CAN A single impulse buy change your life? What if it is a work of art that costs about as much as a Mercedes car (the starting price of which is Rs 23 lakh) and is titled Fat, Forty and F***ed? In Artist, Undone, this painting by Nataraj Sharma — yes, Fat, Forty and F***ed exists — appears to be at the root of all the trouble in adman Harsh Sinha’s life. He buys Sharma’s painting and the next thing he knows, he doesn’t have a job, his marriage has collapsed and all he has is a canvas that has on it a man that reminds Harsh of himself.
Harsh decides he needs to sell the one piece of contemporary art he owns and Roongta is his Sancho Panza in this mission. If you’re familiar with the world of Indian contemporary art, then much of what Sanjay Kumar writes about will feel familiar. Critic Ranjit Hoskote makes an appearance, as do a number of artworks by the likes of Anita Dube, Jitish Kallat and Gregory Crewdson. (The images, however, are miserably printed and don’t do the art or the novel any favours.) The fictional eccentric artist Newton Kumaraswamy is a flamboyant mix of snippets borrowed from a range of people as diverse as historian Ananda Coomaraswamy and the Progressive painter Francis Newton Souza.
Harsh doesn’t end up selling his painting but before he makes peace with his buy, he discovers all roads lead to Newton Kumaraswamy. Newton, with his graphically sexual odes to Souza’s paintings, is all set to be the hottest name in Indian art. He is also Harsh’s ex-wife Gayathri’s new lover. As the pieces shift in the kaleidoscopic lives of Sanjay Kumar’s characters, middle-class India reveals itself to be dynamic and energetic, rather than staid and conventional. Art isn’t disconnected from this section of society but rather, in its myriad avatars, it is viscerally tied to real life. It shows up as the kolam Gayathri paints every day. It embodies the kind of crazy risk that the shadowy blogger and financial wizard Manoj Tyagi loves. It is the stuff of dreams that makes Newton commit professional suicide. Art, in Kumar’s novel, is life distilled. Most importantly, despite its philosophical depth and the erudition of critics like Hoskote and his fictional colleague Ekbote, it’s fun.
Like contemporary art, the novel demands a little patience from its audience, but it is a delight
Sanjay Kumar’s debut novel demands, like Indian contemporary art, a little patience from its audience but it is a delight. It is peopled by men and women who work, struggle, fail, flounder and ultimately land on their feet even if it feels to them like they’re doing headstands. From Roongta to the mysterious government servant who interrogates Manoj Tyagi, every character in Artist, Undone is cuckoo but credible. The world of contemporary Indian art has been begging to be brought into the world of fiction. Kumar does this ably, with clever storytelling, a fluent style and oodles of wit. He pokes fun at everything and everyone, but his fondness and respect for this little niche and its conceits is evident. The novel isn’t without flaws. The voices of the different characters aren’t always distinct and the story meanders at times, like the sub-plot concerning American graduate students that feels like an unnecessary detour. But what stays with you is the surprising charisma of Indian art and how important it is to the apparently unremarkable people who love it.