The Curator #12

Through the various previous blog posts we got an idea about how does curating India abroad, how curating abroad in India functions. But what about exhibitions which feature artists from different nationalities to address certain universal political and social crisis. How would the curator address this diversity of the artist and strategically situate the artworks in the purview of his curatorial objectives. Would a foreign artist be able to understand the concerns of a different country? This is one of the most contested questions in contemporary art. Also, how do artists from different nationalities collaborate on a common concern is a perplexing question. All we can do is to attempt and see. The route map of this journey, the interactions between the curators and the artists are the important milestones which remain even after the exhibition is over.

Another important issue I would like to address today is how do we see our times. How can a curatorial exercise reflect our times. I do not disagree that we all see the world through our own vantage points. But there are certain truths which one cannot surpass are merely subjective. The political and economic crisis of our times is a reality. Not a fiction scripted to distract us form our valuable existence. Art or artists are not away form these issues and questions. Therefore one has to address them. Since art, curation, writing, etc., are the medium in which we work, we will address the crisis through this medium. In today’s issue of Art1st’s “The Curator” we will look at “A Preview to Desolation” curated by me at the Italian Cultural Center. The exhibition, a group show featuring eight Indian and Italian artists, imagined the contemporary as a desolate landscape, a terrain stripped of hope and peace. Quests for justice, equality and asylum have become more important than ever, but these struggles are always met with dismissal and brutal crackdown. Eight artists have responded to this topic, which is of utmost importance, through their works.

Exhibition: A Preview to Desolation

Curator : Premjish Achari

Venue: Italian Embassy Cultural Center

Artists: Atul Bhalla | Beatrice Pediconi | Gigi Scaria | Giuseppe Stampone Maura Biava | Sharmila Samant | Tushar Joag | Varunika Saraf

One of the major concerns of this exhibition was to address the apathy and indifference which has engulfed people in our times. We see incidents of violence, inequality, injustice but fail to respond to them. When there should be a collective demand for justice, equality, asylum, and human rights, instead all we see around us is a brutal crackdown on the marginalized and the oppressed. Because of this, the lives of the dispossessed has become even more precarious. The refugee crisis, the rise of  right wing ideologies is destroying co-existence and plurality in our society. The state aided violence by the fringe elements in many countries has become a serious concern. The main objective of this exhibition is to address this crisis through art. Therefore I had included artworks which confront and respond to this situation. The aesthetic concerns of these artworks address the fundamental instability caused by the ‘bad new days’, a phrase used by Brecht to denote these times of crisis.

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Atul Bhalla_Fictitious Landscape I_Courtesy_Vadehra Art Gallery & Atul Bhalla

This exhibition is premised on a concern about the violence, apathy, and brutality of the “bad new days”. These oppressions are real but on the other hand we ignore them and celebrate a different vision of life which exclusionary in nature. So I imagined our times or the contemporary as a landscape, a terrain of desolation stripped of any hope and beauty which could keep us going. The urge to control people, especially minorities, by branding them as “aliens” is increasing day by day. Furthermore, the larger global economic crisis and the economy of war and invasion have left thousands dead and much more homeless.  Through the artworks and the exhibition, in general, I attempted to draw the attention of the viewer to this crisis.

It was definitely a challenge to get artists who also think similarly and are sensitive to these issues. It needs political sensitivity to ally with these concerns. Artists included in this show were constantly working to make the artwork more active and participatory, in terms of their involvement in the material processes behind the creation of an artwork and an exhibition. I was fortunate to have found such a wonderful group of artists from Italy and India who responded to this exhibition through their brilliant works.

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Beatrice Pediconi Alien D_Courtesy sepiaEYE, New York

This exhibition uses ‘precarious’ as a conceptual category to understand the cataclysmic contemporary climate; through this it attempts to survey the vastness of this desolation and disarray. It enables us to plot the coordinates of crisis and the political conditions generated by conflicts for power.

Through this exhibition I attempt to show works which confront and respond to this situation. Its aesthetic concerns remain to address the fundamental instability caused by these ‘bad new days’. How a precarious regime of aesthetics is developing, based on speed, intermittence, blurring and fragility. It reasserts the necessity to locate the ideological foundations of Fascism and its aesthetic sensibilities, which are rooted in passive consumption. It allows this by activating and politicising art to protect the present and future from becoming a part of its political project.

 

Sharmila Samant_The Wasteland_Courtesy_Govett Brewster Art Gallery, Plymouth_Aoteoroa NZ

Sharmila Samant_The Wasteland_Courtesy_Govett Brewster Art Gallery, Plymouth_Aoteoroa NZ

 

“Bad new days” is an apt way to describe the times we inhabit. In the last few decades, unprecedented economic, political and social turbulence have resulted in a climate rife with insecurity and precarity. An undeclared state of emergency has displaced millions of citizens across the world, creating unjust socio-economic disparities. This has given rise to an atmosphere of intolerance, which thwarts any form of debate, engagement and dissent, virtues associated with a democratic society. Historic amnesia is favoured over historic memory. The human condition has become fragile; it is more insecure, fragmented, and susceptible to injustice and oppression. Our very existence has become precarious.

Gigi Scaria_City unclaimed_Digital print on canvas_2017

Gigi Scaria_City unclaimed_Digital print on canvas_2017

A video feature of this exhibition was done by NDTV-Mojarto which can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wrv4VTILJog

Here are some of this exhibition views.

  • Premjish, Director-Outreach, Art1st
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Varunika Saraf, Citizen Z

 

 

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The Curator #11

By now it is a well-established fact that there are more number of female nudes in world art than female artists. For centuries, artists (male) have used female bodies as their favourite subjects. The prolific presence of male artists in the art world and the marginal presence of female artists and female subjectivity has been a major issue of contention in the last few decades. Though occasionally, in history, very few female artists have challenged this domination and had taken powerful stands against this discrimination. Art historians like Linda Nochlin, Carol Duncan, and Griselda Pollock, theorists such as Audre Lorde, Laura Mulvery and Bell Hooks’ have challenged this dominance in art making and history writing. They have offered new ways of looking at art.

More problematic is how the female subjectivity is often objectified for sensuous pleasure or the female body is used by the male artists to shock the public. The female subjects in arts is often submissive, tamed, and are sometimes depicted as sensuous women whose main role is to titillate or otherwise embody the examples of ideal women. Feminist art collectives such as Guerilla Girls have militantly challenged this assumption. They have also radically intervened in this problem through their acts of “vandalisms”. Gender equality is a major concern of our times. Compared to the western art world, most of our critically acclaimed and successful artists are women. We also have to look at the successful female gallerists who played an important role in heralding the arrival and consolidation of contemporary Indian art. As curators, how do we tackle the problem of gender discrimination.

In today’s Art1st’s “The Curator” series we introduce you to an important exhibition co-curated by eminent curator Roobina Karode, which could be politically identified as feminist. Also important is the venue of this exhibition which was at the Women’s Studies Research Center and Mildred Lee Gallery, Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University.

 

The Curator #11

Roobina Karode

Title: “Tiger by the Tail! Women Artists of India Transforming Culture”, 2007. 

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Roobina Karode. Courtesy: KNMA

Roobina Karode is the Director and Chief Curator at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, the first private modern and contemporary art museum in India. Since its inception in 2010, she has curated several acclaimed exhibitions at KNMA. Karode curated ‘Open Doors’ at the launch of KNMA Noida in 2010 and ‘Time Unfolded’ at the opening of KNMA Saket in 2011. Karode specializes in Art History and in Education and has been involved with the teaching of Western and Indian Art History (1990-2006) at various institutions, mainly The School of Art & Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, The National Museum Institute, College of Art and the Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi. Karode was awarded the Fulbright Fellowship in 2000 and was placed as a Visiting Scholar at Mills College in California, where she curated Resonance, an exhibition on California Painters and Sculptors from the Mills College Art Collection. As a critic, she continues to contribute thematic essays and reviews to art journals and the Art India Magazine. She has written extensive monographs on contemporary Indian artists across generations and for cross-cultural collaborations. Karode co-curated a seminal exhibition titled ‘Tiger by the Tail! Women Artists of India Transforming Culture’ in 2008, showcasing contemporary art by seventeen women artists of India at the Women’s Studies Research Center, Brandeis University, USA.  She has also curated a major retrospective exhibition on the internationally acclaimed US based artist-printmaker Krishna Reddy at the IGNCA, New Delhi. (Courtesy: KNMA)

 

The exhibition in discussion was a radical departure from the conventional ways of portraying women and women artists. The other two curators who were part of this project were Elinor Garden and Wendy Tarlow Kaplan. It emphasized on the aggression and ferocity which is required to smash the structures of female oppression. It featured painting, sculpture, drawing, photography and video art of 17 established artists. The works of these artists responded to ongoing patriarchal aggression and communal violence in India. The title of the exhibition invoked the image of the fierce tiger to denote this aggression in speaking out about their issues.

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Courtesy: Asia Art Archive

The 35 pieces comprising “Tiger by the Tail!” were organized around universal narratives: Transforming the Myth; Subverting the Icon; Performing the Body; Issues of Identity; Memory and Loss; and Healing and Empowerment.

According to Karode, “The artworks are culturally specific and address the current and historical concerns within the Indian context. At the same time, they resonate with global concerns and introduce a woman’s subjectivity, which has been excluded from Indian art until now.”

“Gogi Saroj Pal subverts the icon of the tiger, which in India has long symbolized primal ferocity. In her painting “Hatyogini, Shakti,” a woman sits atop the wild animal, playfully domesticating it as if it were a household pet. A self-portrait, the painting transforms traditional Hindu iconography of the goddess Durga into an image that is both powerful and erotic.

Anita Dube presents a paradoxical motif in her black and white photographs “Sea Creature.” Four open hands are covered with the all-seeing eyes of the Hindu devotional practice. In her work, the small ceramic eye, traditionally offered to the goddess for protection, is subverted when employed in the secular domain. In this way, Dube transforms the sacred object into a marker of mindless religiosity.

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Anita Dube, Sea Creature, 2000, two silver gelatin prints, each 30″ x 40″.
From the exhibition Tiger by the Tail! (Part 1). Image courtesy of the artist.

Vasudha Thozhur’s “Untouchable” recalls the Hindu practice of sati, in which a widow commits suicide on her husband’s funeral pyre. In her transgressive treatment of this patriarchal horror, Thozhur paints herself seated defiantly on a burning pile of wood, inviolable and untouched by the flames.” (Courtesy: Brandeis University)

The exhibition was able to show that feminism is not a monolithic movement. The challenges and discrimination faced by women across the world are different. The stretegies used to fight back vary. But most importantly one has to realise that there is a universal discrimination.

The catalog of the book is available online for purchase.

Have a happy weekend friends. Please let us know what you think about the issues mentioned in this article in the comments section.

  • Premjish, Director-Outreach, Art1st

 

 

 

The Curator #10

The Curator #10

Most of the curators whom we have discussed in this series, except Naman P. Ahuja, had in a way represented Indian art in India. It would be too simple to call them as Indian art because their approaches were thematically diverse, concerns were different, the choice of artworks, artists and spaces were also individually motivated. In the exhibition “Body in Indian Art” we saw the two possibilities of an exhibition representing Indian art abroad and Indian art in India. The act of representing India is a nationalistic act. It means that you put together artworks of artists from different linguistic, ethnic, geographical groups under the category of nation. How does it function in the age of globalization especially during the beginning of this decade when the idea of nation-state has not strongly returned as it has returned now?  How do we define citizenship in this new context where people move freely, artists collaborate internationally, show their works across the world? How does a curator represent the cultural diversity in this context, still being placed in a homogenizing platform like national pavilion?

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We know that Venice Biennale, one of the oldest in the world, is a platform which actively encourages national pavilions. Countries try to send their best artists and curators to represent their art world. Though Indian artists have been represented in Venice Biennale in the past it was the first time in 2011, the 54th edition, that India got an official pavilion. Renowned curator, poet and cultural theorist Ranjit Hoskote was selected by Lalit Kala Akademi to curate the pavilion. Today in Art1st’s “The Curator” series we will discuss Ranjit Hoskote’s exhibition ‘Everyone Agrees: It’s About to Explode…’curated for the Indian Pavilion at the 2011 Venice Biennale.

The Curator #10

Curator: Ranjit Hoskote

Title: ‘Everyone Agrees: It’s About to Explode…’

Venue: Venice Biennale, 2011.

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Ranjit Hoskote

 

According to Ranjit Hoskote, his objectives in curating this show was to, “mark a sharp rupture with these pre-existing notions of how India’s national art scene should be represented. Since I have long argued that contemporary Indian art is defined by multiple horizons of value, I wished to disclose artistic practices from locations other than those synonymous with the Indian art market: practices that transit among disparate economies of image production, traverse asymmetric cultural and political situations; that are nourished by diverse circulations of philosophical ideas; and that grow, often, from improvisational forms of research and collaboration.”

Hoskote’s focus was to draw attention to multiple locations from which value is created in the context of Indian art. Instead of giving importance to the aspect of nationality and fitting artists into the institution of nation-state, the curator emphasized on the idea of cultural citizenship. This was a significant shift from the idea of monolithic culture to a transcultural existence. It expanded the idea of what is India especially through the lens of migration and hybridity.

The four artists/ artist groups chosen to represent India in this pavilion were:

  1. Zarina Hashmi (print-maker and mixed-media artist; born in Aligarh, 1937; now lives and works in New York).
  1. Praneet Soi (painter, sculptor, video artist; born in Kolkata, 1971; now lives and works in Amsterdam and Kolkata).
  1. Gigi Scaria (painter, sculptor, video artist; born in Kothanalloor, Kerala, 1973; now lives in New Delhi).
  1. The Desire Machine Collective (Sonal Jain, born in Shillong in 1975, and Mriganka Madhukaillya, born in Guwahati in 1978; DMC is a media collective based in Guwahati, Assam, and works across film, installation and public space projects).
Installation view of India Pavilion, 54th Venice Biennale (2011). Praneet Soi's mural (L), Gigi Scaria's interactive video installation (R), Desire Machine.gif

Installation view of India Pavilion, 54th Venice Biennale (2011). Praneet Soi’s mural (L), Gigi Scaria’s interactive video installation (R), Desire Machine. Courtesy: Ranjit Hoskote

The exhibition was a ‘laboratory, stage and school’ for the curator to understand these developments. It became a site to map these important shifts post 90s in India. According to Hoskote, “Zarina Hashmi, Praneet Soi, Gigi Scaria, and the Desire Machine Collective act as compass points for an alternative atlas of references. An idiosyncratic line of latitude connects them across the globe, running west-east to link their theatres of life and work across New York, Amsterdam/Kolkata, New Delhi/Kerala, and Guwahati. To my mind, it was vital to honour the historic occasion of India’s first national pavilion at the Venice Biennale by proposing such positions, which demonstrated the linkages between contemporary Indian art and global art at large, while retaining the distinctiveness of sensibilities engaged with the South Asian predicament.”

Gigi Scaria, 'Elevator from the Subcontinent (exterior view),' 2011. (Photograph curtsey of Domus Magazine website.) .jpg

Gigi Scaria’s Elevator from the Subcontinent, Courtesy: Domus

Through their works, Hoskote used the exhibition space as a laboratory to test the ‘idea of India’, a conceptual phrase developed by Sunil Khilnani. The artists developed their works to re-imagine what it means to belong to India. The title of the exhibition was taken from a a book by an anonymous group of theorists called The Invisible Committee which was shared by Mriganka Madhukaillya of the Desire Machine Collective. The opening of the book read: ‘Everyone agrees. It’s about to explode. It is acknowledged, with a serious and self-important look, in the corridors of the Assembly, just as yesterday it was repeated in the cafés… The newspapers conscientiously draw up the list of causes for the sudden disquiet. There is the financial crisis… the failure of the educational system… the existence of a youth to which no political representation corresponds… what power is confronting is neither just another crisis, nor just a succession of chronic problems, of more or less anticipated disturbances, but a singular peril: that a form of conflict has emerged, and positions have been taken up, that are no longer manageable.”

The pavilion was conceived not only to ask questions on what is nationality and on nation-state but also to enquire what is global art.

You can listen to Ranjit Hoskote talk about the exhibition in this link https://www.aaa.org.hk/en/resources/videos/everyone-agrees-its-about-to-explode-curatorial-reflections-on-the-india-pavilion-54th-venice-biennale-by-ranjit-hoskote

A video of Gigi Scaria’s installation https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0vasYjXFzlg

Please read, share and comment. Happy weekend!

  • Premjish, Director-Outreach, Art1st.

The Curator #9

Over the last many issues of this series we have discussed the curation of collections from museums, galleries which mainly included paintings, sculptures, contemporary art forms, etc. We have not focused exclusively on the art of photography. But how many of us see photography as art? If we look at the conventional histories of art, including nationalist or mainstream histories of art which is manifested mainly in museum displays, don’t give photography its due space in terms of its importance and aesthetic relevance. Raghu Rai, Dayanita Singh, Pablo Bartholomew or Prabuddha Dasgupta are not our household names. There is an injustice in this ignoring and it is time to dispel such erasures.

Photography is one of the most popular and accessible media of our times. Outside museums, galleries and in its print forms, it is now manly accessed through screens. The arrival of mobile cameras has democratized this form like never before. But what are the reasons why photography always had a marginal presence in the domain of high art. One important reason could be this mass production of images and its consumption. An image can be reproduced as many times we want to. There is no concept of original in photography. All products are a copy. Hence it lacks an exclusivity. Why would someone acquire an artwork which is easily reproducible and accessed by a larger community? Connoisseurship feeds on rarity, not on profuseness. Other reasons for its marginalization as an art form is also due to the fundamental nature of photography. It is seen as an objective medium which can document reality as it is. Hence it lacks the “fictional” elements of art. But this was challenged by the later developments. Surrealists, Dadaists and other modern artists have used photography to create fictional works. We also forget that the photographs which we see are also composed and authored. It is the outcome of the choices made by the photographer which include how the image is composed, how it may be cropped, edited, or otherwise altered after it is taken, the point-of-view deployed and inevitably impact how we receive and understand images. The subjects in photographs, many times are also posed, rather being candid. These aspects related to the creation of a photograph gives it an artistic touch.

Today in Art1sts’s “The Curator” series let us look at an important exhibition curated by Devika Daulet-Singh titled “Photographing the Street: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka,” which was exhibited at the first edition of the Delhi Photo Festival, Delhi.

The Curator #9

Curator : Devika Daulet-Singh

Exhibition: Photographing the Street: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, 2011. 

Devika Daulet-Singh established PHOTOINK in 2001 as a photo agency and publication design studio, based in New Delhi. In 2008 PHOTOINK expanded into a gallery to exhibit contemporary Indian photography and international photographers. Her engagement with the world of photography has been as an editor, curator and publisher of photo books.

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Devika Daulet-Singh with Raghu Rai. Courtesy: Lpvshow

Devika was the associate curator for the Indian presentations at the 2007 Les Rencontres d’Arles photography festival and the 2007 Photoquai Biennale in France. She was the Project Director for The Photograph: Painted, Posed and of the Moment, which included 8 exhibitions, held at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai (2008). She co-curated The Self and The Other ­– Portraiture in Contemporary Indian Photography for the Palau de la Virreina, Escort woman in Turkey Barcelona and Museo Artium, Vitoria in Spain (2009). In 2011, she curated a group exhibition, Photographing the Street: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, which was exhibited at the first edition of the Delhi Photo Festival, Delhi.

Daulet-Singh’s exhibition “Photographing the Street” was an attempt in foregrounding the shared history of these countries despite its separation as distinct countries in the modern era. Even though the relationships might have strained, culturally there is something which unites them all. Singh identified streets and street life as an important trope to connect these countries and establish the shared nature of it. “Despite the many differences in the eight countries,” writes Devika Daulet-Singh in her curatorial note, “there are narratives that overlap, intermingle and are reminiscent of our shared histories.”

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Horsemen in Hisarak village, Balkh province, Afghanistan, 2004. Courtesy: Livemint

All the 117 photos were taken from the existing archives of the photographers. “Street photography could explore the shared histories and bridge some of the differences between these countries. It had the potential to transcend the conflicts of the times and present conditions of civil society as it progressed and evolved across these countries,” says Daulet-Singh.

The exhibition was able to use photography to bring together this shared nature of these countries brilliantly. These curatorial exercises are usually done by using premodern art, or modern or contemporary mediums with a heavy reliance on paintings and sculpture. Singh was able to break that monotony and give it a new twist. These are not pictures that will make it to National Geographic, they are not picturesque. Many of them do have an atmospheric quality, because they are so evocative,” says Daulet-Singh.

  • Premjish, Director-Outreach, Art1st.

 

 

 

 

The Visionaries – 4

It would be unnecessary to introduce Rabindranath Tagore to all of you. It would be also futile to list his literary and artistic feats. I would like to use this space to introduce Tagore the pedagogue. The visionary who envisaged an institute way ahead of its time and laid the foundations for an education system which was designed to nurture the creative spirits of children and young minds of India. At a time when the colonial education was churning out students who were only good to serve the administrative tasks, Tagore envisaged an institute which would strive to produce critically thinking youngsters who would make significant contributions in the overall contribution of the nation. He saw his campus, Visva-Bharati, as an abode for the global family. He strongly believed in the global exchange of ideas. To achieve that he would invite renowned scholars form different fields to visit Visva-Bharati and engage with the students. He saw Viswa-Bharati as a collaborative space. In this issue of Art1st’s “The Visionaries” we will look at the vision of Rabindranath Tagore as a pedagogue and his views on education, especially art education.

 

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Rabindranath Tagore, Courtesy: Wikipedia

 

Tagore was one of the most profound thinkers of modern India and his vision for education was simply radical in nature. Tagore was heavily invested in the idea of using education to develop self-reliance in an individual. He understood that child should not be seen as an unfinished adult but rather as a complicated mind with his/her own curiosities and wonders. Their imaginations and dreams are different from the adults. This difference meant that both the child and adult required distinct set of educational tools. Tagore has made this very clear in his statement, “Our purpose wants to occupy all the mind’s attention for itself, obstructing the full view of most of the things around us (…) The child, because it has no conscious object of life beyond living, can see all things around it, can hear every sound with a perfect freedom of attention, not having to exercise choice in the collection of information.”

 

Children’s education was the significant concern for Tagore. He was highly critical of how adults structure children’s times and activities. It impinged on their freedom and restricted from their self-expression. He imagined an organic growth for children. He could find the resonance of this organic spirit only in nature. He called it as “method of nature”. According to him the discipline and strictness of modern education was, “…like forcing upon the flower the mission of the fruit. The flower has to wait for its chances. It has to keep its heart open to the sunlight and to the breeze, to wait its opportunity for some insect to come seeking honey. The flower lives in a world of surprises, but the fruit must close its heart in order to ripen its seed. It must take a different course altogether. For the flower the chance coming of an insect is a great event, but for the fruit its intrusion means an injury.”

For this natural growth to happen children had to be given the freedom they require. Discipline and rigidity which were part of the modern education system could only do more harm than benefits.

It is also important to note that such an important pedagogue like Tagore did not write a seminal compendium on education. Most of his writings one education, children and art education has to be understood through his various essays, speeches, and educational experiments at Visva Bharati in Santiniketan. It was the imagination of an education which was deeply rooted in its surroundings through pleasurable learning. The curriculum was not a strict doctrine to bend the minds but rather for him it was something which should evolve organically.

For Tagore the aesthetic development of the child was not separate from the intellectual development. Like most of our contemporary education system has rendered the learning of arts as useless, Tagore gave prominence to music, literature, art, dance and drama in the overall growth of the child. It was not forced upon the child but it was instinctive. He never instructed the students what to do or wrote to them. His method was to involve them in whatever creative activities he was doing. They had complete freedom to engage with him as equals. Young students were allowed access to the room where he read his new writings to teachers and critics. They were encouraged to read out their own writings in special literary evenings. Tagore had given an equal role to art and food in his scheme of things. He understood both as vital for a human being’s growth. In Santiniketan, he created an atmosphere of cultural activities that encouraged his students and kindled their interests in music and other arts forms unconsciously. He introduced formal lessons only to those who felt inclined to take them. Art classes were conducted not to make copies but to create original works. Santiniketan’s classrooms were also a collaborative space where children were also encouraged to work together as groups.

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Kala Bhavan, Visva-Bharati

On the first anniversary of Sriniketan, he remarked, “[O]ur conscious relationship with the Infinite (…) can on[l]y be made possible by making provision for students to live in infinite touch with nature, daily to grow in an atmosphere of service offered to all creatures, tending trees, feedings birds and animals, learning to feel the immense mystery of the soil and water and air. Along with this, there should be some common sharing of life with the tillers of the soil and the humble workers in the neighbouring villages; studying their crafts, inviting them to the feasts, joining them in works of co-operation for communal welfare; and in our intercourse we should be guided, not by moral maxims or the condescension of social superiority, but by natural sympathy of life for life, and by the sheer necessity of love’s sacrifice for its own sake. In such an atmosphere students would learn to understand that humanity is a divine harp of many strings, waiting for its one grand music.”

Tagore’s pioneering efforts in understanding the complexities of children’s mind and granting it an autonomy was a radical act. His vision for children’s education was rooted in freedom, self-reliance, love for humanity, intellectual and social development. He believed that “they must be trained, not to be soldiers, not to be clerks in a bank, not to be merchants, but to be the makers of their own world and their own destiny. And for that they must have all their faculties fully developed in the atmosphere of freedom.”

  • Premjish, Director-Outreach, Art1st

 

 

 

 

 

The Curator #8

It is co-incidental that yesterday we had discussed the contributions of Abanindranath Tagore in Art1st’s “The Visionaries” section and today we are going to talk about Professor R. Siva Kumar who has done extensive art historical research on Bengal School and the other artists involved with Santiniketan. This co-incidence is helpful because it will help us to see things in context. It will help us to understand why the attempts by artists in Santiniketan and Bengal School were not only based on a revival of the traditional Indian arts, but it was also developing a new modern language which was rooted in its Indian context. We are going to look at a seminal exhibition in Indian art history which contextualized the roles of these artists in creating a new modernism which was not ‘blindly imitative’ of the European norms. In this issue of Art1st’s “The Curator” series we introduce you to the exhibition curated by R. Siva Kumar titled Santiniketan: The Making of a Contextual Modernism.

 

The Curator #8

Curator: R. Siva Kumar

Exhibition: Santiniketan: The Making of a Contextual Modernism, NGMA

Year: 1997

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Courtesy: Asia Art Archive

Siva Kumar is an art historian, art critic, and curator. He has been mainly lecturing in Santiniketan for many years but has been invited to many universities in India and abroad as visiting faculty. His main research has been on Indian modernism with special focus on the Santiniketan.

 

Through this exhibition Kumar introduced an important term “Contextual Modernism” to understand the unique development of modern art in India. The exhibition, through bringing about a hundred works each of four modern Indian artists, namely Nandalal Bose, Rabindranath Tagore, Ram Kinker Baij and Benode Behari Mukherjee on the centre stage, put the Santiniketan art movement into focus.

 

According to Kumar, the “Santiniketan artists did not believe that to be indigenous one has to be historicist either in theme or in style, and similarly to be modern one has to adopt a particular trans-national formal language or technique. Modernism was to them neither a style nor a form of internationalism. It was critical re-engagement with the foundational aspects of art necessitated by changes in one’s unique historical position.” The year 1997 was very important because the group of artists based in Baroda called the Baroda Group a coalition whose original members included Vivan Sundaram, Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh, Bhupen Khakhar, and Nalini Malani came up with an anthology of essays to situate the role of Baroda School in the context of the 1981 exhibition “Place for People.” At the same time Kumar too opened up the possibility to reengage with the role of Santiniketan School in Indian modernism. He argued that “The Santiniketan artists were one of the first who consciously challenged this idea of modernism by opting out of both internationalist modernism and historicist indigenousness and tried to create a context sensitive modernism.”

Art_Historian_R._Siva_Kumar

R. Siva Kumar, Courtesy: Wikipedia

 

This detailed extract from an interview with Kumar helps us to understand his arguments in favour of the proposition of contextual modernism. R. Siva Kumar answers the question by Pavez Kabir.

 

PK: The exhibition title, ‘Making of a Contextual Modernism’ itself is quite fascinating. My question may appear quite naïve, but are you saying that all modernist programs are not contextual enough and that some are more context sensitive than others?

 

RSK: “To the academic artists of the 19th and early 20th centuries modernism was more a matter of technology, the use of oil paints and the conventions of post Renaissance representational realism. Even when the subjects they painted were Indian, the categories or genres these fell into – history, portraits, and occasionally landscape – were part of the value system they adopted along with the technique. To them the nature of modernism then was both technological and trans-local. The artists of the Bengal school in reaction to this tried to marry indigenous subject matter with indigenous style. We might have disagreements about how indigenous or revivalist this was but this surely made them even more historicist in orientation. Their modernism was then a form of indigenous neo-classicism, a new art that invoked the art of their ancestors.

 

The progressive artists of the 40s saw this as essentially anti-modernist. Traces of local life can be seen in their work especially their early work, but what made them modern was their engagement with the formal principles of Western modernism. In their hands, modernism once again was trans-national.

 

It is in contrast to these that I would argue that art produced at Santiniketan was more context sensitive. They did not believe that to be indigenous one has to be historicist either in theme or in style, and similarly to be modern one has to adopt a particular trans-national formal language or technique. Modernism was to them neither a style nor a form of internationalism. It was critical re-engagement with the foundational aspects of art necessitated by changes in one’s unique historical position. Even though cross-cultural contacts were crucial to the development of modernism and cross-cultural contacts having paved the way to the dismantling of art traditions at large made modernism, unlike any other period in art history, international in its scope, to them art produced in one place did not have to look like art produced elsewhere.

 

If colonialism brought the West into contact with the rest of the world, the coloniser and the colonised experienced it from two sides and responded to it differently. I do not mean just politically. On either side, it produced a cultural cleavage, led them to question their respective traditions, and made them open up to other cultures, other possibilities. However, it did not wipe out their history, their cultures, the differences of life-experience, and it was not necessary that it should also make their art similar. To them modernism sprang from the new situation one found oneself in – politically, culturally, and environmentally – and how one responded it. Modernism was for them not homogenous but generic.”

  • Premjish, Director-Outreach, Art1st.