Earlier this week, Rashid Rana waited for his flight at Lahore’s Allama Iqbal International Airport a worried man. For almost a year and a half, Pakistan’s biggest contemporary artist had been secretly nursing a fear of flying. In less than two weeks he had an important exhibition in Mumbai, and at that moment, everything depended on whether he could get on that Lahore-Delhi flight. “But once I got through the Lahore-Delhi bit, the rest was better,” remembers Rana, now visibly relaxed as we meet him at a guest house in Central Mumbai. Since his first tentative introduction to India three years ago, this country has always spurred Rana into action.
The 39-year-old visual artist had his very first international solo show in New Delhi with Peter Nagy’s gallery Nature Morte in July 2004. “India was my launch pad,” says Rana, who also teaches art at Lahore’s Beaconhouse National University. “I didn’t consider myself a professional artist till that first show in 2004. It changed my approach.” In just over three years, Rana has become a poster boy for the Indian art gallery circuit, which has actively displayed his works and even taken him abroad for international art fairs; the last in 2006 with Nature Morte. He is presently in the country for his latest, Dis-Location, a two-gallery, 10-work show in Mumbai.
In September, at Christie’s South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art auction, Rana’s A Day In The Life Of Landscape, a digital print, overshot its pre-sale estimates of $50,000-$70,000 (Rs19.65 lakh-Rs27.51 lakh) and sold for $133,000, making it the most expensive piece of Pakistani art ever sold. While these numbers don’t seem hot enough to impact India’s Rs1,500 crore art market, Rana’s importance on the Indian art scene goes beyond a simple cultural exchange. “Rashid is one of the most important artists we have today. The (Indian) market has totally embraced him,” says Mortimer Chatterjee of Chatterjee & Lal.
The Boston-educated Pakistani-Canadian works with photography, video and installations, but vetoes being called a photographer, video-artist or sculptor. “I trained as a traditional painter, but I like the freedom to use any kind of medium. I don’t like hard divides,” he says. Rana’s latest works are prints (he makes just five editions of each work) that manipulate several small photos to create an overall picture—so a closer look at a seeming landscape reveals a subtext of numerous pictures and faces.
Thematically, one might say that Rana’s work resembles the miniaturist traditions of Lahore, where the National College of Arts has a prolific miniature art department. But Rana is again diffident about that connect: “In the West, there’s a tendency to label artists from the Third World, but this is because of a lack of understanding of the context in which a work is made.” He quotes the late artist Zahoor-Ul-Akhlaq, who reinterpreted miniature traditions in a contemporary context, as an inspirational figure.
On the international art scene, where Indian and Pakistani art have no distinctions of state, Rana represents the region as a whole. “When it comes to South Asian art, bidders and collectors always ask for three names, Atul Dodiya, T.V. Santhosh, Rashid Rana,” says Zara Porter Hill, vice-president of Sotheby’s Indian and South-East Asian department. Rana’s popularity was established when his work, The World is Not Enough, estimated between $40,000 and $60,000, attracted the highest number of bidders at the Sotheby’s contemporary auction in September.
In India, the Pakistani artist has a small number of dedicated collectors, the biggest of whom is hotelier Anupam Poddar, who, according to Rana, has also asked him to curate the Devi Foundation’s Pakistani art collection.
India’s growing interest in Pakistani art is a far cry from 2001 when Shiv Sena activists in Mumbai forcibly shut down a show of Pakistani artists called Maneuvering Miniatures at Sakshi Gallery, saying some works might hurt the religious sentiments of Indians at a time when the political situation between the two countries was already quite tense.
Then in 2005, the National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai, under the directorship of Saryu Doshi, showed a seminal exhibit of Pakistani artists called Beyond Borders: Art of Pakistan, which displayed contemporaries such as Hamra Abbas, Rana, Bani Abidi and Adeela Suleman. “The market has slowly accepted them,” says Nagy. “There’s always a little hesitancy at first, and then it dissolves and there’s more openness to culture.”
Galleries such as Nature Morte and Mamta Singhania’s Anant Art Gallery in New Delhi have played an important role in creating that awareness, especially when Pakistan’s own gallery system is weak and wanting in infrastructure. “Pakistani artists may have shifted base to India because the market is bigger, and it’s like what Paris was to Europe once. But now there are no centres of art, and I can afford to live in Pakistan and yet show my work anywhere,” says Rana.
And now that he’s worked through his maiden voyage in more than a year, travelling is back on the cards.
(Dis-Location is scheduled between 13 and 29 November at Chemould Prescott Road and between 13 and 17 November at Chatterjee & Lal, Mumbai.)