom. The works in her latest show, Section Yellow continue to explore the idea of power dynamics in seemingly banal settings.

Section Yellow is set in a consular office that seems to be in the middle of nowhere. It is made up of two sets of photographs, a few photographic pieces using text, and a video titled “The Distance from Here”, which is dedicated to her husband, graphic novelist and artist Sarnath Banerjee. The video is literally at the heart of the show. It’s a quiet, subtle short film that watches people who are waiting and preparing themselves for their interviews. Look out for how the expressions of people change, observe the quiet power dynamics at play, and wait for the little twist at the end. However, the tour de force of the show is the set of photographs showing the folders in which the paperwork supporting visa applications are kept. Against opalescent white shelves, the coloured plastic folders look luminous and are transformed into a fascinating combination of abstracts and landscapes. The other photographs are montages. They take the yellow lines marking out the queues in the video and alter their geometry.

Powerful as the works in the show are, Section Yellow feels incomplete. This isn’t only because the gallery feels half-full. With the photographic pieces using text as well as the single portrait (it’s of one of the people in the video), Abidi seems to have taken a step towards exploring individual stories. However, this angle is barely worked out and feels like a half-hearted attempt to make the walls look less empty. We recommend standing in the middle of the gallery and imagining the half behind you doesn’t exist. Focus instead on the video and the plastic folders that have become magical thanks to Abidi’s eye.

On Kolkata’s Art Scene

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.

The Cima art gallery. Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
The Cima art gallery. Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

“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.”