Earlier this month in New Delhi, India Gate was witness to a five-day celebration of the concept of federalism. A 22ft book by Gulammohammed Sheikh, Water Drops made of fibreglass and wood by Subodh Khekar and Gigi Scaria’s video installation containing interviews with people who had touched Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi were some of the artworks displayed. This celebration was not just about federalism but the expression of it through art and, most importantly, art in a public arena.
A view of the screen D’Souza has made for IIM-A
As canvases and sculptures take over drawing rooms and galleries, some artists are moving outside those walls to express themselves. Parks, hotels, educational institutions, even busy thoroughfares, are slowly becoming viewing points for eclectic, experimental and challenging art—it’s a modern twist to an old tradition. “India has always had art in public spaces—temple walls, Buddhist monasteries and conference halls—it’s only in modern India that we have to search for it,” says Yusuf Arrakal, a Bangalore-based artist. Rajeev Sethi, artist and director of the Asian Heritage Foundation, who conceived and executed the event at India Gate, says: “Public art bridges the dichotomy between the modern and traditional.”
An attempt to bring art on to common ground was first made by Jawaharlal Nehru’s government in the 1950s and 1960s. One per cent of all public building funds were allocated for art. But, the concept never really caught on. “People in the government are famous for making rules and breaking them, but mostly it was never implemented as nobody even bothered about this fund,” says Sethi. As a result, today, most Indian cities are a maze of bland, cramped concrete.
A factor that has encouraged art in public spheres and brought people in direct contact with it is corporate commissions, a trend that first began with the need to have more employee-friendly offices.
Sethi’s interpretation of the Shiva idol at the Grand Hyatt, Mumbai
But private initiative is now for public view. Earlier this month, a work commissioned by Kamat Hotels India Ltd. called Mother and Child—a scrap iron sculpture created by Rajan Dixit—was installed at a traffic island on the Mahim-Bandra causeway in Mumbai. While in Bangalore, M.G. Road houses a 21ft steel sculpture by Arakkal, commissioned by the city-based biotech company Biocon. “We need to think of commissioned works of art not just as artwork for a building, but as an integral part of architecture that is needed in the country,” says Sudarshan Shetty, a Mumbai-based artist.
Artwork on public display also offers exciting prospects for artists. It gives them new opportunities and unique frameworks to work with. Shetty, who built a two-storey egg-shaped sculpture that hangs at the UTI headquarters in Mumbai, says: “The engineering behind it was fascinating. Imagine trying to hang a two-storey wooden egg in the middle of a building.”
Sethi is a curator for the Grand Hyatt, Mumbai, which has one of the best collections of public art in India. The central piece of the collection, a Sadashiva icon, is located in the lobby of the hotel. He visualized the icon as deconstructed and rearranged fragments of a puzzle.
Around the end of this year, the Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad will formally unveil its latest work of art by Walter D’Souza, an Ahmedabad-based artist. D’Souza’s work at the institute will consist of screens made of steel sheets created in a box structure.
The sudden interest in art in public spaces reflects the wider spurt of growth of Indian art. As more artists cross the Rs1 crore mark and collectors the world over seek out Indian artists, the curiosity of the general public has also been aroused. “Things are going to change as artworks come into focus. The next decade will see more public art all over India,” says Shetty.
ART AND THE METRO
When it comes to making things accessible, what could be a better location than a place that millions teem in and out of? Until 29 November, the Rajiv Chowk Metro Station in Connaught Place, New Delhi, hosts the Phonescoping Exhibition from Finland, which is part of the ongoing European Union Cultural Week in the Capital. So what is phonescoping? The technology combines a mobile phone with an integrated camera and a telescope. The phone should be MMS enabled, as that makes the instant sharing of the photographs easier. This unusual exhibition, in which photographer Tommi Laurinsalo has used a variety of Nokia mobile camera phones to capture birds in their natural environment, will be the very first cultural event ever organized at the Delhi Metro.