Sunday, May 21, 2006

Fresh strokes

It was a time of hectic change. You know the time. Economic restrictions made way for common sense and new ideas. Everywhere you looked there was freshness and newness. This is what came with creativity and freedom and experimentation. It all, in hindsight now, seems connected back then. The changes had a profound effect on art, and three men in particular. Not for a moment should you conclude it had no effect on anyone else. But these three had interesting lives, hugely different sensibilities, and as seems the case with anyone significant holding a brush in Bombay today, all three were Keralites.

Jitish Kallat, then 19, was part of this throbbing time, and unusual things were happening to him. Kallat would often visit Sakshi Gallery at Altamount Road with his girlfriend. They were noticed by Geeta Mehra, the gallery’s proprietor, who knew he was an upcoming star at JJ School of Arts, which had attracted over decades the country’s finest talents. She would soon purchase a piece without knowing that it was his first sale.

It was not a regular acquisition. Star or no star, Kallat was far too young. Her initial reaction was to wait; the gallery preferred watching young artists develop for a year or two before deciding on their work. But he kept popping up, his name, and his face. His work in school exhibitions was sharp and commented on the times. Established masters saw the gift and spurred him further. They realized he belonged to this age.

Mehra had heard about Kallat’s piece that had been rejected by the Bombay Art Society on the grounds that it was too fragile and therefore “incompatible for a group show”. The work, 5ft by 3.5ft, was enclosed in glass, making it rather bulky. Kallat convinced Mehra to see it. She paid him Rs 13,000 for it, and also visited his studio in the far suburb of Borivali. His work excited her. He had developed an artistic language, and seemed comfortable in his skin.

The art critic, Ranjit Hoskote says that Kallat’s work in school was far more mature than what others were producing. “At that time he had the ability to compress a lot of visual impulses into the same frame, so there would be layers and layers of autobiography, fiction, witty asides (some would say too witty, too clever). He was also very adept at using materials.” Abhay Sardesai, who edits Art India magazine, says, “He has a curious intelligence, a multi-disciplinary approach. It’s not often that you come by artists who do this.” Kallat used acrylics and Xeroxes, played with colour as none of his contemporaries did, and he reached for other media, and then scratched and made ridges on his work. It was a labour-intensive process that brought him recognition, and he continued to evolve until success finally came.

What kind of success? Well, monetary and otherwise. With auction houses and art funds sprouting in the 2000s, and a new breed of investor emerging, things became interesting. The work that Mehra bought for Rs 13,000 then is now worth, in Kallat’s estimate, 22 lakhs. Many things have helped the price jump, not least among them international showings at places like the Kunstrai art fair in Holland and the interest of collectors like Czaee Shah of Mukand Iron, and the more ambivalent investor-collector Amit Judge, famous (or infamous as your case may be) for raising the stakes in the Indian art market by buying out entire collections or pre-booking the output of an up-coming artist for a few years.

Kallat’s contemporaries, Bose Krishnamachari and Baiju Parthan, rode the wave too, but were hardly passengers. Krishnamachari sold work for around Rs 45,000 in 2002; today he commands 20 times that much. A Parthan piece in 2002 was bought for less than Rs 20,000. Today, has him going for 15 lakhs.

The story of these Bombay artists is an interesting symptom of what’s happening in the Indian market. They are not the old masters – Tyeb Mehta, MF Husain, Ram Kumar, FN Souza, Akbar Padamsee
or SH Raza, the artists making headlines for selling for two and three crores. Nor do they yet enjoy the rating of an Atul or Anju Dodiya, Chitrabhanu Mazumdar or Subodh Gupta. They are on the rise and reaching their tipping point.

They are backed by individuals and galleries who now scout schools for talent more aggressively than before. Kallat is with Shireen Gandhi from Chemould gallery, who approached him before Sakshi did. Bodhi Art looks after Krishnamachari, and Art Musings deals with Parthan.

In the collusions that make an artist today, personality counts for something. Kallat and Krishnamachari lead more visible lives. Parthan, meanwhile, turns off his phone for privacy and returns to the limelight only when he feels he has been a hermit for too long. This has cast a kind of legend around him.

With Krishnamachari, it works differently. Kallat was always the Bombay boy, but Krishnamachari, an abstractionist, was perceived as an outsider -- only partly due to his birth outside the state. His smooth way with the system and sense of occasion did not endear him. Hoskote says of him, “He knows how to use the system to his advantage, whether it is the gallery system, or private sponsors of art, collectors… he’s pushed his buttons very well. He impacts people because he has constructed himself as a spectacle. His ‘AmUseuM’ exhibit…” Here Hoskote loses himself. “Were you in the country then? Did you see it? It was a fabulous period. He was really incredible. AmUseuM contributed to a whole aperture of envy that worked against him. He had a great sense of style, which hardly anybody else did. In that way, he was way ahead of the game.”

Shortly after Krishnamachari was expelled from the JJ School of Arts – he was seen as a product of the school, but he didn’t represent their interests, Hoskote says – he produced AmUseuM, in which spiral-bound books were covered with poems and framed as if meant for a museum. The show was a critical success.

A slump followed the exhibit, and this forced Krishnamachari to reinvent himself. “It is that aspect of him that I find fascinating,” a critic says, adding – in what is becoming a running joke – that he did not wish to be quoted. “I find his work gimmicky.”

Krishnamachari’s curatory efforts have been widely criticised. The infamous “Double-Enders”, which brought together 69 Kerala artists, made the participants happy, but little else came of it. “It was a good show, but the premise was a little problematic,” says the critic. “I’m not sure if Bose quite knew what he was doing,” says another critic who, again, has no name. “It was playful, it had some possibilities, but I don’t think he foresaw that it could become a strait-jacket. I don’t think he realized it could be seen by others as pushing a regionalist agenda. The major response he received was one of questioning.”

For all this, the city itself has grown to include him and accept artists not of the Bombay school because the prism through which they are viewed has changed dramatically. Had this not happened, it is very likely that Baiju Parthan would have remained an illustrator.

In 1982, bolstered with an art degree, Parthan faced a simple but disturbing truth: painting did not make you money. He turned to illustration for The Times of India, wondering when his time would come. It was a difficult period. While he was passionate about painting, increasingly people recognized him as a commercial artist. They assumed when he spoke of painting that he was trying to be what he was not. This went on for six years until he resolved what it was that he valued more. Parthan brought out the canvas.

“I would have been miserable if I had stayed an illustrator,” he says. Eighteen years later, the relief is still palpable. He was fortunate because his decision coincided with a time of change, and new collectors, who did not view artists through clich├ęs, were in the market. “These people just responded to his kaleidoscopic, psychedelic reality,” says Hoskote. “They also responded to Baiju as a person. He’s very articulate as a person. Very scholarly and impressive. He comes across as someone who is more than the sum of the paintings he produces.”

Art India’s Sardesai says that Parthan’s work has a spiritual dimension that has to be understood in contemporary terms. “It is an uneven and interesting marriage between two kinds of state. This is not to say that he’s been successful all the time. But all in all, his search has been extremely sincere, and he has been pursuing his train of thought for quite some time”. Related to this is Parthan’s choice of inspirational figure: Leonardo da Vinci. “I was interested in him because he combined art with science. Because of my background (arts, technology, mythology) I relate to that.” What is beyond him is how the market has behaved.

A dedicated buyer of Kallat’s work says that people are willing to pay a higher price now because there is greater professionalism. Gallery owners have become smarter marketers, and know that it is not enough that the work is shown in, say, New York – which sounds impressive enough – but where it is displayed in New York. They also know how to play the market. Swaroop Srivastava’s 100 crore agreement for 100 MF Husain’s paintings is a case in point: it cornered the ageing artist; both old age and scarcity lead to a rise in art prices because there is a collective realization that the artist will not produce work infinitely. There are others who claim that this new investor is uninterested in art, only in profiting from it, and that prices are being manipulated through a series of collaborations and alignments. But this demand benefits artists hugely. In 2002, Kallat’s ‘Untitled Specimen’ sold for US$2055. This year it was resold for US$44,000.

These days, the debate over art prices and the true purpose of collectors is conducted loudly. There is a divide between supporters of the old order, and those of the new, more money-minded and professional sort. The argument is not just about ethics or artists “selling out” – as an art historian put it, but of beliefs that have come to epitomize people on either side. However, if the noise is filtered out and only the artists remain, we are faced with a reality once thought unlikely: they live well now, confident that their work will be judged objectively and valued accordingly. They don’t have to be illustrators anymore because they can be painters.

This article was published in Tehelka on May 19, 2006


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