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Three curators who are changing the face of Indian art

Mumbai’s oldest museum, Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum holds its head high thanks to Tasneem Zakaria Mehta.

Written by Vandana Kalra | New Delhi | Updated: June 29, 2014 3:33 am
Three curators who are changing the way Indian art is viewed across the world Three curators who are changing the way Indian art is viewed across the world

Tasneem Zakaria Mehta, 60

Till a decade ago, Mumbai’s oldest museum, Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum, lay forgotten in the Victorian greens of Byculla, Mumbai, completely hidden from the art scene. Today, thanks to Tasneem Zakaria Mehta, it holds its head high, like the monolithic basalt elephant — once at the gates of the Elephanta — at its entrance. The carved doors open into imposing interiors with Palladian columns and richly painted ceilings, reflecting the green that envelops the museum — the colour chosen by Mehta to dress the space.

Tasneem Zakaria Mehta at Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai Tasneem Zakaria Mehta at Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai

Every artefact on display is hand-picked and gives the 19th-century museum a new face. It merged the past with the present, the colonial with the contemporary. “We want to showcase contemporary culture the way the museum did earlier,” says Mehta, the managing trustee and honorary director of the museum, who reopened it after extensive research and renovation in 2008. The project was a public-private venture funded by the Ermenegildo Zegna Group. Soon, artists were invited to showcase their works. Sudarshan Shetty erected his own life-size statue next to the marble statue of Prince Albert and Jitish Kallat presented the city as an unfinished national project with makeshift scaffolding and rioting figures. “It’s about creating a dialogue between the museum and the city,” says Mehta, a JJ School of Art graduate.

She went on to pursue a degree in liberal arts from Columbia University, which was followed by a post-graduate diploma in modern art from Christie’s and a PhD on the establishment of museums and schools of art from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She has been working in the field of art ever since. Among other things, she was the governor of the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority Heritage Society and the vice-chairman of Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH).

In the six years since the reopening of the Bhau Daji Lad Museum, there has never been a dull moment. “Curating is also a form of art, which, unfortunately, is not understood in India,” says Mehta. The biggest challenge, though, is interacting with the artists. “Artists can be very possessive about their work,” says Mehta.

Having learnt the fine art of maintaining a distance, and yet being involved, she makes active interventions in most projects at the museum. For instance, in Kallat’s 2011 exhibition, Fieldnotes: Tomorrow was Here Yesterday, the boxes that housed miniature resin figurines came from Mehta’s office. “He wanted them on the floor,” she says. Kallat yielded to her idea when she showed him a box they had. She has also worked closely with his wife Reena, who designed the strings of rubber stamps trellised to form a cobweb that hung from the facade of the museum. Each stamp bore the name of a street in Mumbai changed as part of the renaming and decolonising of the city.

Efforts are now being made to bring the west to the east. Tie-ups with the Victoria & Albert Museum are in place. The museum is booked till 2017. Mehta, though, is booked far beyond.

Shanay Jhaveri, 29

Jhaveri is in the process of organising an exhibition on Chandigarh Jhaveri is in the process of organising an exhibition on Chandigarh

If Amrita Sher-Gil is one of India’s most celebrated artists, Lebanese painter and sculptor Saloua Raouda Choucair popularised abstract art in the Arab world. Both of them led distinctly cosmopolitan lives, actively arbitrating between disparate cultural and geographical spaces. They found their calling in Paris, and returned to their homelands to discover modernism. Last year, Shanay Jhaveri brought them back to the French capital in Companionable Silences, a show that exhibited the works of non-Western women artists, who lived and worked in Paris from early to mid-20th century. “Collectively, the works gesture at modernism’s cross-cultural past,” says Jhaveri.

The quest to discover the vagaries in “modernism” across the globe has come to define the practice of the under-30 graduate in art semiotics from Brown University, US. “Each programme is a mode of new learning and research. In my programmes, I try to formulate rela-tionships between works that would never appear alongside one another, developing a constellation which asks questions instead of offering definitive statements,” says Jhaveri, who shuttles between the UK and Mumbai.

It was a 112-page guidebook to Mumbai that first brought him to the limelight. Published in 2007 by the magazine Wallpaper, it explored the city from a design perspective. Three years and several reviews later came his first publication Outsider Films on India: 1950-1990 in which, through 10 films in four decades, he studied how European filmmakers responded to post-colonial India. The book led to a film programme at Tate, followed by a large three-site exhibition in the city of Brugge in Belgium, titled India: Visions from the Outside. He further explored this cross-fertilisation of ideas and influence in his much-acclaimed publication Western Artists and India: Creative Inspirations in Art and Design.

While his PhD supervisor at Brown University, Leslie Thornton, left a lasting impact on Jhaveri, he learnt his early lessons in fine art during his stint as assistant to the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist at the Serpentine Gallery, London. “There is a connection and back and forth between my writing and ‘curatorial’ work,” says the contributing editor for Frieze magazine. He is now in the process of organising an exhibition about various artistic responses to the city of Chandigarh.
With the absence of an active institutional infrastructure and very few private museums, curators in India, according to him, have to demonstrate agility and resourcefulness. “They have greater issues negotiating with the state and raising funds than their counterparts in the West,” says Jhaveri. For now, he intends to be the bridge, linking the two parts of the hemisphere.

Naman Ahuja, 39

Naman Ahuja at his exhibition, Body of Indian Art. Naman Ahuja at his exhibition, Body of Indian Art.

Standing at  a spot within the 14,000 sq ft exhibition circumference, Naman Ahuja introduces its layout as a body wrapped around the viewers. The starting point, ironically, is from the door of “death”. This is where the curator begins his much-acclaimed exhibition, Body in Indian Art, that discusses how the body has been depicted in India through over 300 exhibits, spanning Chola bronzes to Rajput miniatures and contemporary art. He is at the National Museum in Delhi introducing the collection. Curatorial walks aren’t commonplace in India, but Ahuja believes they are essential.

The associate professor of ancient Indian art and architecture at Jawaharlal Nehru University brings together pottery and archival research in his work. A student of pioneering artist-potter Devi Prasad, Ahuja hasn’t practised his art in the last couple of years. Instead, he has pored over his personal archives comprising slides of over 20,000 objects from across India.

“Curating is not just about the physical staging of the exhibition, it is also about researching each exhibit and forming a narrative,” says the former curator of Indian sculpture at the Department of Oriental Antiquities at the British Museum, London, and the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford.

Being a co-curator of an exhibition, Divine Presence: Arts of India & the Himalayas, in Barcelona and his work at the British Museum helped him get trained as a curator. As co-curator of Devi Art Foundation’s Where in the World in 2010, he examined the impact of globalisation and economic liberalisation on contemporary art in India, which earned him critical acclaim.

This story appeared in print with the headline In Other Rooms, Other Wonders

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