The Curator #21

In the last few issues we have discussed about various curators and understood how they have used artworks to create new narratives about our past, present and future. This was done through various thematic interventions. They have used art from pre-modern, modern and contemporary times to build their stories. Curators have used diverse forms and mediums to foreground their concerns.

Today we will look at how two curators engaged with the artworks of artists from a community and by doing so reiterated their contribution to this country. Through these works they showed the rich history and cultural legacy of the Parsi community. In this issue of Art1st’s “The Curator” series we will discuss Nancy Adajania and Ranjit Hoskote’s exhibition “No Parsi is an Island”. Through this exhibition their attempt was not only to showcase the artistic legacy of Parsi community, but also try to bring to light the lost histories of Indian modernism.

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Courtesy: Ranjit Hoskote and Nancy Adajania

The Curator #21

Curators: Nancy Adajania and Ranjit Hoskote

Exhibition: No Parsi is an Island: A Curatorial Re-reading across 150 Years

Venue: NGMA Delhi, 2016

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Nancy Adajania

 

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Ranjit Hoskote

I am not going to talk about the Parsi community. I presume that most of you are familiar with the community’s history. Bollywood too has played its idiotic role in caricaturing and stereotyping the community as obese, gullible people. But the list of names the community has contributed to Indian politics, defence sector, economy, art and culture is long. Their contributions expand to diverse fields. Apart from business and they have played an important role in the cultural industry of India. The community members were active in theater, movies, music, literature, art, etc. For example many of us are familiar with Raja Ravi Varma’s name and his images, but we do not give enough importance to another contemporary of his Pestonji Bomanji who was a fine painter. He is usually highlighted as a salon painter, and simply dismissed as a Parsi artist whose patrons were mainly Parsis. But according to Nancy and Ranjit, “Bomanji should be recognised as the equal of Ravi Varma. In the course of our ongoing work on Bomanji, we have come to the provisional conclusion that, while both artists drew on the same stratum of patronage — native aristocracy, the mercantile elite, colonial officials, and the colonial state system — Ravi Varma was able to develop a mass market through his oleographs, with their mythological subjects, while Bomanji remained committed to a more formal studio practice; with the result that his fame, considerable within the world of connoisseurship, did not extend to the larger multitudes.”

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Portrait by Pestonji Bomanji

In this exhibition Nancy and Ranjit explores a timespan of 150 years and looks at the works of 14 artists. The curators explore the contexts they inhabited and negotiated. They also focus on the kind of vibrant expanded practices these artists possessed. They say, “It is vital to us to reflect on and represent the way in which they ranged across visual domains and political urgencies, the work that they accomplished beyond the studio and the gallery, engaging with diverse economies of cultural production such as music, dance, theatre, cinema, the crafts, literature and publishing as producers, interlocutors and collaborators.”

Ranjit Hoskote on Twitter- In NO PARSI IS AN ISLAND, Nancy Adajania & I map Indian modernism's lost histories. Shown here- Adi Davierwalla.

Work of Adi Daiverwalla Courtesy: Ranjit Hoskote and Nancy Adajania

If we look at theatre and cinema the contribution of Parsis to these two fields is immense. There is a genre of theatre itself which is called “Parsi Theatre”. It was one of the most important theatre traditions of late 19th century and early 20th century. It was staged by Parsis and these theatre groups were owned by them. Later on many of them became film producers and moved to cinema field.

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NGMA exhibition view. Courtesy: Ranjit Hoskote and Nancy Adajania

Importantly, this curation is also an art historical inquiry which is critical of the art historical writings of the post ‘90s. Because when we attempt to study the history of the first two generations of Indian art before the ‘90s we usually try to relate them with Progressives, Group 1890 or the Baroda Group. Therefore the artists who are not part of these movements get side-lined and their contributions are not studied. They give the example of Jahangir Sabawala who has made his own independent artistic path maintaining a distance from the other movements and groups of the time. It is because consistent curatorial and critical attention that he has been able to rise to the stature he is getting now.

Regarding the title “No Parsi is an Island” they talk about their inspiration from Keki N Daruwalla’s poem “Migrations”. They say, “In tandem with Donne’s meditation, folded into our title, we propose Keki N Daruwalla’s poem, Migrations, as a prelude to the exhibition. In this poem, the Lahore-born Daruwalla retrospects on the consequences of the Partition, postcolonial India’s birth trauma. He brings the inherited memory of an ancestral diaspora from Iran to this meditation on a historical experience that is all too often seen as a Hindu/ Muslim binary, despite the strong share in it of the Sikh community as well as other religious and ethnic groups. Migrations is a complex poem with many potential addressees: it reminds Parsis that they do not have a monopoly on the condition of displacement; it reminds others that the Parsis were also affected by the Partition, and that they have had, and continue to have, a stake in the larger subcontinental narrative.”

Ranjit Hoskote on Twitter- "Gieve Patel's friend Sudhir Patwardhan's iconic 'Man in Irani Restaurant' (left) is part of 'No Parsi is an Island'.jpg

NGMA exhibition view. Courtesy: Ranjit Hoskote and Nancy Adajania

Ranjit and Nancy say, “In this spirit, we may observe that the work of Parsi artists connects them to larger questions, concerns and urgencies, and to the activities of colleagues, in every generation under review here. They have not simply articulated a Parsi “identity”, as though this were static and pre-programmed; nor have they cherished a splendid isolation from ambient historical circumstances. Rather, they have participated vigorously in debates concerning, at various times, colonial modernity, nationalism, an Indian modernism, and the globalised contemporary cultural space.

In the process, we show how they have developed enduring and productive relationships outside the community: through a particular form of pedagogy; through deeply personal decisions such as those of marriage, friendship or ideology; through collegiality, collaboration and intervention, or the establishment of an affinity with a cultural idiom outside the Parsi ethos.”

Share your views and what you think about this project. How can curation bring alive the history of a community which is dwindling in numbers? How can curation foreground its cultural contributions?

  • Premjish, Director-Outreach, Art1st

 

 

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The Curator #13

The Curator #13

We have seen different ways of curating artworks. Today we will discuss what are retrospective exhibitions. Have you heard about retrospective exhibitions? The word retrospective means looking back at the past events or survey the past or take a stock of an artist’s works in the past. Similarly, a retrospective exhibition presents works from an extended period of an artist’s activity. Most of the time, this task is done by a museum or gallery, after the artist’s death or at a time when artist’s career reaches a milestone.

The task of the curator in a retrospective is to present the works of an artist in such a way so that the general public can understand his contributions to not only to the art world but also to the history and heritage of that region. So the curator has to show the works in a chronological way to display how the works of an artist evolve and mature over a period of time. How this progression can be seen along with many other progressions in the art world and history. The curator’s task therefore is to understand the artist’s work from the early period itself. Here the curator becomes like a detective trying to piece together each and every work of the artist, sometimes works which were supposed to be lost, assembling a series of memories, exchanges, ideas, etc. of the artist for the viewer. As I said earlier this is not easy task. Imagine if the artist has not signed a series of works from a particular period and no one has a clue about it. Now, how will the curator identify it and put it in a particular sequence of the timeline. It requires a careful study and also tremendous amount of expertise from the curator’s side.

In today’s Art1st’s “The Curator” series we will discuss about such a retrospective exhibition which took almost five years to mount. The five years went in detailed research on the artist Ramkinkar Baij’s life and works done by the artist K.S. Radhakrishnan who curated the Ramkinkar Retrospective at NGMA Delhi. This was the first exhibition which brought together more than 350 works of Ramkinkar Baij in one place giving it an art historical context with commendable scholarly input.

The Curator #13

K.S. Radhakrishnan

Ramkinkar Baij: A Retrospective, NGMA, 2012 

At the outset, let me tell you that Ramkinkar Baij was India’s most prolific and acclaimed modern artists. He was a painter, print maker, sculptor, designed sets for theatre, and mostly was a passionate human being. He is also considered as the first modernist sculptor. At a time when the nationalist clarion call echoed a backward march to tradition and indigenous mediums and visual idioms, Ramkinkar carved a niche for himself from the rest of the Bengal School by constantly acquainting himself with the unfamiliar terrain than the familiar and the experimental to the banality of life. The most notable fact about Ramkinkar Baij is that he was prolific. He sketched, and did water colour paintings all the time. When he was not making giant public sculptures, he would prepare its studies in drawings or experimenting on it in maquettes. Many times he was not able to afford painting materials, so he would paint on both surfaces of a canvas. He will forget to sign his works. Baij also used to gift his works to whoever he felt like giving. He lived in financially poor conditions and some times during heavy rains he would use his canvas paintings to cover the roof form where the water was trickling down. Besides these personal aspects of Baij, let me also tell you that his experiments with different styles is very eccentric. Usually art historians are able to bracket an artist’s works according to a particular style he or she adopts during a period. A change occurs after a particular time. In case of Baij, if one day he would create a painting in Expressionist style, the next work would be Cubist, in appearance. He was rigorously experimenting with style and visuals. Therefore it is a curator’s nightmare to assemble the works of Ramkinkar and put it in a legible form as an exhibition.

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K.S. Radhkarishnan is a prominent contemporary sculptor who has been part of important national and international exhibitions. He is known for his bronze sculptors. Radhakrishnan was trained under two important modern artists in Shantiketan – Ramkinkar Baij and Sarbari Ray Chowdhury. After Baij’s death he played an active role along with others in documenting his works which were scattered and archive them. In 2007, Radhakrishnan was selected by NGMA to curate the retrospective on Ramkinkar Baij. He says, “I started in 2007. I was commissioned by the Ministry of Culture. They asked if I would do it. I accepted happily because it’s like working on your teacher’s work. Also, Ramkinkar was a bachelor, so he had no children to look after his archive. In his case, it’s really his students who had to do that. I thought this would be a learning process for me. I knew I would be searching for things in a vast ocean, but I thought there was a big challenge in it. It’s always a great pleasure to work on someone who is so versatile and colorful. There’s much to be explored in terms of his life and work.”

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K.S. Radhakrishnan

Radhakrishnan notes that he started with the NGMA collection, which had documented a handwritten list containing merely titles, without any images. He started creating a database scanning every work and every page of Ramkinkar’s sketch books, most of which have never been exhibited. The idea was to photograph for documentation and also for publication purposes.

Since many of the remembered works at Santiniketan were missing, he started asking the people Kinkar da had associated with for leads. K.G. Subramanyan put me in touch with Nirmala Patwardhan in Pune, who directed me to her film-maker son Anand Patwardhan, who gave more names. It was virtually a house-to-house search. Like a detective he went around and found lost pieces of the greatest artist of modern India. In the absence of a chronology of works he went for subject and medium and used them as sub-categories. So you’ll find one room dedicated to drawings that led to the “Santhal Family” sculpture, then you’ll see oil paintings in another room. The corridors are like rivers flowing with watercolors, then there’s the two wings in between with the literature about him that then leads to the oil paintings section, then his life studies.

 

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“FRUIT GATHERERS”. A sculpture.

 

This excavation also resulted in the publication of a mammoth catalogue, with images of most of the documented works of Baij with years and titles. The text for the catalogue was written by noted art historian and curator R. Siva Kumar. Along with the main catalogue the exhibition also resulted in the publication of numerous other books on various aspects of Ramkinkar’s art. These were written by A. Ramachandran, Radhakrishnan, Johny M.L., et al. A documentary on Baij was also produced and screened along with an audio recording of Baij singing.

Radhakrishnan’s attempt was to rediscover Baij and present his entire oeuvre to the art world. He notes, “For a long time people knew of him as a sculptor, but they did not see his radical idiom in a larger context. That is getting established now. As a 32-year-old Ramkinkar made an integral structural composition of man, woman, child and dog (“Santhal Family”, 1938) at a time when the trend veered to viceroys’ busts and static statues in the Western realistic tradition. I would place him alongside Western masters such as Rodin. Today, many people know Kinkar da for his visible Yaksha and Yakshi figures outside the Reserve Bank of India on Delhi’s Parliament Street. Yet Ramkinkar was not happy with them since they ended up too rigid. By placing in the show a series of the sketches and models Kinkar da prepared before executing the final sculpture, I have tried to highlight the creative journey, which was always more important to him.”

Here is a link to a film made on Ramkinkar Baij by acclaimed director Ritwik Ghatak

Please share your thoughts about this article. Have a happy weekend.

  • 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.

 

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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.”

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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.

 

 

The Curator #7

We all know that national galleries across the world represents the nationalist spirit of the country. It assembles works created from different regions and puts it together to imagine a shared past between these regions and art practices. This purpose of national galleries and museums becomes more instrumental in the context of newly liberated colonial countries. These institutions help newly formed nations to position themselves along with the already existing nation-states. While the history of the nation acts as a legitimate claim towards the past, these modern institutions herald the arrival of a new age, as a continuous process in the progress of the nation.

NGMA is the best repository of modern Indian art in this country. It has acquired works of Indian artists from the 19th century onwards, a bureaucratic exercise which continues towards the 20th century, representing important Indian artists from different states. The size of this collection representing different artists, movements, styles, and mediums is vast. It is a curator’s Disneyland and hell at the same time. The task of presenting this giant collection in a legible way to the public is not an easy task. But there are certain brilliant curators who have not stepped away from this arduous mission. In today’s issue of Art1st’s “The Curator,” we introduce you to a seminal exhibition in Indian art history curated by renowned art historian and curator Geeta Kapur.

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Title: Hundred Years: From the NGMA Collection

Curator: Geeta Kapur

NGMA, Delhi. 1994.

It is definitely an unnecessary task to introduce Geeta Kapur to my readers. You must have come across her important book “When Was Modernism?” at some point of your life. Geeta’s pathbreaking works on Indian art has received national and international acclaim and attention. She still remains the critical voice on Indian art on various international platforms.

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Geeta Kapur, Courtesy: Utharakalam

 

In the year 19994 she was invited to curate a show marking the hundred year journey of Indian art. In her own words, “The third project at the National Gallery of Modern Art came about in 1994 when I was invited as an honorary member of the NGMA advisory committee of to mount an exhibition from their holdings. I sifted through the Collection by physically looking at hundreds of works. My selection criteria was based on the idea of laying out an itinerary across 100 years — a walking/looking itinerary through modern Indian art. No works were borrowed from other collections, which means there was a constraint on choice; an expressly NGMA exhibition, it was what is called in standard museum language, a re-hang of the Collection.

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Hundred Years: From the NGMA Collection (Exhibition View), Courtesy: Asia Art Archive

The passage was mapped, predictably perhaps, from Ravi Varma until the most contemporary work available at the time. But the itinerary had its twists and turns; it was not laid out chronologically nor strictly by schools and styles. The spectator walked through a broadly delineated period and encountered unconventional and hitherto untested juxtapositions. To give one example, I placed Ravi Varma and Amrita Sher-Gil face to face in one room to suggest the ‘studio’ academicism in each, and then in another room, I installed Sher-Gil paintings beside Jamini Roy’s for an opposite ‘thesis’ — because they were contemporaries experimenting with a diverse range of Indian art-historical antecedents and arriving at certain abbreviations that placed them in a keen, tangential relationship to modernist language. I was, in other words, testing and revising our familiar art history — on the walls, in the act of traversal, through the act of looking. There is the art history of the text book, based on carefully sourced influences and the evidence of styles; there is another that reads signs and meanings in conjunctural ways. The latter is experienced phenomenologically, on museum walls and related spaces.”

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Hundred Years: From the NGMA Collection (Exhibition View), Courtesy: Asia Art Archive

In the curator’s working notes for the exhibition written in July 1994, Geeta Kapur writes:
‘Nothing serves the cause of investigation better than a point of view for seeing, refocusing, finding alternate perspectives. That is why even if it were possible, it would not be useful to present a conclusive exhibition. A great part of the history of modern art in India not having been written — yet— what we can do best of all is to re-place and sometimes also dis-place the images and their attendant signs and meanings. Thus one begins to make out from the unmade meanings a historical argument. Which is the form of history I, at any rate, would privilege.’

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Hundred Years: From the NGMA Collection (Exhibition View), Courtesy: Asia Art Archive

Participating artists included Raja Ravi Varma, Pestonji Bowmanji, Pithawala, Hemen Mazumdar, Xavier Trinidad, Sarada Ukil, Amrita Sher-Gil, Abanindranath Tagore, Masoji Vinayak, K.N. Mazumdar, Sunyani Devi, Karitick Pyne, Dhanraj Bhagat, Ramkinkar Baij, Bhabhesh Sanyal, Sailoz Mukherjee, K.H. Ara, Nandalal Bose, K.K. Hebbar, S.B. Palsikar, Mohan Samant, Laxman Pai, Gaganendranath Tagore, Leela Mukherjee, Jamini Roy, Binode Behari Mukherjee, Akbar Padamsee, F.N. Souza, Harkrishan Lall, Paramjit Singh, Prem Singh, Vajubhai Bhagat, P.T. Reddy, Bhupen Khakhar, Gulammohammed Sheikh, Laxma Goud, Bikash Bhattacharjee, Ravinder REddy, Prithipal Singh Ladi, Jayashree Chakravarty, Jagdish Chandra, K.C.S. Paniker, A. Ramachandran, Vivan Sundaram, N.N. Rimzon, Dilip Sur, S. Savarkar, Jaya Ganguly, V. Ramesh, Rabindranath Tagore, Zainul Abedin, Satish Gujram, K.G. Subramanyan, Meera Mukherjee, P.V. Janakiraman, Sarbari Roy Chowdhary, Himmat Shah, Latika Katt, Mrinalini Mukherjee, Raghav Kaneria, Himmat Shah, M.F. Husain, K.S. Kulkarni, Paritosh Sen, Pradosh Das Gupta, Bijon Choudhury, Ram Kumar, Krishen Khanna, Anupam Sud, Gieve Patel, Sudhir Patwardhan, Shamshad Husain, Vajubhai Bhagat, N.S. Bendre, Ganesh Pyne, Jogen Chowdhury, Manjit Bawa, Amitava Das, Nagji Patel, Arpana Cour, Gogi Saroj Pal, Ravinder Reddy, Vid Nayar, Zai Zharotia, Kanchan Chandra, Sanjiv Sinha, Madhvi Parekh, Prabhakar Barwe, K. Muralidharan, Manu Parekh, Satish Gujral, Jatin Das, Nareen Nath, P. Gopinath, S.R. Bhushan, Jehangir Sabavala, Vijay Mohan, Arpita Singh, Krishna Reddy, J. Swaminathan, S.G. Vasudev, K. Achuthan, P.T. Reddy, Haridasan, Om Prakash Sharma, G.R. Santosh, Jeram Patel, Rameshwar Broota, Biren De, S.H. Raza, Shobha Broota, Ambadas, K.C.S. Paniker, Vishvanadhan, Nasreen Mohamedi, Rm. Palaniappan, Bal Chhabda, Krishen Khanna, Rekha Rodwittiya, C.S. Douglas, Robin Mandal, Alex Mathew, N. Pushpamala, Tyeb Mehta, Jeram Patel, R.K. Dhawan, V.S. Gaitonde, Ram Kumar, Sankho Chowdhary, Prabhakar Kolte, Ramesh Pateria, and Akhilesh.

Nevertheless, Geeta’s redefining of the collection was not easily digested. Her ideas were way ahead for the time. Her curatorial strategies. non-chronological way of assembling works, especially juxtaposing them to create other interesting parallels was heavily criticised.

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A newspaper cutting of an article criticising Geeta Kapur’s exhibition. Courtesy: Asia Art Archive.

Despite these the exhibition remains as one of the important early attempts to re-define an existing institutional collection.

More images of the exhibition view are accessible at the Asia Art Archives website. http://www.aaa.org.hk/en/collection/search/archive/another-life-the-digitised-personal-archive-of-geeta-kapur-and-vivan-sundaram-hundred-years-from-the-ngma-collection/object/hundred-years-from-the-ngma-collection-exhibition-view-18823

Please take a look at them and see if you are able to identify the artists. Have a good weekend.

  • Premjish, Director-Outreach, Art1st