What was M.F. Husain’s first exhibition like? What did the art critics say about a then upcoming artist called Syed Haider Raza? How did F.N. Souza describe his religious portraits?
While it’s unlikely we’ll ever find out the nitty-gritty about the modern masters of Indian art or the initial days of the Indian art market, it’s not too late to get the lowdown on contemporary Indian artists.
In 2003, the Asian Art Archive (AAA), a documentation centre, was set up in Hong Kong to promote and preserve the development of contemporary Asian art and provide adequate research material. The India chapter of AAA was launched in New Delhi in June this year. “Our mission is to make material on contemporary Asian art easily accessible so that it can help to increase understanding and facilitate research and writing in this field,” says Atreyee Gupta, the archive’s India representative.
Most older Indian artists, with the exception of Satish Gujral and a handful of others, have not really maintained records of their earlier works. “Senior artists like Dhiraj Choudhury or K.G. Subramanyan, who’ve had long career and numerous shows, did not even save leaflets or handouts from their early exhibitions. Nagji Patel, too, is only just beginning to organize his material. When I asked about old photographs, I was told by many of them that photographing works was really not as frequent a while back, as it is now,” says Gupta.
While Subramanyan does have a few slides of his works, they are scattered. In fact, Gupta says he is only now thinking about digitizing them. “From experience, we know that old slides get spoilt and lose colour over time. It is important to store them and catalogue them properly, and this where an institute like AAA, which is also a registered charity, comes in.”
What there is of material is nestled within private archives and is unlikely to ever be opened for public consumption. “Sure some galleries in India have archives but they are not open to everyone and it is also usually limited to the exhibitions and artists they have displayed. As for libraries like Lalit Kala Akademi, most have text book information and don’t really have the material that can trace and track what was happening in the underground art scene,” says Pooja Sood, director, KHOJ International Artists’ Association, New Delhi.
From exhibition catalogues, gallery invitations, photographs of paintings to resources that artists themselves want to hand over like letters, manuscripts, sketch books, AAA says they take any kind of document and materials that can “give an insight into an artist’s mind and his works. We are not selective about what we can lay our hands on. However, at present in India, we do screen artists and select only those who have showed their work at exhibitions,” explains Gupta.
Roshini Vadehra, director, the Foundation of Indian Contemporary Art, which is also working to set up an archive and hopes to achieve it in next two years, says: “More and more people who are investing in art want information on the artist, their history, and what kind of works they have done. So, definitely any documentation facility that is open to public is a great start.”
At present all material collected for AAA in India is transferred to Hong Kong, where it is based. “The collection can be searched via our online catalogue (www.aaa.org.hk) or you can contact the library staff for assistance,” says Gupta. However, since the operation in India has only commenced recently, there is not much information on Indian artists and their works available yet.
Apart from archival facilities, AAA also brings out a monthly newsletter and a detailed world art events calendar—both of which can be accessed online. “We also organize talks with artists and collectors, focusing on contemporary art in South Asia. The idea is to present a perspective on the art scene in this region,” says Gupta.