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At the art of the matter

Indian art is not doing as well globally as it should. And my belief is that this is not for want of artistic talent as for reasons of commerce, writes Kaushik Basu.

india Updated: May 11, 2008, 00:07 IST
Kaushik Basu
Kaushik Basu

Last year I went to the annual exhibition of paintings at Delhi’s College of Art. Like so much of India it was a chaotic affair but, as again with so much of India, the amount of talent on display was quite remarkable. Most of the works were by students who had not yet completed their degree, yet one could see the hallmarks of great art. Being familiar with the contemporary art scene in India I was not surprised.

We keep hearing about the big names in Indian art all the time — Tyeb Mehta, Anjolie Ela Menon, M.F. Husain, Bikash Bhattacharjee, F.N. Souza, Atul and Anju Dodiya. But even behind those headlines, art is flourishing in India like never before. In Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai, small art stores and artist enclaves have mushroomed. In Delhi’s Hauz Khas Village itself there must be seven or eight art galleries and on any evening walk you can reasonably expect to see paintings by the likes of Vaikuntham, Paritosh Sen, Laxma Gaud, Lalu Prasad Shaw and Paresh Maity. And there are outstanding original painters whose names may not be known beyond the aficionado. Last year, I remember walking into an exhibition in New Delhi rather opaquely called Kokum Dreams. It was a haunting collection of art by Anoop Kamath, whose name I must confess I had not heard. His were huge canvasses with pale monochrome backgrounds, out of which emerged faces and figures of photographic realism, both sensuous and forlorn, some staring into the distance, some brooding and some doing a daily chore, suspended in a universe of nothingness.

Being an inveterate art-gazer, I feel confident of the extraordinary artistic genius that is coming out of India. In the mid-80s I remember two artists, who were barely known then — Naina Kanodia and Sanjay Bhattacharya. They have very different styles — Naina’s art is a stunning combination of fauvism and the primitive, and Sanjay’s work has the quality of a mysterious oriental surrealism. Though their paintings were then cheap, I could not afford them on my Delhi University reader’s salary. And now they are stars, and of course, they are beyond my reach.

Despite all this, Indian art is not doing as well globally as it should. And my belief is that this is not for want of artistic talent as for reasons of commerce. I know there are purists who shirk at the mention of art and commerce in one breath. The recent headlines about how a group of international investors and speculators allegedly exploited several Chinese artists no doubt make us wary of the brew of art and markets. But there can be no denying that good art needs large museums, patronage and marketing, and the state has the responsibility to provide these, at least initially.

Among the developing nations, the two big commercial successes in art are Mexico and China. Mexico’s is an old story. Its art has been famous, thanks to not just talent but the exotic and troubled lives of artists like Siqueiros, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo (though our own Amrita Sher-Gil messed up her life no less than Kahlo).

The new story is that of China. It is true that some of China’s contemporary artists — Zhang Xiaogang, He Sen, Zeng Fanzhi — have originality and skill to match the world’s greatest painters. Recent auctions have seen some of these artists’ works go for over $ 5 million each — no Indian has fetched a price anywhere near this. But behind this success is a huge amount of investment by the Chinese government in promoting art and setting up stunning new art galleries.

The reason why India is not yet at this level is not because of a dearth of artistic genius, but because of a lack of appropriate institutions and infrastructure. First, we need to stimulate the common person’s interest. A trip to Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) can be quite dispiriting because of the poor quality of display and the paucity of Indian viewers. We need to get our school children interested in art. Our newspaper and magazine editors have as much responsibility for this as our government. Second, we need to invest in infrastructure. We should use our best architects to construct creatively-designed museums; so that visitors can see the best of our works in the best of light. This can help propel Indian art on the world scene. When we think of infrastructure, we are right to demand better airports and roads but we must not forget that even the arts, music and culture need infrastructure and, curiously, once provided with this, they can also yield large commercial dividends that can benefit the whole nation.

(Kaushik Basu is C. Marks Professor and Director, Center for Analytic Economics, Cornell University)

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