Dummies’ guide to Indian Art
Ready Reckoner As the India Art Summit jamboree draws to a close, Amitava Sanyal looks at the who’s who and what’s what of Indian art. A limited primer and pretentious posers for arty parties.columns Updated: Jan 22, 2011 23:40 IST
Ajanta: The earliest gallery of Indian art spread across several of the 30 caves near Jalgaon in Maharashtra. Bombay’s JJ School of Art sent a team to copy the luminescent Buddhist murals because they were getting destroyed due to lack of care. The decade was the 1930s. It’s a Unesco World Heritage site today (read: attracts quite some dosh), but most of the damage has been done.
Poser: Only when a British officer (Capt Morgan) lost his way in the bushes did we get to know of the caves again, didn’t we?
Bindu to bindi: The artistic passport back for artists of Indian origin settled abroad. Searching for Indian motifs, Syed Haider Raza struck upon the tantric bindu and made half his career off it. British-bred Bharti Kher was struck by the irony of a “sperm-like bindi” on a woman's forehead and has started making an oeuvre using its myriad possibilities.
Poser: Who paid a record price for Kher's bindi-skinned elephant? (Answer: Kiran Nadar, R7.5 crore)
Cartoons: The tradition was started in India by Gaganendranath Tagore in the first decade of the 20th century. By 1916 he had published a decade’s cartoons in a book, Birpubajra, the first such collection in India. Later, it became a pocket of laughter in newspaper pages. A recent show on the interplay between the line and text showcased Sarnath Banerjee, who has expanded the form of sarcasm in graphic novels.
Poser: Were the cave painters in Bhimbetka caricaturing their lives?
Devi, Sunayani: Among the earliest Indian women who painted for art’s sake. Influenced by uncles Rabindranath and Abanindranath Tagore, she persevered at her craft for 15 years during which she is said to have painted every day. In 1927 her works were exhibited in London by the Women’s International Art Club. She was called ‘naïve and primitivist’ by some, but extolled for her ‘fresco-like textures’ by others.
POSER: Did you know Sunayani Devi exhibited with some Bauhau artists in 1922?
Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris: Where several Indian artists headed to hone their skills an age ago. The enabler was a generous grant from the French government. In 1932, Amrita Sher-Gil was among the first to go. In 1950s, after receiving the coveted critics’ award at the School, Syed Haider Raza found a confidence in his own works that proved invaluable. Today, more than 20 artists of Indian origin — including Sakti and Jayasri Burman, and Velu ‘Paris’ Viswanathan — are based there.
Poser: Did you know Raza has two properties in France: an apartment in a converted nunnery in Paris and in Gorbio near the Mediterranean?
Framing: A specialist’s job mostly done by non-specialists in our country. With frames of some artists getting ever larger, the cost of framing some of these works may, in sheer input costs, be much more than any other cost. Not just aesthetics, but the longevity of a work may depend on it.
Poser: Did you go to a ‘specialist’ for this show of yours?
Gallery: It’s the institution that has nurtured modern art worldwide. In India, it has bloomed rather late. In Delhi, the Dhoomimals started selling artworks from their stationary shop in the 1930s. Their nephew Viren Kumar started on his own not long after. In Bombay the Artist’s Centre, earlier the salon for the Bombay Art Society, was one of the first.
Poser: If there were no galleries earlier, why did Abanindranath Tagore show an ‘art gallery’ in the backdrop of a 1920s’ frame?
Husain Horse Syndrome: Anjolie Ela Menon’s term for clichés Indian artists fall for — seemingly inevitably. Maqbool Fida Husain must have drawn hundreds of horses over the years. Others have made careers out of tiffin carriers, bulls and even shutters. The list is endless.
Poser: Isn’t an artist’s style his most basic limitation?
Index: The Osian’s-ET Index is to the Indian art market what the Sensex is to the stockmarket. Seems absurd? Here’s more. It calculates according to the price movements for the works of 50 artists chosen across generations. That’s not all: it takes per-square-inch prices. In an unregulated, unstructured market, it’s a desperate attempt to make sense to number-crunching bankers.
Poser: Is the index the reason all Indian art investment funds collapsed?
Jangarh Kalam: Stands for the dodgy divide between traditional crafts and modern art. Bhopal-based painter J. Swaminathan was struck by the works of Gond tribal artist Jangarh Singh Shyam. One JS nurtured the other and threw up the question: why is his art not treated in the same league as the modern painters’? Later Jangarh Shyam travelled the world, showcasing in prestigious venues such as Paris’s Pompidou Centre. And a tribe of artists was born in and around Bhopal who have continued to work in the style, or kalam.
Poser: Do you call a traditional artist’s frame ‘contemporary’ just because he painted it yesterday rather than ages ago?
Kala Ghoda: The south Mumbai precinct which is the only one in the country that’s remained arty over decades. The Progressive Artists wrote their manifesto at the Chetna restaurant and the salon artists hob-nobbed around. Later came the Jehangir Gallery and others. The National Gallery too settled next door.
Poser: Several artists have done the iconic black horse mural at Kala Ghoda over years. Whose is the latest? (Answer: Sunil Padwal)
Lithograph: Literally ‘printing with a stone’, it’s a technique developed in late 18th century. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, India was one of the largest hubs of lithographic print-making, mostly working on religious subjects. Such presses flourished in Bombay, Kanpur, Lahore, Lucknow and Delhi. In recent decades, artists such as MF Husain have tried their hand at it.
Poser: Which was the largest centre for lithography in India? (Answer: Lucknow)
Miniature: The biggest gift of Sher Shah to Indian art. When he pushed out Humayun for a few years, the Mughal sought refuge in the Persian court. On return, he brought back two artists specialising in the form and started the tradition here.
Poser: The sheer amount of miniatures he commissioned should make Akbar the biggest collector this side of Kabul, no?
New media: Bored with ‘old mediums’ such as oil-on-canvas, this is what every art college student today wants to dabble in. So souped-down cars, food ingredients, animal carcasses, electronic parts or motion sensors can be counted as arty mediums today. But the ‘new media’ epithet is as broad and as bland as ‘world music’.
Poser: Despite this new media hoopla, more than half the shows around the world still sport canvases, don’t they?
Orientalism: ‘Look east’ policy adopted by several groups of artists. But be careful where you are looking from. Not long after ‘Japonism’ was a wave in Paris, the Nandalal Bose-led Shantiniketan artists fell for the same fever. But the Saidian politics of the term can also be applied — gingerly — to find-your-roots revivalism/primitivism at home.
Poser: Subodh Gupta is using Korean materials for some of his works. Does that make him an ‘orientalist’?
Prices: The biggest subject of conversation at parties. The prices of modern and contemporary have moved up in lurches over 50 years, aided in phases by hungry collectors such as Chester Herwitz and Masanori Fukuoka. Before that most of the steady buyers were either foreign diplomats or rich Parsis. In the 1990s a local market emerged and auction houses came in. Only recently have industrialists such as the Nadars and Malvinder Singh really opened up their purses.
Poser: Why do Chinese expats pay more for their country’s art than NRIs do?
Quranic art: Thanks to the Islamic stricture of non-formal representation, the Indian subcontinent has one of the richest traditions of calligraphy. The struggle for ascendancy between different scripts such as the Nashtaliq and the Kufic is represented near the Qutub Minar. The National Gallery hosts a whole section on it.
Poser: When calligraphists outline forms through texts does it amount to disrespect of the tenets?
Retrospectives: In the last dozen or so years, the National Gallery has hosted less than a dozen ‘retrospectives’. But what makes a retrospective? Is it a representative selection during an artist’s lifetime or a posthumous archive? By the former measure, Ram Kumar, 86, has had five ‘retrospectives’ — the first one in Calcutta three decades ago and the latest one a month ago in Delhi.
Poser: The only retrospective of Nandalal Bose’s works came a couple of years ago. That too in the US. What will it take for us to recognise our artists?
Sculptures: Santhal boy Ramkinkar Baij revolutionised Indian sculpture in the first half of the 20th century after being brought in untrained to Shantiniketan. Far from the days of stone, bronze and cement, today there’s more use more papier-mâché, fibre-glass and steel.
Poser: Is it a sculpture or an ‘installation’? (Ask pointing to a non-decipherable, multi-media, 3-D artwork)
Tagores: The first family of modernism in India. Rabindranath started painting, rather than doodling, at the ripe age of 63. But brother Gaganendranath was already counted as India’s first Cubist and Abanindranath among the first artists inspired by Japanese prints. Yet, on a trip to Japan Rabi wrote to Abani: “There’s so much to be seen here... I wish you guys would travel out of the country and see what’s happening around the art world.”
Poser: Wasn’t it their wealth that allowed the Tagores to lavish attention on the arts?
Utilitarian: The style of architecture that brought modernism to the practice in India. It was heralded here by Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, a.k.a. Le Corbusier. He was inspired by the modernist dictum, ‘Form follows function’. Through the decades a Soviet Socialist overhang, lack of funds and mediocrity conspired to create ghastly ‘post-utilitarian’ offices. The results confront us
Poser: Is Charles Correa the only one who successfully adapted Modernism for India?
Videos: Cheaper technology enabled it as an art form in the 1960s. Andy Warhol is said to have shown video art in the early 1960s. The difference with films is that video art need not depend on cinematic conventions. It came to India mostly in the 1990s. The Video Lounge, a first at this year’s Art Summit, is showing works by New Zealand-based Nandita Kumar and UK-based Otolith Group, among others.
Poser: Do you prefer single-channel videos or double-channel ones?
White wine party: The chatterati event that’s taken over from book launches and the reason you need to read this A-Z. Swill the papery white wine poured by the gallery hosts and throw at them some of our posers. The good thing is, unlike at book launches where they refuse to open the bar before boring you with book readings, the wine here flows from the start. Salud!
Poser: Have you ever been to an art opening that didn’t serve wine?
X-ray test: An old way of checking for fakes using the same machine that outlines your innards. Used to detect underlying layers of painting or preparatory drawings — especially for old masters such as Raja Ravi Verma who sketched outlines first. Other techniques include (visual) dating of the canvas and pigment testing (old, natural, granulated pigments versus synthetic, smooth ones). But such dating techniques fail when the copy is by a contemporary.
Poser: Can anything substitute an expert’s eye when it comes to spotting fakes?
Young turks: The first modern artists’ collective formed in the early 1940s, predating the Progressive groups of Calcutta and Bombay. They were encouraged by Charles Gerrard, then principal of the JJ School of Art, to hold their first show in 1941. The group included PT Reddy, MY Kulkarni, AA Majeed, C Baptista and M Bhople, artists who regarded themselves as being in modernist opposition to the more Victorian and Edwardian stylists. Ironically, their form of modernism was later challenged, successfully, by the Bombay Progressives led by FN Souza.
Poser: Was it the Bombay modernist movement that inspired the artist ateliers at the Bhulabhai Desai Institute in the 1950s?
Zoetrope: A cross between the magic lantern (‘bioscope’ in Indian towns and villages) and the carousel for showing slides. A great way to showcase your work. Bangalore-based designer Somesh Kumar has made a prototype for artists to do just that.
Poser: Do you know zoetrope literally means the ‘wheel of life’?