The voices of students singing Bangla songs could be heard from outside the Kala Bhavana campus in Santiniketan that was decorated with fairy lights and works of students of the prestigious art institute. Like each year, this year too, the much-awaited Nandan Mela began before dusk on December 1, when students and teachers were seen setting up stalls that featured their works — allowing visitors to both admire art and also take it home at prices much below those on the white cube tags.
“The aim of this mela has also been to build a bond with the immediate community. We have tried to continue that tradition,” says Sanjoy Mallik, principal of Kala Bhavana.
So while one corner of the campus had students rustling up meals for the visitors, another had an installation made of plastic waste. The walls were painted with graffiti and on the grass were works by students of art alongside some of pioneering modernist Ramkinkar Baij’s most acclaimed sculptures. A candle was lit before the photograph of former alumni KG Subramanyan, inside the building with his black-and-white mural on its facade.
And apart from art for the walls in varied mediums, on sale were also handmade calendars, coasters, toys and
In times when the ‘C’ in art denotes commerce instead of colour, the Nandan Mela perhaps represents the ethics and ethos promoted by Rabindranath Tagore, who founded Kala Bhavana in 1919. The mela began years later, in 1973, as a fund raiser for a student of Kala Bhavana who had met with an accident. The students and the faculty — including Somnath Hore and Dinkar Kowshik — had decided to put their works on sale, and since then the annual two-day event has taken the form of a fund raiser for students’ welfare at the institute. “In 1973, there was no art market in India and this was a way to reach out to the community.
Even the art works you see around on the campus were part of the philosophy of putting art in the community. It erased the difference between fine art, crafts and design,” says R Sivakumar, professor of history of art at Kala Bhavana.
While the preparations on campus begin weeks in advance, contributions also often come from alumni and retired faculty. “It is for a good cause and we all have fond memories of being on campus and of the mela,” says artist Jogen Chowdhury, who started teaching in Kala Bhavana in 1987, and was there for more than a decade. This year, selling at the mela were his drawings (Rs 10,000 onwards), prints, sculptures (Rs 50,000 onwards) and textile works (Rs 5,000 onwards). “I, too, have bought several works from the mela over the years,” he adds.
He was one of the numerous visitors to the mela this year. Also seen on campus, among others, were artists Manisha Gera Baswani and Prabir Kumar Biswas, and Delhi-based caterer-author and art facilitator Prima Kurien. Retired government employee Rabi Dey noted how he travels from Midnapore to Santiniketan for the annual event each year.
“I haven’t missed any year since it began. Through the mela, several people learn how to understand art,” says Dey, 73, who also did a certificate course in sculpture from the institution. His collection includes works by Subramanyan, Chowdhury, and a drawing gifted to him by Baij. Sivakumar notes how the mela was once an opportunity to get works of the masters for as little as Rs 5 or 10. “Some of the things are still not too expensive. The prices only started increasing during the art boom, when galleries started coming here to look for the works of masters and middlemen started coming to sell them further. It is a little like the old days now that the boom is no longer there,” adds Sivakumar.
For students, perhaps, this is also an opportunity to come face-to-face with art buyers “It is a collaborative effort, where students and teachers work together. Also, we have people giving us feedback,” says Subhajit Mondal, who is pursuing his graduation in sculpture from Kala Bhavana. His installation featuring origami birds was an ode to the environment and had several halting for a selfie. Meanwhile, at the stalls, the art moved rather swiftly, including terracotta platters, that once bore paintings by Subramanyan.