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Platinum jubilee of a golden era...

The All India Fine Arts and Crafts Society is not just a landmark on Delhi's cityscape. Currently celebrating its Platinum Jubilee, its formation in 1928 was a cultural watershed, finds ANJANA RAJAN... .

PRICELESS HERITAGE, MONUMENTAL WORK: The AIFACS building and (right) works on display at an exhibition.

WITH METRO Rail construction activity in full flow on Rafi Marg these days, the imposing façade of the All India Fine Arts and Crafts Society building in New Delhi is a trifle unapproachable. But if you ask hundreds of artists - sculptors, painters, ceramists, as well as those engaged with theatre - then it is probably one of the most approachable and artist-friendly cultural institutions the country can boast of. And then again, it is also the first. The society was founded in 1928 under interesting circumstances.

When India House was constructed in London, the authorities planned to decorate its walls with works by English artists, when they were persuaded it would be more appropriate to use Indian artists. To judge their quality it was decided to organise an All India Exhibition in London. To facilitate administrative procedures, the All India Fine Arts and Crafts Society Private Limited - as it was then called - was formed.

After 1947, AIFACS worked as the liaison office for Government cultural exchanges with other countries, since India as a newly independent nation then had no official cultural department. The Society's Secretary S.S. Bhagat - associated with the society since December 1947 when as a young refugee from Pakistan he chanced upon a job here - recalls the important junctures in AIFACS history.

"Around 1953 there was a movement to nationalise the Society. We proposed that our name should be retained with the addition of `Cultural Department, Government of India', but the Government did not agree to this. They then formed the Lalit Kala, Sangeet Natak and Sahitya Akademis to look after visual arts, theatre arts and literature, and also the Indian Council for Cultural Relations to look after international exchanges - all of which work had been handled by our one Society initially."

The merger that fell through might have caused initial setbacks as the easy give-and-take of international exchanges was disrupted - though the goodwill AIFACS had built up led to privately organised exhibitions in other countries - and expenditure incurred was no longer reimbursable. However, looking at the respective track records, the disagreement was certainly a blessing. While the Government has juggled culture between ministries and departments and is repeatedly criticised for failing to come up with a viable national cultural policy, AIFACS has been consistently working for art promotion and the welfare of artists.

As AIFACS celebrates its Platinum Jubilee - 75 years of existence - it has a plethora of successful events behind it. Camps for junior and senior artists in Delhi as well as other states, annual ceramics exhibitions, thematic exhibitions such as works by women artists of India, are only one facet. As one of the oldest theatres in Delhi, the AIFACS stage has seen innumerable veterans display their histrionic talents before audiences. Om Puri, Sai Paranjpye, Sheila Bhatia, Girish Karnad, Barry John, Russian ballerinas performing "Swan Lake" - there would hardly be a theatre veteran who has not graced its boards. At one theatre festival four generations of the Kapoor clan, including Prithviraj Kapoor, his father, his son Raj and grandson Rishi converged together, chuckles Bhagat. However, with controversies over fire safety, today the old theatre echoes only memories.

As Bhagat's eminence in the art world rose, so did AIFACS reputation. The society whose original members included eminent artists like the Ukil brothers - Bhargav, Sarada and Ranada - along with Gurcharan Singh, the founder of Delhi Blue Pottery, luminaries like Sardar Sobha Singh, Kedarnath Goenka and others, has proved to be a boon for artists across India.

The Veteran Artists' exhibition, started in 1984, is a way to honour elderly artists who may no longer have the financial means to continue their work. A monthly grant of Rs. 250 helps them buy colours and other materials. This gesture has helped many to regain their health when, restrained by finances from pursuing their lifelong passion, the autumn of their life was fast turning into a desolate winter. By preceding the grant with an exhibition and ceremony, AIFACS adds incomparable grace to the act. There is also a sketching grant of Rs. 1,500 per year for the elderly.

Since the Padma awards are at times fraught with controversy and at best politicised, AIFACS has introduced its own set of parallel awards - Kala Shree, Kala Vibhushan and Kala Ratna. These were instituted in 1988 - the Society's Diamond Jubilee year, when a commemorative exhibition was held in London too - and carry a purse of Rs. 10,000, 20,000 and 40,000 respectively. Twelve awards are given in each category every three years. Kala Samrat, an honour instituted this April when veteran artist B.C. Sanyal - who had already been awarded the Kala Ratna - was felicitated on his 100th birthday, carries a purse of Rs. 1,01,000. The large sums involved in sustaining these grants and awards are supported by corpus funds as well as the rent earned by the AIFACS building. "We are good at spending," says Bhagat cheerfully.

With a glorious 75 years behind it, AIFACS is not resting on its laurels. On the cards is a grand International Academy of Art and Culture in Greater Noida which will house a theatre complex, hostels, exhibition galleries, and other world class facilities as well as a college of art on Panchkuin Road with both morning and evening classes - for those who, like Bhagat in his difficult youth, need to combine "earning while learning". Earning and learning will continue. But as long as AIFACS can help it, no artist will be left yearning.

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