I loved writing this piece because I love clay and pots and ceramic arts

It’s never too late to get your hands on wet clay

Working with your hands in wet clay is a sensual experience
First Published: Fri, Sep 14 2012. 07 14 PM IST
An artist at Pottery Town, where 45 families make a living out of clay. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
An artist at Pottery Town, where 45 families make a living out of clay. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Clad in a blue housecoat—what else—Nethra, the artist, is painting a 2ft-tall clay Ganesh. She holds her brush vertically and paints three white lines on the Hindu god’s forehead to indicate sacred ash. She paints the elephant god’s eyes: The top line is black and the bottom lid is red. Ganesh looks hungover.
“Do you want a snake on his stomach?” Nethra asks rhetorically. As fashion statements go, a snake tattoo on your stomach is hard to top.
With the “clean, clear and intentional strokes” that Chinese watercolourists revere, Nethra paints a curving snake around my clay Ganesh’s stomach. There is no mistake, no hesitation in her strokes. Legendary Chinese watercolour artist Qi Baishi would have been proud. He may have even included a snake in his repertoire of shrimps, crickets and flowers.
I am in Pottery Town, Bangalore, where 45 families make a living from clay. Nethra and her husband, Nanda Kumar, grew up in this neighbourhood. The families were originally from Alangayam, a town in the Vellore district of Tamil Nadu. The British brought them to Bangalore and set them up in Pottery Town, says Kumar. The families own their homes and share a giant kiln, where—in a cosmic stroke of egalitarianism—humble matka-pots and giant Ganesh idols are fired together. Each potter can make up to Rs.30,000 per month, Kumar says, working for 6-8 hours a day on clay lamps, incense holders, vases, pots of various sizes, and during the season, elephant gods in a variety of colours and sizes. Most idols are made by inserting clay into plaster of Paris moulds, giving them the disconcerting uniformity of the Xi’an terracotta warriors.
Have you entered a room to find dozens of Ganesh figures staring unblinkingly at you?
Bangaloreans throng Pottery Town during the Ganesh festive season. During the rest of the year, these potters supply their wares to five-star hotels in the city. Across the street is a four-storey home where countless tiny pots, destined for the ITC Hotels, are lined up.
“We sell them for Rs.1.50 or Rs.2 per pot and you people will eat curds out of these at hotels by payingRs.250,” says Kumar with a grin.
I was in love with a Potter once. She was an author named Beatrix. Later, I fell in love with a Potter called Harry. Today, my brush with potters occurs during the festive season but that’s about it. I find this puzzling. How did potters rise so high in China, Japan, Korea and the UK, while here in India, we treat the ceramic arts almost like a circus? Think of the top visual artists of India—does anyone from the ceramic arts make it to the list, except perhaps Ray Meeker of Puducherry and Gurcharan Singh? In contrast, ceramics and pottery are venerated all over the East. Go to Japan and attend a tea ceremony. The whole thing seems to be about holding a teacup reverentially in both hands, and sipping groundmatcha tea from it.
How did India veer away from the earthenware and ceramic trajectory followed by most Eastern civilizations? Think of the Jomon and Meiji pottery of Japan; the celadon glazes of Korea; the Ming vases of China; the fragile raku ware used in the Japanese tea ceremony; the curving Burma pots; the animal figurines of the Sukhothai and Ban Chiang periods of Thailand, and you’ll see what I mean. Think of Indian ceramics and what do you get? Nothing. Why? I think it is because we in India developed metal.
Our early expertise in metal gave the world our exquisite Chola bronzes. But they also caused us to take a fork in the road that we are on to this day. Consider: Much of the world uses ceramic plates, cups and bowls. In India, we use stainless steel. Why? Because we discovered steel. Around 300 BC India and Sri Lanka developed what is now called “wootz steel” but is in fact a corrupted Anglicized version of the word “urukku”, which means melted metal in most south Indian languages. This Indian metal—steel is iron with a dash of carbon, chromium and other trace metals—that came to be called stainless steel spread to Arabia and later to Europe through the shining Damascus swords. Was this why our civilization lost interest in clay? If so, it is a pity.
Working with your hands in wet clay is a sensual experience. To work on a potter’s wheel demands a certain concentration that I don’t have. As an art student, I couldn’t throw on a potter’s wheel; I made hand-built giant ceramic objects, including a man with his tongue sticking out. My thrown pots always ended up wobbly and off centre. A potter’s wheel is a demanding tool; the foundation of that oft used word co-opted by yoga teachers: centring. Centring a pot is a technique that doesn’t come to all. Teaching children how to throw a pot will calm them down; centre their attention on the pot and improve their concentration. Your child may not end up a Bernard Leach or Shoji Hamada, but at least it will be a welcome change from that familiar refrain: “Where’s the iPad?”
Shoba Narayan acknowledges that Wedgewood and Ming pottery have their place, but she prefers the ethereal translucence of Korean celadon. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com


About Jitish Kallat and Reena Saini Kallat

Posted: Thu, Feb 2 2012. 7:45 PM IST
Walking the art talk with the Kallats
Jitish and Reena are charming and polite—to me and to each other. They don’t interrupt and listen intently to each other as they describe their 18-year-old relationship, seven-year-old son and the trappings of fame and wealth that have come to them
The Good Life | Shoba Narayan

I am trailing artist-couple Jitish Kallat and Reena Saini Kallat through the white-cubed maze that is the India Art Fair in New Delhi. By the time you read this, the fair would have finished. My goal is to give art-loving readers in other cities a “Take on Art” through the prism of this event. There are many options open to me. Should I go to every gallery and ask for the name of one upcoming artist they are considering? I don’t think I’ll get an honest, agenda-less answer.

There is the scene surrounding the fair, the after-parties, the things people said. Cultural theorist Ranjit Hoskote at a speaker’s forum, describing how he approached the India pavilion at the 2011 Venice Biennale “through the rhetorical trope of the non-sequitor”. Say what? An English-accented lady in the audience accusing Sophie Duplaix, the curator of the recent Paris-Delhi-Bombay… Through the Eyes of Indian and French Artists show (from 25 May-19 September) at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, of curating a condescending “colonialist show with an orientalist’s perspective”. I don’t know these words so I cannot decode them for you. A simpler response came from an auction house representative who called the Centre Pompidou show “rubbish”. A lady performance artiste at the opening party held at The Park, New Delhi, to a male academic (name changed), “Raman, I’ve been told that dancing with you is better than having sex.” Collectors Rajiv Savara and Harsh Goenka at the VIP preview, eyeing their next acquisitions. Artist Sudarshan Shetty having a Chinese lunch in the backroom—his work in front was priced at Rs64 lakh. Subodh Gupta glad-handing a contingent of Pakistani students at the entrance. Hoarse gallerists continually answering questions: “We have been having more conversations with journalists than collectors and I am not sure that is a good sign,” said an exhibitor at White Cube’s booth. The freezing terrace of the blueFROG, The Kila, where Khoj, the acclaimed artists’ association, held its live performance shows. A lady walking through a performance piece asking a performer for a cigarette before doing a double take. The alcohol lubricating every event…and I still hadn’t come up with an angle for this column.

Fair company: (from L) Jitish Kallat; Reena Saini Kallat. Photos: Courtesy Arndt Berlin.
Perhaps I could trail a couple of top artists through the fair and view it through their eyes. But who? My instinctive choice was Sudarshan Shetty because of his massive public art project in Mumbai. But I wanted to see the work before writing about him.
I ran into Jitish Kallat, 37, at Aman New Delhi, where Outset, a philanthropic arts organization, had breakfast forums. He was wearing what appeared to be a smartly cut blue khadi jacket, which was my initial reason for approaching him: an artist I admired who also shared my love for Indian textiles. The jacket, it turned out, was from fashion boutique Bombay Electric and I am not sure it was khadi. But by then I had already popped the question and he had accepted: Could I trail him through the fair and view it through his eyes? Kallat liked the idea, and when I saw his wife, Reena Saini Kallat, 38, nearby, I asked if they could do it together. So it came to be that we walked through the fair to a quiet table in the back. It took me 10 minutes to get them to open up.

Jitish and Reena are charming and polite—to me and to each other. They don’t interrupt and listen intently to each other as they describe their 18-year-old relationship, seven-year-old son and the trappings of fame and wealth that have come to them. Like every artist, they claim to be untouched by the market. “I don’t know that I was any ‘purer’ as a poor student artist than I am now,” says Jitish. “You have to maintain that level of uncertainty and probing that one had in arts school; and be aware of the slippery grounds that you walk on.”

“We were completely comfortable with the idea of a humble living when we got married,” says Reena. “It was a privilege to be an artist, not the privileges in the usual sense, but to engage with the world in a different way. No artist cares for anything more than the trajectory of work that they leave behind.”

14 Lives, an acrylic on canvas and bronze by Jitish at the India Art Fair held in Delhi in January. Photo: Courtesy Arndt Berlin.
We discuss the forums we all attended. I rant against the jargon that overtook the previous one. Why use such phrases as “colonialist with an orientalist’s perspective?” I ask. Why not simple English? But all these people are cultural theorists, says Reena, quietly demolishing my argument. “Why would you want them to dilute their expertise just to cater to the general public? Investment bankers apply their graphs and terminology artists don’t seem to understand, so why should there constantly be an expectation from theorists to oversimplify their views? You cannot expect an artist to cater to an audience,” she ends.
“When you make an object, you stand the risk of that object speaking to an audience of one: you,” says Jitish. “Visual arts isn’t a populist medium to begin with. I would hope that through events like the art fair, various constituencies would come together to rejuvenate our museums, reincarnate our art schools from their current state of coma, establish private museums and build institutions.”

We talk about their working relationship, about whether they discuss their works during the creation. “I am a bit more chatty in the sequence of creation,” says Jitish.

Just when I think that Reena is proper and polite, she gives me pause. “He might discuss every crappy idea with me while I am more selective about what I discuss with him,” she says. The couple burst out laughing.

Shoba Narayan has a lot of crappy ideas and she is not selective about who she discusses them with. Disclosure: she was a guest of the India Art Fair. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

India Art Fair 2012

Here is the piece in Mint

  • Columns
  • Posted: Fri, Jan 27 2012. 9:51 PM IST
Why art needs to speak a simpler tongue
The India Art Fair is in full swing; and Delhi feels like it is at the centre of the universe. This is the trick that geography plays. When you are part of an event, part of its intellectual mindspace, you get drawn into its “reality distortion field”

The Good life | Shoba Narayan

One of the questions facing all organizers of large events in light of what happened in Jaipur is this: How much of a broad base of support do you need to build for an event that is essentially (or has become) an elitist pursuit?

The India Art Fair is in full swing; and Delhi feels like it is at the centre of the universe. This is the trick that geography plays. When you are part of an event, part of its intellectual mindspace, you get drawn into its “reality distortion field”. A few hundred kilometres away, the same event becomes a forgotten footnote to the daily hazards of traffic jams, water shortage and what the chief minister did.


Eclectic : The art fair affords visitors the opportunity to stand before an original Raza as well as discover emerging artists.(Pradeep Gaur/Mint)

Eclectic : The art fair affords visitors the opportunity to stand before an original Raza as well as discover emerging artists.(Pradeep Gaur/Mint)


Politicians deal with these parallel realities every day, and perhaps this is why they are able to dismiss the censorship issues swirling around Salman Rushdie so easily. Blaming the Rajasthan government for cancelling the video link at the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) is to ignore the pragmatism of politics; or for that matter, event management. The greatest good for the greatest number, as utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham might have it. Not all the time, but at least till the show closes. Moral rectitude takes spine—Judge John Woolsey’s ruling in the United States v. One Book Called Ulysses is an oft-quoted example—but is easier done from a judge’s bench. 

At the art fair, people still talk about M.F. Husain and how his works were banned from the 2009 India Art Summit, as it was called then. At that time, the organizers issued a statement: “While we acknowledge the lifelong achievements and the iconic status of artists like M.F. Husain in Indian art,” it read, “we are unable to put the entire collective concern at risk by showcasing artists who have, in the past, been received with hostility by certain sections of the society unless we receive protection from the government and the Delhi police.”

Was that the right thing to do? As an art lover, it is easy for me to say, “Absolutely not”. But had I been part of the organizing team that worked all year to put up the fair, only to find it under threat at the last minute, I am not sure I would have done anything different. The “solution”, I guess, is to build up a diverse constituency of support for such events. This, arguably, is not part of the job description of an event organizer, but here in India, with its stark inequalities and divisive opinions, it cannot be escaped.

Artists and authors are society’s conscience keepers. They must speak their mind and follow their contrarian impulses. But as art and literary festivals move from the homogenous cultures (Art|Basel or the Hay Festival) to countries with heterogeneous populations with about as many opinions, they have to decide if they want to follow Immanuel Kant’s absolutism or Bentham’s utilitarianism.

Neha Kirpal, the founder of the art fair, at least for now, seems to have gone with Bentham. It is important to her to have a variety of art lovers visit the festival, she says. “We have people coming on private planes and others who take two-day train rides to Delhi to see art. The ticket price (Rs. 200) is less than the cost of a movie ticket.”

The strategy has worked. Last year, 128,000 people visited the art fair, much higher than the region’s juggernaut—the Hong Kong International Art Fair (ArtHK), which drew 63,000 people in 2011. The ArtHK people, incidentally, have taken a 51% stake in the India Art Fair and are themselves part-owned by Art|Basel. Contemporary art, at the end of the day, is a small community. Commercially, it makes sense to keep it so. You want affluent collectors to visit your booths, not the art student from Bihar who took a two-day trip to Delhi. Artist Subodh Gupta undertook such a journey a few decades ago.

What Kirpal and JLF co-director Namita Gokhale have accomplished is bold and path-breaking. To create a business or event that is bigger than you, and will likely outlast you, is the dream of any artist or entrepreneur. These women have accomplished both, and their success will likely spawn other dreamers. The India Art Fair is stunning. If you are a lover of contemporary Indian art, you must visit this playground of desire. Where else can you stand before an original S.H. Raza or discover upcoming artists that you love? I discovered several, and next week, I plan to write about them.

Kirpal told me that she spends a lot of her time lobbying for the art fair and increasing community involvement. That seems to be the way to go. Art is an elitist pursuit, but here in India, it must be inclusive as well—for pragmatic reasons.

This evening, three artists—Jitish Kallat, Navin Thomas and L.N. Tallur— will duke it out for the Rs. 10 lakh Škoda Prize. “Tallur comes from a strong sculpture tradition with an interesting take on traditional motifs,” says Pooja Sood, one of the jury members. “Navin’s focus is on research and cutting-edge sound and technology. Jitish’s is an interventionist, with an intellectual interpretation of space.” I respect Sood, but “interventionist”? What’s that? This is the kind of talk one hears at the art fair.

Building a broader base of support for contemporary art, literature and music in India is hugely important, particularly if small fanatic factions can derail landmark events. It involves reaching out to larger swathes of our population and educating the general public about contemporary art and literature. Most important—and I say this as a logophile, and yes, the irony of using this obscure word in this sentence is not lost on me—it involves speaking a simpler tongue.

Shoba Narayan highly recommends a visit to the India Art Fair. Disclosure: She was a guest of the art fair. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com


Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns


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BN Goswamy

My profile of Professor B. N. Goswamy in Mint Lounge this week.  Here and pasted below.

  • Culture
  • Posted: Thu, Dec 15 2011. 8:08 PM IST
Look at art intently, and with patience
As someone who loves abstract and contemporary art, I am a little rattled by Prof. Goswamy’s obvious love for ancient Indian art

The Good Life | Shoba Narayan

Prof. Brijendra Nath Goswamy is in Bangalore to deliver Tasveer Foundation’s inaugural lecture. I have been allowed to take him out for an hour. Where does one take a man who is arguably India’s foremost art historian? I consider a ride in our new Metro to Angadi Silks or Vimor to buy a sari for his wife. This is a man, after all, who invited three of the country’s top dancers—Bharatanatyam’s Malavika Sarukkai, Odissi’s Madhavi Mudgal, and Kathak’s Aditi Mangaldas—to perform at his wife’s 65th birthday. They agreed. I want a similar grand gesture when I turn 65, I tell my husband. He gives me a sceptical “are you worth it” look. Finally, I take Prof. Goswamy to The Taj West End, mainly because it is close to art collector Abhishek Poddar’s house, where he is staying; and because it has an “Art Corridor”.

Art walk: The Art Corridor at The Taj West End in Bangalore. Courtesy The Taj West End, Bangalore

Art walk: The Art Corridor at The Taj West End in Bangalore. Courtesy The Taj West End, Bangalore

Over cups of cappuccino, we talk about his lecture on rasas or aesthetic emotion that the Chandigarh Lalit Kala Akademi has helpfully uploaded on YouTube. How can my readers learn to be connoisseurs like you, I ask. Prof. Goswamy spells out a few Sanskrit words in explanation. To appreciate art, you have to be an adhikari, he says; an adequate viewer. You have to be sahruday, or of the same heart as the maker. “It is not just empathy but much more than that,” he says. If you are able to cultivate this sensibility of “looking intently and with patience” at a work of art, it will speak to you. Look at all parts of a painting, he says. You never know where the artist has slyly left his stamp. Be aware of your reactions when you observe a work of art: What emotions does it evoke? Perhaps it brings to mind a piece of music, or poetry.

I take Prof. Goswamy on a walk through The Taj West End’s Art Corridor, where a number of contemporary paintings are displayed. I want to see art through his eyes and he obliges. He stands before a Shuvaprasanna owl drawing that he likes. “Shuvaprasanna sees something in birds that you and I don’t ordinarily see,” he says. “There is something sinister and wise about this owl, and I like the fact that he hasn’t covered the entire painting with black and allowed some room for the painting to breathe.” Thota Vaikuntam’s three paintings are dismissed with a “if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. It’s too laboured; all surface.” Before we know it, we have an audience which trails us.

Prof. Goswamy’s distilled aesthetic comes from art acquisition trips across India with C. Sivaramamurti, the National Museum’s first director, whom he calls a “savant who knew art from the inside”. In Cuttack, Prof. Goswamy was drawn to a painting in a private collection in which the Hindu god Krishna was carrying Mt Govardhan, except that the base of the mountain was shaped like a bow. Prof. Goswamy felt that the painter was connecting the Krishna avatar to the earlier Ram avatar. He talks about a verse in the Krishna Karnamrutham, in which Yashoda puts a baby Krishna to sleep by telling him the story of Ram. “When I saw Mt Govardhan painted like a bow, I felt that the artist too had made such a connection,” says Prof. Goswamy . “It was like leaping across time and space to hear the whirring of the artist’s mind. It was extraordinary.”

Prof. Goswamy’s facility with Sanskrit verse, Urdu poetry and Indian philosophy allows him to make uncommon connections between the Natya Shastra, the mother lode of all Indian aesthetic traditions, and, say, English poetry. He says that Abhinavagupta, who interpreted the Natya Shastra, talks about a chamatkar or miraculous effect that will occur in the mind of a rasika when a work of art “whispers” in her mind. “It is as if magical flowers are blossoming in your imagination. We call it adbhut pushpaani,” says Prof. Goswamy.

As someone who loves abstract and contemporary art, I am a little rattled by Prof. Goswamy’s obvious love for ancient Indian art. What am I missing? Why can’t I enjoy miniature paintings or Chola bronzes as much as him? Why are today’s Indians so disconnected with our ancient artistic traditions? Two collectors—(Abhishek and Anupam) both sharing the last name, Poddar— have talked to me about how Prof. Goswamy has infused his love of ancient art in them. If he has managed to convert two of India’s top contemporary art collectors, who am I to fight his evangelism?

I think of this as I stand before the beautifully curated artworks at the Grand Hyatt Mumbai. It juxtaposes ancient replicas with contemporary originals by marquee names—Jitish Kallat, Anju and Atul Dodiya, among others. But the contemporary pieces don’t appeal to me today. Instead, I am drawn to a beautiful Ardhanari bronze sculpture tucked away in a dark corner. I have seen such images countless times in temples. Their symmetrical limbs and serene faces are part of my subconscious. I take them for granted. Today, I observe the quiet figures of Nataraja and Ardhanari through new eyes. These bronze sculptures don’t surprise and jolt me, particularly when compared with the nearby Anju Dodiya installation. Contemporary Indian art can be stunning. When viewed through Prof. Goswamy’s eyes, it can also be shrill, emphatic, in-your-face, fighting for your attention amid a barrage of visual stimuli.

Prof. Goswamy’s refined aesthetic belongs to a quieter pre-YouTube time but can be cultivated even today. He is drawn to lightness and subtlety. He loves Urdu poetry, he says, and eschews harshness of any kind, even in words. “People say they get gooseflesh when they see a work, but that sounds like a skin disease. Even the correct English word, horripilation, sounds horrible. We call it roma harsh, or the fine hairs on our body standing erect in happiness. How beautiful and poetic that sounds,” he marvels.

Rasa or aesthetics is a topic close to his heart. Later that evening, he talks about the Pahari painter Nainsukh to a Bangalore audience that includes Yasmeen Premji, Sarukkai, Britannia CEO Vinita Bali, sculptor Balan Nambiar, and India Foundation for the Arts director Anmol Vellani, among others.

As I drop him back, I ask Prof. Goswamy who his ideal dinner companions would be. Nainsukh the painter, of course, he says. Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, “because I could spend a day reciting Urdu poetry”. Musician Kumar Gandharva. And William Shakespeare, “because I am passionately fond of his work”. A scientist like Albert Einstein who “viewed light and space differently”. And lastly, the maker of a Chola bronze because “I want to know how he thinks”.

Prof. Goswamy is not just an art historian. He is really a time traveller; someone who wants to leap through the centuries and into the minds of those anonymous artists who have created some of our country’s finest art. I envy his artistic sensibility. I think of him as I walk through the Chennai museum’s superb bronze gallery, containing rare Chola and Pallava bronze originals. Speak to me, I tell the Parvati image. What am I missing? Who created you? What am I looking for? I peer hard. A certain chamatkar happens. As I watch Parvati unblinkingly, she winks and gives me a Mona Lisa smile. I swear it. I was not tripping on anything. I was merely high on art and glorious magical flowers blossomed. Adbuth Pushpaani!

Shoba Narayan winked back at Parvati. And at the Shiva (Nataraja) at the Chennai museum. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

Art and Articulation

My column in Mint this week, here on the website and pasted below
Art and articulation often don’t go together
What do we art lovers expect from our artists? Do we want them to be worldly and articulate like the late M.F. Husain or reclusive and free from market influences, like the late Tyeb Mehta or Biren De?

The Good life | Shoba Narayan

 I have a trick question for Pratiti Basu Sarkar, who runs the Centre of International Modern Art (Cima) in Kolkata. It’s a fair question but there really is no good answer—or so I think. I find Sarkar through a chain of friends, and phone her with a request: Could she introduce me to some artists who are emblematic of Kolkata? Sarkar names two from Cima’s roster. She arranges for me to meet them at her gallery. Here’s my trick question: Why did she pick these two out of the dozens of artists that Cima represents? She can’t say that she likes them. It would upset the others in her stable. If she says that she chose them because they are gaining ground in the art world, I will suspect commercial motives and discount her picks. You see why I think this is a question with no good answer.

Rarity: Husain was both articulate and worldly. By Hindustan Times

Rarity: Husain was both articulate and worldly. By Hindustan Times

Sarkar greets me at her gallery wearing a white linen shirt, trousers and adupatta. Beside her stands a smiling woman with kindly eyes. She looks like my childhood image of Enid Blyton, but is, in fact, Sarkar’s sister, Rakhi. Artists Shreyasi Chatterjee and Sumitro Basak walk in. Their work is part of a group show in Norway at the Trondheim Kunstmuseum. Basak tells me he was in Bangalore, doing a residency at the 1.Shanthiroad gallery.

We adjourn to the lounge for a chat. Sarkar sends in masala dosa anddhokla. Basak shows me photographs that he took in Bangalore. The dramatic, colourful images of my hometown look like his paintings. I am more impressed by his three-dimensional books. They are vibrant, playful and thoughtful—like the best children’s books.

Chatterjee stitches on canvas—a more original take on kanthaembroidery. She teaches art history at a local university, and was the subject of a French photographer. The vertical storytelling in her large canvases reminds me of Chinese watercolours—they make the eye move upward.

Also Read |Shoba Narayan’s earlier articles

I ask the usual questions—what inspires them, how do they work—and receive uninspiring answers. We try to find common ground. Chatterjee and Basak talk shop and exchange notes on Charles Wallace grants.

Sarkar joins us after an hour. I spring my question on her, right in front of the two artists. Why did she recommend them, out of all the artists that Cima represents? Basak and Chatterjee are all ears too.

There is silence. “Mainly because they are articulate,” says Sarkar after a moment. It is a brave answer because it does not pander to the two artists sitting with us. “One of the challenges that faces a lot of artists, particularly in Bengal, is that they cannot articulate about their work in English.”

She tells me about a poor, self-taught artist called Shakeela, who is represented by Cima. Shakeela works in paper collages and later I see her work in the back room. “But she simply cannot talk about her work,” says Sarkar.

Do artists need to talk about their work? Isn’t it enough that the work speaks for itself? Years ago, I lost a master’s of fine arts degree trying to prove this point—my professors failed me when I couldn’t articulate what my sculpture installation was about—so I have strong views on this subject. We all do. Basak and Chatterjee talk about how “cumbersome” it is to write pages of fellowship applications. “You have to prove what you are doing like a lawyer,” says Basak.

“I think the auction houses and the market have been very detrimental influences on Indian art,” Sarkar says. I wonder if I should tell Sarkar that the person who pointed me to her was Maithili Parekh, director and country head of Sotheby’s India.

“Yes, the world now knows that there is such a thing as Indian contemporary art but I don’t think they are convinced by it,” Sarkar continues. “The main buyers are still buying our ancient art. Except for a small handful of mainstream, foreign art collectors, contemporary Indian art is mostly being acquired by NRIs. Because what a lot of the contemporary artists are doing in India now has been done in the West 30, 40, 50 years ago. It is not new. It is what the West wants to see of India—the kitsch, the colour, the street scenes, the exoticism. To me, that is untruthful and insincere.”

A stinging critique stated in a soft voice. I turn to look at the artists sitting with us but they don’t seem offended by it. Chatterjee asks Sarkar to repeat the three things emblematic of Indian art and Sarkar obliges: kitsch, colour, exotic street scenes.

What do we art lovers expect from our artists? Do we want them to be worldly and articulate like the late M.F. Husain or reclusive and free from market influences, like the late Tyeb Mehta or Biren De? Should artists engage with the market or be removed from it?

Sarkar believes that artists ought to engage with the real world but not the market. She believes they should study philosophy, read books, form communities. “There is a correlation between artists who read and the thoughtfulness of their work. Artists today come to openings to figure out not content but technique… They have become too involved in the wheeling-dealing. In the West, the galleries do that for you.”

Artists, of course, believe that the galleries don’t do nearly enough. I tell Sarkar about a Delhi art couple who attend openings, parties and deal with media. They complain that it is boring to repeat the same things about their art; but see it as necessary.

“Oh, come on,” Sarkar scoffs. “There is such a word as ‘No’.”

“Yes, but artists are afraid to use this word,” says Basak softly.

Are there any successful artists who are reclusive, I ask.

They all think for a minute and come up with one name: Ganesh Pyne. Need to check him out.

The difficult truth is that the world views artists like we Indians view women. They are the repositories of our integrity and emblems of our better selves. We hold artists to higher standards because they are engaged in what we believe is a profound pursuit. As Sarkar says, “If art is about anything, it is about a truth. Somewhere in that work, there has to be a truth. It’s why we read literature: to find a truth.”

Sarkar is a romantic. The more interesting question is, why is she engaged with the market? When I was an art student, Leonard DeLonga, my sculpture professor who I revered, told me I had to “hustle” to sell my work. The question for Cima’s artists is: Do you want a romantic or a hustler to represent your work?

Shoba Narayan thanks Cima for a wonderful lunch but is compelled to inform them that south Indians don’t put carrots in their masala dosa.Thanks, though.

Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

Anupam Poddar Profile

This is a profile of Indian art collector, Anupam Poddar, who has one of the best collections of Indian Contemporary Art.  As the piece suggests, it could well become an Asian art collection in the near future.

Here is the URL of the profile in The National

Here is the PDF upload.Poddar Page 1Poddar Page 2

Here is the URL of a column I wrote for Mint