For an artist, art is as much the process and experience of creation as it is the final canvas or sculpture or installation. Rarely, though, do audiences get an opportunity to be involved in the process, and to watch artists as they create, to discuss their influences and inspirations even while watching a blank canvas be transformed into a magical world of its own. Art For Freedom at THiNK2011 brought together 8 of the country’s pre-eminent artists for three days of live engagement, exploring both process and outcome with a captivated audience.
There is art that charms, seduces, engages. And then there is art that intervenes. That compels you to think, to feel, to react, using innovative materials and new media to draw you in, and universally relevant issues like gender, sexuality and feminism to spark conversation. Few contemporary Indian artists do this better than Manjunath Kamath, who explores the boundaries of what is art, fusing paint and canvas, video and digital, found objects and installations to craft a whole new paradigm. Engaging with one of his works — for often, you cannot watch as much as participate in them — you get the feeling of being part of an experiment as the artist explores compelling themes and mediums to tell a story. Kamath’s fusion of styles no doubt owe their existence to his own myriad influences — while he studied art at the Chamarajendra Academy of Visual Arts, Mysore, he also did longish stints as Artist in Residence at the School of Art & Design at the University of Wales Institute, and at Cardiff, UK, where he no doubt developed his trademark satirical style that celebrates fantasy and the absurd. If he has a genre, it is fantasy realism, but there is no doubt that there is an underlying observation of society that is both sharp and incisive.
A degree in economics from Delhi’s prestigious Lady Shri Ram College isn’t an obvious qualification for one of India’s top female artists but Nayanaa Kanodia demonstrates that skill and passion are unstoppable forces in finding your calling. Self-taught barring a year’s apprenticeship with Anjolie Ela Menon, Nayanaa is also unusual for her adherence to the genre of ‘Naïve Art’, well known the world over but relatively less-explored in India. A mix of whimsy and intricate details mark her work; so, too, do a skilful blending of traditional and modern influences. She is a keen observer of contemporary lifestyles across India; the changing values and customs, the constant clashes between the timeless and the new; her wit and satirical bent of mind add a unique sharpness to her already insightful work.
An artist long before it became either fashionable or commercially viable to be one, Manu Parekh has never shied away from following his heart, a trait evident in the vivid colours and strong lines of his work. His work also shows a strong fascination for contradictions, so evident in everyday Indian life. Strongly influenced by nature and his surroundings, Parekh’s early work explored the duality of man’s relationship with nature. A later stay at Shantiniketan exposed him closely to the works of Rabindranath Tagore and Ram Kinkar Baij, influencing him at a conceptual level. But no place has perhaps influenced his art as compellingly as Benaras, to which he was drawn after the death of his father; a city that offers many layers and evokes conflicting emotions at once. With a host of awards, shows across the world, including solos in London and New York, among others, he’s proved that following your heart is, in fact, the only certain route to success.
She may have no formal training in art, but Madhvi Parekh has proved that instinct and ability are far more critical to being a compelling artist than, arguably, formal training. She’s been painting since 1964, when she started out inspired by the rich traditions of folk painting in Gujarat. But while her materials may have changed to the more contemporary oil, acrylic and watercolours, she continues to use her art to highlight social themes so intrinsic to the folk culture. Today, her canvases make strong, loaded statements on the place of women and the girl child, as well as the curious, often conflicting encounters between rural and urban India. She has shown across India and the world, with eight solo shows between 1972-93, as well as auctions of her work at Sotheby’s, among others. Married to artist Manu Parekh, with a style entirely distinct from his, Madhvi is one of the most intriguing voices in contemporary Indian art today.
Oddly, one of India’s most celebrated contemporary painters didn’t take to art because it was an abiding passion — he took to it out of a fear of textbooks! The Kolkata College of Arts and Crafts made a great escape from the ponderous world of academics, and even that didn’t start out smoothly for Sanjay Bhattacharyya. It was in third year at college that he found his artistic voice but it wasn’t till he met Aman Nath of Neemrana Hotels over five years later that he had found his significant patron. However, it was his 1994 series on Rajiv Gandhi on the campaign trail that propelled him into the big league, generating huge buzz and the attention of Sonia Gandhi, who arrived at the National Gallery of Modern Art where Sanjay’s works were being exhibited and later acquired one of the paintings for her private collection. He has never shied away from referencing the styles of greats like Bikash Bhattacharya and Ganesh Pyne in his art but today, his canvases have a distinct tone and texture that is all Sanjay. It’s clearly an expression that resonates with collectors and art lovers worldwide; Sanjay’s works hang in some of the most celebrated private and corporate collections in the country, including Parliament House in New Delhi.
Her education in philosophy coupled with a highly secular upbringing — born into a Hindu home, she grew up surrounded closely by Muslims, Sikhs and Catholics as friends — gave Seema Kohli a rare openness to other cultures and influences. Taught by her father to embrace differences, the manifestation of her influences is in her strong female-oriented themes and celebration of the strength and sensuality of the female form. With a diploma in Applied Arts, she has explored a range of mediums and scales in the past 18 years, working in both small and large formats. She has received tremendous appreciation for her art and the central role she has played in focussing on female-centric themes; she received the Lalit Kala National Award for women in 2008, and in 2009 received the prestigious Gold Award at the Florence Biennale for her installation Swayamsiddha: Myth, Mind and Movement.
A Kashmiri artist who now lives in Delhi, Veer Munshi has consistently used his art to reflect his anguish at the situation in his home state, his pain and struggle spilling over onto his canvases. Making a human rights statement rather than a political one, he has constantly sought to highlight the turmoil that comes with separation from his heritage, and to highlight the increasingly narrow space that exists for culture and art in his state. He is also convinced that art, because of its universal nature, can play a significant role in the resolution of the Kashmir situation. Unlike other contemporary artists, though, viewing pleasure is no motivator for Veer in the creation of his art — rather, it is about sharing a personally-felt experience as a ‘refugee’. His paintings and installations reflect a Kashmir that is in the context of the Kashmir that was; upturned houseboats on the pristine Dal Lake, flowers trampled in Shalimar Garden, the warm reds and oranges and greens made harsher, with deeper undertones and a darker story to tell.
He lost both parents as a child and it is perhaps to this that one can attribute his fascination for solitary figures in his art. To the manor born, Yusuf Arakkal may have wanted for nothing materially but the loss of his parents seems to have made him an observer rather than active participant in life, a characteristic that comes through in his art. He’s partial to somber shades and earthy textures; his canvases often resemble worn, peeling walls. Equally, there is a fascination with a solitary human form, a recurring theme in multiple works. Unlike artists who choose to distance themselves from their creation, he is certain that the solitary figure is him. “The face, whether it is of a man or a woman, is mine, an observer, and alone. I have been painting this character for 20 years. I’m not bald, I’m not a woman, but I’m sure it’s me.” He certainly hasn’t wanted for appreciation, though; with a host of awards, shows across the world and dedicated patrons of his art, he is today one of the country’s most celebrated artists.