Buying art works as a trend is still to catch up in Kerala

Admirers are many, but takers few. Art in Kerala hinges on this fact. An art work for keeps, as an idea or culture, is not given serious thought to, say the artists. In Kerala, the habit of buying paintings is gaining strength only in Kochi, they add. The growing galleries are a soothing sight for the artists. For them, it is the first step towards a long process, beginning with moulding an art culture to eventually spurring aficionados to buy. If in the metros and abroad investing in art is a trend, here it is still a far-fetched thought.

As a culture, we are still at the beginning, learning to get out of our homes and walk into a gallery. Though affordability is a key in this business, artists say even the wealthy have not yet learnt to splurge on art.

A veteran like Artist Namboodiri is familiar with a scene when the canvas was blank. “We do a great deal to promote music and dance, but painting has been avoided for long. Painting exhibitions are growing popular now,” says Namboodiri.

To get people to buy art, it should first translate to being a part of culture. A space where they can sift the good and the bad is the starting point, he believes. “Twenty years ago galleries were not in vogue. There was no facility to see art. We held exhibitions in school auditoriums or halls which were not the perfect setting. Galleries themselves are a new trend here,” says Namboodiri.

Art awareness

Though avenues are few, Namboodiri insists art awareness is prevalent. “Even people in the countryside know a bit. Their knowledge is based on reading and not seeing. Elsewhere, outside the metros people know nothing about art apart from their traditional paintings,” he adds.

Artist B.D. Dethan agrees. He is pleasantly surprised by the feedback he got to a group show in Kozhikode. Holding an exhibition in the city for the first time, Dethan says art breaks barriers here. “We had all kinds of people, ordinary folks, coming in,” he says. “We saw spectators spending a lot of time before the paintings,” says Dethan.

But painting sales tell a different tale, he says. Among the paintings priced above Rs. 25,000, he says, “We would have sold about 4-5 paintings. But all those paintings were sold based on our personal contacts and relationships.”

A scene where a stranger walks into a gallery, likes a piece and takes it home, is still a picture struggling to take shape. “Those who buy understanding its value may be two per cent. In Kochi, it is slightly better with architects and even foreigners stepping in to buy art,” says Dethan.

Artist Lizzie Jacob, who also showcased her works in Kozhikode recently, remembers an incident in Kochi recently. “A lady came to see the works and asked if she could pay for a painting in instalments. But such instances are rare and far between,” says Lizzie. “But otherwise sale is not easy,” she adds.

With good works of art often outside the ambit of ordinary folk, Dethan and artist K. Sudheesh say interior decorators can make a difference. “Even in a big house, a space that can be taken up by an original is taken by prints. People do not realise they can use a painting there,” says Dethan.

Quite a few of his paintings were bought by big hotel groups in Thiruvananthapuram, says Dethan. “One hotel has 54 paintings done in the same style, while another has 124 paintings of mine.” Dethan knows he has been lucky as architects and designers came seeking his works. He is aware the story is not the same everywhere. An artist cannot move forward unless there are buyers, he says. Most of his paintings, including the costliest at Rs 1.6 lakhs, were sold outside Kerala. “Artists often had to go outside the State to be successful including those like A. Ramachandran and K.G. Subramanyan,” he says.

Originals sidelined

More than the bleak sales, what hurts artists more is the heavy sale of prints and reproductions. “In effect what sells are prints of landscapes and abstracts and what we call the third and fourth grade works,” says Sudheesh who usually does big works costing a couple of lakhs.

According to Sudheesh, to evolve a culture of buying interventions are needed at the community level. “We generally see the trend of artists working in isolation. The artistic community should get together to create awareness. Otherwise, it will be impossible for artists to live without having an alternative profession,” says Sudheesh.

Until change happens the story will read the same. “I have seen C.N. Karunakaran and Kaladharan exhibiting their works. The exhibitions were very popular, but sale happened based on friendships,” says Sudheesh.