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Why Delhi is India's new culture hub

Delhi is India’s new cultural capital. In the last week of January, more than 90,000 people thronged the India Art Fair, the second most attended art event in the world after Arco, Madrid. Culture collided with commerce in cavernous tents as connoisseurs and commoners...

brunch Updated: Feb 16, 2013 18:54 IST
Aasheesh Sharma

You don’t really need Google Earth to tell you this. Delhi is India’s new cultural capital. In the last week of January, more than 90,000 people thronged the India Art Fair, the second most attended art event in the world after Arco, Madrid. Culture collided with commerce in cavernous tents as connoisseurs and commoners gawked at 3,500 works created by 1,100 artists from 24 nationalities. Over the next few days, close to seven lakh bibliophiles visited the World Book Fair and on any given weekend, hundreds of Delhiites frequent the more than 200 galleries and numerous concert venues across the national capital region. Whether it is rock, Indian classical, jazz, metal or World Music, people have an eclectic menu of genres to choose from. With more than 100 productions staged every month, the theatregoer in Delhi couldn’t have asked for more.

Historically, Mumbai was the more important art market. But in the last five years, recognising Delhi’s potential, global auction houses such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s have increased the number of representatives in the city. And then, Krishen Khanna and SH Raza, the two most prominent members of the Bombay Progressive Artists Group, also stay here. Of course, Delhi’s 200 galleries outnumber the 80-odd galleries Mumbai has.

Mumbai-based artist Akbar Padamsee, considered one of the giants of modern Indian painting along with Raza, FN Souza and MF Husain, says Delhi is the place to show at. "The Bombay market has been washed out. It is nowhere on the scene when compared to Delhi," says Padamsee. Art historian Seema Bawa echoes Padamsee’s sentiment. "Every artist wants to exhibit here. The stamp of recognition that they get from showing at Delhi’s leading galleries – a Vadehra, an Espace or the Lado Sarai ones – announces to the world that they’ve arrived," adds Bawa.


A new sensibility

For decades, perhaps because of its perception as a city of bureaucrats, refugees and property dealers, we tended to underestimate Delhi’s appetite for art. When he stayed in the Delhi of the 1970s, says Akbar Padamsee, the city had the aesthetic sensibility of an overgrown village. "Today, when I come here, I can’t believe my eyes."

1. M Venkatesh and Swati Roy Mediapersons and friends who organise Bookaroo, a festival woven around children’s literature, which has become a permanent fixture on Delhi’s cultural calendar

2. Geeta Chandran Dancer and teacher, founder of Natya Vriksha, an organisation devoted to promoting Bharatanatyam in the city

3. Ustad Faiyaz Wasifuddin Dagar Vocalist, the 20th generation in a family of acclaimed Dhrupad singers based in Delhi

4. Anjolie Ela Menon One of India’s best known contemporary artists based in Delhi, Menon has her studio at Nizamuddin Basti

5. Sanjeev Bhargava Impresario, organiser of the Ananya festival of classical dance, Bhakti Utsav, the South Asian Bands festival and the Delhi Jazz Festival. Popularised the Music in the Park concept.

6. Arvind Gaur Founder of Asmita, he is a leading practitioner of street theatre in the city and one of Delhi’s best known directors

7. Subir Malik Founder and keyboardist of Parikrama, one of the longest running rock bands in the city

8. Jatin Varma Marketing wizard, founder of annual comics convention Comic Con held at Dilli Haat

9. Bhavna Kakar Art historian, director of Gallery Latitude 28 at Lado Sarai; editor of the magazine TAKE on Art

10. Neha Kirpal Founder of the India Art Fair, the largest and most successful international art fair in the country

Earlier, cynics said Delhiwallahs didn’t have the finesse to appreciate the nuances of high art or culture. Seher founder Sanjeev Bhargava, the impresario behind such successful concepts as Music in the Park, remembers that time. “During a 1994 concert in the Vasantotsava series, Bhimsen Joshi remarked: ‘Dilli mein perform karne ka anand hi nahin hai. People applaud at the wrong places. It seems they come to concerts to show off their earrings.’ Aghast, I resolved to take the performing arts to the city’s middle class,” says the organiser of Bhakti Utsav, the Delhi Jazz Festival and the Ananya festival of classical dance, held at Purana Qila. Delhi has come a long way since, says Bhargava. “Now, when 10,000 people relish New Orleans blues at the Delhi Jazz Festival sitting on Nehru Park’s grass dunes, I am reminded of how misplaced Panditji’s remark would have sounded in 2013.”

Celebrated Dhrupad singer Wasifuddin Dagar says few cities in the world can match the historical venues for performing arts that Delhi offers. “It is the oldest living Capital. Where else can you enjoy aalaps in the shadow of the Qutub?” he asks.

The cultural landscape of the city has changed dramatically from the early 1990s when his group performed at ‘rock shows’ in Delhi University colleges for a princely R2,000, says Parikrama lead singer Subir Malik. Apart from getting many more venues and more money – established groups such as Malik’s now earn anywhere between R3lakh and R5lakh for sponsored shows – audience tastes, too, have evolved. City-grown labels like Amarrass Records are helping popularise World Music by introducing audiences to newer genres and artistes like Madou Sidiki Diabate, the 71st generation in a family that plays the kora, a West African harp and Malian icon Vieux Farka Touré, who performed at the World Cup Football opening ceremony in 2011. “Earlier, apart from Sufi or classical, most acts in Delhi catered to people aged below 25. But Delhi has a large population of well-travelled mid-level professionals willing to experiment with something they haven’t heard of,” says Ashutosh Sharma, director with Amarrass Records.

Quintessential Delhi: The Ananya Dance Festival takes performing arts to Delhi’s Purana Qila

The urge to experiment hasn’t prevented theatre and dance – two art forms conventionally close to the Delhiite’s heart – from thriving. With the emergence of newer venues, the city’s performing arts scene is democratised, says celebrated Bharatnatyam exponent and dance teacher Geeta Chandran. “When we perform at Connaught Place’s Central Park, the audience finds it less intimidating than an auditorium at Mandi House.”

Smaller, more affordable rehearsal venues like the Mukt Dhara auditorium in Gole Market have brought in work for the city’s theatre practitioners, says Arvind Gaur of Asmita. “What is heartening is the revival of campus theatre, a throwback to the days when Frank Thakurdas inspired Amitabh Bachchan to join dramatics and Barry John directed Shah Rukh.”

Reading in the age of Kindle: The World Book Fair in Delhi has become an annual feature now

Brave new patrons

Delhi’s new culture revolution is being driven by young professionals who are no longer content attending art workshops at the India International Centre. A typical day out for the modern-day city aficionado usually entails lunch at Hauz Khas Village, followed by an evening looking at art at the Lado Sarai Opening Nights (nine galleries have buried business rivalries and synchronised their art openings!) and finally, attending a concert al fresco at one of the many green spaces that Delhi has. (Think Zorba, an amphitheatre in a farmhouse with an intimate, cozy feel on the Mehrauli Gurgaon Road that hosts alternative musical acts, or the enormous Garden of Five Senses which often plays host to the best of Sufi musicians). “In the US and UK, most of the great shows and festivals are held outdoors. But in India such venues were few. That got me thinking about converting my farmhouse into a platform for music with a relentless focus on outdoor entertainment,” says Ranjan Chopra, owner of Zorba and the co-host of the Just Jazz music festival that brought in bands from New Orleans in October 2012.

All that jazz: Venues such as Nehru Park have drawn in larger audiences

Footfalls indicate Dilliwallahs are devouring cultural events with a renewed frenzy. The Ananya classical dance festival saw the number of guests rise from 600 to 3000 over the last decade. Even Comic Con India, a niche comic books convention, saw the number of visitors rise from 15,000 in 2011 to 50,000 in 2013, says its founder Jatin Varma.

Choreographer Vidyun Singh, director programmes at Habitat World, says Delhi is witnessing the emergence of a brave new breed of art patrons. “They’ve been educated in and have had exposure to rich cultural options in cities around the world. They are seeking out similar options not just as audience, but also organising cutting edge events that enhance the robustness and range of culture in the city.” Chiki Sarkar, publisher, Penguin Books India, agrees. “If you are a brilliant young lawyer, NGO worker, journalist, or in the government, you probably want to be in Delhi,” she says.

French connection
At the India Art Fair, as onlookers milled around the Madonna of Merriweather Road, admiring Anjolie Ela Menon’s portrait of a hippie woman done in the ’70s, the seasoned artist drew a Parisian parallel to explain why the Capital has become a cradle of creativity. “More affordable than Mumbai, Delhi today is like Paris after the first World War. It was an era when Picasso, Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald deserted the expensive Montmarte district and settled in the less expensive but creatively stimulating Montparnasse.”

The maverick painter wasn’t the only one invoking the avant garde spirit at the art mahakumbh. A few metres away from the Delhi Art Gallery tent where Menon’s paintings were on show, the paintings display at Manu Dosaj’s Gallerie Alternatives, one of the first art spaces in in Gurgaon, was drawing buyers to the works of Sayed Haider Raza, another master who wouldn’t have felt out of sorts on the Champs-Elysées. “I settled in Delhi two years ago after having lived in Paris for sixty years,” says Raza, whose next solo opens at Vadehra Art Gallery next week. “So much takes place in the city in dance, music, theatre, the visual arts, literature and poetry that I feel the vibrant and dynamic plurality of India’s contemporary creativity is on its best display here.”

The curtain rises...A play at Akshara Theatre’s Festival of Four Languages

Culture revolution

So, how has Delhi managed to overrun every other Indian metropolis in cultural buzz, energy and spending power in the last few years? “The national capital region has the world’s best MNCs with highly paid employees and the expat community,” says Neha Kirpal. “Delhiites have second homes they want to decorate with the best architecture and art,” she adds.

The awareness for the arts is growing outside commercial spaces, too. In the Kiran Nadar Museum and the non-profit Devi Art Foundation, the Capital has two of the best private art museums in the country. “I believe every city with a vibrant art scene needs to make space for an assortment of ideas to get root,” says Devi Art Foundation founder Anupam Poddar.

Sadia Dehlvi, the author of Sufi Courtyard: Dargahs of Delhi, says the time is just right for the city to soak in culture. “After Partition, culture took a backseat as the refugees busied themselves making a new life. Now that a large population of the city is doing well financially, the cultural aspects of city live have resurfaced.”

On the lighter side: People dress up like pop culture characters at Comic Con India 2013

The audience for culture in the city is getting younger, says Bhavna Kakar of Latitude 28, a gallery that derives its nomenclature from the geographical location of New Delhi. Experts estimate transactions at the India Art Fair this year exceeded R100 crore. But senior artist Sidharth, who exhibited solo at the fair, strikes a note of caution. The sales bubble could have been fuelled by speculation, he says. “A few collectors made Delhi’s nouveau rich believe their investment would multiply irrespective of artistic value. We’ll have to see if the renewed activity is for real.”

Still, M Venkatesh of the Bookaroo Trust, which hosts the eponymous children’s literature festival, says the change is here to stay. “In the Republic Day parade this year, the Delhi tableau showcased the city’s ‘cultural’ establishment. The cultural upsurge of the city hasn’t dwindled because the number of supporters in the government, private enterprise, foreign missions and arts councils is rising.”

The next world city?
Art historian and critic S Kalidas says bringing about any cultural revolution needs the participation of the commoner as well as the cognoscenti. “The initiated connoisseur will always be in smaller numbers. But you need the larger numbers to fulfil the needs of the market as well as the connoisseurs to educate that market. And Delhi has the space for both.”

Penguin’s Sarkar reckons Delhi is slowly becoming a world city. “The Delhiite is becoming interested in all the pleasures a big city has to offer - whether it is good eating, culture, entertainment or sport,” she adds.

Venkatesh of Bookaroo says Delhi might still not be the ‘undisputed’ hub of culture but it is sure leading the way. “It is no longer just about theatre and dance, there are so many things happening for various niches.”

But the bigger picture is not all rose tinted. Just last fortnight, a gallery was attacked for holding an exhibition of nudes. Also, concerns on safety of women in the city continue. Intolerance and a sense of insecurity could be the biggest hurdles before Mega City Delhi as it hurtles forward on the international cultural highway and takes its rightful place as a world city.

(With inputs from Manit Moorjani)

From HT Brunch, February 17

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