Editorial: Looking for Artists in Metros / JohnyML
Do Artists need to look like Artists? When artists undergo happy image make-overs, some remain frozen in time. But that has a charm says Johny ML, in his editorial.
In India, if you ask me, where would you find artists who look like artists? I would say you have to go to the city of joy in order to see them. In other cities, artists have mutated into new beings; from one angle they look like fashion models and from another angle they look like creative geniuses trimmed to shape by some efficient groomer. At night, in the dimly lit bars and pubs they look like recalibrated demons with angelic wings. Recently, I was at an opening in Bangalore, a place far away from the seashore. But artists came in shorts and beach vests and slippers. I was not offended because they were my friends and also I knew they were people known for defying conventions. In Mumbai, they are all well-dressed. One could see desi versions of Brad Pitts and Angelina Jolies. Some run galleries always wearing a thinking cap. Once in US always in US, that’s what they tell us. In Delhi, things are a little different; the memories of Nehruvian socialism are still reflected in Nehruvian jackets, Kanjeevarams, shervanis, chakta jamas and so on. Shawls are inevitable. Mumbai’s humidity and Delhi’s heat are defeated by the coolness of these arty cools.
Cynical I sound, though it is a fact. Down south, Kochi’s art scene was a laid -back one before 2011. The very next year, with the curtains raising for the then controversial and now conventionally accepted Kochi Muziris Biennale, things changed forever. Blue and red pants took over and dhotis went out of fashion. Pointed shoes, fake accented English, fluorescent spectacle frames and watch straps, squeaking footwear and a general habit of looking at one’s own backyard as if that belonged to the part of some Latin American countryside started creeping in the fashion sense of the art crowd in Kochi. They started looking at their own reflections in the mirrors and getting goose pimples out of sheer disgust and embarrassment but survival instinct has led them through so far. But interestingly, the women artists remain their shabby selves, wearing the churidar sets of the worst possible cut and fitting, if not some outdated and ill-fitting trousers or pair of jeans. Kochi is perhaps the only place in the God’s own country where colonial incursions since the arrival of Christianity and Islam in 4th century AD itself and the newer versions of it through the domination of the Portuguese, Dutch, French and English, are justified in order to say that globalization in art was there ever since Kerala was retrieved from the sea !
When I say that in Kolkata one could see artists who come for looking at works of art and expecting nothing in return I am not just trying to rake up some age old stereotype of artists who are led by divine madness and act upon them. Yes, while the artists in other city centers play their madness methodically, I believe in Kolkata the artists who are Bengal bound still play or live their madness without any methods. They remain as artists in a fast globalizing society without changing the ways of their art or their life styles itself is a great way of living their madness out. They could change but all of them ask, ‘for what?’ Right from the senior most artists, critics and historians to the junior most ones live as if they are ‘posted’ in a world where they are ‘destined’ to live as ‘artists’. How do they live these lives of being artists? Does it reflect in their dresses? Does it show in their talk? Does it come up in what they eat? Where exactly one could pin point their state of being artists?
I made an attempt this time. I went and attended the ‘Hundred Years of Husain’ jointly organized by a group called Virasat and the Artists Association of Kolkata. The venues were jam packed. Most of the people came there because they really liked M.F.Husain. Youngsters performed street plays. Some of them helped in making the stage and the entrance decorations. All of them attended the seminars conducted there. They were not waiting for cocktails and flashbulbs. It is not my first experience; I have been visiting Kolkata for quite some time and each time I come back with the feeling that the artists out there, despite all their shortcomings in terms of lack of exhibition facilities, acceptance and success in the market place, they remain as artists. They dress in simple clothes and virtually none of them take any pride in showing off any of those branded wears. Elders wear typical Bengali cotton clothes. Women artists are elegantly dressed. Youngsters, even the coolest of them prefer to tone down their looks when they are in an art crowd. This simplicity is a part of the cultural make-up of the society which stalwarts like the Tagores, Nandalal Bose, Ramkinkar Baij, Satyajit Ray and Mahasweta Devi and so on helped in establishing. In Kolkata, there are other art avenues where the typical ‘touch-me-not’ type of art is showed and discussed. But then you don’t see them in these kinds of openings.
Postscript: The other day in facebook, I saw a group of art people in a gallery standing around something on the floor that looked like a lump of cow dung. I have never seen such kind of reverence and admiration for cow dung in the eyes of Delhi art(y) people before. For a moment I thought that in India these days cow is the most revered being and a certain set of scientists have been telling us that cow dung and urine have got medicinal values. I thought this must be either a cow that has strayed into a gallery and seeing stuff on the wall, responded with its posterior and left or a piece of art in tune with the political climate of our country. The latter turned out to be true; yes, it was a work of art. I could not understand the self-deceiving pretension of people in appreciating substandard turd with so much of reverence and awe. If veteran artist Jyoti Bhatt was in town he would have definitely said, ‘Bullshit’. But art historically, I see as the watering down of aesthetics. Subodh Gupta had used dried cow patties to build his energy house which is in the Devi Art Foundation collection. Now some contemporary artist has used the ‘raw’ material as raw ‘material’. Or was he showing the mid finger to the unsuspecting jury members?