22 December 2008

A Novice's Notes on Contemporary Art in and around Kolkata

What does the local art scene tell you about a place?

Well, I won’t attempt to think about this question at the level of smarter artsy friends, but I will give you a little portrait of my interactions with the West Bengal art world and let you decide for yourselves, as best you can.

Centre of International Modern Art (CIMA), Kolkata. On the third day of our trip to Kolkata, after Lizzie B had been introduced all essential members of the clan, we ventured out on our own to see some of the city. We started early, consuming several leftover bekti fillets for breakfast and then grabbing a ride into the city center to CIMA. In broken ABCD Bangla-English pidgin, I told the driver to take us to the nearby Birla Mandir, figuring we would have more luck getting directions to a temple, rather than a small, obscure art gallery (which is what CIMA is, despite its big-sounding name). It worked, and we were at the doorsteps of the museum before ten in the morning. A good hour before they opened.

After our visit to the Kali Temple the day before, Lizzie B was showing little interest in more religion, so we walked past the Birla Mandir, found a coffee shop down the street and slowly sipped two cappuccinos (40 cents each) as I quizzed Lizzie about what she thought about different members of the family and Kolkata in general.

Then it was back to the museum. After walking through a ground-floor entrance (read: converted loading dock), we took a teeny elevator up to the second floor. There we entered a small gallery space where workers were bustling around with large paintings and sculptures, the scent of plaster fresh in the air. Turns out we showed up the day before their current exhibit on contemporary Indian responses to influential modern art pieces opened. But this didn't stop us from poking around and getting a short lecture from the curator on the premise of the exhibit, ReVIEW, which went something like this:

CIMA invited 15 Indian artists to respond to five artworks which profoundly impacted, Indian visual thought and history. The artworks chosen were, Bharatmata (1905, Abanindranath Tagore), The Santhal Family (1938, Ramkinkar Baij), Zameen (1955, Maqbool Fida Husain), Man with a Bouquet of Plastic Flowers (1976, Bhupen Khakhar) and the very famous, Guernica (1937, Pablo Picasso).

What finally emerged is indeed a fascinating repertoire of new ways of looking at art. This exhibition hopes to provide some insight into understanding how creative minds imbibe silently, interpret and finally redefine ideas. It provides scope to delve into the subtle recesses of the conscious and subconscious minds of art makers; it provides an occasion to study the impact of changing times, space and history on our creative thought and practice; besides, it also provides an exciting opportunity to revalidate, refute or create new terms and parameters of discussion and engagement.
The universal language of art jargon always manages to make the works under consideration sound impossibly boring, but some of the stuff was actually fairly compelling. My favorites included (sorry for low resolution, blame the source: CIMA):

Nothing flattened me, but I fault the somewhat uninspired gimmick/assignment behind the exhibit. At any rate, we were now inspired to include a trip to see the work of Ramkinkar Baij (considered the founder of modern Indian sculpture) at Santiniketan.

Kala Bhavan, Santiniketan, West Bengal. This outing also started early in the morning as we had to get over to Howrah Station to catch the 10AM Santiniketan Express out to the town where Rabindranath Tagore famously founded his university, Visva Bharati. All morning, Lizzie B had been rather quiet, but I assumed it was just exhaustion after a week of rushing around meeting people, trying to juggle dozens of new names around in her head, and put up with the fact that everyone in my family has a definite opinion about how to do everything. But when she started vomiting bright green fluid into the rubbish bin on the train platform, I realized that it wasn't just our bickering that was making her sick. Upon arrival at Bolpur, we took a taxi to the government lodge that we had booked and Lizzie continued to dry heave for the next few hours while I rubbed her back and watched HBO. Lizzie also met her first reptilian roommate:

By the time evening rolled around Buster Sr. and some local friends of the family were conspiring to put her through a high-dose antibiotic blast, but we convinced them that maybe we should wait until morning to see how she was feeling.

Come morning, things were better. But unfortunately, we learned that Santiniketan was closed to automobile traffic since the Prime Minister was arriving the next day for the university's convocation. As a security precaution they were closing down the campus and sending children into the surrounding forest to shake the trees. So we decided to look at a small local temple and then ate some luchi with aloor dum to pass the time.

Then we learned from a cycle-rickshaw guy that the university was only closed to motor traffic and he could haul us over to see things. The inside of the buildings at Kala Bhavan were closed to the public so we missed some paintings, but we did get our chance see Ramkinkar's outdoor sculptures. Again, I wasn't blown away, but I did like a few of the pieces. I'll withhold my incompetent commentary and let you look for yourself:

Academy of Fine Arts, Kolkata.
Our final attempt to get some insight into the local art scene was to drop by the Academy of Fine Arts in downtown Kolkata on Cathedral Road. Each gallery of the building featured one or two different artists. There was no consistent signage or supplementary materials to orient viewers, though some artists were there in person handing stuff out. Others just let the work speak for itself (or not). Amidst this hodge-podge collection, the two most remarkable things were Ashok Varma's colorful paper collage portraits and some drawings that reminded me of Ben Katchor's work (apologies for blurry photos--I had to furtively snap them without the guards noticing):

So that's it. What do you guys think?


Lester Spence said...

thanks for linking me kid, because i'm not sure i'd have run into your blog otherwise. great work. i'm going to soon use my blog for my next project on neoliberalism and black politics. look out for it, because i'd be interested in getting your take.

McFly said...

I ain't no art critic, but I know what I like and I like your capture of the gecko who shared the sickroom with Lizzie B.

lizzie b said...

As for the aloor dum, you forgot the all-important accompaniment: the keema served with. My first protein-rific truly solid meal in 40 hours: Yum.