Family Ties

Rosalyn D'Mello on the informal solidarity keeping India’s art scene together

By Rosalyn D'Mello

Atul Dodiya, Celebration in the Laboratory, 2012 (installation view, Aspinwall House, Kochi, India). Photo: Ajai Vadakkath. Courtesy Atul Dodiya

Perhaps it is strangely fitting that one of the biggest contemporary artists in a country whose primetime TV slots are inundated with every conceivable permutation of saas-bahu (literally ‘mother-in-lawdaughter- in-law’) soap operas should choose to describe the Indian artworld as a ‘large joint family’. It is the perfect analogy, and Atul Dodiya was the right person to come up with it, considering that his 2012 photo installation Celebration in the Laboratory, which debuted at the inaugural edition of India’s Kochi-Muziris Biennale, was an ode to exactly this notion. Featuring candid portraits of the many members that constitute the Indian art scene, Dodiya’s extensive artwork played at showcasing what was familiar to artworld insiders as unfamiliar to the larger public, whose lives have always been more or less divorced from its existence.

Dodiya referred to these faces as representative of the various players that dominate the artworld, creating a veritable pantheon of the art cognoscenti. He had arranged the framed portraits irreverently on and along the many surfaces of an abandoned laboratory in the rundown seaside Aspinwall House. Veteran members of the Indian artworld who visited the installation during the Biennale’s opening week ventured in with a single-minded resolve: to wade through the dank December air in search of their portrait. Those who found their likeness staring back at them were gleeful, their association with the club whose membership criterion remains elusive now firmly reinforced through Dodiya’s lighthearted art. A few were disappointed not to find themselves similarly canonised. Sweat-drenched, exhausted and desperate for the respite promised by evening sea breezes, I suddenly found myself the unwitting subject of Dodiya’s digital lens. Without knowing it, I had been initiated.

Like the televised world it often mimics, the contemporary Indian art scene is bound by a series of nebulous ties that are, unlike its Western counterparts, less professional underpinnings than an ambiguous sense of familial kinship

If you’ve been unlucky enough to sit through a viewing of a quintessentially Indian soap opera chronicling the saga that cohabiting with an extended joint family entails, you will be familiar with the superfluous use of editing techniques to belabour the melodramatic nature of the exchanges that transpire over the 20-minute span. From omniscient histrionic scores to hammed lines to gaudy outfits to wafer-thin plotlines, each episode packs in more than its fair share of punch. Mercifully, the contemporary Indian art scene is comparatively subdued. But like the televised world it often mimics, it is bound by a series of nebulous ties that are, unlike its Western counterparts, less professional underpinnings than an ambiguous sense of familial kinship. Consequently, exchanges between its kith are imbued with a curious mixture of pettiness, rivalry, mutual admiration, politics, generational nostalgia and a general uncertainty in terms of the direction in which the narrative is proceeding.

To the uninitiated, this heady setup can sometimes resemble a cult, one that congregates periodically at festive arty dos over several cases of liquor, one whose physical space you may share without ever becoming a part of its psyche. Loyalties and allegiances are everything. Legal contracts are subsidiary. Word of mouth is paramount.

The ecosystem of this extended joint family is obviously stratified, for like the society it reflects, it is endemically governed by the caste system. At the apex are the privileged, the collectors and gallery owners, who decide the fate of the subsequent strata, the artists, who can be further subdivided into those who have made it, those who have yet to and those who perhaps never will (at least not in their lifetimes). Next in line are the curators, who, in India, are usually not professionals actually adept at the fine art of curating, but rather reformed art writers successfully masquerading as the arbiters of taste. Needless to say, the art writers are the untouchables and have little place or say within the pyramid. They are the pariahs, the social outcasts who must be content to eat the vestigial scraps thrown their way.

In an attempt at a professional makeover during the boom years and even after the subsequent 2008 crash, the ecosystem had started to incorporate features from Western models. Newer galleries are now keen to represent artists exclusively. Older galleries, however, continue to work with their roster of artists in an informal, familial way, functioning as a support system should their artists find themselves in financial distress. Curators have begun to form guilds in order to facilitate their interests and protect themselves from exploitation. Academic research on contemporary art practices is flourishing; however, art writing continues to languish. The absence of space in newspapers and magazines for critical art reviews has contributed to its early demise. Its impending death is occasionally mourned.

The state cannot be depended upon to nurture or even archive the evolution of Indian art post-Independence. The supposedly prestigious National Gallery of Modern Art hasn’t made an acquisition in at least six years

The historic lack of government-sponsored art infrastructure has forced this ecosystem to rely on private initiatives like the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art to sustain its legacy. Art is deemed a luxury in an impoverished country. The state cannot be depended upon to nurture or even archive the evolution of Indian art post-Independence. The supposedly prestigious National Gallery of Modern Art hasn’t made an acquisition in at least six years, though it finally has, to its credit, begun including midcareer retrospectives by contemporary artists as part of its regular programming, much to the dismay of many veteran artists who are still waiting in line for their long overdue moment in the spotlight.

Truth be told, though, given the circumstances, the fact that this joint family has managed to extend itself and multiply is a miracle worthy of celebration. Despite the odds, the Indian artworld remains closely knit and highly conscious of its ancestral connection to the first generation of post-Independence artists, the Progressives, who, for the sake of their art and for want of a locally bred support system, were forced to leave the country and move to Europe. That artists practising today are able to earn a living on home soil is a testament to how far we’ve come. In a country where liberality is a mirage, where conservatism is the norm and censorship a very real threat, choosing to be an artist is like having a death wish.

You have to learn to make peace with imposed self-exile, like the late Progressive M.F. Husain, who was compelled to seek refuge in Qatar on account of political restrictions, vandalism and harassment by cultural vigilantes, and who was buried in London; or his contemporary Souza, who was fortunate to be able to die on home turf after many poverty-stricken years spent abroad perfecting his art, and whose work is only recently receiving the critical attention it rightfully deserves; or Zarina (Hashmi), whose oeuvre resonates with a single overarching question – ‘Do exiles just wander around, or do they look for a home’ – the consequence of her having been born a refugee in Partitioned India; or influential printmaker Krishna Reddy, who would probably never have managed to reinvent the medium with his discovery of the colour viscosity technique had he continued to live in India, where printmaking is still seen as a stepsister of the arts.

And that is what is responsible for the Indian artworld’s cohesiveness, apart from the in-jokes, the wild parties, the drunken brawls, the shared sense of grief at funerals or joy at weddings, and photographer Ram Rahman’s daily doses of animated memes caricaturing its prominent members on his Facebook page – the knowledge of being a fellow refugee destined to exist on the margins of the mainstream. 

This article was first published in the November 2014 issue.