Why are filmmakers training their lens on the multi-layered lives of artists?

A viewer gets a peek into the artist’s world through his creation. But, for a curious mind, there is so much more to get out of this engagement. A film made on an artist takes that story forward. According to Paris-based Laurent Bregeat, who has made several films on Indian artists, “Each film is the discovery of a new and complex world.”

He should know because he has captured artists like Krishen Khanna, S.H. Raza, Ram Kumar, Akbar Padamsee and Krishna Reddy on celluloid. Now editing a film on master abstractionist Rajendra Dhawan who died last year in Paris, for Laurent, the magic of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Mystère Picasso made in 1955, refuses to fade. Other films in the works are on K.G. Subramanyan and Jogen Chowdhury.

A number of films about artists are being made and screened. In August, Avijit Mukul Kishore’s two-part, To Let The World In, was shown at India Habitat Centre followed by Debabrata Roy’s film on his grandfather The Art of Jamini Roy at India International Centre (IIC).

Earlier in May, Chandigarh Lalit Kala Akademi screened The Very Essence, a 55-minute film on eminent artist S.H. Raza, directed by Laurent Bregeat, which was commissioned by the Akademi as part of the documentary series, Living Legends of Indian Contemporary Art. In June, in Delhi again, Chetan Shah’s The Open Frame, a documentary tracking the artistic journey of painter S.G.Vasudev was shown at IIC.

An increase in the number of avenues and platforms to showcase such work, says art critic Vinod Bhardwaj, has given momentum to the expression. Last year, Vinod Bhardwaj, who has also documented several artists, curated a festival of art films ‘Art in Cinema’ at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) in Saket, Delhi.

“I think what has happened is that, as opposed to earlier when films were being made for archival purposes, people are now taking up such projects for artistic pleasure. Though our history of art films isn’t that rich, we have some landmark works such as Satyajit Ray’s The Inner Eye on Benode Bihari Mukherjee, Ritwik Ghatak’s Ramkinkar Baij: A Personality Study, Shanti Chowdhury’s A Painter of Our Time …all produced by Films Division. They form important references for us,” says Bhardwaj, whose film, Faces: An Enigmatic World of Himmat Shah, in collaboration with Rohit Suri, premiered at the festival in KNMA.

“The work revolves around great Hindi poet Sudama Pandey Dhoomil’s poetry. I wanted to see if it can be used for artistic expression.” Stills of Himmat Shah juxtaposed with his sculptures fading in and out interspersed with the video footage of the artist in his studio.

Gallerist and filmmaker Siddharth Tagore, who made Arpana Caur in 2004, agrees there has been a rise in the number of films about art. “It is the best way to fulfil the requirement of documenting artists’ works through the years, to record their evolution and growth, changes in styles. Also, advances in and easier accessibility to technology has helped,” says Siddharth, who is now making a film on contemporary artist G.R. Iranna.

“I can’t say if such films are financially viable but they are certainly a labour of love. I got the film screened at my first ever show in Kochi earlier this year because I felt it captured a certain period of my work and would enable a better understanding of my present approach,” says Arpana.

The focus shifts from a single artist to multiple artists in Kathryn Myers’ unique project Regarding India, a series of video conversations with contemporary Indian artists. Now available online, the conversations with well-known and not-so-well-known artists collectively weave a narrative of contemporary Indian art. A completely unplanned effort, the interviews were initially meant for the India Studies Programme that Myers teaches at the University of Connecticut.

A crucial work in recent times is Avijit Mukul Kishore’s To Let the World In. The first part features conversations with artists born in the 1930, 1940s and 1950s like Arpita Singh, Gulammohammed Sheikh, Vivan Sundaram, Nilima Sheikh, Nalini Malani Ranbir Kaleka, Pushpamala N., Anita Dube, Atul Dodiya, and Sudhir Patwardhan, and art critic and curator Geeta Kapur. The second features artists born in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s like Anju Dodiya, Archana Hande, Benitha Perciyal, Sharmila Samant, Parvathi Nayar, Riyas Komu, Tushar Joag, Shilpa Gupta, Gargi Raina, Sumakshi Singh, T.V. Santhosh, Nataraj Sharma, Gigi Scaria, Reena Saini Kallat and Jitish Kallat.

The film marks the beginning of a new chapter in the history of films on art. For one, such a big budget film on the subject of art was missing till now. Second, the space for an exhaustive work that covers the evolution of contemporary Indian art was empty.

According to businessman Sanjay Tulsyan, the film was made to promote the Art Chennai festival that he launched in 2011. “We will know if it will be commercially viable only six months later. We plan to release a DVD as well. Right now it is purely a labour of love,” says Tulsyan. The film is currently travelling to different festivals and cities for screenings.

The availability of more avenues and platforms in the form of art fairs, shows and film festivals has encouraged the discipline.

Last year, three premier art agencies held film festivals in the capital, of which two were apex art organisations working under the Ministry of Culture — Lalit Kala Akademi and National Gallery of Modern Art. The scene seems to be getting ready for more action.