In the last eight years, filmmaker Vaibhav Raj Shah has made over 150 artist films. Most of them were commissions by important players in the Indian art world, such as the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, India Art Fair and Serendipity Arts Festival, and featured interviews and portraits of artists. In the course of this filmmaking experience, Shah observed that most of his Indian audiences, whether in India or abroad, “know about David Hockney but not Bhupen Khakhar”.
Instances like these, where Indian artists command lesser familiarity than their international counterparts, are only far too many. One of the possible reasons is the relative absence of accessible information on Indian art, especially on contemporary practitioners. ARTHISTORY+, Shah’s new digital project, is aimed at filling this lacuna in art education.
Available on YouTube and Instagram as Art History Plus, the project is a collection of short videos, 28 till date, which form the channel’s first series, ‘Art Explained’. Shah picks an artwork to discuss in each video, but what he primarily asks audiences to do is to look — really look — at the work. He directs the viewer’s gaze to the faces of the figures in Amrita Sher-Gil’s Three Women, the menacing vulture in Prabhakar Pachpute’s The Relic of Our Time, or the many kinds of demons in Madhvi Parekh’s The Greatest Advice to Women.
The self-funded series has focused on only paintings so far, as Shah believes it is hard to appreciate the details of three-dimensional art, such as sculpture or installations, in a 2D video format. Among the contemporary works in the series are those by Anupam Sud, Ratheesh T, Soghra Khurasani, Bhupen Khakhar and Sudhir Patwardhan.
“The series focuses on artwork, not artists. It’s about how to see a painting,” says the filmmaker, who works out of Mumbai and Pune. Shah trained as a painter at MS University, Vadodara, before he set up his production house, Endocrine Films, in 2012, with the sole intention of making films on fine art. Like in many of these artist films, Shah prefers to go directly to the source in ‘Art Explained’, rather than use critical theories to decode or situate a work. He says, “Very often, I find that we read a writer’s wall text, but not the artist’s work. I prefer to speak to each artist for about three to four hours on just one work, and I can read a painting like a novel. I am not dumbing down the work for my audience but I just don’t think we need a Eurocentric perspective to understand Indian art.”
The script, co-written by Shah and his team, sticks to an accessible English, free of jargon, with a touch of the dramatic, almost like in a Bollywood film. New videos are released every Friday, with one on figurative painter Sosa Joseph lined up next.
Based on his conversations with artists, Shah attempts to unearth some of their intentions and contexts but also allows viewers enough wiggle room to frame their own takeaways. Such is the case with the discussion of an untitled painting by Aji VN from 2019. It’s seven feet tall, described by Shah as “a gateway to another land, not so far away”. A house is dwarfed by trees and is set against the flaming hues of a sky, which today has a strong recall of Californian wildfires. Is that a tropical sunset or sulphur in the air? Shah has some of these answers, based on conversations with Aji, but as he indicates towards the end of the video, “sometimes, it’s not always about meaning”.
‘Art Explained’, therefore, goes back to one of the primary motivations of looking at art — curiosity. Very often, the act of looking at a painting or an installation is supplanted by other considerations, such as the cult status of an artist, a fashionable vernissage or the busy demands of a packed weekend of gallery hopping. Sit on this bench, the series seems to say, and simply see this painting.
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