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A bold new initiative

IT'S AN occasion to gloat. As the chairman of the Central Lalitkala Akademi stepped on the dais to unveil the 46th National Exhibition of Art, the excitement in the city's T.D.M. Hall was palpable. Art lovers from across the State applauded in unison: hosting the country's most prestigious exhibition has a strategic significance. Through the month of February a hitherto anonymous Kochi can bask as the fulcrum of art activity, with no questions asked. On the one hand, the event opens up possibilities to integrate the region with the rest of the art community and on the other; the city beckons to reclaim its leadership in the world of art and culture.

Kochi is on the threshold of restoring its old status of a cultural melting pot. It's a season for mega exhibitions. Close on the heels of Bombay x 17 comes, to use a clichéd phrase, the mother of all exhibitions; Lalitkala Akademi's 46th. Till some years ago, the venue for this annual event was always the National Academy of Art's premises in New Delhi; in 1998, in a bid to make it available to a larger audience it changed its course. After enthralling the public in back of beyond Guwahati and cosmopolitan Bangalore, the exhibition has wound its way to the city's major landmark, the imposing Durbar Hall Gallery.

Officials will have you believe that the State actively lobbied and pushed for it. Hectic board meetings, consultations and many visits to and fro that were spread over months has gone into bringing this show to town. Says R. Gopalakrishnan, Secretary, Kerala Lalithkala Akademi, "We assured the governing council that we would meet all their requirements."

So what were their requirements? Ample wall and floor space for starters, with 48 sculptures on display, it is easily the largest sculpture exhibition ever seen in Kochi. Moreover, with the Central Lalitkala Akademi celebrating 2004 as its golden jubilee year, it was decided to increase the number of entries. Instead of the regular 180-odd picks, this time the jury has selected 318 entries for display. The gallery's permanent exhibition on the first floor was hurriedly packed up to make more room; further, rolling display screens were installed so that window space could be utilised and finally the building's manicured gardens were used to house some of the larger sculptures. Teeming with visitors who were out to grab some high-class art over the weekend and heaving with works of art, the normally spacious Durbar Hall suddenly looked crammed full; rest assured, no one is complaining. Under the framework agreement, the lighting system in the interiors would be upgraded; sculptures would be provided with pedestals; the Kerala chapter of the Lalitkala would take care of all publicity work, it would make available enough manpower to see the event through and importantly, take charge of the transportation of art works.

Noting that the facilities offered in Kochi were superior to those in Guwahati, Dr. Sudhakar Sharma, secretary, Lalitkala Akademi, however, felt that the gallery lacked certain fundamental amenities; air conditioning, a CCTV for security purposes, temperature control and a system to combat humidity and saline breeze of this coastal city, which can damage invaluable art works.

The State Akademi stands firm in opposing such proposals. "The Durbar Hall is a 100-year-old heritage building; we have a commitment to maintain its old-fashioned architecture. Air-conditioning would mean that we change its shutter style doors and give it a false ceiling," explains Mr. Gopalakrishnan.

From the entries that it picks, a jury appointed by the Akademi, selects 15 works of art as the award winners. It carries a cash prize of Rs. 50,000, a plaque and a citation. This year, Kerala artist Francis A. Kondankandath was one among the winners for his painting titled `Restoration Within.' The others included Monpara G. Bhagvanbhai, K. S. Kishorwala, Jayant Gajera, G. E. Gurusiddapa, Umesh Chandra Varma, Soumitra Sengupta, Naresh Kumar, Kishor Kashinath Thakur, Dinakar Dattatraya Apte, Ramaiah Anand Kumar, Shrabani Roy, Manish Sharma, Surender Kumar Mishra and Sanjay Janardan Sawant.

Besides hosting the epic display, Kochi has yet another reason to cheer. In order to widen the retailing of its publications the Akademi has opened a sales counter in the gallery. Art books, backdated and current issues of periodicals such as Lalitkala Contemporary and prints of paintings by modern artists are available for the asking. "We plan to keep it well stocked at all times," Mr. Sharma gives the assurance. Last year the gallery had carved out an artist's studio within its property for the benefit of young artists who lacked studio space. Now with the opening of a bookstore, one can expect some spirited art pursuits in this key cultural precinct of the region.


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