EDITORIAL : Review / Forever Alternative: A Book on the Alternative Art Scene in Bengaluru / Johny ML
‘Making Space for Art’ is a book on the alternative spaces in Bengaluru. Keeping the famous 1 Shanthi Road in the center, the writers document and historicize the Bengaluru art scene and its alternative complexions. JohnyML, Editor in Chief of Art Tehelka reads between lines and says that too many alternative spaces and art could also produce a mainstream of their own.
When I was at my cynical best, a few years back, in one of the Facebook debates I had answered something funnily acerbic to a question regarding the existence of alternative art spaces in India. The questioner had sought my opinion on the alternative art spaces popping up all over India and Bengaluru being its hub. My answer was not lenient and I said: Alternative spaces are the childhood of mainstream. When they get mature, the alternative artists turn themselves into mainstream artists and visual thinkers. Look at the case of those artists like Sheila Gowda, Pushpamala and Surekha (and many more); they are all the founders and promoters of alternative spaces. But that does not stop them from being mainstream artists. May be that is the fate of the alternative artists; not really the fate of the alternative spaces. Bengaluru is a serious case study to understand the complexion of our alternative art scene and alternative space scene in India. Suresh Jayaram, founder of the famous 1 Shanthi Road, Bengaluru, has now come out with a book that documents the alternative art spaces and art activities there. Titled ‘Making Space for Art’, the book was released in Delhi at the Latitude 28 gallery.
The book focuses on 1 Shanthi Road. Located at the center of the city of Bengaluru, Suresh, following his family tradition of making and preserving knowledge in a collective atmosphere, turned his ancestral property into an art adda to begin with and later on expanded to accommodate the varying needs of a studio, gallery, discursive space, hangout and much more, taking the help of the award winning architects like Meeta Jain. Formally started in 2003, 1 Shanthi Road now is the by word for alternative art practices in India. In my view, 1 Shanthi Road is not a ‘conventional’ art lab. It is a very loose structure that runs on both grants and crowd funding, and is capable of accommodating anything that the artists want to put under the blanket term ‘art’, including lazing around. In those early years I also had the chance of visiting the space and spending one night there. Suresh had said that there was the kitchen and I could find some food and a bottle of Old Monk rum. After almost ten years now, Suresh keeps the same attitude though now he has a full time cook and space managers in two local women.
A foreigner turns into an Indian in this alternative space. And an Indian becomes strangely a foreigner. Both these parties get out of 1 Shanthi Road to document Bengaluru, the city mainly capturing the scenes of torn film posters and garbage. The book documents all these activities which have been done as formal projects and informal developments. History says that Bengaluru has a history of making mainstream into alternative and alternative into mainstream. In 1980s the artists, literary people, film and theatre personalities were looking for the indigenous expressions in Bengaluru. In 1990s, taking inspiration from the previous decade, the artists themselves embarked upon a journey that repudiated the conventional white cube spaces and even the conventional ways of making art. Though Pushpamala in a way forwards a critique on the theatre people and other intelligentsia for the lack of their knowledge in visual arts of today, the fact remains that it was their efforts to create alternative spaces that has helped the present generation to go ahead with similar but radical experiments in making and presenting art. That means, the alternative that too has a history, a conventional linear history in Bengaluru without which the present scenario cannot exist. Though this line of thought is not apparent in the book, reading between lines would help you understand and appreciate this fact.
Two is company and three is a crowd, that’s what they say generally about people. In Bengaluru, it is applicable in the case of art residencies and alternative art spaces. There is a crowd of alternative spaces and they are still growing! This is what made me once say: In Bengaluru there is a BAR in every residence and there is a Residency in every BAR. I was taking off from the acronym BAR, which stands for Bangalore Art Residency. Today, when Suresh Jayaram says proudly that Bengaluru is the hub of alternative practices and perhaps in India this is one city where the alternative spaces are still growing in number, my comment though it was cynical a bit stands justified. I would like to see the observation done by Suresh in the context of Pushpamala’s view that there are not too many galleries in the city. She awards the seriousness to two galleries namely SKE and Sumukha. Rest of the galleries, for Pushpamala is non-serious. This poses a problematic despite the proliferation of alternative spaces in Bengaluru. There should be a proportional relationship between the alternative spaces and the conventional spaces. When mainstream conventional spaces are very authoritative and exclusive, then it is natural to have a very energetic growth of the alternative spaces. But curiously, in Bengaluru, we have only two galleries (as Pushpamala says) and many non-serious galleries that do not deserve to be called galleries. But we have so many alternative spaces that are known nationally and internationally. If so, are they really alternative in the given context of Bengaluru? When alternative is the mainstream there in the city, how could they remain alternative and alternative to what?
Then these spaces should be addressing not just the local art but the art of the nation and elsewhere. But in spirit, are they really alternative? The fate of these alternative spaces is intricately connected with the mainstream. Let us take the example of the book’s release itself. It is done in Latitude 28, which is a mainstream gallery. Pushpamala writes in her column saying that in our country there is no ‘system of galleries’ or real art criticism, she writes this in a magazine, Take on Art, which is mainstream and is produced and edited by a gallerist, Bhavna Kakkar. This could be a sort of co-opting of the alternative by the mainstream. But then I would say it is the fate of it or we do not have any other method to make it different. For example, Inder Salim Tikku, a performance artist who established himself on the streets of Delhi, finally ends up in Kiran Nadar Museum and conducts a workshop on performance art that too standing right in front of a crore worth Raza painting. There is an urgency to co-opt; the most interesting case was the adoption of the cutting edge art and artists by so many new but mainstream aspirant galleries in Delhi during the boom years. The real mainstream had shown the way and rest followed.
When I say this, one might think that I am being unnecessarily critical. But hear the same from a British artist writer Gemme Sharpe, who had visited 1 Shanthi Road and contributed a little note to the book. While writing about how Tate Modern had turned the turbine hall space in 2010 May into an ‘alternative space’ by giving the space for those ‘alternatives’ in London to come, set up their shops and shout for attention, in her words. Gemme Sharpe writes further: “Looking over this rather uncomfortable project leads me to wonder what ‘alternative’ means when institutions like Tate – in this part of the world at least- are so desperate to swallow up the activities of the self-organized; to fetishize the efforts of the underpaid, the over worked, the passionate and the ‘free’. Apprehending ‘alternative’, this particular project co-opted and then erased the critique of institutions like Tate Modern that the participating spaces often build, consciously or unconsciously, into their frame work.”
I do not know which are those agencies in India that would eventually gobble up these alternative spaces? But I am sure there is some kind of death wish for these spaces even when they start and survive in their alternative spaces. When Khoj International came they had this wonderful idea of being an alternative space. Now being one of the richest art spaces in India, Khoj has become another corporate art space. Will these alternative art spaces in Bengaluru become the franchises of Khoj eventually? How long are they going to continue as alternatives? I am very appreciative about the alternative practices that have been on in Bengaluru for a long time. But I am also curious in seeing them one by one coming up and joining the bandwagon of the mainstream. Though I do not say that there should some kind of animosity between the mainstream and the alternative, I cannot help saying that the ideological stance should be clear; an alternative space or artist cannot be an out and out appreciator of the mainstream art and its various forms of expositions including the biennales. They are the larger showrooms of the mainstream and economic art activities. How can they be mutually supportive and appreciative?
This book, ‘Making Space for Art’ is a good documentation about the art and artists of Bengaluru, who have been doing alternative art practices with the motto, never say die. This gives an overall picture and also acknowledges all those people who have worked hard to make this scene possible in Bengaluru. The names of Samooha Suresh, Umesh Madanahalli, Surekah, H.A.Anil Kumar and so on cannot be forgotten and thankfully everyone is acknowledged here in the book. Somehow only the alternative film practitioners like Prakash Babu do not get a mention. Similarly the limitation of the book is that it is more 1 Shanthi Road centric. But that is not a problem to be worried about because the person who made this possible is Suresh Jayaram and in all humility he stands and never makes any tall claims in his notes in the book. This book also could have addressed other alternative practitioners including people who are involved in alternative poetry, performance, music, photography and so on. Anyway that needs another volume with a different focus. The most hilarious thing I found in the book is the kind of jovial, causal and informal tone that a few of the writers have taken in writing their notes of appreciation for the 1 Shanti Road. One of the contributors writes: “Up on the terrace a row of really old bonsai treasures lay in a row basking in the sun, just below a pegged line of delectably lacy panties hung out for dry by the most recent resident artist.” How alternative the writing could go!!