A unique look at the interconnected lives of India's best-known artists

Mar 12, 2017, 11:19 IST | Benita Fernando

Exhibition
A view of the exhibition, That photo we never got, ongoing at Chemould Prescott Road as part of FOCUS Photography Festival. Pic/Bipin Kokate

At A time when celebrity fan bashes were still unheard of, the birth centenary of Paul Klee was a major event at a Ghatkopar home. It was December 18, 1979, and a second year student from the Sir JJ School of Art decided that a party, no matter how big or small, must be thrown in honour of the highly influential Swiss German artist. About five friends gathered for some alcohol-free merrymaking; instead of fancy nibbles, a substantial fare of sukhi bhaji, puri and srikhand was on offer.

Gieve Patel (right) and Sudhir Patwardhan recount how they got introduced to each other, as doctors who also painted. On meeting Patwardhan, Patel's reaction was, "Just because I’m a doctor as well, he thinks he can drag me to show his paintings." The two are known to be the thickest of friends now. PICs/'That photo we never got' by Shilpa Gupta in collaboration with Asia Art Archive. Courtesy Asia Art Archive
Gieve Patel (right) and Sudhir Patwardhan recount how they got introduced to each other, as doctors who also painted. On meeting Patwardhan, Patel's reaction was, "Just because I’m a doctor as well, he thinks he can drag me to show his paintings." The two are known to be the thickest of friends now. PICs/'That photo we never got' by Shilpa Gupta in collaboration with Asia Art Archive. Courtesy Asia Art Archive

In this manner, Atul Dodiya remembers his college inspiration in a new project by Shilpa Gupta, titled 'That photo we never got'. It is a chance to see Dodiya, one of today's leading contemporary artists, in a passionate endeavour of his youth, insisting that Klee be brought to Mumbai, even if only as photographs. "For me, here is this young Bombay artist, just 18 years old, celebrating with his friends an artist so far-removed from India," says Gupta.

Bombay Progressive artists FN Souza, SH Raza and Ram Kumar
Bombay Progressive artists FN Souza, SH Raza and Ram Kumar

The exhibition, which opened on Thursday at Chemould Prescott Road, is part of access t:me, a three-person show at the ongoing FOCUS Photography Festival. Gupta has collaborated with the extensive collection at Asia Art Archive, a Hong Kong-based non-profit, to present a collection of windows into the lives, personal and professional, of India's modern and contemporary artists.

Group photograph of Painters with a Camera, 1969: (From left) Jyoti Bhatt, Gulam Mohammed Sheikh, Vinod Ray, Vinod S, Jeram Patel, Feroz Katpitia. PIC/archive collection of Jyoti Bhatt. Courtesy Asia art archive
Group photograph of Painters with a Camera, 1969: (From left) Jyoti Bhatt, Gulam Mohammed Sheikh, Vinod Ray, Vinod S, Jeram Patel, Feroz Katpitia. PIC/archive collection of Jyoti Bhatt. Courtesy Asia art archive

Gupta, a Mumbai-based artist known for her interactive and multimedia art practice, delves into her interest with archives (which was seen in her earlier works, such as The Surname Project), and also addresses FOCUS' overarching theme of memory. "As someone who graduated from JJ School in 1997, several of my batchmates are practising artists today. I was interested in the relationships between fellow artists - stable, unstable, friendships, friendships that turned into love, the tense moments between them," she says.

(From left): Arpita Singh, Nilima Sheikha, Madhvi Parekh and Nalini Malani (informally known as Four Women Artists) at through the Looking Glass, India's first all-women's show, in 1989
(From left): Arpita Singh, Nilima Sheikha, Madhvi Parekh and Nalini Malani (informally known as Four Women Artists) at through the Looking Glass, India's first all-women's show, in 1989

That photo we never got, thus, takes a look at the interconnected lives and practices of artists from the 1960s to the 1980s. The groups - functioning out of college campuses, meeting at familiar addas, protesting on the roads or planning a group show - are very much a part of Indian art history, shaping its course and revising it constantly.

The 1971 artist protest against Lalit Kala Akademi. (Left) Critic Geeta Kapur caught in a tense moment with then chairperson Mulk Raj Anand. In another occasion, Kapur plans an exhibition on Amrita Sher-Gil with Anand
The 1971 artist protest against Lalit Kala Akademi. (Left) Critic Geeta Kapur caught in a tense moment with then chairperson Mulk Raj Anand. In another occasion, Kapur plans an exhibition on Amrita Sher-Gil with Anand

The exhibit consists of a wall of frames and three vitrines, all of which play a game of tag with each other. At the right hand side edge, a photo of Gieve Patel finds a visual hyperlink to Sudhir Patwardhan; somewhere towards left of centre, noted critic Geeta Kapur is seen in her many avatars, passionately questioning the Lalit Kala Akademi or conversing with Mulk Raj Anand about a show on Amrita Sher-Gil, whose nephew Vivan Sundaram, Kapur is married to. And about Sundaram's Kasauli workshops at the top of the exhibit…well, you get the point. A collage of endless references, the many tabs that you open on your browser - that's That photo we never got.

Adding to this collection are snatches of conversations and writings, all printed in Courier New font on green legal paper. If it's a little hard to read, Gupta says that's the effect she wants to achieve - teasing visitors to move in closer to view the specifics, and take a step back to get the big picture.

J Swaminathan, wearing his favourite sweater knitted by Ambadas' Norwegian wife
J Swaminathan, wearing his favourite sweater knitted by Ambadas' Norwegian wife

If the exhibit, of which previous iterations were shown at the India Art Fair (2015) and at Asia Art Archive (2016), looks like a cabinet of curiosities, then Sabih Ahmed says it's more clinical than quirky. Ahmed is a senior researcher with Asia Art Archive, who has assisted on the project. He shows us a postcard from Italy bearing a portion of a fresco by Simone Martini, from the collection of Padmashri painter-poet Gulam Mohammed Sheikh. It is a favourite of the artist's go-to inspirations from Italy, so much so that it made a re-appearance as a cake topping for his 80th birthday earlier this year. "These are passions that go a long way," says Ahmed, who has been contributing to the Archive since the past eight years.

A photo of Paul Klee, sourced by Atul Dodiya to celebrate the artist's birth centenary
A photo of Paul Klee, sourced by Atul Dodiya to celebrate the artist's birth centenary

He continues, "That photo we never got is full of fragments. It is a constantly unfolding process based on archival records and fiction. All the stories in the green boxes are narrations people communicated to us. How much of this is factual, we don't know, but this living memory is important, as important as the green legal paper."

As the title implies, the project suggests that an archive can never be completed quite. "There is always something that has been left out; what you see here are just starting points," says Gupta.

Continuing on the exhibition's theme of tracing connections in the Indian art world, Vivan Sundaram and Navjot Altaf have a difference of opinion
Continuing on the exhibition's theme of tracing connections in the Indian art world, Vivan Sundaram and Navjot Altaf have a difference of opinion

Through layout and curated material, the exhibit delicately manages to comment on the nature of Indian art history. The Bombay Progressives, who are usually seen front and centre of art surveys, are relegated to the sides, in this case. Other groups, such as Four Women Artists (as Arpita Singh, Nilima Sheikha, Madhvi Parekh and Nalini Malani were informally known) and Astitva, are placed more prominently.

Sabih Ahmed from Asia Art Archive (left) and artist Shilpa Gupta (right)
(From left) Sabih Ahmed and Sneha Ragavan from Asia Art Archive and artist Shilpa Gupta. Pic/ Bipin Kokate

It's an unintended subversion, hints Gupta. "It is always political because these are shared histories," says Ahmed, "these are connected narratives. There is not just one vantage point. We have to be careful however, that these memories don't get ossified, and we allow for new connections to emerge."

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