It is no accident that the CONA Foundation is based in the suburb of Borivali, far from the cultural centre of south Mumbai. Housed in a bungalow near an almost-deserted stretch of road — which is frequently visited by leopards residing in the adjoining Sanjay Gandhi National Park — CONA has been here for the last five years. The CONA team comprises co-founders and directors Hemali Bhuta and Shreyas Karle, programs co-ordinator Shabnam Lilani, research director Satyajit Dave and studio assistant Shambhaji Karande. They have no intention of moving closer to the perceived ‘heart’ of the city’s art scene and the location of most of its well-known galleries. “Frankly we are very stubborn about this placement,” says Bhuta, “All good things can’t be reserved for a certain area and a certain class. We love being where we are, and ideologically or philosophically, allegorically or metaphorically, we want to exist at the corner — CONA, where the limitations of dimensionality do not apply and there is a possibility for transcendence. We want be a space which facilitates an integration of different practices.”
A step in this direction is the setting up of CONA’s print studio, which opened up to printmakers, students and other practitioners last week. Karle says, “We always wanted to make our own publications and this was the primary reason we set up the print studio. Besides, we also learned through many art students visiting CONA that there was a dearth of printmaking facilities in the city.” While the print studio in Sir JJ School of Arts is accessible to its students, for a long time others who wished to make prints could do so thanks to artist and printmaker Kashinath Salve, who had opened access to his printmaking set-up in Thane. But after ill-health forced Salve to shut this down a couple of years ago, this avenue too was lost. Karle explains, “Most of these students came from art schools which themselves lacked enough equipment and access to different print making techniques so the setting up of such a studio became quite necessary for a city like Bombay. Fortunately our friends (artist) Vishwa Shroff and (architect) Katsushi Goto came forward to support this initiative, and thus the acquisition of our first printing press happened.” This etching press once belonged to artist Jyoti Bhatt, and was later donated to Salve, from whom CONA acquired it. The foundation also got the screen printing racks and other equipment from Arunbhai Patel, a screen printer from Vadodara while photographer Dayanita Singh donated a Risograph printer. “We are in the process of generating funds to acquire the lithograph and the letterpress machines as well,” says Dave. Also operational now is the co-working space to which CONA hopes to attract “artists, designers, photographers, filmmakers, writers, researchers, ecologists, and biologists”.
The idea for CONA itself grew out of the shared studio space that Bhuta and Karle shared with other artists and designers, once they had graduated from art school, and the need that they felt for an ‘adda’, where discourses on each others’ practices could be initiated. The foundation was envisioned also as a parallel pedagogical system where younger artists could learn about the value of cross-pollination between different disciplines. This is why the new print studio is such an important step for CONA. Not only does the studio fulfill the need that the foundation felt for publishing its own works, it also offers new opportunities for various practices to spill over lines that tend to get too sharply defined. Bhuta says, “For us the printmaking facility needs to be looked at as a tool to explore the idea of publications and in turn that of collaboration, authorship, dissemination and cross pollination. We not only want to encourage experimentation and accessibility to various analogue and semi-analogue (printmaking) techniques for all but we also would like to invite practitioners who would be interested in making books, posters and such. We are really hoping to have writers, ecologists, biologists, permaculturists and such practitioners at our co-working space, who would be interested in collaborating with artists and designers to create books, badges, posters, children’s books, journals and so on.”