Artist Piyali Ghosh has a unique penchant for ‘manimals’. Partly beast, partly human, the figures that populate her canvases reflect her unease about the social animal: “It’s how I see people around me. Most of us are trying to tread the line between being spontaneous like animals and being correct, being what society expects us to be." An exhibition of her works of acrylic and tempera on canvas, which ends today at Mumbai’s newest hot spot, Chatterjee and Lal Art Gallery, mirrors diverse influences—Indian miniature paintings, a dream-like, bizarre quality reminiscent of surrealist art and Indian mural art. In style, they are distinctly against the grain of photorealist and installation art that’s in vogue among artists in their 20s and 30s. But in thought and spirit, Ghosh is true to the cradle where her art took shape—the fine arts faculty of Baroda’s MS University, or just the Baroda school of art.

Fresh blood: (from left to right) Gohain, Kyoungae and Karmakar stayed back in Baroda after graduation

Ghosh graduated from the institute in 2006, about a year before the Gujarat government accused one of its students of displaying “blasphemous works demeaning Indian culture", and arrested him.

But after talking to Ghosh and some of her contemporaries, it’s not difficult to conclude that the censorship threats have not tempered the irreverent, innovative spirit that this faculty is famous for. The art community in Baroda is not only thriving, but is eminently sought-after. Until the mid-1990s, most of the university’s graduates used to move base to neighbouring Mumbai and struggle for years to land the right break.

In the last six to eight years, most graduates have decided to make Baroda their home. The result is a vibrant, cosmopolitan community of artists in their 20s and 30s which, benefiting from the euphoria in the art market, is attracting more curators, gallerists and collectors from India and abroad than ever before. Says Baroda-based Kim Kyoungae, a semi-abstract painter who joined MS University 14 years ago: “Visits by European curators have become very frequent in the last two to three years; most artists don’t have the desperate need to show their works because gallery owners and curators are here to seek them out. It’s very different from when I just started out as a painter in the late 1990s."

A convincing, if not entirely foolproof, index of a resurgence of the Baroda school is the presence of its young artists in the two major international auctions of the year—Sotheby’s and Christie’s, both in New York —that took place yesterday. The familiar setting of a middle-class drawing room in 30-year-old Abir Karmakar’s work in photo-realistic style where, he says, he has explored “his feminine side", is charged with homoerotic connotations. Santana Gohain’s untitled work of dry colour and drawing on paper; Hearth, a sculpture in beaten copper by Abir, another artist; and Farhad Hussain’s untitled work of acrylic on canvas were some of the other works at the same auction. About 12 new artists (aged 26-36) from Baroda featured in both these auctions, compared with half that number from the Sir JJ School of Art, the birthplace of the Progressive artists, once the hub of modern Indian art, and now perceived as a rigid, academically-oriented institution.

Chintan Upadhyay, one of Baroda’s most successful artists in recent times, is curating a show for Mumbai’s Museum Art Gallery, beginning 8 October, showcasing drawings of 22 emerging artists, of which 16 are from the Baroda school—Upadhyay himself, Jagannath Panda, K.P. Regi, Soumen Das and Indrapramit Roy are among the other alumni. Earlier this week, a show of 17 under-40 artists opened at Mumbai’s Hacienda Art Gallery. Says the curator, Jasmine Shah Varma: “The show is not aimed at promoting Baroda artists, but out of the 17 artists, 12 are from Baroda." The show ends on 25 September.

Engraved: Subramanyam at work on a mural of sand-cast cement at the MS University campus in 1971

Yet, justifiably enough, the scepticism and ire that the attack on creative freedom provoked in art communities have not abated. Despite the obvious rise in the number of solo shows by young artists from Baroda in New Delhi and Mumbai, their presence in auctions and a growing community of new artists working out of Baroda, many are sceptical about the institution’s future. Mortimer Chatterjee and Tara Lal of Chatterjee and Lal Art Gallery, Mumbai, have been travelling to Baroda for three years to spot new talent. They haven’t been disappointed, except at last year’s graduation exhibition at the university. “Among the painters from Baroda, you often find figurative-based work that is suffused with an erotic quality coming to the fore," Lal says. Chatterjee also believes that students with original ideas and talent are probably more scared now, and hesitant to join.

Artist Atul Dodiya, an alumnus of the JJ School and a great admirer of Bhupen Khakhar, the most iconoclastic and influential artist from the Baroda school in contemporary Indian art, says that a resurgence, if any, is a result of the overall interest in art and also that Baroda is a melting pot of artists from the East, the South and the West. “The primary reason why Baroda is a hub of artists is its proximity to Mumbai," says Dodiya.

Vasudevan Akkitham, 54, the present head of the faculty of fine arts at MS University and a practising artist, discovered something two years ago that, he says, startled him. An alumnus of the university and the Royal College of Art, London, Akkitham mostly paints oils on canvas. “After the graduation ceremony, I approached who I thought was the most talented student in that batch, and asked her where she was going to do her Masters. She was amused. The thought of studying further hadn’t even crossed her mind, because she was already thinking about showing her works to the next big curator who came along." There is no trace of cynicism in his thoughts on the future of the institute—only nostalgia and hope. “Nothing has changed. Students who have joined are here because they belong here and they want to push the boundaries. The number of students in the new batches are quite the same, and Baroda is now the only art cosmopolis or artists’ town in the country." He also agrees that the frequency of visits by European curators has gone up considerably.

Piyali Ghosh, who was spotted by Chatterjee and Lal last year, offers to explain the fairly simple way curators and gallerists approach artists here: A visit to the fine arts faculty, then to the artists’ studios (there are three such studios in Baroda, where artists are offered residency, workshops and the space to work) and from there to private studios.

A collector who is particularly enthused about the Baroda school’s resurgence is Mumbai-based Harsh Goenka, chairman of the RPG Group. He is convinced that “all good art in India is happening in Baroda right now. They are the ones who have a global sensibility. Look at Chintan Upadhyay, T.V. Santhosh, Jagannath Panda. All the next big names, both in talent and marketability, are likely to be from the Baroda school."

There was a time when praises did not pour in so unequivocally. The legacy of Sankho Chaudhuri, Jeram Patel, N.S. Bendre, K.G. Subramanyan and others, who are credited with the initial creative propulsion to the school, quietly gave way to new ones. Khakhar debunked the formalism of Western art and introduced the kitsch of bazaars and town streets to Indian art. Gulammohammed Sheikh gave a sophisticated spin to Indian mysticism. Artist Nilima Sheikh writes in her book, Contemporary Art in Baroda: “Sanko Chaudhuri and K.G. Subramanyan brought to Baroda the inspiring lineage of the most fecund days at Santiniketan. But they also brought caution—about the freezing of creativity, the degeneration of ideology into dogma and stereotype, once the day of the genius passes…"

Later, says Akkitham, there were “Bhupen Khakhar characters" in the town—real people were given names and identities from those in Khakhar’s paintings.

In today’s Baroda, such idol worship isn’t perhaps such a good thing.


These artists, who work out of their studios in Baroda, are the next big names among emerging artists

This 30-year-old artist is known for his engagement with alternative sexuality and androgyny. His 2006 solo show in Berlin and ‘Interiors’, a show at Mumbai’s Museum Gallery in 2005, got him the necessary exposure to the art world outside Baroda. One of his untitled works was in the Sotheby’s auction of Indian contemporary art on 21 September. His next is a solo show at the AICON Gallery in London. “The theme of these works is an extension of what I’ve been working on so far, that of sexual identity. These are much larger canvases and I’m projecting myself nude in these works," Karmakar says. His works sell for anywhere between Rs20 lakh and Rs30 lakh.

Shruti Nelson

Currently in Spain for an international art camp, 38-year-old Shruti Nelson is known for her versatile use of textiles, paper, sequins, etc., on her canvases, along with layers of paint. She has also experimented with sculpture and fashion design and the eclectic medium is her USP. She is part of a group show, Come September, at Mumbai’s Hacienda Art Gallery that is on till 25 September. Her next solo of mixed media works are at New Delhi’s Viart Gallery in February 2008. Her works fetch between Rs10 and Rs20 lakh.

Santana Gohain

Another artist from Baroda featured at the Sotheby’s auction of 21 September, Santana Gohain, 38, is a sculptor, print-maker and painter. Sangeeta Chopra, curator and owner of the Mumbai-based gallery Art Musings, where Gohain’s works were exhibited in February, says: “In the eight years since she graduated from the MS University, Santana has had six solo shows. She is not an overtly experimental artist. She has a minimalist, sophisticated style that has a timeless appeal." Her next solo show, to be held at New Delhi’s Alliance Francaise Gallery in the first week of March, has been curated by Geetu Hinduja of the Fine Arts Company. “For the first time, I’m working on three-dimensional works, using with paper on board and cement plastering," Gohain says. Her works fetch between Rs10 lakh and Rs20 lakh.

Kim Kyoungae, 38, is known for her colourful Orientalist motifs made in acrylic on canvas in the semi-abstract mode. Korean by birth, she was already a practising artist in South Korea when she came to study Museology in M.S. University. She stayed on to live in Baroda and has had six solo shows in Mumbai and New Delhi in the last eight years. “Influences from my Korean upbringing and art education have merged with my Indian way of looking at things," the artist says. She is also part of the ‘Come September’ show at the Hacienda Art Gallery and is working on her next solo show, ‘Moderato’, a musical term that means a balance of notes: “I’m painting myself in these works and exploring the theme of equilibrium in day-to-day life." Her works are estimated at anywhere between Rs10 and Rs20 lakh.

All prices are approximate and based on auction results and gallery sales.