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Thursday, April 15, 2021

The Elephant in the room is not for sale

The average urban Indian might have become more curious about art,but he still needs to sign up for Art Etiquette 101

Written by Georgina Maddox | New Delhi |
March 13, 2011 11:55:49 pm

The average urban Indian might have become more curious about art,but he still needs to sign up for Art Etiquette 101

At the India Art Summit this January,people came in thousands,drawn by talk of Anish Kapoor’s shiny seductive surfaces and the chatter about Subodh Gupta’s dabbas. Their numbers were proof that there is an audience,and not just a market,for art in India. But when the stalls had emptied,and the party was over,gallery owners fumed at the lack of etiquette of viewers.

Bhavna Kakar of Delhi gallery Latitude 28 found chewing gum pasted on a Rajesh Ram bronze sculpture,and a sticker on a Dilip Chobisa glass installation. Abhay Maskara of Mumbai’s Gallery Maskara said he had to guard Shine Shivan’s sculpture Cock Dump — 14 stuffed cockerel bodies mounted on a table — for two days at the summit because people would keep touching it.

Subodh Gupta’s tiffin boxes on a conveyer belt were merrily

rearranged by the gallery staff,without the artist’s knowledge or consent.

The crush of eager viewers is not a common occurrence at art events in India. What is common,though,is the ignorance many display when they walk into a show. “Most people are not sensitised to artwork. If there is something on display,they must touch it to see if it is real,” says Maskara. International galleries at the summit put ribbons on the floor to mark a boundary and discourage people from touching the artwork. Few in the jostling crowds heeded the suggestion. “There is a tendency to pick up anything from a table,from visiting cards to pamphlets to books on sale,” says Kakar.

Etiquette often gets trampled over in Indian cities,while people are boarding trains or impatiently waiting out queues. Turns out that it fares a similar fate at art events: people can walk into a museum and demand that they be allowed to buy art,or simply refuse to keep their distance from artwork. If they like a work of art,they go up to the artist and ask for three of the same.

The Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA),which opened in the unlikely space of a Delhi shopping mall,has seen similar confusion. A family walked in with shopping bags,hoping to “pick up some art”. They were shocked to find that the works were not for sale. Another person was trying to touch Bharti Kher’s elephant sculpture The Skin Speaks a Language Not Its Own,but the guard on duty stopped him in time. “In the first two weeks at the KNMA,I had the most humorous interactions with people who asked me if things were on sale or what was it all about,” says Roobina Karode,KNMA’s curator. “But even if someone asks me an uninformed question,I should not mock them but be willing to hand-hold them while they get familiar with art. It’s my duty because we’ve created a wall around art and mystified it. Our education system does not foster an art viewing culture,” says Karode.

Artist Bharti Kher,too,warns against dismissing the curious Indian as a philistine. “If someone wants to touch my elephant,it’s a sign of success of the work. The fact that the Anish Kapoor show was packed on the closing day means you shouldn’t underestimate or patronise your public. The average Indian has had the ability to understand abstractions (symbols like the swastika and om) for a long time,” says Kher.

While the nouveau riche now snaps up art as “investment”,there is not enough value for art as knowledge. Most curators,gallery owners and practitioners of art agree that the challenge to create such a culture,by breaking the wall around art,needs to be met with resourcefulness. “There is potentially a big viewership which needs to be informed and made at home with art. This can be done by opening up information and insight,and offering examples of how an artwork can be viewed,” says art critic and curator Ranjit Hoskote,who is curating the India pavilion at the Venice Biennale to be held in May. “Ways of doing this would be through publishing more books and leaflets,and active modes of engaging viewers by providing walk-through shows,lectures and discussions. Extended wall text that explains the art better and take-away mementos are also effective tools of communicating the value and joy that art can bring,” he says.

Karode says that at the KNMA,they are on their second print run of easy-to-read brochures,both in Hindi and English.

More people might visit the Vadehra Art Gallery to buy art now,compared to when it was established in 1987,but Arun Vadehra,director of the gallery,says the understanding of art is still undernourished — and much of the problem starts early. “They look at it as an investment and an asset that they can sell and make profit. That’s because unlike abroad,where children are exposed to art and its nuances when they are still young,in India there is hardly any emphasis on art in school,” he says.

The white cube is often an intimidating space for the aam aadmi,agrees gallery owner Renu Modi. “For the common man,art is aspirational,daily needs have to be taken care of first.” But she remains optimistic about Indian art viewers. She recalls the enthusiastic response to a film on MF Husain’s paintings on the Ramayana,that was carried to villages on bullock carts in the 1960s. “A segment of the public is genuinely interested in art,” she says.

Mumbai-based artist Atul Dodiya,who paints in his Ghatkopar studio,surrounded by the cheerful noise of a Mumbai chawl,and often interrupted by neighbours who drop by to see him work,says,“Even those who collect art don’t ask the ‘right questions’. But with so many events planned,people are looking at art. The way they are looking at it might be debatable,but the curiosity about art is very encouraging.” Dodiya also rues the lack of museum culture and feels that organisers,curators and directors of gallery spaces need to double their efforts to create programmes that will involve the public. “Even newspapers and TV channels only talk about sales. There needs to be more education and appreciation,” he says.

Art,unlike cinema,doesn’t have a straight narrative or story to tell,which is why a little guidance,a nudge in the right direction,will help people care about more than the artist’s signature and the price.

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