A short distance separates artist Gulammohammed Sheikh’s house on Aurobindo Ghosh Road in Baroda from the Faculty of Fine Arts at the Maharaja Sayajirao University (MSU). Even now, years after he has stopped teaching, students turn up at his house for conversation and advice. He is often found seated in the verandah, looking out at the green campus, as his artist-wife Nilima Sheikh works in her studio on the first floor.
He was, like those for whom his doors are still open, once an eager greenhorn here. At 18, he left his home in the town of Surendranagar in Gujarat to travel 200-odd km to Baroda and seek admission at the recently established faculty. “It was a mind-blowing experience. Teachers and students spoke freely to each other. We were encouraged to mingle, read and keep abreast of what was happening the world over,” says Sheikh, 79, who joined as an art student in 1955 and retired as the head of the painting department in 1993.
The six decades he has spent at the university is a big part of the history of the Faculty of Fine Arts. He was a part of the collective of artists, including KG Subramanyan, Jeram Patel, Bhupen Khakhar and Jyoti Bhatt, that shaped this school into an intimate space, where art is created in the midst of friendships and everyday life. Sheikh, his wife Nilima and Bhatt are the last of the doyens of that generation.
In the last year, the Faculty of Fine Arts has lost both Mani Sir (as Subramanyan was known to his students) and Patel. Their demise has been a blow to the close-knit community, and its web of relationships. For Sheikh, it has meant not being able to walk over to Subramanyan’s house for a chat. For Rekha Rodwittiya, it has been like losing a father. “I could go to KG’s home anytime, talk to him, discuss anything with him,” she says.
Dotted with murals by Subramanyan and prints by Bhatt, the campus right opposite Sayaji Baug in Baroda is where students work for hours — some painting outdoors, others sculpting in community studios.
“Work develops through feedback,” says Subrat Kumar Behera, 28. The graduate from BK College of Art and Crafts, Bhubaneswar, failed to get through to MSU thrice. But he didn’t give up. “Several of my seniors from Odisha had told me about the informal nature of teaching at the institute, which appealed to me. Years after completing my studies, I still go to my teachers in the printmaking department for advice,” says Behera. He completed his Master’s in printmaking in 2003 but has not moved out. “There are no distractions in Baroda. One can concentrate on work and not be bothered about breaking into a network or approaching galleries.
The quality of your work brings people to you,” says Behera.
Hundreds of students travel to the city each year to find a place for themselves. “The close network of artists act as a support system,” says Abir Karmakar, another artist and alumnus.
When Sheikh was a student, the classroom would spill out of the campus or change shape. NS Bendre, then the head of the painting department, turned the classroom into his studio after the lessons were over. As students watched in silence, he worked on his canvases. Still-life studies were held all across Baroda, from the railway station to the streetside. Opening the world to them was a library with the best of art books and international journals.
He formed enduring friendships with Subramanyan, Patel, Khakhar, Bhatt and Vivan Sundaram, among others. The red-brick building of the faculty was their regular haunt. This is where Sheikh worked into the wee hours of the night, preparing for his solo shows, as the days were given to teaching. He also met his wife Nilima at the faculty in the late ’60s. He was a teacher and the Delhi girl was his student.
The Faculty of Fine Arts was established in 1950 on the recommendation of the Hansa Mehta Committee report on educational policy for [the then] Bombay Presidency in a city that was almost equidistant from the big two art hubs of the time: Bombay and Delhi.
Teachers from across India travelled here to form an art community. “The Faculty was the epicentre,” says Jyoti Bhatt, who belonged to the first batch of students who enrolled at the institute.
Markand Bhatt, an alumnus of Sir JJ School of Art, Mumbai was the dean. Bendre had just returned from a tour of Europe and was influenced by cubism, expressionism and abstract art. Mumbaikar VR Amberkar had established his name as an artist with in a bold impressionistic style, and Subramanyan and Sankho Chaudhuri were radical visionaries from Santiniketan.
Together, their aim was to distinguish MSU from its counterparts, whether it was the Sir JJ School of Art, whose academic structure was then rooted in European tradition, or Santiniketan, which leant towards tradition.
Art education in Baroda was not just focused on acquiring skills but, as Bendre noted, it was directed towards the “preparation of a receptive mind”. “Sanko Chaudhuri and KG Subramanyan brought to Baroda the inspiring lineage of the most fecund days at Santiniketan. But they also brought caution — about the freezing of creativity, the degeneration of ideology into dogma and stereotype, once the day of the genius passes,” wrote Nilima Sheikh in the book Contemporary Art in Baroda.
Subramanyan taught his students the importance of plurality — of influences, medium and approach. He famously described himself as “an artist activist – not an activist artist”.
The fine balance wrought in the faculty gave India some of its most prominent artists, from Bhatt, Shanti Dave, GR Santosh and Ratan Parimoo to Sheikh, Sundaram, Himmat Shah and Bhupen Khakhar. In more recent years, the list of experimental, cutting-edge artists from Baroda has grown to include Pushpamala N, Sheela Gowda, Mrinalini Mukherjee, as well as Nikhil Chopra, LN Tallur, Jagannath Panda, Chintan and Hema Upadhyay.
“We were a family. I think artists in Baroda still are,” says Bhatt, 82, when we meet him at his Old Padra Road home in Baroda. Son of an educationalist in Bhavnagar, Bhatt stayed with his teacher Markand for months as a student because he was unable to afford accommodation . In return, he did odd jobs.
Bhatt was also a part of the faculty’s first collective, The Baroda Group of Artists. Guided by Bendre, the alumni organised their first exhibition at Sayaji Baug in Baroda in 1956, followed by another at Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai in 1957.
All artists had their individual style and concerns. There was no one overarching influence. Bhatt merged Saurashtra embroidery patterns and cubism with meticulous craftsmanship in his canvases, and Khakhar brought the kitsch of bazaars and town streets to Indian art. Jeram Patel literally attacked wood with his blowtorch, destroying its innards with the flame to create rhymic patterns. Sundaram’s oeuvre was politically-inclined and Sheikh’s work was in dialogue with the Indian miniature tradition. In 1966, Bhatt returned to MSU after a workshop in New York, excited about printmaking. That led others such as Patel, Khakhar and Sheikh to experiment in it as well.
With teachers and students producing landmark work, the faculty began to be noticed. Sheikh recalls how MF Husain gave demonstrations to students in Baroda. In 1971, Krishen Khanna halted here on his way from Delhi to Bombay to organise a one-day display of his series made in the wake of the Bangladesh war.
The Baroda school was an outlier in another respect. Discounting a few corporate collectors — like Jyoti and Savita Amin, who famously gave part-time employment to Khakhar as an accountant — the artist community in Baroda has thrived without any patronage.
Subramanyan had attempted to bring the public closer to the artists through an annual art fair, where students and teachers would produce mementos such as toys and cards to be sold at a modest price. It did not bring in substantial money. “During the art boom of the late ’90s, the number of prominent galleries in the city did not exceed 10 and now it’s even fewer, but I am told that the number of artists are over 800,” says Vasudevan Akkitham, head of the painting department at MSU. Several young artists such as T Venkanna, who completed his Master’s in printmaking from MSU in 2006, believe that Baroda offers the perfect combination to artists — a smaller city with a close circle of artists who might compete in the market but are supportive of each other. Delhi and Mumbai are not far either.
In the absence of collectors, private support comes in the form of the several community studios. There are four such studios within a 5 km-radius of the MSU. One of the oldest is Space, established by collectors Mallika and Krupa Amin. In front of its entrance stand Parag Sonarghare’s larger-than-life nudes. Inside, Uday Mondal is painting cricketing giants and Mansi Trivedi’s Gothic prints hang in another studio. “With a lull in the market, it helps to gain admission into one of the collective studios; it’s difficult to sustain art practice otherwise,” says Trivedi, 28, who completed her Master’s in graphics from MSU in 2012. The trade-off, usually, is that the artist donates a work of hers every six months.
At Rekha Rodwittiya and Surendran Nair’s collective studio, the ambience is more informal. Based on the guru-shishya parampara, here students learn the nuances of art while living with the couple. Some of its previous residents include South Korean artist Kim Seola, Sonatina Mendes and Schon Mendes, who had his solo at Mumbai’s Sakshi Gallery last month. “It is a support system. When I came back from London after my post-graduation, I could not find studio space,” says Rodwittiya, 58, who is known for her strong idiosyncratic depictions of female forms.
She remembers the vibrant classroom discussions she engaged in as a student at MSU in the mid-1970s but is wary of the changes that have crept in. “The institution has lost its direction, not for the want of having wonderful teachers but because of the interference. It has been dragged into controversies that are politically motivated, which has taken away its autonomy,” she says.
Credited to have fostered a distinctive modernist Indian aesthetic, the faculty has seen violent attacks against artists who do not “follow Indian tradition” over the last couple of years.
In 2007, Chandramohan, a final-year student at MSU, was arrested for exhibiting “objectionable art work” in the annual exhibition. Since then, there is a nip of wariness in the air. The annual display is now “censored”. “Everything is open to the jury, but anything that can be interpreted as objectionable is removed from public view. After the Chandramohan incident, we have come close to similar situations several times,” says artist Indrapramit Roy, associate professor and dean of students. Even nude studies, considered an integral part of life studies, have been discontinued.
Venkanna admits it would be unthinkable for him to come out nude, as he did in one of his most provocative performances at Art Stage Singapore in 2011. Karmakar’s teacher at MSU, PD Dhumal, might feel that the prints he made in the ’70s and ’80s were bolder than Karmakar’s naked androgynous self-image but the contemporary artist says it is unlikely that he will bring his split image out of the closet in Baroda. “One cannot fight fanatics. It’s best to continue to do your work peacefully,” says Karmakar.
Others have voiced their concern through their work. The 2002 Gujarat riots that shocked the city and its secular cultural ethos has found expression in numerous forms. In her 2013 exhibition, Beyond Pain: An Afterlife, the then Baroda-based artist Vasudha Thozhur depicted the lives of six adolescent girls caught in the middle of the riots. Sheikh, too, has been a victim of politics in the region. In the aftermath of the 2002 riots, he took an opportunity to teach at the Art Institute of Chicago for months, before he returned to Baroda.
His monumental installation, City: Memory, Dreams, Statues and Ghosts: Return of Hiuen Tsang, depicts the city best. In twin panels, he juxtaposes the violence and vandalism in the city with its significance as an archaeological site, which drew 7th century pilgrim Hiuen Tsang, who was looking for the relics of Buddha. It is this duality that artists in the city are still negotiating with.