Forget dead trends, go for new movements

Written by Suneet Chopra | Updated: Nov 14 2004, 06:24am hrs
The 50th anniversary of the NGMA opened with the first part of an exhibition entitled Signposts of the Times curated by the director of the gallery, Dr Rajiv Lochan. The opening saw a remarkable clash of views in the speeches of minister of culture Jaipal Reddy and President APJ Abdul Kalam. While the minister quoted the fascist aesthetician of Mussolims Italy, Croce, that works of art were beyond history, the President pointed out the close relation of a work of art and history, giving the example of a sculpture of Amarnath Sehgal that is at Nelson Mandelas former island prison in South Africa. Needless to say, the Presidents speech made far more sense than that of the minister of culture.

Quoting a backbone phrase from a fascist theorist does not augur well for our cultural future, especially in the present circumstances when the detoxification of state institutions being eaten up by cultural white ants is a must.

Here, I am not concerned so much with the political importance of this process as with its economic necessity for the art market. Time and again, we have been pointing out in this column that the best investment in art all over the world is in contemporary art that evolved in different centres at the same time. This contemporary art was against imperial diktats and certainly against fascist aesthetics which branded everyone from Paul Klee to Picasso as degenerate art.

If we begin to ape this aesthetic, then we will lose our growingly important position among the trends in the global contemporary art market today. And we have every chance of doing so, as in our past too, there is considerable confusion among our most sincere patriots regarding the basically anti-people and objectively slavish features of fascism. That is why a patriot like Subhas Bose found himself seeking help from Hitler and Tojo during World War II. Here nothing is black and white. And we have only greys to choose from. This makes it difficult to tell the flowers from the weeds.

In art, unlike politics, once a work is painted one cannot go back on it. It enters the time continuum as an independent entity. So we have to be that much more careful of its validity. Ravi Varmas work is a good example of this problem. Theoretically, it is well within the stylistic framework of Colonial art, a number of British governors having exhorted Indian artists to copy academic representational art in terms of style, use western techniques, but portray Indian myths and epics.

This is the pseudo-realist, or rather, revivalist, art I wrote about in this column last week. It is romantic and unreal. Even in the early 20th century it was seen as doubtful by people like Rabindranath Tagore, and later, almost all the modern artists from Amrita Shergil to FN Souza were stridently critical about it, as they saw it as a threat to the emerging independent contemporary art of India.

The backsliding came with the exhibition of the paintings of Raja Ravi Varma at the National Museum with a person no less than the then Prime Minister of India PV Narasimha Rao, opening it. In art too, the way in which the style of Ravi Varma was upstaged by artists like Rabindranath, Abanindranath and Gaganendranath Tagore, by Amrita Shergil, and most obviously by the artists of the Mumbai group, like MF Husain, FN Souza, VS Gaitonde, Tyeb Mehta and SH Raza, and even by younger artists like Ganesh Pyne, Ram Kumar, Akbar Padmasee and Krishen Khanna, ought to make us realise that art works become worth investing in not because some erstwhile colonial cronies have collections of them or unscrupulous dealers want to make good profits out of the junk they have picked up.

The price of a work of art depends primarily on its place in carrying forward the evolution of the artistic tradition of that particular form of visual expression. Artists of intrinsic worth from this historical perspective, like Vincent Van Gogh, Ram Kumar, Ram Kinkar Baij, FN Souza, KH Ara, VS Gaitonde and so many others, will continue to rise in price despite all the scorn they had to face in their lives.

The state, as a patron, must understand this. The way the Indian state is helping the revivalist art of Ravi Varma and his ilk, is not like a mother helping a handicapped child, it is like a female monkey carrying its dead child close to its breast until it disintegrates. This is an activity that will adversely affect the prospects of our contemporary art in future. Our entry into the global contemporary art market is relatively new, so such wrongly placed patronage can present the growth competitiveness required to day by diverting it to fruitless alleyways and dead ends.

It would be far better for the state not to play promoter to dead and dying trends in art but to help evolve the powerful folk-modernist synthesis that has become the backbone of our contemporary art and sculpture with new infusions of freshness from the art of East Asia, Africa and Latin America. Promising artists should be helped to travel to these regions and bring us the sense of a future never seen before for our culture to assimilate and grow stronger with, as Santiniketan did with the art of Japan and China, and the Mumbai group with Pablo Picasso and Bracque.

New movements in art are constantly developing. We should assimilate the best in them and leave the dead trends to their well-deserved graves. Then, and only then, will we be making a good investment for the future. It is all very well to let a hundred flowers bloom, but planting stalks of cut flowers in the ground will not help to grow anything.