(article published in LKContemporary no.46, Ed: Amit Mukhopdhyay, New
Delhi, 2002, page: 7-15)
(1) Introduction: ‘Multiple Address of a City’
The recent history of ‘non-performing visual arts’ of the southern part of India is self-refuting, as far as the accepted definition of its ‘own’ self is considered. It is not so due to the recent increase in the interdisciplinary crisscrossing between vrious artforms, that
occurred in a strictly urban circumstance. Instead, there was a peculiar shift in the way one redefined the meaning, of, say, a city—obviously ‘the contemporary site’ for any novel artistic expression—as a ‘mere container’ of such performances. Bangalore, one
such city for instance, withholds evidences of being an exemplary site ‘responsible’ for a tradition of artistic endeavours rather than being a mere catalyst. As a proclaimed silicon-valley, it is yet to attain the status of a metropolitan. Being withheld in such an intermediary state, the city had to embalm its ‘general nostalgic’ character through the ‘outisder’ artist and the ‘specific nostalgia’ through the insider-artist, in order to make an ‘artistic history’ of its ownself, in the way Kolkotta and Mumbai have been doing, from a long time. Hence, Bangalore—the city—does not belong to the ‘insiders’ but finds an excuse to be creatively historicized through creative personalities and their works, in an attempt to become what it was not. Thus it is a city ‘constantly on the move’ to be identified culturally.
Nevertheless, since 90s of the last century, it has served as ground to several experimental artworks that seem to be interdisciplinary in nature, simply stating. Hence it also pretends to delete the ‘strict’ notion of ‘static’ imageries. It is a city—generally speaking—somewhat similar to Rome of the great Renaissance period, wherein artists not only migrated into it, but also essentially used it as a ‘subject’ as well as ‘inspiration’ for their cultural expression, from various States of the south in the case of Bnagalore. For instance, the research done at Center for Studies in Culture and Society (CSCS) has considerably focused on the city itself as an ‘object’ for theoretic study. As though to correlate to this, the artists associated with the city, in one way or the other, have also done something similar, with considerable amoung of novelty. The city I am speaking about is less of a specific geographic location and more of a miniature form of the State to which it is the capital, as well as an apt representative of the nation within which it is located.
This article intends to notify a few ‘remarkable’ (body of) artworks and their ‘intended’ and ‘intimate’ connection to the city, at the
cost of elaborating a few other equally relevant ones indirectly linked to this issue. A few important works like “nelaakruti” (earthwork by M.S.Umesh), “Saakshi Gudda, Saakshi Gode” (Sheela Gowda), “sthalapuranagalu” (‘Local Myths’, a curated show by artist N.Pushpamala and consisting of three artists from her immediate next generation), B.H.Srinivasa Prasad’s work (in “I as in India”), SUrekha’s photographs (of the way-side kitsch antiques) and Suresh Jayaram’s eco-friendly paintings (all of them were created in the 90s) had used specific ‘geographic locations’ (within the city) to comment upon the nature of the very sites that were being addressed in the first place. The sites were not used as catalysts or analogies or personifications of something else the artists wanted to say. For instance, Umesh’s “Earthwork”, intentionally tilled at the outskirts of the city, was literally a votive offering to the original profession (farming) of the man who built the city (a local chiefton, Kempegowda). Borrowed and returned to the owner who also used it for farming before and after this artistic tilling, the time-space bound work was an act of drawing the Bangaloreans (or any other ‘citizen’, for that matter) to its own fast vanishing profession, of the past. Farming as profession and the city’s mindless act of spreading out beyond its originally intended boundary were the two ‘binary opposites’ that were skillfully addressed through this work. While Umesh’s work could be a comment upon an overall modification of a city, Srinivasa Prasad’s usually large size works (exemplified in “I as in India” and ” Sthalapuranagalu”) re-evoke the forgotten glory of ‘specific’ types of structures. One of his works is literally developed upon a defunct socialist theatre house (called Samudaya ) with the help of theatre props originally used as a part and parcel of the plays enacted by this house. He also laments on the ‘loss’ of a few other structures that defined the city. The coal laden tile factories, abundant till 70s and now taken over by hi-tech looking software companies, are depicted with immense realist sincerity—minus a tinge of irony/parody/cynicism—to those structures. The general and specific modification in the form of what the artist feel as a ‘loss’ for a developing urban landscape is what is being ‘relocated’ by these two artist within a broad perspective as well as within the same real city.
Casteism, in the general sense, is a factor that links the old timers to the city emotionally that the ‘outsiders’ can never cope up with.
Arguably, it is (ie., casteism), at its worst, a trump card much used in the political gains in the cultural circle and at its best, is creatively manipulated only in Kannada literature, particularly in
B.J.Shyamala, “Sthalapuranagalu”, a site-specific work at Ulsoor Lake (Bangalore), curated by N.Pushpamala
regard to the experiences of ‘shudra’ sensibilities. Dr.D.R.Nagaraj is the one litterateur who has theoretically and authentically justified its positivist side; and now, Suresh Jayaram has taken a lesson or two that has placed the casteist language of visuals in a newer light. While an elder artist like K.T. Shiva Prasad has, by default, written a new visual language of the farmers (mainly the vokkaligas) sensibilities, Suresh consciously acknowledges his experience of being from a ‘thigala’ caste that beautified and gave greenery to the city, historically speaking. While his thematic expression blossomes from the fast vanishing, fewer green parks of Bangalore (like Cubbon Parka and Lalbagh) Babu Eshwar Prasad’s consistent non-human bright acrylic landscapes deliberately refute any kind of rural-urban binary opposition in his utopian, pun oriented views. This in fact belongs to a faith of being a casual an outsider to the politics of a city, as a choice, despite being deep rooted within it.
Surekha and Sheela Gowda’s works, together, address the internal happenings of a traditional handicraft coneived by a specific gender at ‘home’—the basic unit of an overall whole called ‘city’. Threads, stitching and repositioning them from the known ‘media’ and ‘act’ of creating art to that which served both as ‘alternative profession’ and the mode of being active in a given house, for a woman. The family politics of the middle class sensibility, from wherein most of these women artists hail from, is what is pinpointed out here. At the same, Pushpamala’s photographs of herself as “Phantom-Lady” splits this homely womanhood into two, pushing away half of herself ‘outside’ the home, and hence outside the defined position of a woman in a given city. Ravi Kumar Kashi is one artist who has dispassionately observed the visual celebrations of the urban popular culture imbibed within the elite streets, film hoardings and other entertainers—over the years, strictly from the middle class point of view. Hence Bangalore, behaved as ‘the’ representative of an urban locality that yielded itself to a generation of artists who were somehow linked with it
while formulating themselves into becoming the creative professionals which they are now. Since 90s onwards, the artworks of the southern part of India, arguably, reflect this urbanization or are deliberately ‘silent’ about it, but could never ignore it. Even those potential works of the like of Biju Jose, Archana Hande, M.S>Prakash Babu, Ranjani K.SHettar, the video films by Babu Eshwar Prasad, Ramesh Kalkur, Surekha, M.S>Umesh, Prakash Babu, Raghavendra Rao, Kiran Subbaiah, Ayesh Abraham, anikachalam, amongst others, indirectly propose a space for the urban through the eyes of the middle class experience—the most widely spread class throughout the nation, as Ashish Nandi so often confirms.
The economics of the city was restructured so as to do away with the notion that creating through ‘mobile visions’ was costlier than the static ones. This happened due to the drastic fluctuations in the IT boom and also due to the foreign embassy’s individual concerns, remote to the intention of the city, whatsoever. For instance, arguably, the tradition of short video-filmmaking by the artists was accelerated by a particular incomplete workshop conducted by a German filmmaker Meisner at Max Mueller Bhavan. The easier accessibility of the technique of video-filming, a few non-government organisation’s (like Vistaar) enthusiasm to sponsor artworks, almost compulsively in newer media (time and space bound installations and assemblages) involved the ambitious young artists of the city, but not without a tinge of irony within. While the NGOs proclaimed that their artistic sponsor was in order to confront the gallery economics as well as its aesthetics, the very economics of the sponsors continues to remain mysterious to the art community! For other commercial executive offices sponsoring other usual gallery shows, it was just a plain ‘publicity’ program. Ethics of a visual-venture is put to stake wherever its economics is undefined and ambiguous. Also, arguably, in the history of past two decades of art in the south, the most sold works and the qualitatively better artworks are usually two entirely different entities!
(III) Verbal interrogation into the unknown visuals
Surekha, “Not To Be Seen”,
“Material as Metaphor”, is arguably, one of the most popular spoken and written word in relation to the artworks in the new media, that are also supposed to be of better quality just because of this ‘unrealised’ quality of the new material. The over usage of this phrase and the meaning it evokes, has modified this term into a pun, and eventually
there is no way it can be used anymore in a ‘serious’ tone while addressing an artwork. The fate of words in this example also points out its forefinger at the fate of the ‘verbal understanding’ of the new material artworks as well. If being avant-garde was desirable at one point in the eighties and nineties and if the (supposed to be) more conventional artists argued that being against the well known avant-garde itself is neo-avantgarde, now there seems to be an idea that conveying the ‘essence’ of the radical avant-gade through the known/conventional mode of artistic expression is more radical than what the general term radical itself means!
One important reason for this might be that there is no ‘bridging’ between the known and the unknown media because those who have seriously shifted from the former to the latter have never returned to the familiar media (Sheela Gowda, SUrekha, Smitha Cariyappa, Umesh Maddanahalli among others), those who seem to refute such a divide between the new and the known have failed to make an impact (Ramesh Kalkur, Ravi Kumar Kashi among others) and a few more seem to have
been born into the new material from the day one ( B.J.Shyamala, Suresh Kumar Gopalreddy, Srinivasa Prasad, Ranjani SHettar). There are no prodigal sons and daughters over here who would return. However a clear-cut ‘attitudinal’ divide exists between those expressing in the known/conventional media and those with fresher outfits. The lack of a set pattern for what it means to create something new often gavae rise to some artistic embarrassment wherein the conformists, at times, conveyed more fresh experiences than the pretentiously non-confirmists. The notion of the idea of being different, to the extent of being totally out of the immediate cultural context, at times, became a guise and the idea of novel experience itself dwelled into camouflaged forms of expression.
Consider a classic case wherein a painter expertised in the easel tradition of painting has been addressing the very formal aspects that, first of all, define his convases. It is a self-crigique rather than a parody, and this whole process from using the painterly tradition for a socialistic purpose to turning self-critical is something K.T.Shiva Prasad has been doing from past two decades. Being an outside to Bangalore and to the new media experiements of the 90s, he has recently created a work in the newer mode (though not in newer media) that seem to be an anti-thesis to those works in new materials. Installed in 2000, “Kuvempu Smaaraka” in stone is a classic structure that addressed the issue first and then the media employed, as a continuation of the self-critique that Shiva was so much concerned in
his canvases. It is a mega ‘smaaraka’ for the first Kannada Jnanapeet awardee poet KuVemPu at his birth place Kuppalli (at the western ghats, about 10 hours journey from Bangalore), costing around 60 lakh rupees, reminiscent of the famous “stone Hinges” and trying to address the local, interdisciplinary and the nostalgia in a straightforward manner, with a sense of tourist implication as well, for it is a lasting structure. These are the very characters that the young
artists operating from within the framework of an urban circumstance are trying to address the difference lies in their affinity to the material they employ for communication and how much at home each one feels.
In other words, the proximity and comfort that a watercolour or a oil paint would provide for an artist trained to use it and the way (she contemplates a new material contradict each other in such a way that eh very notion of an artwork and its creative process is laid at cross roads. For those artists like SHeela, SUrekha, Ravi Kashi, Shiva and others who had to criss-cross form the known mode of creation to the unknown, it is obviously an act of ‘parakayaa pravesha’ (a kind of rebirth). Presumably the increasing visual pollution that comes as an attached string to the growing metropolitan would have been one of the major reason for these artists to feel comfortable with this process of sensual shift from the feel, smell and colour of what they had earlier contemplated upon.
(IV) A Skeptical Hierarchy
There exists a hierachic notion between the superior new media work and the known media it is a notion that is as young or as old as ten years, prevailing in Indian, more rigorously but very much orally and verbally addressed in a city like Bangalore. Often this hierarchic privilege is alleged upon the birth of feminine awareness but over simplistically associated only with women artists. Nevertheless, this issue, like most of the others raised in this article, could at least serve as the entry points into the experience of what happened in this soul (though not heart) fo southern part of India over the past two decades. Theoreticians refuse the very existence of such a notion, not in so very plain a sentence. But the self-conscious refutation is noteworthy, more than the fact that this notion of hierarchy, by and
large, prevails amongst the practitioners of art.
The fact that a few artists, fewer celebritites amongst them, have shifted from the known modes of representation and from past two decades, to what we casually understand by the term ‘installations’ and ‘assemblages’ is a minor example of the possible existence of this supposition. Also, the absence of those artists who have traveled in the opposite direction, like Marcel Duchamp did earlier, elsewhere, intensifies this presumption, at least since the 90s in the contemporary Indian art’s situation.
Yet, we have been unable, in India, to bifurcate the subcategories of the new media works. In fact, generally speaking, most happenings of art since modernity onwards, in the form of a group activities, art movements, workshops etc., have left behind several issues or given rise to several others, before venturing into the next item. This structuring of art history that defeats the logic of continuity—an (age) old notion of art criticism in India—is one character of
twentieth century indian art and hence its history. The problem seems to lie in both the history and (of) the art it is based upon.
If a kaleidoscopic picture of the last two decades of this ‘new material art scene’ and its interconnectedness with urbanity is to be put in a nutshell, its detail could be as below.
After completing the archaic diploma courses in a state (Karnataka) that has the maximum art schools in the country, the aspirant artists of the past found that Kala Bhavana (Santiniketan) and M.S.University (Baroda) were the exotic land to unveil more mysteries of art since 80s. The aesthetic sojourn was intensified when some of them were
rewarded with fellowships scholarships and residency programs at foreign nations (mostly Europe and America). A sense of modest aversion existed towards the commercial art galleries, only as an attitude but not as a practice, and more important was the fact that these artists had no idea of an alternative mode of economic sustenance, whatsoever. While the neo-rich artists could sustain this blank space, most other middle class artists of the new generation have taken to art pedagogy seriously, refuting an earlier prevailing notion that teaching and practice of art do not go hand in hand. Some of them like Suresh Jayaram and H.A. Anil Kumar could indulge into serious art writing (mainly through the tradition of newspaper review columns and began a tradition of catalogue writings) for the very same reason. Often the NGOs sponsored the making of new material art, arguably to meet their own purposes whatsoever. These shows were programmed, well spaced out and often finally catering to the portfolio of the sponsor. The activity of Bangalore Film Society, willingness to adopt regional mystic poetryofthe medieval period, an urge to provide a renewed definitionto their city, the lack of a potential critical apparatus or the presence of a diplomatic ones –were some of the main ‘fact’ that formed the skeletal structure of the works of the artistis who emerged through this city. They were
either from within or even from other states like TamilNadu(A.Balasubramanyan)and Andhra Pradesh (Rajeshwar Rao). A tradition of video-filmmaking,along with the compulsive traditionof catalogue writing, were produced (as a part of foreign workshops like the one by Max Mueller Bhavana);occasional social concerns were proclaimed (“Pages from a Burning City”), the earlier Marxists were essentiallydistanced (like John Devraj) as ususal terming them as jugglers of art, the conventional artistis were bemoaned, but a severe sense of comradership was built up amongst the new material artists.
This has been one time and space wherein scores of artists stayed so
close by, shared their differences, worked in their own(ed) studios
within a range of 30 kilometers and altogether brought about a sense
of guilt amongst even those who couldnot sensibly place these
happenings, that includes painters, sculptors as well as a few
writers—in the history of Indian art. Cholamandal artist’ village and
the Santiniketan art movement are two other such art historical
comraderships that happened within a stretch of 100 years, but with a
difference. They were well programmed and manipulated! The Bangalore
group essentiallysucceeded in lacking this, distantly recalling the
1890s group! While art looked at its roots, its criticism was looking
at its leafs.
Between the government agency for art and art educational institutiton
it was the latter that responded faster to the contemporary art world
outside them. A few young tutors like Ramesh Chandra and Ramesh Kalkur
were specifically conscious about the distinction between the image
for the mass and the image as cultural product. The limitation in the
funding as well as the outlook of the government cultural agencies had
given way to commercial galleries that sold collectors items to the
industrialists, which in turn led to an alternative mode of economy of
art, traditionally speaking. This often was emotionally misunderstood
as protest to the gallery culture. Own old houses (Ayesha Abraham),
defunct urban marked areas (“Sakshi Gudda Sakshi Gode” by Sheela
Gowda), modified spaces (‘Sankara’ studio which is a modified
industrial factory), resorts (Sun Valley club), defunct theatre spaces
(‘Samudaya’ theatre house modified as a time-bound artwork for
‘Sthalapuranagalu”), a few lakes ( B.J.Shyamala)—were the favourite
arty spots used not onlyforbut as a part and parcel of the art
products that addressed the city that contained them at the first
The difference between art pedagogy and practice was far removed, with
altered and renewed art school syllabus, that too revised by
youngsters belonging to the same generation (Ravi Kumar Kashi and Anil
Kumar in 2000). It aimed less at reducing the Euro-centricity of art
and more so to make the students aware of their immediate
surrounding.whilenone from elsewhere came here, some from the older
generation mighrated within the countryto teach in a place that had
taught them to be different (Natraj Sharma, Vijaya Bagodi, G.Jaya
Kumar and B.V.Suresh taught or are yet teaching at M.S.University,
Baroda). The one and only Kannada University at Kamalapura (Hampi)
dominated by the literary personalities of the State, found it
impossible to visualize a structure of art pedagogy.
There is also a belief that most new media art is supposed to keep the
cost effectiveness of the production low and the scale—huge. But to
counter this, the production of video art, thought to be costly,
earlier, was easily done due to the equality in the expense of new
media work or a video. With due respect to the new visual experiences
evoked by videos, they are, by and large, technically amateurish. At
the same, as per now, there seems to be either a sympathy or a protest
to the new material artworks and artists, but a critical analogue is
what is yet to be born.
Haruko, the Swiss artist, on an artistic residency
stay at ‘BarOne’ created this work at the auditorium
of Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath, 2006
At first, it was the inability of the critical apparatus (written as
well as the debated) to contain the new material works within its
limited space framework. Arguably, the maximum public space for
writings about art, throughout the nation, emerged from Bangalore,
particularly in the nineties. Marta Jakimowitz Karle, the much
acknowledged critic for Deccan Herald (the only nationally acclaimed
newspaper in English to be based in Bangalore), wrote exclusively
about the formal values of the artists who emerged in the 80s. she
continued the same self-nurtured technique into the nineties, the only
difference being athat the works flew off beyond the limites of what
the most popular of the critics could read into them!
To put the whole argument into a nutshell, the recent vigorous
experimentation in the new material for art and thus the presumed new
experiences, are novel but are inconclusive as far as projecting newer
boundaries of art. Bangalore, as an urban representative of such works
in the southern part of Indian, through the galleries and their
deliberate absence in containing these works, has been of an immense
thematic concern to the artists. This is something new wherein the
space for creativity shifts to become the subject of a working
situation as well. Regional themes that the moderates were hesitating
to indulge in with their conventional media were being addressed.
Popular visual culturel that is deep rooted in the psyche of these
specialists (artists) either was promoted in the hierarchy of visual
culture through ‘peep shows’, video films, acting in popular movies,
or through the production of short feature-like films (“Afternoon
Song” by M.S.Prakash Babu). The city is perceived in a renewed light
but nevertheless as a sacred space, a possible hiding space from the
overwhelming influence of much acclaimed national at schools that are
proximate spaces for communal and political disturbances. The lack of
such a havoc in the history of Bangalore makes it all the more
probable ‘urban units’ to be addressed, manipulated, lived and
consumed –culturally. Residencies and curated shows are increasing,
making the job of the cultural judges more and more complex, which
however has already taken a back seat in the advancement of the visual