Are the politics of exclusion restricting the growth of Contemporary Indian Art?  

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Anupa Mehta and Sharmistha Ray engage in a no-holds-barred conversation about
contemporary Indian art, the market and the merits of inclusion. 


Anupa Mehta: From a relatively unbiased insider perspective, the contemporary art space in India appears increasingly polarized…even divided…

Sharmistha Ray: Contemporary Indian art appeals to an international audience of collectors, curators and dealers. Ironically the art being marketed and promoted by contemporary galleries in India does not appeal to the majority of Indians who prefer ethnic or decorative art. The polarization is between two ways of seeing –it reflects the dichotomy of western vs. local tastes. Certain galleries have understood this and show both kinds of art, but they risk being deemed unserious. Both kinds of art are commercial, appeal to different people and can co-exist. The problem arises when galleries get territorial and hypercritical of alternatives.

Anupa Mehta: This territorialism that you speak of results out of the fact that the market, despite recent auction figures, is limited and it would serve the top players to restrict it…

Sharmistha Ray: The market, at both primary and secondary levels, is small and nascent. Instead of vying for space, we should be looking at opportunities to expand it. With over a billion people in the country we are not generating enough content or variety to call ours a relevant marketplace yet. We need hundreds of artists, more diverse galleries, auction houses and buyers for every kind of art – and we need this diversity to be legitimized by art writers, independent curators and media. Divisions are bound to occur in a large playing field, but in a small playing field they prove detrimental.

Anupa Mehta: More so here, given taste is being “defined’ although it is actually so subjective. The danger is about the willful creation of hierarchies based on ideas of “taste” and “quality,” as defined by a limited pool of individuals. This segregation is most evident at art fairs. It’s an exclusionary tactic that is actually self-defeating (in the long run) and detrimental, in that it shrinks the market to make it the purview of a few, by the few and for the few. Selection on the basis of ideology or location can be divisive, leading to camps/cliques – an insider’s club if you will: a sure fire way of restricting the scale and size of the art world/art market. Who defines what is cool in a country like India with so many local idioms? It gets compounded when a group appropriates the larger locale – say Mumbai, as in the case of the Mumbai Art Galleries – as its brand identity and thereafter resists being inclusive.  Such strategies, in the long run, put a bar on new talent as well as new buyers.

Sharmistha Ray: It’s restrictive growth. Especially when there are simply not enough galleries to represent burgeoning talent pools. India has about 10 major contemporary galleries that define “taste” and “quality.” If each of those galleries represents 15 artists, about 150 artists have the opportunity of being represented at any given point. Of these, the established ones have a sizeable roster of mature artists. The opportunity for young/emerging artists is meager. Realistically, an artist can only produce a solo show of quality work every 2 years, so the chance of making a living from one’s art is rarer still even with gallery representation. Imagine the plight of artists with no scope of gallery support? In such an atmosphere, independent initiatives, newer galleries/art spaces, budding art writers must be nurtured, not criticized, scrutinized and discouraged. I find that moral support, rather than being merit-driven, has a strong personality-bias in the Indian art space. Not to mention the unequal barometers for Indians and non-Indians. It’s far easier to ‘break in’ if you are a foreign import!

Anupa Mehta: Exactly. Like any other market, we are riddled by self-styled leaders of the pack, critics, curators, gallery owners, who are dictating what the contemporary mainstream should be/is on the basis of elimination of what doesn’t “fit in”. It’s apartheid of sorts. There is a growing tendency to align only with trendy vocabularies and marginalize the rest as decorative or unserious. To quote Picasso: “Ah good taste! What a dreadful thing! Taste is the enemy of creativeness.”

Sharmistha Ray: Certain vocabularies, idioms and media have flourished through the ‘apartheid’ you speak of. Generally, that’s ‘cutting edge’ work – mostly conceptual and new media-heavy – that overrides aesthetics and production values. By the same token, there are unspoken taboos about certain subjects, styles and media. It’s considered uncool or ‘dated’ to reference our own visual traditions and historical artists and styles, as if our own histories are not legitimate. Religion, spirituality, sexuality and gender, all so fundamental to ‘our’ India, are also invisible. Non-representation (or abstraction) in any formal mode, be it painting or sculpture, is written off as ‘decorative.’ Who has decided this? – A tiny clique of intellectuals. Such an exclusionary attitude has left out legions of artists, curators and writers who differ in their approach/perspective. According to me, aesthetics and craft are inextricable identities of the ‘art object’ and can’t be supplanted by a wall text littered with jargon. I am suspicious of language, especially when it slips away from the object and then traps it. Sadly, that’s become the dominant critical and curatorial thrust. If you’re not in, you’re out…

Anupa Mehta: So how do artists survive in a space narrowed by curatorial and critical slotting? How does individual creativity flourish? How does one stay true to art making practice without gallery representation?

Sharmistha Ray: It’s very challenging for many artists. The only option is to be creative about available routes for work vis-à-vis production, exhibition and sales outside the gallery system. Given the growing significance of the internet and social media, there are opportunities to market and sell one’s own work as well as nurture independent networks. In short: debunk the myth of the solitary artist incapable of navigating the intricacies of the art world. The best advice I received when I was working with a big contemporary gallery was this: You are responsible for creating the markets you want to exist in. When I returned to art-making practice, I realized that the market and audience for my kind of painting didn’t exist in India. I have had to take on the task of educating my galleries and the public. I was fortunate to have overcome the resistance.

Anupa Mehta: In your case, yes. But on the flip side, if artists had to do their own marketing and PR, and manage their sales, when would they ever have the luxury of making art! A gallery’s role should not be undermined. If we concentrate on opening up the contemporary art space for all levels of galleries, artists and buyers, the market may become less split and restrictive. It could even become free-flowing, fostering coexistence.

Sharmistha Ray: Ditto. India’s sense of modernity is still developing ground-up and ours is a densely plural country. The ambit of modern and contemporary art requires diverse scholarship. Alternative and independent verticals for categorizing, producing, critiquing and curating are imperative. In the absence of public support, it’s every individual’s responsibility to foster a more pluralistic art world in which there is space for all.


About the writers:

Residing between India and U.S.A, artist, writer and TED Fellow, Sharmistha Ray was formerly the sales director of a Bodhi Art, a multinational gallery with branches in Asia, Europe and USA.

Anupa Mehta, founding editor of Art India, is a published author and runs an arts project space THE LOFT at Lower Parel, Mumbai in India, an eponymous arts advisory consultancy and a city festival.

Images Courtesy :
Sharmistha Ray /Bret Hartman
Anupa Mehta/Nrupen Madhvani
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4 comments

  1. Thank you Bharti and Ajay for your responses. We are glad that our conversation is inspiring others to air their views and join in.

  2. I think we need to have more refined knowledge base about so called ‘ ArtWork ‘ …Many people ‘handling’ works cannot even say five unique \distinctive feature of a ‘work’ . Why this work is relevent\irrelevent ..Why this work is considered advance or Modern as compared to other similar work …..Secondly Unfortunately many time creater become active part in this ‘ Politics of Exclusion’. Logic goes like this …If there is comparetivly average talent and guys getting artificially pushed at higher’ value’ level ..Since (s)he intrisically know all about this .would like to have exclusivity just to let the Status qua persist. Well oiled PR machinary is available at your doorstep at a primium price …You cann’t make a crow become peacock by just tying a peacock feature at its back ..Summary is this ‘ Politics of Exclusion’ is direct outcome of Lack of Domain Knowledge , lack of confidence is whatever we are doing , saying , discussing in ‘Media’ , Shaky belief in ourself ( I mean people dictating the market ), fear of loosing artificially overvalued ‘assets’ etc …No wonder why we often hear the ‘ Seller’ become ‘Buyer’ to protect his skin …

  3. A good number of questions have been raised through this conversation and I agree on several fronts. Sharmistha points out that themes of sexuality, gender or religion are not tackled head on by most contemporary artists in India. Not even politics. These are issues every person (regardless of nationality) deals with and if that is not being addressed by artists then there is a visible disconnect between artists and their audience. So that makes me wonder- what is art and who is it being made for? (Cryptic catalogue essays and wall texts- who is this being written for?)

    If art is about telling a story, whether personal, political or social, then its audiences are many (and there’s your collector base). India itself has millennia-old treasure holds of aesthetic, folklore and craft, just waiting to be mined- alongside an audience that is already clued in to reception of narrative strategies. In such an instance, traditional aesthetic and form can be allies of concept. Not everything springs from Duchamp. And while we are at it, let us flip this cultural lens and question how relevant was Duchamp’s Urinal for Asia in 1917.

    A number of artists in Thailand, Indonesia and the rest of Southeast Asian region have employed traditional vernacular combining familiar elements from Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity and indigenous or syncretic rituals to tackle contemporary but fundamental issues. I have discussed this in a recent review I did on a Southeast Asian show that covered three generations of artists from this region. And in these instances it was very clear that these artists were operating with their audiences- the public, not the gallery going, english-speaking select few, but engaging people on the street. What made these works remarkable was their ability to be universally legible through its aesthetic and concept. (link: http://blog.frieze.com/postcard-from-bangkok/)

    On a further note, by local vernacular I do not mean peddling exotic cliches to overseas collectors (eg: cow dung, bindis or steel plates).

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