The India Art Fair has grown to be the second most attended art event in the world. But is it bringing art any closer to the common Indian?

For the four days that the India Art Fair was going on in Delhi recently, there was a fire engine parked right outside the event’s huge white tents. By the second day, curator Rahul Bhattacharya and artist Deepak Tandon had the bright idea of turning the truck into an “art object”. They simply placed a couple of printed sheets next to the tyres: Bhattacharya claimed curatorship of the work and wrote that it’s a “Found object”, like so many contemporary art works, and paid a short tribute to Marcel Duchamp, the early 20th century French artist who pioneered such usage. The prank worked. Passersby, who were till then not paying any attention to the grimy truck, started to linger and stand back to look at it with a fetishising gaze.

In that light moment, a heavy question was raised about how we look at art. Duchamp created a scandal when he placed an upturned urinal in an art show and called it “Fountain”. Some critics interpreted it as an attempt to refocus the viewership of art away from the act of creating it, towards its intellectual underpinning. That was in 1917. In 2013, our duo wants to take their subversion a step ahead by putting a price tag on their “found object”.

Why is pricing important to the prank? Bhattacharya, an art history graduate and a former editor of Art and Deal magazine, says, “Somewhere in the 1990s, sales became more important than viewership. Today the price difference between a Picasso and a Husain is directly proportional to the number of people who have seen their works.” Is there a way to address it? “Only by generating viewership,” says the curator who has put together shows in non-metro cities such as Guwahati and Surat, among other places.

It brings us to the brink of the biggest chasm in Indian art. On the one hand, we have a fast-growing crop of talented artists who are experimenting with newer ideas, materials and techniques of expression. On the other, there is a slower-growing swarm of posh buyers kept in a warm glow by burgeoning art galleries. In the middle is the common man — or, more importantly, the common child — who is hardly informed or interested in the fine arts.

Do we need to bring art out of the pickle jar and air it for everyone? For an answer that can possibly convince both the ambitious, middle-class “Tiger mom” and her equally ambitious maid, let’s first look at science. Dr. Vivek Benegal, professor of psychiatry at Nimhans (National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences), Bangalore, says, “Art lights up several areas of the brain — parts that are responsible for recognition of faces and objects, for memory and judgement, and for even evaluating the worth of a work by (prior information of) its cost... It leads to being better scientists, better business people, and even better techies.” At a seminar in Delhi in December 2010, Dr. Benegal had shown how arts training could dramatically change the brain’s “attention network”, aiding general intelligence. It can help in treating body-image and attention deficit disorders. “Art should be part of every school curriculum,” says Dr. Benegal.

The Planning Commission, too, is convinced of the need. In its draft for the 12th Plan (2012-17), the Commission has recommended that art education be made mandatory and that top arts organisations should come together to formulate curriculums.

Even if it’s felt as a need, can we make art easily accessible? Our topmost organisation for promoting art, Lalit Kala, is mired in scandals; its most prestigious award, the National Award, has been suffering from allegations of corruption; its biggest international show, the Triennale, has not happened in eight years. Beset with institutional decay and bereft of an early art education, the Indian viewer had barely come to terms with grotesque 20th century visions such as those of Husain and Picasso. Now such an understanding may be even more inaccessible: a lot of what the common man sees as contemporary art doesn’t look like art as he knew it.

Picture the first booth you would have seen on entering India Art Fair. In the middle of the floor was “Spirituality and reality”, a twinned installation by Italian artist Michelangelo Pistoletto. On one side was a cube of inward-looking mirrors bound together, on the other was another set of mirrors, smashed to shards with a hammer. Who did the smashing? “The artist couldn’t be here, so I did it,” was the matter-of-fact reply from Lorenzo Fiaschi, co-owner of Galleria Continua. “We will offer a collector the option of doing it for himself.” Fiaschi wouldn’t reveal the price of the work but said the artist’s works usually sold for 200,000-500,000 euros (Rs.1.4-3.5 crore). At such a moment, the common man would need oodles of spirituality to let the reality sink in.

Bhrigu Nath Lal was one of those who couldn’t make sense of such things. The 70-year-old retired school teacher from Hapur near Delhi had come with his grand-daughter, an arts graduate. But even after paying the Rs.300 entry fee and making a few rounds, he couldn’t find anything he could relate to. Sitting slumped on a chair, Lal said, “I couldn’t make out most of it. And there was no one coming forward to explain things.”

It’s a shortfall that Neha Kirpal, director of India Art Fair, has noted. “Some galleries couldn’t answer the layman’s questions,” she says. Even as she says that the Fair “is not the answer to the entire country’s need for art”, Kirpal agrees that “the fundamental problem with art today is exposure”. She says she exhorted all the galleries on the need to broaden their viewership by capturing the interest of the common man and, as one measure to ensure that, she kept the entry fee “as cheap as a movie ticket”.

It’s true that the Fair is primarily for trade, for and of sellers. But it’s also the best opportunity to see some great contemporary and modern art. This year there were more than 3,500 works by 1,100 artists jostling for attention over 20,000 square metres. It’s the only place you could see tribalistic murals by K.G. Subramanyan a paint splash away from Marc Chagall oils, a Damien Hirst gold skull a diamond’s throw from Jamini Roy portraits, or an oversized military mine by L.N. Tallur a popping distance from Somnath Hore drawings. For the last three of its five-year existence, the Fair has been one of the best attended art events in the world, second only to Arco Madrid. (The organisers claim 170,000 people attended the fair in 2012; this year’s number had not been tabulated by the time of going to press.)

Kirpal, who wrote the Fair’s initial business plan on an airline sickness bag, possibly realises that with big size comes big responsibility.

To keep up her side, she put up a well-stocked art bookshop, a vibrant seminar programme and free curated walks.

It’s more than what most gallery owners will tell you when you ask them about their outreach and education programmes. The problem for people like Bhrigu Nath Lal is that, even if such programmes are on offer, they are still quite daunting to participate. No one really takes care to explain it from his point of view, and it’s not possible to cater to all visitors.

Experience with kids showed that a smart innovation could go a long way. Katherine Rose, director of education company Flow India, guided 50-odd children on innovative “art detective” tours at the India Art Fair. The mission was to find, from a variety of works, the answer to the “mystery”: what is contemporary art? It was not about the history or “isms” of art, but about the materials used, how they may have been put together, and how the children felt about the works.

“Some of the descriptions would have given some art historians a run for their money,” says Rose, herself an art historian. “We were in front of a Manu Parekh installation and asked what the children felt. One 12-year-old boy, who had been silent through the tour, said it was as if something bigger than him was there; he was in complete awe... Children don’t give you answers you want to hear; their imagination hasn’t been set yet.”

Gigi Scaria would also encourage a step back into such simplicity. “We may have lost the art of looking simply and understanding the meaning of art. Maybe because of the writing and the heavy-loaded things attached. And because we don’t have a culture of going to museums and galleries,” says the 39-year-old artist of urbanism who shifted to Delhi after 22 years in Kothanallur, Kerala.

“We have had some of the most heartfelt responses from smaller places,” says Orijit Sen, a designer who founded the PeopleTree label in 1990 and doesn’t acknowledge a line between craft and fine arts. He would rather turn back the urban gaze: “We look at a Madhubani or Warli work and say, ‘How sweet.’ It just reminds us of something folky, but we don’t understand it. Their art is not a sweet little decorative thing — it’s a very powerful art. So a sophisticated urbanite’s response might be untutored. Similarly, a tribal person coming in here might not understand the context, but he would respond — to colour, light and the way it provokes you to look at things.”

Bhattacharya and Tandon’s “untutored” viewers were provoked, too. The duo interviewed some of them. Many were taken with the truck as an art object, and some even preferred it to the Ambassador stationed nearby in front of a pile of army boots — a “real” artwork by Mahbubur Rahman from Bangladesh. Bhattacharya and Tandon plan to submit the video as a bona fide art work at next year’s Fair. That would be double subversion — and a concept complicated enough to qualify as contemporary art.

LEARNING BY IMMERSION

“It’s not learning art, it’s learning through art,” clarifies Katherine Rose about the role her two-year-old organisation Flow India plays in the education sector. The company, founded by Rose and her educationist colleague Eliza Hilton, carries out structured courses based on the curriculum for schools and museum and gallery tours for kids and adults. Their innovative approach marks a rare spot on the otherwise bare wall of museum education in the country.

“For kids, learning the dates and names of artists would be like learning the times table. If you take art as a starting point, you can use it to explore themes — it can be a window into the past, what people made, why and how they lived,” says Rose, explaining why art should not be seen as only “creative play”.

Flow’s name comes from a concept put forward by Hungarian-born psychologist and theorist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, which describes “flow” as a “state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand”. Similar ideas have been used for years by the Krishnamurti Foundation and Montessori schools.

So can other schools not adopt such ways of doing things? “Any school can do it,” says Rose. “But teaching large groups in huge open spaces like museums and focusing their attention on small objects is very difficult. And we found that very few teachers, even if capable, are confident of doing it.” Though Flow India has worked mostly in the national capital, its two founders have explored such ways of engaging kids in eight cities across India, including Chennai, Hyderabad and Bangalore.

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