Art for all
Nonika Singh

Was the recent India Art Summit just another mela or did it reflect our
changing attitude to art? A report on the trends... 

The mega event put art in the public domain
The mega event put art in the public domain
Photos: Mukesh Aggarwal/ Manas Ranjan Bhui

IN a nation where visual illiteracy is often the lament of the artistic community, what do you make of an art summit where over one lakh persons descended for over four days on Pragati Maidan, New Delhi, to view the works of over 500 artists at 84 galleries? In fact, the reverberations of the India Art Summit, which created a buzz in the Capital, could be felt right up to the holy city of Amritsar, from where came a batch of 50 students of BBK DAV College to partake of the artistic process. Chandigarh’s well-known artists, too, seemed to have made a beeline for the summit.

Big names like Arpana Caur lent weight to the summit
Big names like Arpana Caur lent weight to the summit Photo: AFP

From Ketna Patel’s Nano bedecked with pop motifs to Subodh Gupta’s rickshaw showcasing steel art, the event was a platform for many contemporary works
From Ketna Patel’s Nano bedecked with pop motifs to (below) Subodh Gupta’s rickshaw showcasing steel art, the event was a platform for many contemporary works

Ranbir Kaleka’s video projections were a huge draw
Ranbir Kaleka’s video projections were a huge draw

So, is the third edition of the India Art Summit, which concluded last week amid much media hype, just another mela, a consumer fair where instead of electronic gadgets, paintings were bought and sold? Or has the summit, which saw the Who’s Who of the Indian art world come on a platform, changed the way India looks at art? Kishore Singh, head exhibition, Delhi Art Gallery, tells why in a country, where few care to visit galleries and museums, crowds thronged the Art Summit. Says he, "While people are intimidated by museums, here visitors can not only gawk at the art works but also feel free to ask the silliest of questions about art and not feel discomfited by their frivolous queries." Eminent artist Prem Singh is even more effusive, "Indeed the summit has put art in the public domain. Where else can a common man see the paintings of Salvador Dali and the drawings of Pablo Picasso?" Of course, as far as the representation of international art goes, the best , despite Henry Moore’s sculptures, was not really there. Says art historian and curator Yashodhara Dalmia, "Remember, it is a young summit, only in its third year of making."

Yet it did mange to attract the best galleries and the star signatures of both the modern and contemporary art scenes of India. If veteran artists like Anjolie Ela Menon, Arpana Caur, Paramjit Singh and Sakti Burman could be seen, the big names of the contemporary art scene — Subodh Gupta, Jitish Kallat, Sudarshan Shetty and Atul Dodiya — were not only represented by the galleries they work with, but were also present in person. In fact, right from F. N. Souza to S. H. Raza to Bhupen Kakhar, the works of many legendary artists were here. Any wonder, Subha Taparai from London postponed her trip to check out the summit to buy a work of the late Bhupen Kakhar.

But before you think the summit is only for the upmarket clientele, which by the way was charmed and wooed with unending wine and snacks on the day of the preview, listen to Kishore Singh, "Yes, connoisseurs and collectors, perhaps from all over the world, do come here to buy. But no one is arm-twisting anyone into buying. Let’s face it, 99 per cent of the people are here only to look." Actually, not just look but get infected by the energy. Is it possible otherwise for art lovers like Dheeraj, a student of Class XII, to find a chance to meet and listen to celebrated artist S. H. Raza, who was the star attraction at the Art Alive Gallery on the opening day itself. Indeed, it is a lifetime opportunity for many like Dheeraj to hear Raza, who has returned to the country after six decades, speak about his preoccupation with the bindu, the need for an artist to focus in one direction and, of course, his contemporary M. F. Husain.

Interestingly, trust Husain to remain the talk of the town in absentia, too. His paintings at the Delhi Art Gallery went in and out to finally find a pride of place with security in tow, that, too, kept growing, from bouncers on the review day to the small barricade to a heightened presence of police officials on the final day.

In sharp contrast to the "thou shall not touch" approach of many galleries, especially to the works of great masters, stood the work teasingly titled "@ at the rate of" by M. Ramachandran, actually created to make the viewer a participant, who could open small wooden partitions and take a closer look. And in Sumkashi Singh’s perceptual installation, viewers could actually walk through and become a part of the work. At the art project put up by young duo Jiten Thukral and Sumir Tagra to promote condom use, visitors could take a shot at not only the snooker table but also pick up their favourite pair of flip-flops. And it’s experiences like these that made the summit truly exhilarating. The mind-boggling variety that it offered both in terms of artists and different genres is perhaps the beauty and the USP of the summit’s success. Thus, people were as enamoured by the works of eminent artists like Jamini Roy, Somnath Hore and Sohan Qadri as by the "Singing Cloud," an unusual piece made of microphones by Shilpa Gupta.

Government College of Art-Chandigarh alumnus Ranbir Kaleka’s works, overlaying paintings with video projections, stopped almost everybody in the tracks. Patrick Gibson, an associate with the Volte gallery, gushed, "Imagine, here no one is interested in the celebrated Anish, but the response to Kaleka, both among viewers and buyers, is phenomenonal." For, here was art that defied conventional definitions yet was projected on the canvas with images changing by the minute. However, the new video art at the video lounge, despite artists like Nikhil Chopra’s video work being shown, had limited takers. Perhaps, the lounge, where video art was being shown, was too small.

But the Question Forum, undeniably the profound and more reflective facet of the summit, which saw celebrities like India-born British sculptor Anish Kapoor share his creative process, was a definite success. That people in India would be willing to pay something like Rs 500 for each session that deliberated on serious issues, like the role of museums, curatorial practices and the primary Indian art market and that sessions like Anish Kapoor’s, which was rather profound, would be a complete sellout came as a refreshing surprise. It not only reflected amply that the summit does go beyond star power and buying and selling, but it also underlined the fact that the Indian mindset is fast changing.

Book launches, too, were part of the event
Book launches, too, were part of the event

But is summit the best way of showcasing and looking at art? Peter Nagy, director Gallery Nature Morte, is not sure. He only hopes that some of the traffic here percolates down to the galleries. Hemavathy, a Delhi-based artist, has issues with the galleries, which she thinks, promote only saleable artists and do not care for the quality of work. Since she was unable to convince both the galleries and the summit organisers to include her video work that has been selected for an international festival, she is perturbed by the fact that the summit allows no space for artists not promoted by galleries. Many like Deepak Shinde also feel that there should be a space for ‘gallerists’, that is people who don’t own galleries but sell works through contacts. Yashodhara, however, feels that there has to be a screening process. But, yes, she agrees that artists themselves can form a conglomerate and book a space.

Is this the space then? Some of the gallery owners, especially international ones, were not too happy with the use of space. Tony Stephens, director Grantpirrie, Australia, felt that the summit was an overkill, almost a visual overload. As he brought in the interesting works of only one artist, Caroline Rothwell, he remarked, "The Art Summit is not just another consumer fair. It is important to curate a show not just dump art works." But to be fair, the summit did include solo art projects and many galleries had presented works aesthetically.

Of course, at the end of the day there is little doubt that the summit is a commercial fare for after all its galleries which are participants. But galleries like Religare Art do present artists like Samar S. Jodha, whose works have no commercial value. Ones like Experimenter, Kolkata, presented avante garde artists like Raqs Media Collective. Ambica Beri of Sanskriti Gallery, Kolkata, quips, "We are selling enough works at our galleries. Here, we wanted to provide a breaking ground to our new artists." Though she didn’t sell much, she is happy with the response to the unusual work of their artists like Tapas Biswas.

So, did the summit put art on the centrestage and make inroads into the national consciousness? Sceptics felt that, yes, it did for three days flat. But the aficionados, including those from the artistic community, some whose works were not even part of the summit, felt that the summit is a testimony to what art is doing to us. And the participation of 34 international art galleries, they opine, underlined the growing confidence in India.