The Angst of Being a Modern Indian

The Cosmopolitans ♦
Anjum Hasan
Penguin India, 309 pages, Rs 499.

anjum-book“Being a modern Indian is hard work,” a former king tells Qayanaat, the protagonist of Anjum Hasan’s The Cosmopolitans. If this is true for the King, the dispossessed monarch of fictional, small-town Simhal, it’s certainly so for Qayanaat, a 53-year-old single woman who lives in Bengaluru, subsisting on the diminishing material wealth of one man, her deceased father, while trying to manage her excess of emotions for another, the artist Baban.

Had Hasan chosen Baban—a character who recalls certain real Indian artists, such as Subodh Gupta—as her protagonist,The Cosmopolitans would likely have been India’s first Künstlerroman set in the contemporary art world. And Baban, triumphantly returning from New York to launch his large-scale conceptual work, ‘Nostalgia’, in Bengaluru, would have been a rich character for Hasan to use to pick apart the tensions she explores: between modernity and tradition, aesthetics and ethics, art and profit.

Instead, although The Cosmopolitans opens with the inauguration of ‘Nostalgia’, Hasan sets about painting a portrait of Qayanaat, a character on the periphery of the art world, but at the center of this ambitious, yet intimate, novel of ideas. Qayanaat neither makes art, nor collects it, and her place in the wider world is unclear as well. She is hopeless with money; her quietly bohemian lifestyle, surrounded by her garden and a few works of art, is only enabled by the house that her father left her. By conventional benchmarks, she is something of a failure. This makes her an appealing and important character in a country obsessed with success.

The first half of the book describes Qayanaat’s life in Bengaluru, as a drifter on a sleepy art scene populated by a cast of familiar figures. There are the Bengalis, both elderly intellectuals and young, eager creators; Baban, the maverick hotshot with his NRI arm-candy; the aficionados and the aunties, the patrons of various means. Hasan deftly sketches her characters and has fun fleshing out the stereotypes. Baban, for instance, “reared on curd rice and Charminar, now sought after by the world’s leading galleries and collectors”, or Sara, Qayanaat’s “vivacious, art-loving friend, her jingle-jangle jewellery and swishy skirts”.

There’s no snappy sentence to describe Qayanaat’s slippery existence in this milieu. While Baban calls her QT, her ex-boyfriend Sathi’s mispronunciation of her name (which comes from the Urdu and Arabic kainaat, or universe) is one reason she gives for breaking up with him. Later, the King calls her Mandakini. For her part, Qayanaat is too busy attempting to live as a modern Indian to try and analyse such an existence, least of all through an aesthetic lens:

When among her artist friends, she always withdrew from conscience-stricken conversations about Who Was to Blame and What Should be Done. Hell, she would think. What happened to experience? It seemed to have been replaced by hot air. If we can’t be out there, eating grass and fighting the Indian state with rickety rifles, we could at least shut up and look to our own lives. Karma, she would think. Wasn’t it supposed to be the guiding force once, the idea that every action, however minor, has consequences? So she would go back home and water the flowers and then sit in silence, looking at the garden of trees her father had planted. Almond, frangipani, pink tabebuia.

Eventually, Qayanaat’s passive retreat turns into an impetuous offensive against the seriousness and conceit of the art world. The impulse that drives her must be familiar to many of us who, standing in a gallery sipping wine, have felt the urge to to do something drastic, something that would puncture the solemnity and the casual conviviality of the occasion, to rub out the hallowed glow emanating from the artist or artworks, so robbed of their own power to rupture the mundane.

Book One culminates in just such a moment of rebellion, which ends in a disaster that Hasan treats as almost more comedic than tragic. In order to finance an escape from the repercussions of her actions, and her guilt, Qayanaat sells an old painting she owns by ‘Nur Jahan’, a sort of artist-in-purdah whose nude paintings have gained notoriety and appreciated in value due to the political controversy surrounding them.

Book Two shifts aesthetic gears significantly, from visual to performance art, from avante-garde to tradition. “I’ll go into India,” Qayanaat decides, to learn about the dance-theatre of the town of Simhal. But between meeting the King, with his odd mix of conservative and worldly views; Vipul Singh, a local tout and wannabe tough; and Malti, a widowed tribal woman; Qayanaat finds “India” perhaps a bit more than she bargained for.

The cheek that makes the first half of The Cosmopolitans so enjoyable to a reader familiar with the metropolitan art world retreats slightly in the book’s second half. As Qayanaat finds herself out of her element, she is less capable of passing judgment upon a world in which she is truly an outsider, as are we. If this transition makes Hasan’s book a little less fun, it also make it a more robust portrait of the angst of being a modern Indian. There is slight frustration in watching Qayanaat bridge her experiences in the countryside with her life in the city by way of maternal instinct, but – typically of Hasan’s art – it is only because it imitates life all too well.

Originally published in The Wire.


Published: December 28, 2015


Looking for home at the National Museum’s Cosmology to Cartography: A Cultural Journey of Indian Maps exhibition.


Published: August 16, 2015

Epic tale

Raavan Chhaya is iPad myth lit ♦


A panel from Vishal K Dar’s Ramayana iPad app

Indian epics cast a long shadow into popular culture, but it’s safe to say they could never have been described as “trending” before now. Every other day, a new fantasy series, comic or film inspired by the Rama-yana or the Mahabharata finds space on a the shelf or screen – for Indian epics have crossed cheerfully from spoken word to scroll to TV to tablet.

iPad apps related to the Ramayana are numerous – from downloads that allow you to watch Ramanand Sagar’s entire miniseries, to ebooks for adults and children, sometimes slightly animated, with puzzles or “colouring pages”. The latest app comes from an unlikely source – new media artist Vishal K Dar. Dar started thinking about a Ramayana-related project six years ago, but settled on the iPad format about a year and a half back; he found it freed him from the demands of print. His Raavan Chhaya includes 75 static “scrolls” featuring some animation, music and sound effects. These will be released in three parts: Book of Pain, Book of Hope and Book of Loss.

This is Dar’s first iPad app, but the intersection of technology and art isn’t unfamiliar territory for the Delhi artist. Dar, who studied architecture and fine art, has a fondness for grand ideas and technical execution (he’s also project-managed shows for people like Yoko Ono and Anish Kapoor). Dar’s projects include “NAAG”, a snake-like sculpture in Mehrauli with patterns projected on it to make it look like it was squeezing and slithering; and “Praja-Pati”, a searchlight revolving in the dug out foundation for a Gurgaon mall.

Dar borrowed the project’s name from an Odishan shadow theatre form. “The two words ‘Raavan Chhaya’ put together indicate a strange relationship between ‘sound’ and ‘shadow’,” he said, explaining that “‘Raavan’ means ‘he of the terrifying roar.’” The title isn’t this retelling’s only departure from convention, however. “I’m attracted to certain themes within the text,” Dar said. “One of them, which forms the core of my version, is that the text presents itself as a cautionary tale. ‘A woman should never fall in love with a warrior’ is an emotion voiced by three woman-characters. First by Tara at Vali’s deathbed in Book of Pain; Mandodari prior to the war call; and Sita as she enters the fire in Book of Loss. Meenakshi, aka Surpanakha, never acknow-ledges this emotion. These are the women that feature in this version.” Besides the emphasis on these female characters, there “was a conscious choice of emphasizing certain episodes,” Dar said. “For example, I am against the idea of ‘Laxman rekha’, therefore this becomes one of the reasons for Laxman’s exclusion from my text.”

Dar also chose to release Book of Hope, which “references the ‘Sundara Kand’ of  the original Ramayana”, first. “The story of Hanuman is a magical tale, which is most linear in terms of narration and therefore presents itself as the perfect introduction,” he said. “It’s widely known and sung, and the story represents the rise of an individual against all odds.”

Hanuman is a popular protagonist in recent Ramayana retellings – and while the anthropomorphic monkey Dar’s team designed certainly looks leaner and meaner than his cartoon movie counterpart, Raavan Chhaya’s art familiarly approximates Western animation aesthetics rather than drawing from India’s visual traditions. We haven’t seen the app in motion but Dar described “a dreamlike movement within the scrolls”, calling the project “an elaborate visual poem that embodies what remains an ageless, tragic story of loss and love.” The digital format, he said, “can become a new way of exploring storytelling”. Dar is a concept-driven artist whose ambition can sometimes outstrip his means. But if Raavan Chhaya is, as he said, “an experiment to connect with a larger audience,” there’s no doubt he’ll find one – what with interest in the epics so eternally unfailing.

Raavan Chhaya: Book of Hope, visit
Originally published in Time Out Delhi, April 2013.

Published: April 1, 2013

Long exposure

Chirodeep Chaudhuri captured Durga Puja at his ancestral village in Bengal over 12 years ♦

chiroTwelve years is a long engagement for an artistic project. But by saving up his vacation, Chirodeep Chaudhuri (formerly Time Out’s national art director), managed to capture Durga Puja in his family village of Amadpur over just such a length of time. He chatted with Sonal Shah about putting together A Village in Bengal.

The black-and-white photos recall a pre-Incredible India approach to shooting the country. Why didn’t you shoot in colour?
When I started the project, since it was completely self-funded, black-and-white was cheaper. I was also working at the Sunday Observer, where I had access to a dark room so I would print free of cost. [Later] I’d set up a little dark room at home where I would be processing my films late in the night. All of this allowed me, in those early years, to keep costs down. Secondly, I don’t think in those initial years I was very good at shooting colour – it required a certain kind of discipline. It would have been a completely different book; none of these pictures would actually translate in colour. The time when Durga Puja happens, it’s a very odd time of the year, the light is very bad, very harsh. I don’t think in those days I had the requisite skill to pull off something of that nature in colour.

This also recalls the atmosphere of Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, which you mention as an influence in your introductory essay.
The one very important aspect of this whole work was this sense of silence, which you encounter in that place. It’s very hard to describe if people haven’t spent time in rural settings of a certain kind – obviously you get used to it, but on that first day, when you get out of the station and you’re making your way out of the market on those kaccha roads and stuff, after a point this silence kind of hits you. I thought that was a very important aspect to maintain. Colour would have added a certain amount of noise to the overall mood.

And typically, images of Indian festivals tend to suggest noise and tamasha…
This is something which I have been accused of very often with some of my Bombay work: “Your Bombay pictures are too quiet”. In this case, this whole setting is quiet; it’s also a very slow pace. I would imagine at least a third of the pictures are of people seated. I don’t think that’s necessarily a misrepresentation, but it was done as a very conscious decision to create this ambience of slowing down of pace. In Calcutta, someone like my mother, I rarely see her sitting down. [In Amadpur] I would see them basically kind of lounging about.

There’s also an unposed intimacy to these pictures of people lounging…
The pictures I’d shot of my family in those early years – people were very self-conscious. Most people didn’t really know me. It would be like, you know, “He’s come on his little exotic vacation”. It took me a couple of years for people to accept my presence. Towards the later years, nobody gave a damn if I was taking pictures. Some of my uncles would be like “Kitna tu shoot karega? Har saal same cheez shoot karta rehta hai.” After a point, I was as much part of the regulars as a lot of others. One of my really favorite pictures is of my sister-in-law talking with my niece, and she’s kind of bent over – those kind of pictures, I don’t think I could have done them in year two, or year three.

There are actually three different stages where this whole story’s being played out. There’s the complete public space, which is the village: you’re seeing cattle, you’re seeing villagers. Then you’re seeing this kind of common private-public space, which is the thakur dalan – where people usually assemble at certain predetermined times for reasons of worship and all that. After that, people kind of go off into their respective houses and things. I started going into those more private areas in a much later stage. After year seven, year eight, people just stopped caring – this was the guy [who] would have his bloody cameras and he would go gallivanting into the village… it became a bit of a joke in the family.

And you carried on shooting in film?
Except the last year, when I shot digital, because I lost my entire bag of equipment and didn’t think it made sense to buy a film camera, given the way the scene had changed completely. The last year was really about tying up loose ends – so digital helped, in the sense that I don’t think I had any more patience to say “Oh shit, ye hua nahin, I’m going to go back 360 days later and just do that one picture.”

Will you keep up the yearly tradition of returning to Amadpur?
I don’t think this is going to go on for too long. Most people have kind of moved out of a milieu like this. If it was exotic for me, for the next generation it’s even more exotic. I don’t think they would really ensure that it continues. It would probably just die off for all you know, however terrible it makes me feel. I don’t see it continuing into the next generation, unless there’s something dramatic that happens. West Bengal tourism, in Calcutta, have this thing where they take tourists around to certain old family Durga Pujas. From this year, supposedly, our family Puja in Amadpur has been included. Now I don’t know what this means for the whole thing – does it give it a new lease of life? Does it turn things on its head completely and make it into something very crass? I mean, a busload of 30, 40 people just landing up suddenly, I don’t know what it would become.

Do you see another long project ahead?
Most of the ideas I work on are long engagements, relatively speaking that is. I can be very very obsessive about ideas once I’m on to it. I realised over the last two years that I was finding myself getting tired a little quicker, so I don’t know if I would be able to continue with this in the village for another 14 years now. Also, in the course of doing this, there was a lot of wisdom that was accumulated in terms of photography and understanding various things about narrative construction and things like that. A lot of the stuff I’m doing now would therefore come quicker. With that project it was all kind of meandering around and there were things which I was figuring out.

The meandering style does suit the subject.
It just seems like the most natural way that this project could have have gone off – I’ve been looking at this first copy of the book since it arrived –I’m questioning it myself: why the fuck did it take like 14 years? This could have been done during one Durga Puja…

Yes, but then you’d be out there with a shot-list – it’s refreshingly not savvy in that way.
There’s a huge amount of reflection which kind of happens in those intervening 360 days each year. The weird thing is that it’s actually been shot over 60 days over 12 years – so it’s actually the amount of time which a lot of photographers nowadays spend on their projects. But I think they don’t have the luxury of those in-between spaces which I had.

A Village in Bengal, Pan MacMillan India, ₹2,499.
Originally published in Time Out Delhi, October 2012.
Chirodeep Chaudhuri captured Durga Puja at his ancestral village in Bengal over 12 years

Published: October 4, 2012

Stepping up

Artists engage with a land rights movement that touches down in Delhi this October ♦


A photograph by Simon Williams

What do a Delhi painter, an English photographer, a Swiss multimedia artist, and one lakh rural Indians fighting for land rights have in common? More than you’d expect, according to Walking: A Dialogue between Art and Social Movement. The exhibition coincides with a month-long nonviolent march organised by Ekta Parishad, a Gandhian movement working on land rights. While the Jan Satyagraha 2012 March will cover 350km from Gwalior to Delhi, the exhibition seeks to find common ground between protest and the arts, the urban power centre and rural constituency, and India and the wider world.

With recent rustling in the central government over the Land Acquisition and Rehabilitation Bill, introduced last year to address the concerns of farmers and industrialists, the Jan Satyagraha is a timely citizen’s protest, complementing Ekta Parishad’s negotiations with politicians. Officially established in the early ’90s, the NGO Ekta Parishad grew out of a loose affiliation of various groups in the 1970s, with founder and president Rajagopal PV at its core. From his earlier work promoting nonviolence among dacoits in Chambal, Rajagopal, who is also vice chairman of Delhi’s Gandhi Peace Foundation, has been a lifelong proponent of nonviolence.

Ekta Parishad, which works with about 1,700 local groups across 15 states, held its last major foot march in 2007 – the Janadesh (“People’s Verdict”), to demand a central agenda on land reform. The Centre set up the National Land Reforms Council, with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as its chair. But as organiser Aneesh Thillen­kery pointed out when we met him at Ekta Parishad’s Jungpura office, “the interesting thing is that the National Land Council never met… nothing has happened. That is why we started our struggle again.” Ekta Parishad puts forth a broad, inclusive platform: “Our main demand is… comprehensive land reform [and] an implementation system,” said Thillenkery.

British freelance photographer Simon Williams, who has documented Ekta Parishad’s work for ten years, walked with 25,000 people in Janadesh (he was one of about 250 international participants). His photos are one component of the exhibition. “After a few days you get into a rhythm, it’s a kind of walking meditation,” he wrote to us from London. “The energy is infectious… Music and theatre are integral to yatras; throughout, tribal musicians and artists led the march with both formal and informal performances – many improvising on land and forest themes, using traditional songs, rhythms and dances.” Williams captured this energy – and also recorded the mundane but mind-boggling logistics of cooking and sleeping, as well as a commitment to nonviolence in the face of tragedy. “It was very peaceful,” he elaborated. “No one occasion proved this more than when four marchers were killed by a lorry, which lost control and crashed into them, early one morning. Very often in India this would result in a lot of anger. On this occasion that did not happen. The five-hour ceremony that followed in the middle of the road, lead by a group of Buddhist monks travelling with us, was one of the most moving and strangely uplifting things I have ever experienced.” Williams will join the 2012 Jan Satyagraha, though he joked he’ll need “even more chai stops than normal” because of a recent ankle surgery.

Vikram Nayak, whose work will also be in the exhibition, participated in Janadesh as well. Nayak has drawn political cartoons for major newspapers and worked at a slum school run by Katha, but now focuses on painting and filmmaking (he’ll have three paintings and an installation on display). Though he grew up in Delhi, the artist is passionate about land rights and made a short film after Janadesh. He wanted to share rural success stories after the formation of the NLRC, but “I felt that it was not actually a success,” he told us. So he decided to share the travails of people he’s met, “with my Delhi friends – artists, writers… It’s very difficult for them to understand,” he said, “because there’s no connection between these two – city and village. They say ‘Ya, ya, we know, tribals have problems,’ but actually the problem is there is no connectivity.” Nayak hopes the exhibition will spike interest in land rights. “We all need to get together and talk, through our own medium, whatever it is,” he said. For Nesa Gschwend, the Swiss artist, that medium could include installations using old saris, red dye, flour, wax and more; drawing, video, performance, or photos. Gschwend, who told us her “collaboration with Ekta is always [from] an artistic point of view,” will show two videos and release a book.

The exhibition and opening lecture should at least raise awareness about the many, nuanced issues around land rights. According to Thillenkery, the impending Jan Satyagraha (and the culmination of Rajagopal’s yearlong yatra around the country) has already put pressure on ministers to start talking specifics with Ekta activists. “We already do the state process,” he said, “at the same time… whenever you discuss the landless poor people, then it will be a state subject… but Coal Bearing Act, Mines and Minerals Act, SEZ Act, Forest Rights Act – all these are coming from the Centre.” When a lakh of people walk into the capital (or attempt to) around October 28, Thillenkery’s point that “tomorrow, this is also your issue,” should be eminently clear. Get a preview this fortnight.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, September 2012.

Published: September 28, 2012

The treehouse for two

Paramjit and Arpita Singh line their sunny nest with warm reds and leafy greens ♦

This article is part of a series on artists’ homes.

When artists Arpita and Paramjit Singh first visited their house in Nizamuddin East, it was in 1975, for chai with barsati resident Bhaskar Kulkarni (a “hippie-type”, as Paramjit put it) who was responsible for popularising Madhubani art. Little did the Singhs imagine that just over three decades later, they’d be moving into the three-floor home, built in the 1950s – and by that time in a state of utter disrepair.

Renovating the house was a challenge, not because of the actual work (the Singhs count several architects among their friends), but because of the ASI permissions needed to build within range of Arab Ki Sarai around the corner. They managed to work within the parameters quite well, incorporating the verandas to build a ground floor for living, a first floor studio for Arpita and a second floor for Paramjit. An advantage of the ASI restrictions, and the colony’s original planning, is that there are unhindered green views from almost every picture window. “They designed [this colony] strangely,” Paramjit said, “there are three houses, then a park.” It’s easy to see how he keeps images of woods and fields in his mind while working with such a view for a backdrop.

As far back as the 1970s, the Singhs’ Tara Apartments flat was featured in a foreign magazine. Many of the objects, like the simple settees constructed in a Kashmere Gate shop (“We were never sofa people until we came here,” said Paramjit), have followed the Singhs from that flat to their Chittaranjan Park home –  designed by Ram Sharma and often cited as an example of good living in a small space – and then here. Nizamuddin East has an arty reputation: Anjoli Ela Menon is a neighbour, and BC Sanyal used to live nearby. The sense of being part of a creative community is evident from objects inside too: a table from A Ramachandran’s house, stacked with brushes; stools by ’60s designer Shona Ray; and work by friends in every corner.

1. Freudian print The Singhs purchased this print at a 2007 Grosvenor show of Lucian Freud’s work in Delhi. It stands out (along with a Pablo Picasso linocut of Christ with a crown of thorns) among the abstract works by Arpita and landscapes by Paramjit on the living room walls.

2. Red frame The fire engine-red gate to the house is carried through in every window frame, banister and other border accent. Unable to afford teak in their CR Park home, the Singhs used hollock wood, painted red. They liked the combination of this bright border with gray stone so much that they replicated it here – though now the frames are aluminum to avoid termite damage.

3. “Skipping Girl” A statuette by Sarbari Roy Choudhary (who died earlier this year, and whose sculptures dot the artists’ homes we visited). Paramjit purchased this from the artist for “something like `1,000” in 1984.

4. Nature study Piled up on a yellow stool are the distinctively sunny spines of a collection of National Geographic magazines. Arpita is the enthusiast, who takes inspiration from the wildlife and maps for her own paintings.

5. Coke studio Upon further inspection, what looks like an oversized Koosh ball on a table is part of daughter and artist Anjum Singh’s installation “Cola Bloom” (featured in Time Out Delhi’s January 2011 issue).

6. Silk roots Draped on one bench is Paramjit’s grandmother’s phulkari. His family is from district Wazirabad in Pakistani Punjab, but was settled in Amritsar from the 1920s.

See the images and read more about Delhi artists’ homes.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, September 2012.

Published: September 14, 2012

Art house

Delhi artists show us their homes ♦

Time Out gets an all-access pass into the homes of some of Delhi’s best, and best-loved artists, who graciously entertained all our queries. We asked for the whys, wherefores and whos of their owl collections, demanded to know the history of their flooring, and wheedled a free tour of their Picassos and Paul Klees. From September 2012. Read the full story below, or download it as a prettier PDF here.

Published: September 1, 2012

Printer’s proof

A public airing of a private collection of prints could spike interest in an underappreciated medium ♦


“Print Show” by Jagadeesh Tammineni

When people in the Indian art frat hear the details of collector Waswo X Waswo’s first encounter with printmaking, they sometimes “express a little shock.” The son of a grocer, American-born Waswo once had a job in an industrial press. “People hear the word ‘collector’ and assume that you were born to a wealthy family and never did manual work,” he observed. “I got my hands dirty with printing inks and solvents.

Waswo, who now lives in Udai­pur, went on to do other things, including becoming an artist himself and amassing a collection of Indian prints from as far back as 1916. A hefty selection of these forms Between the Lines: Identity, Place, and Power. Waswo and curator Lina Vincent Sunish organised the display at the Visual Arts Gallery according to the title’s three broad themes (simplistically: figures, landscapes, political engagement), rather than chronologically or by artist.

The thematic break-up – and the lack of emphasis on different printmaking techniques – makes sense given the wide scope of the collection, and allows for a relatively unfiltered viewing experience that lets the prints speak for themselves. And it’s certainly an enjoyable tour through the last century: there are sepia drypoint prints by Mukul Dey; Haren Das’s luminescent engravings, and Somnath Hore’s tortured ones; ribald etchings by Bhupen Khakhar; and contemporary artists as well, whose work belies a rich genre that is very much alive, kicking and open to experimentation. While most are not solely printmakers (a rare species in India), they’ve all spent significant time exploring the medium.

There are 79 artists in all, and given the centrality of shared workshops and apprenticeships to the printmaking world, the attentive viewer might draw some interesting connections between them. Bengal, particularly Shantiniketan, and Baroda are two of the hubs, but the work spirals out beyond these. “There are beautiful connections to be found,” Sunish agreed, “batches of students have become teachers themselves, their students have become teachers and so on… one can make a fine lineage, a family tree of printmaking crisscrossing the country.”

“The history of Indian print­making pretty much began in Bengal,” Waswo pointed out, and Sunish elaborated that the state’s association with printmaking could be traced back to the “set­t­ing up of formal studios in the 19th century for the production of ‘picturesque’ aquatints and engravings by British artists; to the development of illustrations for commercial book printing; following through to the locally made graphic ‘bat-tala’ prints of the bazaar, and finally the adap­tation of fine art printmaking in Kala Bhavan, Shantiniketan.” After Independence, Baroda’s importance grew. Waswo and Sunish pointed to other centres: government funded ones like the Lalit Kala Akademis across the country and New Delhi’s Garhi, as well as private initiatives like Kavita Shah and Vijay Bagodi’s “Chhaap” studio in Baroda. Waswo admitted that “one of the problems with the collection are some pretty huge gaps that need to be filled by artists from the Indian Printmakers Guild and Group 8.”

Competition for collecting these might heat up soon – both Waswo and Sunish believe that printmaking is poised to become a more commercially viable medium in India. Sunish pointed out that only “a handful” of galleries have actively supported print sales, but added that “the recent downturn of the art market possibly did a favour to printmaking. It allowed the time and space to explore art forms that normally don’t get discussed. Art Etc. recently devoted three whole issues to printmaking. To a certain ex­­t­ent people started looking at [prints] as a possible purchase, considering they are lower priced that their counterparts (of the same size) in painting. Currently we are at a significant bend in the growth of the medium.”

A show like this, which will travel to NGMA Bengaluru and hopefully beyond, certainly has the potential to hook other investors and collectors, especially as a better-informed market begins to understand the difference between digital prints and the labour-intensive process of fine art printmaking. The challenge will be to ensure that growing proceeds from sales don’t just benefit the gallery or the individual artist, but funnel back to the communities and studios that are crucial for the medium’s survival.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, August 2012.

Published: August 17, 2012

Mask appeal

The new face of Indian comics ♦

A few decades ago, the Indian comic books scene was burgeoning. The art may have been simple, and most stories and characters lifted straight from American comic books, but lending libraries were important social hubs in cities and small towns. Regional comic books and Indian superheroes made reading entertaining for kids across the country. Eventually, comic books lost out to TV and movies, going underground and retreating from the metros. But for the last couple of years – fuelled in part by a crop of animation grads and social media marketing – there’s a new breed of comic book creators emerging. It’s not all great yet, but it’s happening: independent artists, boutique studios, international tie-ups, and rumors of DC entering the fray. And this time around, comic books aren’t just for kids. In this Time Out Delhi cover story from February 2012, we get nostalgic about the old legends, look out for promising new publishers and meet the fans. Indian comic books are well and truly taking off.

Read the full story below, download it as a pretty PDF here, or find it online at Time Out Delhi.

Published: February 17, 2012

Yoko Ono

The avante-garde artist performs and exhibits in Delhi ♦

yoko ono

Read this story as a PDF instead

This article is part of a cover story on performance art in India.

Yoko Ono’s artistic journey has been a strange one. When she became a household name, her avant-garde art became just one more reason for the mainstream media to vilify her. But as Dilliwalas are finding out, all that was a very long time ago. Ono recently performed “To India With Love” and inaugurated a show, Our Beautiful Daughters, in Delhi – giving the capital a first-hand look at why she is, and always has been, much more than Mrs John Lennon.

What marks Ono’s first working visit to India is not her celebrity status, but the fact that the show (which runs parallel to a retrospective, The Seeds) is a notable addition to the artist’s body of work – the latest in a number of polished exhibitions that have, since her first major retrospective Yes Yoko Ono (New York, 2000), increasingly ensured her canonic position in contemporary art. Ono’s India outing encompasses participatory work, film, performance, activism, installation and sound. Despite its breadth and celebrity shine, this event is a particular success because it channels the raw, off-key edge that has fuelled Ono’s work since the 1950s.

324500_362154970477208_792094657_o“My intent has not changed,” Ono told Time Out over email, before arriving in Delhi. Then, as now, “I was working without the concern of the size of the audience of my work.” That intent – to change the way people think – infuses everything she does: from haiku-length “instructions” to the 30-foot column of light that shoots up from Iceland’s Imagine Peace Tower – the 2007 fulfillment of a dream born during her first meeting with Lennon.

Besides these physical pieces, Ono’s most iconic work is “Cut Piece”, first performed in 1964, in Japan. Ono sat on stage while audience members cut off pieces of her clothes to create an intense interaction charged with violence and intimacy. Ono performed the piece several times, including at Carnegie Recital Hall. Depending on the audience, the show could be tame and polite or a threatening free-for-all. Ono downplayed the work’s importance: “‘Cut Piece’ and other performance I have done around then may have motivated some people to be less afraid of expressing themselves,” she said. But the work is a milestone in performance art: a riveting minimalist piece, devoid of the blood and gore that so many avant-garde artists use to grab attention.

That quiet wit, often leavened with puckish humour, is a quality Ono shares with others of her time. Around 1961, artists like John Cage, La Monte Young and George Maciunas coalesced at her New York loft, and the colla­borative creative space was instrumental in kick-starting Fluxus.

Collaboration has continued to be an important aspect of Ono’s work. Her shows are created as much by attendees following instructions as by Ono herself. (See Ono’s instruction postcard included in Time Out subscriber copies) One floor of Our Beautiful Daughters is dedicated to interactive pieces: “Mend Piece”, which involves fixing broken ceramic bowls; “My Mommy Is Beautiful”, an art wall to celebrate motherhood; “India Smile”, a photo booth that adds participants to the global Smiling Face Film; and others. There’s also a wish tree (one of 20 around the city), one of Ono’s most popular projects, in which people write and tie their dreams on a tree. We asked her if she was familiar with the Indian practice of tying threads around trees. She replied with a little story: “A very clever Japanese warrior of long time ago was asked by the lord to report how many trees were in his land. The lord did not think the warrior can do that. But the warrior brought the number very quickly. The warrior tied every tree with a string, and later took the strings off and counted them. I see the uncanny resemblance of that and the Indian practice you speak of. Do Asians have similar DNA? :)”

That response is vintage Ono: slightly off-topic, a little deflecting, but still seeking to connect through humour. The emoticon is typical too: An avid Twitter user, Ono tweets 140-character koan-like instructions, and answers fan questions every Friday. Social media hasn’t changed art, Ono said, “It’s the other way around. We performers changed the understanding of the social media. That’s what artists do.” Ono said new technology has made it possible to fulfill old, “farfetched” dreams (like the Imagine Peace Tower), but the dreams themselves haven’t changed.

These dreams, for Ono, have centred on promoting non-violence and addressing feminist issues. For India, she created a large installation “Remember Us”, a comment on the rules that bind women. “I wanted to share the worth of women of India with both women and men,” she said. Fifteen silicone female bodies, ranging in age and size and cast from real people, lie in segmented black boxes filled with coal. Three bowls of ash on the far end of the room stir associations with sati, or, less dramatically, cooking fires. At night, the bodies, which are soft to the touch, are covered by textiles made by Rajasthani women.

Besides the installation, posters in the style of the Ono and Lennon’s famous “War is Over! (If you want it)” advertisement, are up around the city. (See facing page for an ad created for Time Out Delhi.) As a committed peace activist in the last couple of bloody decades, Ono remains optimistic about art’s potential to change the world. Speaking about last year’s revolutions and protests around the world, she said, “The protests are performance art, with the intent of changing the world for the better. Don’t criticise. Enjoy.” In characteristic instructive fashion, she added, “We are at the point of stepping into the new world. Let’s not be negative about the fantastic vision we have of it. It’s time for action!”

At 78, Ono herself is energetically active, producing dance floor hits and travelling the world. Despite those who might dismiss her, she is the consummate survivor. The WWII bombing of Tokyo, the male-dominated mid-century art scene, marriage to the world’s most famous rock musician, the kidnapping of her daughter, and the murder of her soulmate – she’s lived through a lot. Yet Yoko Ono’s artistic strength lies in the universal concerns that echo through her work, transcending these individual experiences of suffering.

Read more about performance art in India.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, January 2012.

Published: January 20, 2012