Sunday, 27 May 2001

Deccan Herald Bangalore I Book review I ‘Captured Moments- Shambhu Shaha’, Chandrima Shaha I ‘In her Own Right , Remembering the Artist Karuna Shaha’,Tapati Guha Thakurtha, Seagull Books I 27.05.2001

The two biographies bring to light the pioneering contributions of a candid photographer and a fiery artist. 

In a situation where there are hardly any publications on contemporary Indian art, Seagull Books have played an important role in commissioning and bringing out serious and consistently well- designed art books over the years. These two illustrated monographs on the Bengal couple, photographer Shambhu Shaha and artist Karuna Shaha, bring to the notice of the art world two different, perhaps neglected, kinds of journeys.

While for various reasons 19th century Indian photography has excited extensive interest and research, the history of modern photography remains largely undocumented. Shambhu Shaha was in some ways the pioneer, one of the first Indians to graduate from using a large format camera to a small one, and to specialize in candid photography. 

In an interview he says that he was so shy that he preferred to take photographs unnoticed, and later read in a journal that Cartier-Bresson took 'candid' photographs. That was exactly what he was doing, except that his technique was different. 'Cartier-Bresson used to keep his camera wrapped around his leg with black tape; I used a gadget that I attached to the lens. This was a sort of mirror that enabled you to see and shoot your subject, looking away from it at an angle of 90 degrees. 

Since his biographer, daughter Chandrima Shaha is a scientist and photographer herself; the essay is full of interesting information about the rough and ready inventiveness of the period. In another anecdote he talks about the enlarger he had to make because to buy one was too expensive in the 1930s. This consisted of a contraption made from the sliding copier of a camera; an aluminum cooking pot with a hole, with its inside painted black and a camera lens placed in it. It was with this makeshift enlarger that he produced some of his most famous photographs. 

Shaha learnt photography in the 1920s from the Nationalist revolutionary Hemchandra Kanungo, a colourful man who had just returned from exile in the Andamans and set up a studio in Shaha's hometown Midnapore. Kanungo took on students like a traditional guru, on the condition that they will later never turn away anyone who wants to learn from them. Shaha went through a rigorous academic training in drawing and painting before learning photography. Kanungo believed in holistic education, so besides concepts of light and shade, perspective and composition, they learnt ‘woodcraft, leather craft, bookbinding, printing, cooking, and English literature'. Shaha drew and painted all his life and felt that this early training helped him compose and print his pictures more sensitively. 

Women's Studies has opened up to scholarly research a whole world previously ignored; in a sense, valourising local struggles as vs. the grand narratives. Karuna Shaha developed a reputation in 1960s Calcutta as 'the lady who painted nudes'. Tapati Guha Thakurtha sees her as a pioneer who, while not featuring in the mainstream or avant-garde circuits, represents the struggles of the first generation of working women artists in the country. 

Karuna Shaha was the first woman student to be admitted into the Calcutta Art School in the 1940s. In the cloistered atmosphere of the art school a Matron was employed to chaperon the girls to and fro from the classes. In contrast, at home she faced the hard reality of having to support her family by teaching music and playback singing for films. As a young woman, she is fiery and tempestuous, doing relief work among the Burmese refugees and actively participating in the Quit India Movement. At this time she commits the legendary act of tearing down the Union Jack from the art school gates, for which she is expelled and sent to jail for two years. These years according the writer are strangely shrouded in the artist's memory, as if unimportant to her progress as an artist. Released in the 1940s, she tours with the IPTA, performing plays and meeting the stalwarts of the Left movement. It is at this time that she meets Shambhu Shaha who is part of the same left avant-garde. 

After an initial string of awards and successes Karuna Shaha sinks into middle class life, feeling increasingly isolated and professionally marginalized as a woman artist. In writing about her crisis, Tapati Guha Thakurta accepts the same parameters that Karuna Shaha worked in - the narrow Calcutta art milieu and the painter’s own fascination with academic painting. Throughout her life, the artist never seems to question her training in Western academicism or reveal any interest in any contemporary debates or art movements. 

It is interesting that in her three years in Florence in the early 60s, she does not look outside of the Academy to progressive currents and new ideas, but remains fascinated by the same nineteenth century modes that she had studied in Calcutta. In contrast, her contemporaries Nasreen Mohammadi and Meera Mukherjee, both highly individualistic and solitary artists, used their study in Europe to create strong contexts for their work - [International abstraction in the case of Mohammadi, and an interest in indigenous forms in the case of Mukherjee] - which sustained them throughout their creative lives. It is this failure to connect, and a certain orthodoxy of the imagination that seems to curtail Karuna Shaha's art and keep it firmly at the provincial level. 

Pushpamala N

Thursday, 1 February 2001

Saffronart Art Cafe I Interview with Edgar Demello I 2001

Pushpamala n. interviews architect Edgar Demello

Architect Edgar Demello who recently opened the first architectural gallery in India, TAG&B or The Architecture Gallery and Bookshop at his old office on Cunningham Road in Bangalore, is interviewed by Pushpamala N.

Edgar Demello (born in 1947 in Abadan, Iran) studied architecture in the School of Planning and Architecture in Delhi and Urban Design at Delft University in Holland. He worked for a few years in Europe and came back to Bangalore in 1978 to start his own architectural firm Edgar Demello Architects.

He opened TAG&B in June 2000 in Bangalore.

PN: Edgar, why did you feel the need to start an architecture gallery in Bangalore? In the early 80s some of you had a discussion group called BASE, and then Raj Shetty formed the Discussions in Architecture Forum- DIAF. Has this grown out of that?

ED: Actually, there are not many architecture galleries worldwide. There are architecture institutes. TAG&B is a place for discourse among architects, a mediator between academia and practice. I used to teach part time and found that there didn’t seem to be a platform for the exchange of ideas, which myself and other architects had experienced in Europe.

Also, architects are not very comfortable about putting their work to critical appraisal by their fellows. The important thing that BASE did, which preceded the gallery was to allow us to do this, and put our work in context in a very free for all environment which as you know could get very aggressive sometimes!

Then the idea of TAG&B came about, to give a formal structure and to try and understand the process of design and building and not just the product. In the gallery, one of the most important and popular events is when architects discuss the process of their work – the mechanics of it- sometimes on site. For the students this becomes very important. And we really encourage people not to put any cosmetics on it – to talk about the whole mess- the mishaps, the problems with clients etc.

These events happen on Tuesdays and Fridays. Students come from Bangalore, MIT in Manipal and Hassan when we have video showings, slide lectures and exhibitions.

PN: But the general public is either indifferent or hostile to architecture.

ED: You know Charles Correa said that Mahatma Gandhi is not called the doctor or engineer of the nation, you call him the ‘architect’ of the nation, but in spite of that architecture doesn’t seem to be taken seriously by the public!

There are two things we want to do here: one idea came out the NAI (The Netherlands Architectural Institute). They have something called the school atelier, where school children come to the institute to be exposed to things architectural for instance, what is taking measurements… They are taken around the site and given projects, and exposed to history and processes.

We’ve been talking about this in BASE for ten years. Dev Bildikar the architect now wants to work out a programme for school children.

The other point is that we have to really believe that architecture is an extremely important part of our social consciousness. People say architecture is elite, we can’t afford it – is it possible for a gallery to mediate in this- to have confrontations and to provoke and engage people?

PN: Do you think this is because Bangalore, or Karnataka, never had major architecture schools or a major movement, or influential architects like for example the role that BV Doshi played in Ahmedabad? We never had a modernist movement.

ED: Very often the right patronage helps start certain movements- I think this is where Ahmedabad scores. There the big industrialists were concerned and wanted to invite people of international importance like Louis Kahn and Corbusier. It’s actually about finding the right people. Kasturbhai and Lalbhai got in touch with BV Doshi who had already worked with Corbusier in Paris in the early 60s, to start the architecture school – he had been talking to them about the Modernist movements in Europe. He got people like Bernad Kohn and Louis Kahn to start thinking about establishing an architecture school of excellence in Ahmedabad. A little earlier Vikram Sarabhai had already brought down Charles and Ray Eames, designers, architects and inventors, to set up NID, the National Institute of Design.

Something similar never happened in Bangalore… And Ahmedabad soon started to tie up with important schools in Europe and America on exchange programmes. The Delhi School hasn’t done this in 55 years!

PN: What would you say about the concept of Critical Regionalism?

ED: Critical Regionalism is really a commonsensical approach to the environment. Kenneth Frampton, the guru of architectural criticism first formulated that phrase in a book of the same name in the early 1980s. He was saying that the International style does not exist because Modernism has to do with the region and how you look at it through your culture and your climate. And what Norman Foster, British architect said – and I completely agree with him – is that in the near future the only thing that will distinguish buildings from one part of the world to another is the geographical climate in which it is built. Everything else will be a common denominator including the culture. But cultural expression in building really comes from responding to the climate.

PN: Tell me something more about BASE.

ED: BASE- it’s not an acronym, it’s more like a foundation or basis – happened in the early 80s when seven or eight of us met by chance. We had all got back from various parts of the country and the world- Nikhil Arni, the Kanade brothers, Sharad Padalkar, Venkatraman, Mohan Bopiah, myself and Sanjay Mohe – it was during the building boom in Bangalore. We had all grown up in the International style and we were looking for connections in the region. So we travelled to the backwaters of Karnataka and Tamilnadu looking at local architectures. All this was put into slide discussions but it took a while for us to realize that it was not the physical foms nd constructional inventiveness that was important but the spirit and essence it contained. We were romantics, once we showed these slides with great arrogance to Henri Ciriani a French architect, who BV Doshi had sent own to Bangalore, to show him what great ’indigenous architecture’ we had. He almost ridiculed our rather na├»ve and literal reading of tradition. Tradition is everywhere he said, but what do we do with it as contemporary architects ?  One must look at the vernacular within an urbane and civil context
- civil as in people- as versus civic as in establishment. 

PN: But visually, Bangalore looks crazy- it’s as if every individual or builder wants to fulfil a different fantasy.

ED: Because Bangalore is not homogenous like Chennai culturally, that’s allowed for very diverse ideas and architectural design positions. But there is a new maturity in the way people are looking at the city. I think the phase of Windsor Manor type neo-colonial architecture is over, and the phase of glass-fronted buildings! There’s a great feeling of optimism amongst a new generation of architects in their late 20s and 30s, on the one hand quite angry, and on the other hand, quite impatient that architects are not really looking at the city with the kind of inventiveness it deserves. I want the gallery to be a facilitator in actively involving these guys in the way a city can redefine itself.

Pushpamala N

Bangalore, February 2001