Art has left the gallery

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The first impulse after getting out of the train at the Rajiv Chowk Metro Station is to scoot towards the exit gates, deftly negotiating the crowd, without stopping even for a nanosecond. The past few days have, however, been a bit of a blip in the usual routine of daily commuters. Above one of the Metro exit gates is the image of a purposeful Amitabh Bachchan from Shahenshah gripping a villain with his iron arm. Close by is another image of Tabu with her face half-covered by a white veil. Other visuals from Bollywood are also lined up above the gates at the station, catching the eyes of the curious passenger as he darts by.

The photographs are part of a series titled “Film Industry: Then and Now”, a collection of 16 images on the Hindi film industry by eminent photographer Pablo Bartholomew. They are up for display till 20 March and are, in turn, part of Fête de la photo (photography festival), a public engagement initiative jointly organised by the Embassy of France, the Alliance Française, the New Delhi Municipal Council and the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC), to make photography as an art form more accessible to the public.

Pegged as the first pan-India photographic festival being held in a public space, the Fête de la photo has roped in some of the most renowned and promising photographers from India and France to showcase their work. The unique public exhibition, which is being held simultaneously across nine Indian cities, is on in Delhi till 31 March. Veteran photographers Raghu Rai, Parthiv Shah, Dayanita Singh, Gauri Gill and Shome Basu are some of the big Indian draws.

Shifting artwork — photographs in this case — out of the conventional gallery space to the streets is, in part, an effort to bring an elitist art form closer to the general public. Sample this statement from the French Embassy’s website: “The festival aims to democratise photography by taking it out of art galleries, still perceived to be an elitist milieu frequented by a few, and into the street for public viewing, making art accessible to all.”

However, Raghu Rai, whose exhibition Raghu Rai in Paris is on display at Central Park, feels that the whole general narrative about photography being an elite art form is slightly misplaced. “Photography is not as elitist as painting and sculptures, for which you have to put up originals,” says Rai. “With photographic prints, if the prints are damaged or lost they can be done again. But if an original painting or sculpture is damaged in any way, there is no way to retrieve it.”

Delhi-based photographer Anshika Varma, 28, says that photography has progressed significantly, keeping pace with the changing times. “To be honest, the reverse holds true,” she says. “I think it has become much less elitist today. Access to the medium is a lot more democratic and you don’t need to invest as much money. You may just have a mobile phone with a camera, but there’s so much amazing work coming out of that as well.”

The idea of amazing work out of mobile phone cameras may draw sniggers from some quarters, but one would do well to recall New York-based photographer Benjamin Lowy whose photograph of Hurricane Sandy adorned the cover of TIME in 2012. Lowy had taken the photo with his iPhone 4S. Later, the magazine also used iPhone imagery to cover the 2013 Maha Kumbh in India. “Last year, at the Delhi Photo Festival too, we had a couple of exhibits that were taken with an iPhone,” says Varma, adding that “in today’s context, the medium is not a hindrance at all”.

But if everyone with an iPhone claims to be a photographer, won’t we risk getting flooded with photographs of cute kittens yawning being passed off as art? Varma, for one, does not believe that an increase of digital technology will reduce the art form in any way. In fact, she says, the converse is happening now. Because everyone else is taking pictures, it will push an aspiring photographer to think beyond clichés and to develop his or her own unique voice to stand out.

Rai, on the other hand, doesn’t seem entirely convinced about the digital discourse. “Digital technology is important, but the sad part is that most youngsters who indulge in photography these days don’t have the love for making prints and holding them in their hand,” he says. “Digital technology has helped a lot of people to take to photography, which is great. But it also dilutes the art form. You just put your camera on auto focus, auto exposure and auto colour balance, and the camera will take flawless pictures for you.” Everybody is somebody these days, says Rai.

There may be differing opinions on how the digital media affects photography, but photographers are unanimous in their agreement on the need for the art form to gain more prominence in the public domain. Rai says that photography is a relatively young art form and hence, it needs to get into the public sphere more, so that people can interpret it and understand it better.

Bartholomew gives a primer as to why the public space has become so important. “Galleries tend to be commercial spaces. Of course, there are exceptions like the All India Fine Arts and Crafts Society, which can be rented by individual artists and photographers. But then the question really is how does one evangelise or publicise this space enough to ensure more footfall from people?” he quips. Unfortunate as it may be, the fact remains that most people are not curious enough to be receptive to art, especially if it happens to be confined to a gallery. However, if the same art is out in the open, there is a greater chance that more people might directly engage with it. “Someone who is at the Metro station to catch the next train may not necessarily look at the visuals,” explains Bartholomew. “But if you have time on your hands it will catch your eye. There is no serious engagement going on here. It is just there for you to see.”

Varma too echoes a similar sentiment when she says that the images are on display in a location that lends itself to everyone’s scrutiny. But “you at least need to get it out there”. This model of involving the public has ensured that everyone doesn’t always have to depend on a gallery to show his or her art. “It’s no longer about walking into a gallery,” says Varma. “It could be the ice-cream seller who ends up looking at the images. And he can choose to connect with them or not.”

With so many top artists rooting for public space, does it then make the idea of a gallery redundant? Neha Kirpal, founder and director of the India Art Fair, doesn’t think that the two spaces are comparable. “The galleries are going to remain the focal point for an artist’s craft,” she avers. “They discover, build and shape artists.” But, she also concedes the need for galleries and closed spaces to become more democratic. “Galleries will also soon recognise the need to bring the artists out into the public arena be it through art fairs or some other art engagement initiatives,” she says.

What must change though — and it seems to be a common refrain with most artists — is the attitude of people to how culture is consumed in India. Given the country’s rich heritage, the lack of proper initiative and interest to improve the arts in general is appalling.

Parthiv Shah, whose exhibition Portraiture: Artists in My Gaze — eight black and white portraits of famous personalities, is also on show at Connaught Place — talks about the lack of interest people have in museums for instance. That is also reflective, he says, of the general disinterest in going to galleries. For that to change, Shah believes that a process of sensitisation to the arts and culture has to be put in place early on. “There is a Subodh Gupta show going on at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), which involves bartans,” he says. “It could be interesting for the kids to learn about how welding takes place, how bartans were made in India earlier, etc. You don’t have to explain the intricacies of a Subodh Gupta exhibit, just introduce them to a host of other fun things that can be equally informative for them.”

Dayanita Singh also laments the lack of a museum culture. Singh, whose photographic installation The File Room Book Museum will be showcased at the National Museum says that unlike America and Western Europe, where children grow up in a culture that introduces them to art at an early stage, things are different in India. “It’s really in their culture to take kids to the museum,” she says. “They grow up with a certain knowledge about art already in them. In India, sadly, that process starts much much later.”

For art to really engage more people, the government has to play a pivotal role. In that regard, the attitude of government officials in India leaves much to be desired, says Kirpal. Despite clearly defined provisions for arts and culture, they don’t translate into much. Somewhere over time, issues like economy and corruption have overshadowed art. “But the government needs to understand that the arts cannot be sorted out later when all other things are taken care of,” she says. “A country’s soft culture is as important and immediate a necessity as anything else, and needs to be developed concomitantly. The private sector can only do so much.”

Shah too points towards a systemic flaw in the government’s approach to dealing with matters related to the arts.

“Our government always has some nondescript person as the culture minister. Never will you find someone with stellar background in the arts heading the department. I don’t think any IAS officer will also want to be secretary of culture unless he or she is really inclined,” he says.

Some artists though don’t think the narrative is so grim. Illustration artist Samia Singh, 27, believes that despite the slow pace, things are getting better. “I think overall, things are improving, at least for illustrators,” she says. “Artists of this genre were expected to conform to rigid briefs but now the outlook is changing as more and more people are willing to give the form a chance.”

New Delhi-based typographer Hanif Kureshi was the creative director of the first large-scale street art festival of its kind in India held over a six-week long period in January this year. Over 60 artists from across the world had come to the capital to participate in the festival. Among the many artworks it produced, the most significant perhaps was a gigantic mural of Mahatma Gandhi on one of the walls of the Delhi Police Headquarters. The authorities, he says, were quite co-operative. In fact, Kureshi’s next project involves writing a poem across the 968 metre-long wall of the Tihar Jail. The poem has been written by one of the female inmates of the jail. The whole wall is being redone as a collaborative effort with a community of sign-painters from Uttar Pradesh and street artists. Kureshi says Director General of Tihar, Vimla Mehra, was very keen on the idea. “The jail officials kept asking us when we were going to start the project,” he says. “There was support and a healthy curiosity from them.” According to Kureshi, public art has become quite acceptable today as long as the content is not vulgar or very politically brash.

Even otherwise for those who prefer art that pushes boundaries, there are underground graffiti artists like Delhi’s own Daku to give that fresh breath of political incorrectness for our vicarious consumption. Art, it seems, is ready for a truly democratic engagement.

asad@tehelka.com

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