ALL THAT SHINES IS NOT STEEL

The 'flitterati' art summit in Delhi worked like an efficient conveyor belt carrying bespoke baggage to a privileged minority 

Ratna Raman Delhi

The third art summit at Delhi in January 2011 promised to be the biggest ever in Asia. There were over 80 galleries displaying the work of artists from as many as 20 countries. The summit was a four-day affair, a day more than the previous year, and the first two days were hosted mainly for special invitees. On day three, with ticketed entry, a world of shapes, sizes, colours, forms and textures began unfolding.

Three art installations stood within the boundary walls of the imposing Gate No. 8 of Pragati Maidan, in front of the hall. One was a collection of chairs piled up one upon another rather like an unstable minar and offered a comment on democracy.

Another constituted matka-sized terracotta beads that had been strung on a rope, one end of which was lodged in a nearby ficus tree. The third installation was a cycle cart loaded with brass lotas, the elegant kind you used traditionally to take to the fields, for drinking or for the purpose of performing ablutions, before it was replaced by ugly plastic. All the lotas seemed to be stuck to one another and the cart was full. Reading the artist's name I realised that it was the same person who had partially melted and welded the most exquisite handcrafted brass and bronze, aesthetic and utilitarian items into one giant shape in the previous year. Last year the sheer nostalgia of recognising those pieces, from another time-frame, made the displays arresting. This year, there wasn't any "linger-longer" appeal that the cycle rickshaw provided.

Inside the hall was an installation of tiffin boxes. The shapes dated back to the era of grandparents and large tiffin carriers and eventually caught up with contemporary times through small dabbas. They were all in stainless steel and looking at them I understood why steel dabbas were getting rather difficult to locate in our local markets. If there was a constant outflow of utility ware from the wholesaler to serve the purpose of art, it wasn't surprising that housewives were beginning to feel the pinch. Unfortunately, for the artist, both Magpie and Art Inox have ably demonstrated through their haute culinary accessories at the turn of the century that stainless steel can approximate to the highest aesthetics in tableware, so this collection remained lacklustre in spite of the gleaming steel.

Significantly, Anish Kapoor has also bolstered the case for stainless steel as ideal raw material for mega art with his gigantic mirrors. One such mirror, installed at NGMA, reflected a bleak sky and captured occasional bird flights as grey streaks on the mirror for a few ephemeral seconds. Arguably, Anish Kapoor has done for stainless steel what the Eiffel Tower did for steel in an earlier century by unveiling its aesthetic possibilities in a world, which at that time could only conceive of architecture in wood and stone. While Kapoor's models and installations held sway at NGMA, his paintings and many-hued mirrors and discs were resplendent in the crowded galleries at Pragati Maidan.

Another curious exhibit was a dark, musical cloud made of wired black microphones that loomed in a desolate corner and broke into a multiplicity of one-line hums at eerie intervals and seemed to serve little purpose. Subodh Gupta's oils on canvas revealing larger than life close-ups of unwashed kitchen utensils, spoons and uneaten food remained unappealing. Does too much exposure to unwashed dishes eliminate all desire to connect to their aesthetic possibilities?

The inside of the pavilion was packed with canvases, sculptures, 3D installations and prints in a smorgasbord of shapes, textures and colours that beckoned invitingly. One gallery had a stunning Joan Miro and a Salvador Dali on display and both paintings demanded mandatory obeisance. Several galleries showcased Picasso and drew large crowds. Curiously, Miro, Dali and Picasso, the finest exponents of modernism, belonged to different parts of Spain before the world laid claim to their art. There was even one early work by Marc Chagall as several lesser known works that beckoned on every wall. Gnana's coloured sculptures narrated their own story, while animal paintings by Japanese artists clambered up display walls to astound like new-age Rousseaus.

Indian artists were extremely well represented. There were abundant D Souzas, ranging from malicious hobgoblin sketches to a heart-stopping oil on canvas. There was an MF Hussein showcasing a graceful faceless woman, her aanchal littered with pearls and cornelian and deep pink stones at her girdle. The work itself was reminiscent of an early attempt at Tanjore painting, possibly abandoned owing to a reluctance to proceed any further! Atul Dodiya's gigantic canvases seemed to be narrating racy stories totally out of sync with the present. Ramachandra's floral triptych was vibrantly reassuring.

Saroj Gogoi's abundant female forms invited and disturbed, Suneeta Kohli's use of colour scintillated, Raza's symmetric control of strokes on canvas and on paper mesmerised, and a wonderful panel of nine modern portraits by the late Paritosh Sen left one wistfully wanting more.

The summit brought together an incredible range of paintings by everyone known and unknown, imagined and unimagined. Earthy Jamini Roy paintings, fragile and porous with age, accompanied by expensive print copies for those who dreamt of putting up the old master on their walls. There were ram-darwaza paintings, somewhat reminiscent of hologram pictures, and if you gazed long enough at the paintings, you could find yourself in another space. Only, there was nowhere to go.

The gaze could not be prolonged and hence there was little hope of being transported to another realm by the art. You became either a jostler or a jostlee as you made way for other people to partake of the view. No metal or material was left unexplored; from paint to thread, from bindis to buttons, and metal to material, the galleries displayed a very wide range of work.

Yes, despite the razzmatazz and continuous parade of events and talks, this was an exclusive, uncommon affair, affording moments of animated intimacy between the buyer and seller. For the 'flitterati', who came in out of curiosity, it was a heady moment, yet not one that could really be prolonged or mulled over. Two hours inside the hall and the eyeballs had been stretched and squeezed by the infinite kaleidoscopic canvases on view.

One had to rush out and breathe into the empty air outside the hall, fortify vision with coffee and food, before going in to look again. For a buyer, armed with signing power and foreknowledge from a limited edition brochure, the summit provided unlimited opportunity. For an aficionado, or a learner, just too much needed to be crammed in and too much was happening in a cramped space. There was only so much one could absorb in one visit, or over an entire day. Perhaps, if the spaces to display paintings were larger, it is possible that individual exhibits could have benefited more and provided greater viewing pleasure.

This, however, was a huge art market. If you could afford to buy and knew where to find what you were looking for, it was a good place to be in. There were plenty of red dots in view, indicating brisk business in prints and paintings that could be owned for a price. 

The hand-painted Nano car with new creative costs provided closure to Tata's vision of easy accessibility as this 'arty' car remains entirely outside the reach of the 'common man'. It is a long time since anyone has claimed that art alone posits a world more beautiful and more visionary than the real world we inhabit. Naïve again, to expect art to forever inspire because artists now also double up as shamans.

They dig deep into our tortured psyches and those of their own to pull out all manner of unscheduled hydra-headed beings. Once these figments of the imagination are channelised through paper or colour, they possess intense power and can be inspiring, deeply disturbing, pure kitsch, chaotic or simply incoherent.

Historically, art was produced by a miniscule number of practitioners and sustained through patronage from religious institutions or the magnanimity of monarchs. The art summit demonstrated that the controls were irrevocably in new hands. Yet, the summit worked much in the manner of an efficient conveyor belt carrying bespoke baggage to a privileged minority. 

Like most other cultural produce in the civilised world, the trickle-down effect controls the production and consumption of art. The dissemination of art as we move down the vertical social scale is non-existent. The art summit made little claims to accessibility or dialogue. It remained a rarefied space to which a select number was provided entry.

This holds true for all our proscenium theatre and most of our performing arts as well. Oddly, enormous crowds and long lines for ticketed entry beguile us into believing that everyone's life is being touched by these events. This unfortunately is not true.
The production of art in the new age has undergone a sea change with the increase in the number of practitioners and the flurry of new and entirely different patrons.

Surely, art needs to descend from the summit and situate itself at the crossroads, so that it can engage with the groundswell?

Maybe we will need to wait until Union Culture Minister Kumari Selja's promise to make art available in public spaces takes concrete shape. New Delhi seems to have its craft melas in place, but we must think of evolving strategies for popularising art in the same manner. For instance, Louisiana and Ohio in North America have annual Starving Artist Festivals where a display and sale of art and craft made by local artists is put up in public spaces. This operates as a fair which is accessible to all residents and is a place for learning and discovery, and transaction. 

The artist's work in the absence of agents is more affordable and more people feel connected to the pulse of their city. Such occasions usually lead to greater community sensitising of surroundings and proceeds from the show are ploughed back into community welfare incentives.

Closer home in Bangalore, the Karnataka Chitrakala Parishat has been organising chitra santhes (painting fairs) for over eight years now. This one day event, in the heart of the city, was held in January this year and over 1400 artists from all over Karnataka displayed their work on either side of a mile long stretch. 

In the past, on select sundays, Nehru Park was the venue for an open-air display and sale of paintings by a large number of artists. Incidentally, Nehru Park continues to showcase our finest musicians to rapturous audiences through 'Music in the Park' programmes. Perhaps the organisers could be reminded that art too can bind a community and generate tremendous collective energy? We could make a small start by reviving the earlier practice of exhibiting art in the park?

Indeed, colour and effervescence needs to be allowed to percolate into everyone's lives and enrich them. As long as the idea of making art available in public spaces remains on paper, we will have to content ourselves with the few aesthetic reminders that document collective history on our streets, be it the sculpted Dandi March procession on Mother Teresa Road in Delhi, the bizzarre metal sprouts that inhabit the AIIMS roundabout in south Delhi, the varied tiles and terracotta adorning the walls of our metro stations, the odd fountain in our roundabouts, and stately medieval and colonial buildings. A discreet walk into Maurya Sheraton's domed lobby still allows the eye to be dazzled by Krishen Khanna's Procession of Life emblazoned high across the walls. 

Or else, visits to the odd museum and local galleries is all we can fall back upon when the weather turns hostile and we can no longer access historical monuments enclosed within gardens.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MARCH 2011

Comments

Art summit

Quite an immersive review, I must say. I have not been to Pragati Maidan for some years now, and I was too far away to attend the art show this year, but I could smell the dust, feel the heat of the crowd, get to visualise the show, and even enjoy it. I always thought art was an acquired (or inherited) taste, but ‘flitterati’ described it all. Nice work.