Art in India: Resist the urge to dumb down

The art scene desperately needs new, credible platforms by which audiences can engage with modern and contemporary Indian art


Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Ten years ago, Indian contemporary art was a glitzy, raucous beast: a little drunk on its own success, it was threatening to bulldoze the other arts in the public imagination. It had made a mark at a global level with a slew of survey exhibitions that attempted to define the region’s art scene. The Indian financial media began to track the contemporary art market as an alternative asset class, and artists began to appear in the society pages of dailies. Artists and Bollywood stars vied for column inches.

How different things look in 2017. For one thing, the art scene is now far leaner. Long starved of speculative money and an accompanying interest from the mainstream media, it has had to make do with picking up scraps of cultural credibility from a global art community that long ago moved its focus from South Asia to greener, more exotic pastures. Fundamentally, the collector base for both modern and contemporary Indian art is incredibly shallow. It is hard to fathom how we have arrived at 2017 with only a handful of private museums of consequence. China’s private museums, by way of comparison, number over 850.

The art scene desperately needs new, credible platforms by which audiences can engage with modern and contemporary Indian art. Until now, in the absence of government-funded museums, the art scene has looked to alternative venues and events such as the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, the India Art Fair in Delhi, and the newly established Serendipity Art Festival in Goa. However, solid institutional backing to the visual arts is critical to sustaining the scene over the medium-to-long term. Thankfully, there are signs of green shoots emerging.

State governments seem to finally understand the value of leveraging cultural platforms in their effort to drum up interest from local and foreign tourists. Here, contemporary art could play an increasingly active role. Kerala, for example, has undoubtedly benefited from the visibility it has received from a biennale locating itself in Kochi. Other states, hopefully, will follow suit.

Someone who has thought hard about the future is the well-known Mumbai-based artist, Atul Dodiya. In a whimsical series, 7000 Museums: A Project For The Republic Of India, presented in 2014 at the Dr Bhau Daji Lad City Museum, Mumbai, and curated by its highly respected director, Tasneem Zakaria Mehta, the artist presented his vision for a future Indian art scene. Each of the artist’s watercolours featured a fictional museum named with an ear to the aspirational qualities that accompany every new institution that sets its flag on the world’s art map. So the artist envisaged such grand-sounding institutions as the MoMA Rajkot, the Guggenheim Gorakhpur, and the Art Institute of Allahabad.

As much as this was an artist’s fanciful conceit, even if 10 new contemporary art museums were created over the next decade, the landscape for visual arts in India would be utterly transformed. Vibrant local art institutions run for the public good, rather than commercial gain, and are absolutely fundamental in nurturing art practices that are experimental and challenging in nature. Moreover, these spaces are, by nature, far more democratic than those created to serve the commercial art sector.

This month, a new report released by a UK-based art market research company will present the first rigorous mapping of the South Asian art ecosystem. On inspection, it is actually quite remarkable to observe the sheer number of actors now operating within the profit and not-for-profit sectors. Many of these entities are just beginning their journeys and it will take years, maybe a decade, for some of them to reach their full potential. By 2027, it could well be that the seeds being laid in the barren cultural landscape of 2017 will have come to flower. For this to happen, however, everyone in the visual arts industry in India needs to redouble the effort to ensure that their voices are not drowned out by the dominant cultural force in the country in 2017: namely, rampant Bollywood-ification. We need to resist the urge to dumb down and aspire, instead, to the great heights that the visual arts in India have reached over the centuries.

Mortimer Chatterjee is a Mumbai-based director of Chatterjee & Lal, a gallery that focuses on emerging artists

This is part of a series of articles in Mint’s 10th anniversary special issue that look at India 10 years from now. The entire list of articles can be found here

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