A wave of glass, tiled floors and IT-office sleekness is sweeping through the art galleries in the South, announcing that the art scene has finally arrived. Once an area of starkness, the boom in the Indian art market has made gallery owners here sit up and take notice. A competitive edge now sharpens their initiatives to showcase the next big artist, and has forced them to take a different approach to their galleries. Out with the potted plant in the corner, in with the white lighting concealed in plastered ceilings, hanging low over the exhibition area.
It could be called the Advance of the Bahu Brigade. Many of the new gallery owners represent business communities either from Kolkata or Mumbai, who have already seen the value of investing in art. Just as there are certain communities who are committed to being jewellers and moneylenders who have established credibility in the market, the close connection between those who buy art and its promoters is quite striking. They belong to the traditional business communities who have deep pockets that allow them to network with other galleries across the country, who can also afford to showcase the work of the artists they promote in expensive brochures and even extend what is perhaps vital to an artist living in places such as Madurai, Kollam or Guntur—the promise of a trip to an exotic locale such as China, the favoured destination. Or even better, a show in one of the art capitals of the world—London, New York or Hong Kong.
“It’s not that I expect them to paint there,” explains Meena Dadha, the highly successful owner of Prakrit Arts Gallery near Pondicherry, which makes space available for artists to work and live for extended periods. “Because when we take them on these trips, there’s just too much happening for anyone to do any work, but they do give me their work in return, at some point later.”
A few years ago, just making the trip to Mumbai, the commercial art capital, was something that most artists from the South had to plan on their own with their meagre resources. “It was always a struggle for us just to get our work to the Jehangir Art Gallery in those days,” explains R.B. Bhaskaran, now one of the ‘names’ in the South. “If we did not sell, we could not even afford to take our canvases back from the railways. It had to just lie there in the freight holds until we could retrieve it.”
As he explains, all those who have been painting since the ’60s and ’70s are now attracting serious attention through an explosion of interest created by the art auctions and art finance portfolios, the visibility provided by the electronic media and of course the sheer success of the ‘blue chips’ in the business. “We have never been part of the various ‘isms’ that dominated the art scene,” he contends, “but we have always had a strong belief in ourselves and this is finally what is being recognized today”.
Indeed, over the last 30 to 40 years, the only people who bought art in those days or more succinctly, sustained the kind of creative dialogue that was necessary to keep an artist active, were those from the consular corps: Americans, British, Germans and the French. This segment has now been replaced by professionals from the IT industry, whether in Hyderabad, Bangalore or Chennai. But although they buy art, and lots of it, they do not necessarily engage with the artist. This may explain why the newer art galleries are more slick and shiny, but also as neutral and clinical as an operating theatre. They also tend to mainly showcase the works of artists from other parts of the country, thereby providing credence to the claim of South Indian artists that they get left out even on their own doorstep.
“I promote artists from all over India,” explains Premilla Baid, who runs Sumukha Gallery in Bangalore, and has also recently opened one of the largest galleries in Chennai. “I am veering more towards showcasing young talent from the South. I don’t think we have missed the boom, we have not cashed in on it. We are not doing the things the right way,” she explains, adding that there is a tremendous amount of heavy lifting to be done before making a success of art in today’s highly competitive world. So the onus on creating the kind of excitement that an art event should ideally generate, has still been left to the older gallery owners in Chennai such as Sharan Appa Rao of Apparao Galleries; Sarala and Biswajit Banerjee of Artworld, which they inherited from the original Sarala Gallery or the vintage charms of the Cholamandal Artists collective.
Rao does it through sheer chutzpah. Her dynamism has led her to use auctions, events, elegantly designed brochures and press kits, fashion shows and foreign venues to keep both her patrons and her artists in a continual state of anticipation. “Every time I change the décor of my gallery, I am in a sense reinventing myself,” she says. Her new gallery at Chennai not only has a terracotta gateway in the mode of a Charles Correa entrance, but wide expanses of glass and white walls hung with paintings that can be glimpsed from the outside.
The Banerjees have collected the works of south Indian sculptors, under the title of 40 years of the Madras Metaphor, one of the most arresting shows among recent openings. S.Nandagopal is spearheading the creation of a composite museum, gallery and auditorium at Cholamandal. Viji Nageshwaran of Vinyasa Art Gallery, Shalini Biswajit of Forum Art Gallery, and the Lakshana Art Gallery have also revamped their spaces in recent times. Two smaller galleries, one of them run by Lakshmi Venkateraman in a charmingly renovated old family house and named the Sri Parvathi Gallery, the other by Ashvin Rajagopalan at the Ashvita Gallery, deal with the work of south Indian artists, exclusively.
“I only promote south Indian artists,” says Ashvin. “The top fliers are among the best in the country.” He gives recognition to K.M. Adimoolam, Laxma Gowd and Vaikuntam. “Then there’s Raghava, who could be called an international name since he sells his work in different parts of the world, and artists from Hyderabad such as Ramesh Gurjala, who is from Kalahasti, but who has adapted the traditional idiom brilliantly to suit his contemporary style”. Other artists worth noticing, he says, are Krishnaswamy and Sailesh from Chennai and from Kerala, Murli Nagapura “who adapts poems to create his paintings” and Sadanandam who belongs to the fresco school, but again, who has a very distinct way with the technique. “We are opening our gallery at Hyderabad soon, but eventually we will have a strong presence in seven cities through the country”.
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