Parmesh’s Viewfinder: On The India Art Fair
Dear readers, kindly note that you are now reading an award-winning columnist! No, the award wasn’t for this column (don’t you think it deserves one, though?) but rather, for our work at the Godrej India Culture Lab, which was honoured with the inaugural India Today Art Award for corporate engagement with art. Receiving the trophy at the hands of legends S. H. Raza and Krishen Khanna, and with my entire team alongside, made it an even more special experience, and I want to thank….just kidding, don’t worry, I won’t launch into another acceptance speech here; there’s YouTube if you want to hear what I said!
The awards were held in the midst of the eighth edition of the India Art Fair which, after its seven-year itch in 2015, rediscovered its mojo this year. It was a total reboot. To start with, the physical layout of the fair itself was more open and free as compared to previous editions. Each sun-dappled winter day I was there, the central courtyard and its cafes were full of students noisily talking about the works they had seen. The breeze of freedom flowed through all other aspects of the fair’s curation and programming.
Shifting the fair’s focus to Subcontinental art was a clever move. Global trends have changed, and this is one way to remain relevant. So galleries from Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Saudi Arabia showed alongside most major Indian galleries like Chemould Prescott Gallery and Nature Morte. My personal favourites were Kolkata’s Experimenter (Julien Segard’s sculptures — wow!) and Ram Rahman’s special booth that paid tribute to the architectural legacy of his father, Habib Rahman. Seeing Habib Rahman’s elegant proposal for a Ram Janmabhoomi solution was particularly poignant in the light of all that has happened in our country since then. I also loved the contemporary Sri Lankan works showed by Theertha Red Dot Gallery from Colombo, of artists Anoli Perera, Pala Pothupitiya and Bandu Manamperi.
I greatly enjoyed my role as academic collaborator for the Speakers’ Forum at the fair. When organisers Neha Kirpal and Zain Masud reached out a few months ago and invited me to bring our Culture Lab to the fair as a pop-up, my response was that we should try and reimagine it as a nerve centre for ideas beyond the art that exists in the white cube of formal gallery spaces.
We decided that our intervention would comprise two panels, as well as the closing night’s multimedia installation by B.L.O.T. Our first panel, titled Collaboration and Knowledge, explored how new forms of knowledge were being created through innovative community spaces like Jaaga in Bengaluru, Maker’s Asylum in Mumbai and Unbox Festival in New Delhi. I wanted to contextualise the format of the art fair itself within the larger framework of knowledge spaces and see how we could widen our imagination while thinking of the potentiality of the art fair.
The second panel aimed to bring in other marginalised art formats within the fold of the art fair. We looked at what was not being shown in the gallery booths and decided to focus on the graphic novel. We assembled some of India’s finest graphic novelists — Vishwajyoti Ghosh (Delhi Calm), Aparajita Ninan (A Gardener in the Wasteland) and Sarnath Banerjee (The Harappa Files) alongside Priya Gangwani (editor of Gaysi Zine) — to discuss the unique history and context of the Indian graphic novel. Both of these panels were tremendously enjoyable and well attended, and that was gratifying.
Of course, as with every art fair month in Delhi, much of the action is outside and not just within the fairgrounds. So Mehrauli’s One Style Mile hosted Asim Waqif’s site-specific installation Autolysis, while my darlings Feroze Gujral and Lekha Poddar joined forces to present This Night-Bitten Dawn, a tremendously moving post-Partition treatise, at Feroze’s 24 Jor Bagh bungalow. This was a show curated by artist-writer-curator-activist Salima Hashmi, daughter of celebrated Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz. She drew inspiration from Faiz’s celebrated poem, Subh-e-Azadi.
“This stained light, this night-bitten dawn
This is not that long awaited
This is not the dawn in whose longing
We set out believing we would find, somewhere,
In heaven’s wide void,
The stars’ final resting place
Somewhere the shore of night’s
Somewhere, an anchor for the ship
The works, drawn from Lekha and Anupam Poddar’s Devi Art Foundation, as well as by new Indian and Pakistan artists, including Salima’s students, like Bani Abidi and Faiza Butt, were melancholy and heart-breaking. Standing in the middle of Shilpa Gupta’s Blame installation, Sahir Ludhianvi’s lament in Pyaasa came to mind almost as a coda to Faiz: “Jinhen naaz hai Hind par woh kahaan hai?”
Navigating the show’s opening party was a surreal evening of simultaneously fighting back tears while bravely and fiercely partying on in Delhi style. Everyone from the art world was there — from Bharti Kher to Shanay Jhaveri (who I congratulated for his new role as South Asian art curator at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art) — laughing, air-kissing on the staircase and creating mini traffic jams, sipping wine and munching on butter-soft dhokla. From there, the crowds thronged to the Swiss party, which I didn’t attend, but received 3 a.m. ‘Where are you, this is rocking!’ messages; so I do believe it was very good.
Elsewhere in the capital, Sheela Gowda added more works to Delhi Gallery Ske’s iteration of her Bengaluru show. Called Battarahalli Corner and Left, the show used the same idea of creating effigies and shrines from objects such as gourd shells, branches, and more that Gowda has explored throughout her career. What moved me most was the fallen pandal with red triangular flags. I have been thinking of red in the light of the JNU arrests, Hyderabad, FTII and more. I see red everywhere these days. But that is another story.
Ebrahim Alkazi’s retrospective at Lalit Kala Akademi was a joy. What a towering man! What a life! An actor. A director of over 50 plays, ranging from William Shakespeare’s works to Girish Karnad’s. Long-serving director of NSD and mentor to India’s finest actors. The god of Indian theatre. Amal Allana, Alkazi’s daughter, and her husband, Nissar Allana, had lovingly curated the exhibition that spanned three floors of the organisation and included more than 200 rare pictures, footage of his plays as well as NSD rehearal sessions, costumes, his paintings, and more. An innovative Alkazi Times wall charted the historical context of his work. As luck would have it, during my visit, I happened to witness Mr Alkazi himself, now 90, being wheeled around the gallery by Amal who was saying “Daddy, look, this was you many years ago!” The show will come to Mumbai soon; please do go see it when it does.
Khoj’s Art Games night was fun — I played Thukral and Tagra’s Walk of Life along with the artists, and other players. This is a board game they had created based on the principles of good and bad karma. As we played, we navigated the 10 avatars of Vishnu in a snakes-and-ladders format. What was surprising was how our game journeys began to reflect our life journeys and our playing styles became similar to the way we had lived our lives. As we reached the end of the game it became a meditative experience — and a cathartic one.
My most special experience during the Art Fair involved Unpacking Taste with designer Gunjan Gupta. She had curated an experimental sit-down thali lunch at the The Lodhi hotel that was served in her stacked tableware. As we unstacked each plate course by course, the food that was revealed activated different taste buds in our palates. We moved downwards, from salty to bitter, to astringent, to pungent, to sweet, and finally, sour. My standout dishes were the avocado and chestnut mousse with caramelised chilli hazelnut, and the salmon tawa tikki on beans poriyal. The kala khatta sorbet was absolutely divine. But most divine of all was the luxury of time.
The hotel that afternoon was an oasis of calm in the midst of all the art fair frenzy. A small group of animated conversationalists including Sharan Apparao, Peter D’Ascoli, Lekha and Anupam Poddar, surrounded by beauty and grace and all the things that make life worth living and loving. Eventually though, it was over, and I stepped outside, wrapped my shawl around me tightly…back into the real world.