Both Nancy Adajania and Ranjit Hoskote have been part of the Indian art world for many years in different capacities—as curators, cultural theorists and critics, among other things. Adajania has written and lectured extensively on art; Hoskote is the author of 19 books, which include five collections of his poetry. He is the curator for the India pavilion at the 2011 Venice Biennale in June. Popular Prakashan and foundation b & g have brought out a series of five slim volumes, each of which is an extended conversation between Adajania and Hoskote, and an acclaimed contemporary artist.
The Dialogues Series features the artists Veer Munshi, Manu Parekh, Baiju Parthan, Anju Dodiya and Atul Dodiya. Adajania and Hoskote spoke with Lounge about the series. Edited excerpts:
How did the idea of a book series on artists’ interviews come about?
Ranjit Hoskote: Nancy and I have been doing artists conversation at galleries or festivals for 10 years now. It is the invisible part of the life of a critic—because we work with artists so closely, a lot of conversations happen. There are traces of them in the texts we write. But we wanted to experiment and present the wonderful entanglement that a conversation is—the play of voices and ideas that get thrown up, and the restatement of positions.
How did you choose the five artists?
Nancy Adajania: We wanted to have an inclusive selection that reflected different positions and represented different generations. The five artists belong to different art schools—Baiju Parthan is from Goa, Manu Parekh from the JJ School of Art. We wanted to document and analyse very varied art historical positions and genealogies. For instance, Atul Dodiya (talks about how he used to be) in dialogue with senior artists from the Progressive Artists Group and how (against the dominant medium of abstraction that prevailed at the JJ School) he found permission to expand his own practice. These are the kinds of insights we look for.
How receptive are artists to extended questioning by art critics and theorists?
Hoskote: We are working with artists with whom we have had long-term collaboration. We have developed connections and collaborations, and are drawing on all this. They open up to me like they would not to a newspaper. The lives of artists and critics are closely intertwined. The larger question is the ecology of the art world in which we all work. (In the dialogues) there is a persistent concern with art education. (Not just) what you do as an artist but what makes you an artist. The general newspapers, instead of looking at the structure of the art economy, have a tendency to harp on the prices. (The idea here is to) pull away and redefine the discourse and focus on truly important questions. To widen and deepen the readers’ understanding of the world in which the artist lives—beyond the Page 3 openings—to the web of relationships from which art is produced and sustained. Atul Dodiya, for instance, talks about his upbringing or his relationship with mentor figures like Tyeb Mehta, Bhupen Khakhar and Akbar Padamsee. Baiju talks about life as a Net artist.
To be an effective interviewer, do you need to be adversarial or admiring, or just be a peer to the artist you are speaking with?
Adajania: Since our relationship with the artists goes back many years, it is based on trust and mutuality, but also vulnerability. They are opening up to you about their strengths and weaknesses and reconsidering their own positions. Anju Dodiya shared a self-critical perspective on her work, which is rare for someone of her stature. This comes via dialogue. The critic has to act as an art historian, interlocutor, mentor and therapist to the artist.
Were these conversations an occasion for any discoveries for the participants?
Hoskote: It is completely a journey of discovery. However well you know a person there is always a new disclosure and moments of great surprise. Anju Dodiya and I discovered that in the early 1980s we were both reading the Time magazine and (their art critic) Robert Hughes. Baiju (Parthan) and I talk about our split life as computer programmers.
Any views on the growing field of art studies and art criticism in India?
Adajania: The JNU School of Art and Aesthetics has made a difference in terms of producing new recruits, curators and critics, for the art world. So has it grown? Yes, it has. There are more possibilities to take courses. But we have a long way to go towards producing knowledge which has intellectual rigour or even quality art reporting. That will only happen with better pedagogical models. And also a sense of ethics—one is susceptible to petty corruptions, such as when a PR handout is (recycled) in a newspaper. The rigour is not demanded of you. (There is) naked careerism rather than a more ethical perspective.
The fact that each book in the series is priced at an affordable Rs 175 is very refreshing. Why are most books on art priced so high?
Hoskote: The cost of production is actually quite high. Coffee-table books begin at Rs 2,500. (But there is also) the idea of producing a lavish book. The foundation b & g is addressing this in a specific way. (The publisher of the series) Popular Prakashan is actually committed to spreading knowledge at the largest possible level. We see the books as a value centre—not a profit centre. It is like art—one person may buy it but there is no limit to those who respond to it in their imagination. Like the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. The art experience is not just about acquisition, it is also about illumination.
The Dialogues Series by Ranjit Hoskote and Nancy Adajania, Popular Prakashan, Rs 175.