A show like this comes once in a generation. With Looking Glass, an exhibition of 20 contemporary artists mounted at four cultural institutions in Delhi, we have the rare chance of looking at the most established and respected among India’s contemporary artists all at once.
Curator Gayatri Sinha recognises the historical moment. In her book, Voices of Change, which has been launched simultaneously, she proposes that this bunch represents the “fourth or fifth generation” of Indian artists, who have “expanded Indian art like never before”.
But how did this Terrific 20 (T20) make the cut? It’s difficult enough to agree on the greats from ages past. What respect have these contemporary artists earned in this largely subjective and utterly chaotic field that made their presence in such a show almost inevitable?
Sinha says, “You gain respect primarily through your peers. After that, the critical reception by curators, collectors and institutions are very important.”
Anita Dube, one of the T20, puts it more plainly. With heavy irony in her voice, the 52-year-old artist says, “Success comes when dumb buyers are also seduced. When somebody can titillate or shock with ideas and works like a Bollywood artist is expected to do. When an artist can speak good English and take part in the circus.”
Pushpmala N., 54, another artist who has tasted critical success with a variety of mediums, says, “I treat my viewers as a community. So when they keep following your work over the years, it feels good.” She regards consistency of concepts and a visual language to be the other keys to the series of heavy gates that’s the contemporary canon.
It doesn’t help that our state institutions have retreated into insignificant roles in creating the canon. A place in the National Gallery of Modern Art’s collection is still a coveted recognition, but the NGMA hasn’t bought a single work since 2003. The reason? It’s working on the first Acquisitions Policy, which has been in the works for years.
Jagannath Panda, 42, says, “The national award means nothing today. It doesn’t get you buyers, major exhibitionsm — or even an audience.”
As in the case of Hyderabad-based artist C.K. Rajan, such reception may not come about even after an invite to Documenta, perhaps the most rigorously curated exhibition of contemporary art that takes place every five years in Kassel, Germany. Rajan, whose collages were part of Documenta XII, “hardly features in any contemporary discourse”, says Dube. She reasons it with Rajan’s inarticulateness, apart from the fact that the artist isn’t based near one of the metro markets.
Bharti Kher, the highest selling artist among the T20, says, “It’s all about the individual. Some are flamboyant and communicate well, whereas others cannot speak for a toffee. It matters a lot.”
“You need a kind of perception among the people who have a say in the market,” says N.N. Rimzon, the sculptor came back in the early 1990s after studying at Britain’s Royal College of Art to find there was no market for him. “There was a clique operating in Delhi — they wanted to keep younger artists like me out of the NGMA’s collection,” he alleges. Now, the 52-year-old artist looks at invites from Western institutions to be among the most important markers of critical success.
But Pushpmala says she detests the apparent trend of playing to the Western galleries. “You can see some artists catering to some so-called global concerns... certain depictions of immigration, of airport security and such.”
Atul Dodiya, another artist who has created his own vernacular language, sounds another word of caution on looking at the West. The artist, who studied at the Paris School of Fine Arts and is currently working for a show in Berlin, says, “Even the most knowledgeable of Western art directors and curators have a certain notion of Indian contemporary art. A French curator doesn’t highlight the Britishness of a British artist the way he would bracket an Indian artist.” In more ways than one, home better be where the art is.
Looking Glass: The Existence of Difference is showing at the Religare Arts.i Gallery, American Center, British Council and Goethe-Institut in Delhi till October 31. Call 9811856525 for details.