Before Rachel Howard found her calling in emotional abstracts, she was known as Damien Hirst’s ‘first and best assistant’. Of the numerous spot paintings by the acclaimed British artist, he confesses the best perhaps were painted by Howard in the 1990s. Today, the two are friends — Howard is grateful to Hirst for the encouragement he provided and Hirst has turned into an admirer and collector of her art.
While the western art world is replete with tales of the relationship shared between artists and their assistants — including Jeff Koons, who married his former assistant Justine Wheeler — in India, this liaison remains unacknowledged. Part of the periphery that supports the artiste, they are the underside that is hardly ever spoken of. Now, with art works and money involved getting bigger, the need for skilled assistants is on the rise, and, in the process, of receiving recognition.
“The need for assistants depends on the work of the artiste, the medium he or she practises in. For instance, an artist who draws doesn’t need assistants,” says Mumbai-based artist Sudarshan Shetty, who works with different sets of wood carvers and mechanical assistants for his gigantic installations.
Till last year, his Mumbai studio had a writer with whom he shared ideas and who took notes as they discussed possible projects. His metal works, meanwhile, are given shape at Rachaita Creative Solutions, a metal fabrication company in Baroda. Its founder Manish Maheshwari still remembers the dinosaur he designed for Shetty’s acclaimed installation, Love, in 2006, incidentally his first project with an artiste. “He was having trouble getting it made. We had been working with architectural firms and had the necessary infrastructure,” says Maheshwari. His clients now include Riyas Komu, Baiju Parthan, Navjot Altaf, TV Santosh and Anath Joshi, among others.
Krishna is Manjunath Kamath’s man Friday. Having worked with the Delhi-based artist for more than 15 years now, Krishna knows his mind. “He knows which brush I’ll use next,” says Kamath, adding he trained the second-year arts dropout from Odisha to work on his sculptures and assist in his video work.
Krishna, who travelled to Delhi in search of better opportunities, is grateful to have found Kamath through a friend. “He has taught me not just art but has become my family in Delhi. I discuss all my problems with him and he always has a solution,” says Krishna, 32.
Last month, he was joined in Kamath’s studio by Ravi Chulchula, a Master’s in printmaking from Sarojini Naidu School of Arts & Communication in Hyderabad. “He has taught me how to deal with the problems that occur during the actual making of a work, how to develop a vision,” says Chulchula. Working on a stipend of Rs 10,000 a month, he is also pursuing his own practice in a studio in Maidan Garhi, south Delhi.
The nature of the alliances, however, differs. So while Subodh Gupta employs several workers at his multi-storey studio in Gurgaon, LN Tallur travels from Korea to Mangalore to take the help of traditional craftspeople. “I believe craft forms, especially Indian crafts, are mature but saturated. I attempt to work with different crafts and conceptualise them the way I want it,” says Tallur.
There have also been instances of the relationship turning sour. While Anjolie Ela Menon took her assistant Hamid Safi to court on charges of faking her work in 2004, Mohider Soni openly declared that he had painted many of the works that sold as Manjit Bawa’s.
“Copying our work will not get them anywhere; they have to develop their own style to gain recognition,” says artist Jagannath Panda. Dileep Kumar Singh is his constant aide. Working in his studio since 2005, Singh, a graduate of the Government College of Art and Crafts, Khallikote, Odisha, has exhibited his works at the All India Fine Arts & Crafts Society and Lalit Kala Akademi in Delhi. “Recently, I painted a series of broken chairs,” says Singh, 35, pointing out that his work is very different from Panda’s.
Drawing a salary of Rs 25,000 a month, Singh and his wife stay on the top floor of Panda’s Gurgaon studio. Now, the artiste is planning lessons in photography for Singh and himself. “It interests both of us,” says Panda.
He also takes pride in his former assistants who are now students at reputed art institutions such as the College of Art in Delhi and M S University, Baroda. He hopes to groom more students to step into the art world on their own.
At Kamath’s studio, Krishna, meanwhile, talks of becoming a fan of Bhimsen Joshi. “Sir has introduced me to the finer things in life. I visit galleries and only listen to classical music now,” he says, as he gets back to work —arranging for Kamath to paint the triptych that’s hanging on his studio wall.