15th August, 1947. The day changed a lot of things for India. Among the cheering crowds at the Red Fort that day was young Virendra Kumar who had come all the way from Rohtak to watch the Tricolour unfurl.
“It was the spirit of freedom fighters, of living a life out of the ordinary that attracted me,” says Kumar, owner of one of the city’s oldest galleries in Sunder Nagar. It was this search for a ‘life out of the ordinary’ that brought Kumar to Delhi more than five decades ago.
So when the art aficionado saw the plight of artists at a studio in Connaught Place, Kumar knew he had finally found his calling. “In those days, art was getting no patronage like the kind it has begun to enjoy these days. I wanted to do something so that these talented artists could keep up with their work,” he says.
The result was Kumar Gallery in Connaught Place, one of the first of its sorts in 1955 — later shifted to Sunder Nagar — where young migrant artists such as Satish Gujral, M F Husain, Krishen Khanna, F N Souza and Tyeb Mehta would get to work and sell their art.
In return for a monetary allowance of about Rs 500-600 per month, the masters would paint and exhibit in Kumar’s small space. There weren’t many takers, but Kumar knew he had to keep going and things did pick up after a while. Soon, the gallery became a hub of sorts for the artists’ community, and a place to ‘enjoy’ art for the connoisseurs.
While the art scenario in Delhi was still nascent in the 60s, being the symbolic seat of power and with a wider space for intellectual and cultural discourse, Delhi had always had its advantages.
With the advent of spaces like the Lalit Kala Akademi, National Gallery of Modern Art, it slowly turned into a ‘Mecca of artists’ for getting a platform to better their prospects. Ditto for Kumar’s own prospects, that started looking up with the gallery’s collection getting international recognition. Kumar himself travelled and took his shows abroad, but could never get himself to leave the city.
“I never looked at art as a commercial enterprise. For me, the soul of art and culture lay in Delhi; a blend of traditional and the modern, Hindu and Islamic architecture. All the masters have had their first shows here and people here were interested in buying also, unlike other cities,” says the 74-year-old Kumar.
So while Kumar rues the commercialisation of art itself — both in and outside the city — he also feels that it’s a boon in disguise. Especially for young artists, who keep flocking to the city to make a name for themselves. “Those who take a deep dive will benefit.
There are many galleries today in the city, and those who can swim through the tide, will surely make it,” he feels. As for Kumar himself, “dilli ki galiyan” mean more than just an abode, it’s more like a “spiritual bond” now.