Wednesday, 27 April 2016

TAKE - Critical Writing I Issue 18 I April 2016

The Phantom Lady Strikes Again!
Cynical governments, greedy corporates and paid mobs are invading intellectual and cultural spaces in the country in a pincer move, squeezing out all independent thought and creative action. Artists in Karnataka are fiercely opposing the state government move to hand over the official state art gallery in Bangalore to a private collector and art dealer, to rebuild and house his private collection.


The Karnataka Government in its wisdom signed a Memorandum of Understanding recently, practically giving away the Venkatappa Art Gallery (VAG), the official state art gallery in Bangalore in a private-public partnership to Tasveer Foundation, the family trust of art dealer Abhishek Poddar. This is apparently part of a policy of the Karnataka Tourism Vision Group formed by the government to give heritage sites in adoption to boost tourism. Tasveer Foundation’s plan is to rebuild it as a new Museum of Art and Photography (MAP) to house Poddar’s collection on the site.

When a colleague alerted us in February about it, there was an electric response. The artist community was galvanized and gathered in large numbers for meetings and discussions. The consensus was to reject the MOU and stop the take over of the state institution by any private entity. We have formed the Venkatappa Art Gallery Forum or VAGforum to oppose this move.

Tasveer Foundation thought this would be a triumphal march and are taken aback at the fierce opposition. MAP’s supporters did not think that artists would do hard legal research into all the documents and processes. Meanwhile, MAP’s public relations machinery is projecting the new museum as god’s gift to the Bangalore public, and the protesting artists as a bunch of provincial spoilsports.

Artists are not against the Museum of Art and Photography coming up in Bangalore. We welcome another museum in the city. But we want MAP to be housed on its own land and not try to usurp the state gallery. We oppose any private body taking over the cultural commons, and see no reason why Abhishek Poddar should want the official state gallery to build MAP when he can rent or get any property or heritage site to house his collection. And there is no precedent to this. The major art collectors in India like Kiran Nadar of Kiran Nadar Museum of Art - KNMA, Lekha and Anupam Poddar of Devi Art Foundation, Ebrahim Alkazi of the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, or Priti Paul of Apeejay Media Gallery,have set up world class museums of their art collections on their own land.

If one wants to see an example of a benign private-public partnership (PPP) in India, the case of the historic Bhau Daji Lad City Museum in Mumbai is the first of its kind. The Jamnalal Bajaj Trust is in a tripartite agreement with the Mumbai Municipality and INTACH where the trust gives generous funds for conservation, maintenance and running of the heritage museum. However, they will not occupy it, build a new building on it, put in their own collections, or get co-branding with it, as Tasveer Foundation plans to do with VAG. If Tasveer Foundation will fund VAG for its maintenance, conservation and activities, we welcome it. Or rather, as our former Culture Secretary Mr. Chiranjeev Singh points out, if this is true philanthropy there are several neglected art centres in other towns in the state like Hubli and Gadag, which could benefit through a benign adoption.

The Venkatappa Art Gallery is the official Karnataka State Art Gallery built on three acres of prime land in the Museum Complex at Cubbon Park in the heart of the city. The gallery itself was built to celebrate K. Venkatappa, the early twentieth century Bengal School Karnataka artist, and in response to the protests of a whole generation of artists who demanded a space to exhibit in the city. It is a combination of a modern art museum as well as a contemporary art space for rent, and houses the large historical collections of K. Venkatappa and K.K. Hebbar donated by their families, and many other works by Karnataka artists acquired by the government. There is an extra gallery space, an auditorium and grounds with a charming moat, which artists of the state have constantly used since it was built in the 1970s.

It is an inclusive and democratic space, which can be hired cheaply by young artists and those from other parts of the state, and excellent for non- commercial and experimental art events. Most of us here, like myself, have had our first solo shows in VAG. Through the years, there have been group shows, collective projects, eight state Kala Melas, retrospective of RM Hadpad, The Khoj International Artists Residency, The International Live Art Festival, Co-Lab and Ananya Drishya artist talks, a major IFA Asian Museum Curators Conference, to name a few activities- open and free to all to use. VAG has acted like an incubator for art in Karnataka and is an archive of a century of its history. Will MAP be able to do these things? Do we need an exclusive wine and cheese place here? We usually do kaphi and vade.

VAG is also a strange case. For though it is an official state museum-gallery of modern and contemporary art, it has never had an identity of its own and has always been a subsidiary of the Government Archeology Museum next door, getting step-motherly treatment. If you google VAG, the red building of the old museum comes up rather than the modern building of VAG. This also means that it does not have its own specialist Director, staff or budget. This has given rise to certain problems of lack of programming, upkeep and lack of infrastructure. The archeologists in charge are hardly interested in any vision for VAG. They use rooms in the Gallery as offices and dump spare artefacts in the storage.

These are problems that the government can solve easily with the advice of the art community and certainly not an excuse to abandon the gallery. The government should not shirk its responsibilities and should generously fund and run the gallery. Private players can work in parallel with the government but cannot replace the government.

“At this point, globalization is everywhere a capitalist project, developing simultaneously on the regional and world scales. But this project is always expressed through local systems of governance and culture - - Neoliberalism as the dominant ideology of contemporary capitalism is preaching about free and unrestrained market, privatization of public commons and limitation of the role of the state in those processes.”- Zoran Pantelić | Branka Ćurčić

The Hon. Tourism Minister called us for a meeting. His opening remarks were that they had a Central Government directive that governments cannot manage “women’s safety” and “clean toilets” and so heritage sites should be given for adoption to private bodies. This is comical! It is a scandal that the state government, which has the responsibility to run the entire state claims not to have the money or expertise to run the state gallery. A fact finding report by Rashmi Munikempanna and Sridhar GowdaA Broke Government of Karnataka And Other Myths: Has Funding Always Been The Red Herring?” (, blows the lid off this claim, proving from the annual reports of the Department of Museums and Archeology that 21 crores from its budget was returned unspent by the Department at the time of the signing of the MOU. And Tasveer Foundation had committed to raising only ten crores!. As far as expertise goes, Karnataka has artists, art scholars and curators of high repute and wide experience. This is a scam of the first order.

VAGforum has studied this MOU thoroughly with legal experts. It is vague, flimsy and lacks scrutiny. It is a sweetheart deal, which Tasveer Foundation has written in its own favour and signed by the government officials without any safeguards. MAP gets free rein to occupy and use the VAG space with no responsibilities. The MOU was signed between the State Tourism and Archeology Departments and Tasveer Foundation without consulting the art community, which is a sign of malafide intent. A cultural institution comes under Culture, and not Tourism, which is under the Industries Department. The Tourism Department had no business to identify VAG as a tourist destination and commodify it.

There are many areas of conflict of interest. Abhishek Poddar, as a primary member of the Karnataka Tourism Vision Group, elected to adopt VAG for his trust, in a prime instance of crony capitalism. For a scheme involving Corporate Social Responsibility funds, as a trust Tasveer Foundation is not a corporation and so has no CSR money to donate. He is the Director of the non-profit Tasveer Foundation which signed the deal (strangely a shadow entity with no website), and its subsidiary MAP, (, but also an art dealer, the owner of a commercial photography gallery Tasveer Art Gallery (, and the Cinnamon lifestyle store. Poddar had also recently invested heavily in an online art auction house, Fine Art Bourse that has now closed down.

We wonder where the profit ends and the “non- profit” begins, and vice-versa? Everything is strangely porous. We have seen photographs shown and sold in Tasveer and Cinnamon. Photographers Raghu Rai and T.S. Satyan are two of 25 photographers who Tasveer Gallery represents- their works are also in the MAP collection. The same image by T.S. Satyan is shown in both websites. While the MOU mentions the Louvre rather fancifully as a model- in France, a state department runs all the state museums. The strength of institutions like the Louvre is their independence from commercial interests.

MAP is being projected as an act of philanthropy. Will the MAP building and the art collection be donated to the state? The MOU does not say so. The MOU is for a minimum of 5+5 years. It will take several years and several crores just to build the museum. Will they vacate the building after ten years? Then where will the MAP collection go? Is this a land grab in the guise of philanthropy? And what will happen to the historical collections already existing in VAG during this building period? Will they be moved to an art warehouse for storage? The donor families are worried. In the MOU, MAP refuses to take responsibility for any damages, grievances of artists and even the safety of visitors. 

If the state is endorsing a private collection by giving it the branding of an official state museum, it should be obvious that the focus should be on Karnataka art. If you look at the different sections of this eclectic collection consisting of popular art, crafts, photography, contemporary art, folk and tribal art, there is hardly any representation of art from Karnataka in any section. What MAP will do is appropriate the existing heritage collections of Karnataka artists in VAG by the co-branding of MAP-VAG, which will give the rest of the collection the credibility and weight of an official state collection.

Artists question what Poddar has done for Karnataka, (besides providing explosives to its mining barons) that he should be practically gifted the state gallery? His art philanthropy until now has not been very noticeable. We have not seen him in any art event in Bangalore in the last twenty years, which only shows his utter disdain. Tasveer Art Gallery has not put together a comprehensive invitation list of artists and art lovers in the ten years of its existence, preferring the corporate crowd. It has barely encouraged upcoming or even well known photographers from the state. Bangalore has a unique art scene run by artists, who have created (on shoe string budgets) huge public art projects, run international art residencies and festivals and collective art spaces. It is considered the avant- garde art capital of India with artists experimenting in new materials and forms like installation art, new media, conceptual photography and live performance besides traditional forms like painting and sculpture. Karnataka has some of the leading artists in India of international repute. Whether as connoisseur, gallerist or collector, Poddar has shown supreme disinterest.

Our protest about the giving away of the Venkatappa Art Gallery should be seen against the backdrop of a general philistinism sweeping the country where our finest cultural and intellectual institutions are being invaded and neutralized. Many are of the opinion that these raids are moves towards eventual privatization, along with a plan for total control over free thought and right to dissent. VAG is part of our cultural commons, and we want to retain it as an open and democratic space, accessible to all.

The very notion of “tourism” taking over culture shows the deeply flawed notion that art and culture are only for entertainment and profit - rather than something central to the life of a people, an expression of human creativity and a philosophical exploration of the world. Arthur Koestler in his seminal work The Act of Creation has argued how important creativity is to the very act of survival and evolution of species. A society with its creative community suppressed and denigrated is like a body without a soul.

VAGforum will not give up until the government cancels this MOU. We are fighting against a neo-liberal government and a powerful corporate world, both hand-in-glove. The government and media want to project business leaders as the cultural and intellectual faces of the state. But we also wonder how MAP will come up at Venkatappa Art Gallery against the will and severe displeasure of the entire art community of Karnataka.

The Phantom Lady
Bangalore, April 2016

VAGforum Actions
March 6 - We@Venkatappa, # HugVenkatappa
More than 500 artists, art scholars and art lovers occupied VAG on Sunday March 6th for We@Venkatappa from 11am to 6 pm in a day of protest and creative actions, in a wonderful show of solidarity. We made a human chain around VAG and later discussed the whole issue of the MOU in a meeting. The mood was festive, with people performing, drawing and singing in different parts of the building and gardens. People took photographs of themselves hugging the building as an echo of the Chipko or Appiko movement, which were printed and put up in the gallery.

March 19- Wepaint @Venkatappa
A day of landscape painting at VAG to remember K. Venkatappa

March 20- We@Town Hall
A spectacular public demo at the Town Hall on 20th March with black umbrellas, whistles and drums. Leading figures and groups from theatre, film and literature addressed the gathering in support.

March 27- MOU Read /Rejected/ Recycled
Artists and children do creative acts with copies of the MOU at VAG.

April 10 – We@KWC
We@KWC or the Karnataka World Café, was organized at the Gallery as a first step to discuss a democratic vision of VAG. Based on the internationally popular world café model, a hundred invitees with experts from cultural administration, architecture, theatre, literature, film, and public space activists brainstormed ideas for the future of the Venkatappa Art Gallery.

Public Protests by artists in towns all over the state like Hassan, Gadag, Badami, Raichur, Shimoga, Bijapur, Tumkur.

Monday, 25 April 2016

TAKE - Photography I Issue 17 I

The Phantom Lady Strikes Again                                   I found this old unpublished essay from 1998, written after one of those hot discussions with friends, discussing many things still of interest today. Here it is, warts and all-


My friend, artist Christoph Storz has been talking frequently of questioning the artist’s position of being avant garde – as someone leading society from the front into a vision of a Utopian future. He says if imagining a technological future is one of the features of the avant garde, perhaps that vision has been taken over by computer programmers and people working in electronic media and communications – the artist maybe somewhat questioning and apart from these leaps. Perhaps then he/she can be called ‘rearguard’ or someone re-thinking, re-looking or re-assessing both the past and the present and trying to imagine a future without the hype or the clutter of tall technological claims.

I regard this rejection of the concept of the avant garde as a reaction of someone living in the western context. In the Indian context, where rights and futures are being severely contested, there is still a progressive role for the artist to play. In fact the recent violent attempts by the VHP to censor artists [Husain’s nude Saraswati, the recent nude Sita on Hanuman, the vandalism of a Dutch artist’s work in the NGMA, Delhi] has brought artists together to play an activist, progressive role in a situation of danger. We may now question a jingoistsic nationalism but I believe that we do still believe in playing a progressive nation building role, even we are dismissed by a majority of our people as elite, irrelevant or ornamental.

The ‘rearguard’ concept can have another meaning in a colonised country. We are condemned by the west to be rearguard – primitive, pre-industrial, folkloric or under-developed. Everything we produce is seen as either a poor imitation of the west, outdated, exotic or inscrutable. Funnily enough, these attributes are completely internalised by our own public in our own country: our own critics, art historians and audiences see our work in these terms.

Till the mid 1980s many of us believed in the indigenist position. As a student in Baroda, I wanted to make work out of Indian materials [terracotta] and look at folk, popular and classical Indian sculpture as inspiration for my forms. Out of this would be fashioned a new modern art that would be able to express a uniquely Indian reality.

These ideas came from Indology, this search for a uniquely Indian identity is a need from the natonalist days when we as a colonised people had to define and protect ourselves from the political and cultural onslaughts from the colonial power. Myself and many others in india began deeply questioning this position in the late 1980s which led to abandoning the premises of our earlier work and in some sense starting afresh.

There are many reasons for this rejection. One of the events that made me deeply question my romanticising the ‘folk’ was the projection of bear dancers, folk artists and street performers in the festivals of India and Apna Utsavs in the Rajiv Gandhi era, which while defining Indian culture as ‘folkloric’ exploited both artistically and materially the folk artists with the folkloric- as-authentic polemic. The notion of ‘developing’ and ‘patronising’ folk art seen as an authentic but dying expression seemed to be a middle class notion where a middle class urban educated person from a position of power and knowledge and access to financial resources played a paternalistic role to the traditional craftsman. These imperatives never seemed to come from the folk artists themselves.. When I was recently in a panel of an art funding agency many of the proposals of collaboration came from urban artists wanting to work with folk artists in order to improve a ‘dying’ art form. There were two problems in this. These folk/traditional artists of course had no way of directly applying for these funds because of their illiteracy, their rural background and their ignorance. But the middle class urban artists seemed to admit to no problems in their own practice. They wanted to solve their own crises in theatre, art etc by patronising the ‘folk’ and thereby gaining authenticity.

This had another twist recently when in an international conference in Mysore, apparently the Modernist painter Jatin Das showed only works of Indian tribal artists and proclaimed to the assembled international audience that this was the genuinely Indian art. This kind of violently self-flagellating, masochistic rejection of one’s own existence by a well known modern artist is extremely disturbing.

While the folk can be described as pre-industrial collective mass practice, there is also the problem of romanticising the popular – which is a post-industrial urban ‘folk’ art. In a recent catalogue of the exhibition of Satish Sharma’s collection of photographs from  popular street studios from the streets and fairgrounds of North Indian cities, he writes an extremely polemic introduction. He claims that this popular photography is ‘truly Indian’ photography. Urban middle-class photographers and artists who are trained in art schools based on the western model have marginalised these people who are direct descendants of the miniature painters. While it is important that he retrieves this material and posits it against the glamourous photo-journalism of the India Today variety [to which he himself belongs] and thereby broadens the impoverished practice of contemporary Indian photography, there is a danger again of seeing only popular art forms as expressions of ‘real’ or authentic’ experience of a society.

This position of course is a favourite International position for looking at cultural production from non- western countries. Street art, poster art, film hoardings, commercial films, calendars are the only forms seen as authentic expression because of their mass production and distribution and use. There are several dangers in this view. One that that much of the material may neither be imaginative or interesting, or even unique, which is the case with the Satish Sharma collection. The other danger is that much of the material can be extremely politically conservative and express rather than question the status quo – which is the reason for their wide popularity. So the romantic notion that they are really are the expression of the common man, the underdog of society, the poor; and so therefore progressive and democratic, is questionable.

Since the late 1980s, the Hindu Right wing in India seems to have appropriated the Indological “Nationalist’ indigenist position which makes it difficult for any progressive artist to uncritically accept certain old notions of Indianness etc.

What then do we do? If we reject this earlier notion of Indianness are we unquestioning Internationalists? The fact is that international audiences are opening up for Indian artists in various ways – so these are very real problems that we face today. Internationalism or globalism as it is now called, raises many problems. Economically we can see ourselves as victims of concerted attacks by global economies competing to grab the market. Culturally, because of this opening up, we have suddenly become objects of great interest to Western countries who now suddenly recognise ‘modernity’, ‘contemporaneity’ and ‘urbanity’ in us. On the one hand, we may be tempted to exoticise ourselves to project a unique identity in the international art world, or accept a eurocentric, universalist, internationalist view.

However therre is a way of being specifically Indian artists without accepting the earlier indigenist position and to be open to the outside world without accepting western hegemony or definitions. Location need not be defined culturally as based on ancient heritage or folk forms but in recognising India as a political entity which is a kind of circuit that generates its own knowledges, audiences and markets. While earlier, our only way of connecting to different regions in the world was through the conduit of Europe or America, we now have the opportunity to make direct contact with the art of Asia, Africa and Latin America. We then begin to contextualise the art produced – international is certainly not universal. Even within the west, New York art is different from the art scene in the west coast, or that produced in London, Berlin or Rome- there are many arts, each is culture and situation specific.

Our work then relates to our context – the needs, the situations, the past histories and the conditions of producing art.

As we come out of an indigenist past we also recognise the need to recognise technology and new technologies and urban realities in a new way. The nationalist idea that India is a land of villages [statistics show that 40% of the population lives in cities] has turned art practitioners away from seriously looking at technology either archaic or new.

The Phantom Lady 

TAKE - Studio I Issue 16 I May 2015

The Phantom Lady Strikes Again
The Phantom Lady looks again at Rodin’s Gates of Hell .


Rodin’s Gates of Hell is one of those great works of Western art that one studies in art school and soon relegates to some long past art historical moment. Recently when I was stranded in the Rodin Sculpture Garden in Stanford University waiting for a friend to pick me up, I spent a long time in front of the Gates, leisurely ‘re-looking’ and thinking around it. Stanford University has the second largest collection of Rodin’s works after Paris, spread over several floors of the Canter Center Museum. The sculpture garden on the side houses his monumental bronze doors depicting a scene from The Inferno, the first section of Dante’s Divine Comedy, which is popularly known as the Gates of Hell. The Directorate of Fine Arts in Paris which originally commissioned the sculpture in 1880 to be an ‘inviting’  entrance to a Decorative Arts Museum, apparently left the choice of the subject to Rodin. Whether the subject of Hell was suitable for a Decorative Arts Museum or not, Rodin, who was fascinated by Dante all his life, had begun making sketches of characters from the Inferno even before he got the commission and continued to work on it until his death in 1917. The Decorative Arts Museum was never built.

This was the first time I was seeing the Gates in the ‘flesh’ so to speak and I thought they were indeed extremely ‘fleshy’. Over a hundred and eighty agitated figures pop out of the matrix of the relief from the twenty foot high doors.  The ground could be a landscape with rocks or even the surface of skin with wounds and lacerations. The work has an overall sense of great instability and movement with figures of men and women tumbling upside down, falling, in a tangle of bodies. But there are no traditional scenes of sinners being tortured here. Rodin has not used any of the bestial imagery from Dante’s Inferno, with its nine circles of hell and its fabulous beasts, its wasps and maggots, or its swamps, blood and fire. Instead, one feels a sense of helplessness in the bodies to resist the gravitational pull downwards, a lack of uprightness, an inability to stand erect. He builds up a ‘feeling’ of horror without horrific acts being narrated. Perhaps Rodin as the first great modern sculptor, a child of the rational thought and scientific temper of the modern age, saw Hell as the opposite of rational order, as absolute chaos. He places above the scenes of swirling disorder the iconic sculpture of The Thinker, representing Rodin himself, looking down at the suffering below him, deep in existential thought.

My mind wanders off into more art history, to the grand tradition of Christian painting and the fantastical paintings of Heaven and Hell by Hieronymous Bosch and Brueghel and the Northern painters, Michelangelo’s Last Judgement, and William Blake. Biblical themes have been central to Western art. I once argued hotly with a European curator when she accused Indian artists of doing religious themes, that our references to religion were not traditional or devotional, but critical social comments responding to the political crisis in the country. Many contemporary western artists like Damien Hirst used Biblical themes in a direct way for instance (the fish imagery, the golden calf?) but were not seen as religious artists. Hirst’s dead and rotting animals and armies of flies were direct descendants of the kind of imagery used in traditional European scenes of hell.

One birthday historian Ramchandra Guha gave me a book on Marguerite Milward, a British sculptor trained in Paris under Antoine Bourdelle, who comes to India on a project to do anthropological portraits (a kind of ‘peoples of India’ project) in the heyday of those expeditions. In a fascinating story, Milward first comes to India in 1926 and stays in Santiniketan as a guest of Rabindranath Tagore, who suggests that she come back to teach the students sculpture. When she comes back on his invitation in 1929, one of the students she teaches is Ramkinker Baij. Bourdelle, the influential French sculptor and teacher had assisted Rodin for many years. Ramkinker who is seen as India’s first modernist sculptor, adopts Rodin’s style of rough impressionist modelling via Bourdelle and Milward which comes to be seen as a ‘virile’ modern style. So we have an interesting situation here where Marguerite Milward, as a rare woman sculptor and teacher, introduces a ‘virile’ way of modelling sculpture to the Indian art scene! (My Malayali leftist friends in art school in the ‘80s taunted me for using rounded forms in my sculptures and called it ‘feudal’. The ideal was K P Krishnakumar, who was strongly influenced by Ramkinker when in Santiniketan and whose figures were heroic and angst-ridden, bent in tortured poses, struggling against hellish forces. Krishnakumar and his friends later formed the Indian Radical Sculptors and Painters Assocation, wanting to create again the idea a modernist avant-garde.)

Then as an artist I think how complicated the casting must have been. The ambition of Rodin’s twenty foot high Gates has no precedent though he took inspiration from Lorenzo Ghiberti’s 15th century bronze Gates of Paradise at the Baptistry of St. John in Florence. Rodin’s Gates however is no harmonious classical piece. He entirely does away with the Rennaissance perspectives and architectural details of Ghiberti’s Gates, or even of earlier illustrations of the Inferno, instead placing his figures in a kind of no man’s land, using the structure of the doors as an armature. The figures and forms forcefully jump out of the ground in extreme three-dimensionality, and several like the Thinker must have been cast separately and then welded on. The technical virtuosity of Gates makes it a landmark.

Just as the vamp is always more seductive than the heroine, artists love scenes of hell and turbulence. While Heaven has to be orderly and harmonious, Hell could be interpreted in many interesting ways. Hell provides more space for imagination and invention than goody goody scenes. Indian contemporary popular charts of scenes of Hell influenced by medieval Christian ideas and taking from the imagery of English popular prints, show sinners being tortured by devils according to their sins: stealing, adultery, lying, murder, the devils in the prints amazingly resembling those in Mughal painting, with a further ancestry in Persian miniatures.

Once, when I was working with the cinema hoarding painter Ealamalai in Bangalore, he told me he had designed an ashram for a Hindu Swamiji on the outskirts of the city. He said that to get to the swami in the ashram on top of the hill which was Heaven, you had to climb past a series of caves built in cement, with painted sculptures depicting graphic scenes of Hell where sinners are being punished cruelly for their various misdeeds. The scenes were taken straight from popular charts, very Christian in their ideas, but fully nativized in the popular Hindu imagination.

The Phantom Lady
1 May 2015