Stirrings beneath the Surface

Waswo X Waswo, Art Concerns, Aug – Sept 2010

Boxes and boxes of vintage photographs and paintings are stacked in a grand room of Udaipur’s City Palace Museum, not accessible to the public but carefully watched over by a team from the Eka Cultural Resources and Research group. The photographs, all from the palace’s royal collection, number over 28,000 and include albumen, platinum, and bromide prints… many of which are exquisitely hand-coloured. Also numbering in the thousands are the paintings, most of which are rare miniatures. The Eka team has been carefully organising this stunning collection, patiently cataloguing it, and assembling what will someday be an online database available to scholars worldwide.

Pramod Kumar K.G., the Consultant Curator and also Managing Director of Eka, has led me on a tour of the new Bhagwat Prakash Gallery of Photography, a small but state-of-the-art exhibition space that was inaugurated in May of 2009. A second gallery, which will be devoted to the paintings, is scheduled to open in 2011. Within the high-ceiling hall that serves as the project’s on-site headquarters and workspace, I watch Documentation Assistant Sonika Soni daintily handle pieces from the collection with pristine white gloves.

“The detailed documentation we are doing conforms to international standards,” Sonika is explaining, “each piece is keenly read, observed, given basic research and then digitally recorded. This is apparently the first time in India a collection has been given such thorough research and documentation. Our work will open opportunities for researchers and students. And we hope the display strategies are seen as a prototype for other public and private collections.”

Indeed, the new exhibition space is impressive. Though small in size, it has proper temperature and humidity controls, museum-quality lighting, UV protection, and informative wall text in both English and Hindi. It is probably the most professionally created and educational museum space I have seen in India. And in a way it symbolises the art scene in Udaipur itself: an amazingly vibrant energy emerging beneath what is admittedly a very touristic facade.

It is no longer a secret that Udaipur has made a name for itself on the international tourist map, a sign of which was Travel and Leisure designating it as the “World’s Best City” just last year.  Having lived in Udaipur for nearly five years, and having had a relationship with the city that dates back to 1993, I must say Travel and Leisure’s bestowing that honour did more than raise my eyebrows. Udaipur is certainly a charming tourist destination, and the city itself is pleasantly easy to get around, but it would be hard for me to refer to it as the ‘World’s Best,’ or, that other ill-suited cliché, ‘The Venice of the East.’ In spite of these reservations I confess to having fallen in love with Udaipur on my very first visit, and to this day remain enamoured with its uniqueness. There is no other place in the world quite like it.

First timers to the city will be struck by the quantity of art shops that line Udaipur’s bazaars. The area’s Mewar / Nathdwara tradition of miniature paintings and pichwai saw resurgence shortly after the first waves of souvenir-hunters arrived during the early 60s. Unfortunately, the catering to the tourist trade also caused a decline in both standards and creativity that further degenerated into a commercially-oriented, purely copiest aesthetic.  Young men who would have once been trained by masters through the course of long apprenticeships were now hastily ushered into small-roomed ‘factories’ to endlessly paint the same subject again and again at top speed. Part of this is an inheritance of the miniature tradition itself. Throughout the centuries, painters of miniatures were treated by their patrons as mere craftsmen…beings expected to turn out fine representations of traditional scenes in a manner that conformed to historical styles. As Orhan Pahmuk’s novel ‘My Name is Red,’ so marvellously points out, creativity among miniaturists was not only discouraged, it was downright suspect.

This approach to painting is in direct opposition to modern-day expectations. Contemporary society views the artist as a sort of seer, a being who expresses either deep introspection, an understanding of the society in which he/she lives, or a brilliant comprehension of the aesthetic process itself. The seer/artist then conveys his/her understanding in newly imaginative and even startling ways.  This disconnect between modern expectations  and the miniature tradition as it is found in the bazaars of Udaipur can have the ironic result of alienating the very foreigners the painting shops hope to attract. As one French traveller memorably put it, “I have never before been in a city with so many artists and so little art!”

The malaise caused by the souvenir trade seems to have permeated even many of Udaipur’s practitioners of modernism. The few shops that cater to modernist taste are prone to display hastily worked canvasses and sculpture that are either too cute, too cliché, too decorative or too sentimental to be taken seriously by anyone with discerning taste. Once again, this lack of substance seems traceable to the perception among local artisans that art is a ‘craft’ directed at gaining a quick sale in the bazaar. Thus there is an abundance of work that makes easy appeals to the cash-rich souvenir hunter rather than the art connoisseur. The concept that the artist should have something to express or explore does not seem to be part of the equation.

As Bhupesh Kavadia, sculptor and owner of Udaipur’s respected Bougainvillaea Gallery says, “Tourism has a certain corrupting influence in that mediocre works are often produced for the tourist trade. But the positive is that tourism has given exposure of the artists to the larger international community. Tourism has given a certain momentum to bring commercial viability.”

Kavadia and his gallery have become a focal point for Rajasthani artists seeking a more mature appreciation of their work. The sculptor/gallerist was first attracted to the arts while working as a set-designer for an experimental theatre company. With the widespread dissemination of television, the theatre company was forced to disband, but Bhupesh was left with numerous contacts in an arts community that extended beyond Udaipur to Mumbai, Baroda and Delhi. He eventually discovered a love of sculpture, and his works have appeared in places as distant as Japan and Mexico.

“The centre of traditional marble sculpture is located in Pindwara, a village on the way to Mount Abu. The availability of marbles and sandstones in our area, and the knowledge of traditional craftspersons make it a magnet for anyone with a desire to work in stone.” Indeed, Udaipur and surroundings has seen a burgeoning of modernist sculptors dedicated to stone. Among these are Gyan Singh, Pankaj Gehlot, Rokesh Kumar Singh, Dinesh Upadhyaya as well as Bhupesh Kavadia himself.  Foreign sculptors such as the Italian Simona Bocchi have set up studio on Udaipur’s perimeter, while others such as the Britisher Andrew Horsfall have also used the city to sculpt.  Any visit to Bougainvillaea Gallery begins with a walk through the sculpture garden.  “Our first space, which we opened in 2004, was smaller and not so well located. We were lucky to shift to our current location on the edge of Lake Fateh Sagar in 2008. The new location and expanded space have enormously helped raise our profile,” says Bhupesh. Bougainvillaea’s architecture speaks of a sculptor’s sense of form and space (Kavadia himself designed the gallery). Besides the sculpture garden there are spacious galleries on both the ground and upper floors, two reflecting pools, and ample areas to mount video presentations and even live concerts.

“We’ve had visitors such as Queen Rania of Jordan, the Prime Minister of Lebanon, and Frank Cohen, the famous collector of Indian art from London. Recently the gallery has been represented in the Ivory Coast at The Exposition d’Art Contemporain de I’Inde 2010, La Danse des Couleurs. Some of our artists will be represented in an upcoming Phillips de Pury auction. More and more our outlook is becoming international.”

Among the two dimensional works that Bougainvillea displays are the noveau-miniaturists Chhotu Lal and Yugal Sharma, two artists who break the mould of miniature tradition while drawing deeply upon its techniques. The painters Shahid Parvez and Abbas Batiwalla explore a closely similar childlike vision of society, though they use extremely different styles. Hemant Dwivedi explores heavily layered abstraction. Look far enough into Bougainvillaea and you will come across works by Chintan Upadhyay and Jatin Das.

“I think Udaipur was very revolutionary in mid 70s and 80s,” said Upadhyay during a recent online chat. “In the 70s the first seeds of modernity could be seen and there were two viewpoints that were growing together. One was a rejection of tradition, and the second a hybridization of tradition with a new subjectivity. Both strains are still alive today. My family was from Banswara and my father studied art in Udaipur. He had a connection to TAKHMAN-28, which was a very radical group and very progressive in their thoughts. They formed on February 28th, 1968 and not only rejected figuration or traditional approach but also ‘Indianness.’ In my view the figures in this group who really succeeded in making an impact were Vidhya Sagar Upadhyay and Sauresh Sharma.”

Sauresh Sharma is today one of the most respected of the original Udaipur vanguard. His meticulous markings on paper and canvas have attained a sort of iconic status among his followers, and his works are spoken of with a reverence that might be hard for the uninitiated to understand. It is perhaps precisely because Sharma’s works are so bravely contrarian to traditional Rajasthani expectations that he remains an artist’s artist.

New on the scene is Rajesh Soni’s ‘Gallery One,’ which measures just 8 x 10 feet and is in fact never open but functions as an experimental shop window. Gallery One has specialised in displaying unique works that hope to stretch the community’s concepts of what art can be, while at the same time addressing social issues. In its first season, Gallery One featured Chiman Dangi’s ‘Search for Energy,’ an installation made of cow dung that sought to draw attention to sustainable fuels. Danish artist Anne Vilsbøll created an installation commenting upon the necessities of water while also pushing the acceptance of nudity in art. Shankar Kumawat displayed work concerned with deforestation. Unfortunately, Gallery One’s location, on a too bright and busy street just off Chandpol, makes for difficult window viewing at any time other than evenings.

Udaipur’s art scene is still in a process of asserting its maturity and relevance to mainstream Indian contemporary art. A visitor to Udaipur needs to dig beneath the surface to come away with an impression different than the cynical remark that it is a city of “artists but not art.” But a new energy seems to be in the making, and more and more art historians and connoisseurs are taking note.

Sharing a beer at Bhupesh Kavadia’s beautifully remote farmhouse/studio situated off the road to Ranakpur, I ask how he perceives the state of contemporary art in Rajasthan. “I think that is best answered by referring to our book, ‘Contemporary Rajasthan at a Glance,’ and then taking the time to locate individual pieces and really look at them and think about them.” His eyes drift off to the horizon of hills covered with desert scrub. Bhupesh is an observer and a thinker, and he seems to imply that what he asks of the art world in regard to Rajasthan is exactly the same: a little more observation and thought.

(Waswo X.Waswo makes his home in Udaipur, Rajasthan, where he has been pursuing collaborative work with various local artists. He can be reached via email at: waswoxwaswo@yahoo.com)

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