TRANSFORMING the dour halls of the IGNCA (Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts) is a vibrant collection of drawings, graphic prints and sculptures that span seventy-years of Modern and Contemporary ‘drawing’. Though the exhibition beings with a tribute to late maverick M F Husain, whose lively drawings line the walls of the vestibule leading to the main hall, the show spans an entire gamut of disciplines in drawing. There are vintage, rare graphite-on-paper drawings by artists like Bikash Bhattacharjee’s whose early female studies vary from his signature style paintings, K. C. S. Paniker’s head-studies that are markedly different from his Tantric inspired abstracts and Anupam Sud’s early drawings that underpin her graphic etchings. There are contemporary interpretations of ‘the idea’ of drawing like Mithu Sen’s light-box that showcase her graphic interpretations of sexuality, Puneet Kaushik’s delicate, minimal thread on paper abstracts, to Valsan Koorma Kolleri’s innovative bronze sculpture that uses shadow play as drawing. There are also artists like Atul and Anju Dodiya who’s drawing practice dovetails with their love for water-colours and others like Sonia Khurana, who ‘draw’ through the medium of video art.
Along with block-buster names Modi has also chosen to provide a platform to emerging names like Sidhharth, Adip Datta, Sisir Thapa, to name just a few. That many of the younger artists have chosen to re-interpret drawing using just basics like paper, graphite or charcoal indicates that there is no age-bar for experimenting. Senior artists like Vivan Sundaram and Zarina Hasmi have chosen more experimental ways to interpret drawing through collage and mixed media with evocative and poignant results.
As one contemplates this rather unconventional interpretation of the act of drawing, the petite woman behind this mammoth exhibition Renu Modi enters, dressed in an earthy sari and a no-nonsense attitude. Owner of Gallery Espace, Modi has chose to celebrate her gallery turning 25 years-old in the Capital city by showcasing an exhibition that she’s always dreamed of hosting. “I have loved drawings since they are the most intimate form of expression for a visual artist,” says Modi. “My first reaction to art and drawing was through my friendships with painters like Husain and Manjit Bawa and Laxma Gaud, who initiated me into the art world in the late 1980s and early ’90s. For them drawing was Riyaz (the honing of a talent through daily practice). However over the years I have seen the various disciplines merging into each other and drawing is no longer interpreted in the classical sense,” she recalls. Modi believes that defining drawing in this manner provides the viewer with a holistic approach.
Modi, with the help of curator Annapurna Garimella and show designer Prima Kurian has sourced drawings from various collections and presented it in a cohesive manner that is easy on the eye and interesting to the mind. “I find drawing has always elicited responses from people, even though it has never been valued at par with a finished painting,” says Modi who has always felt for the underdog in art. “Whether it is drawing, sculpture, printmaking or video-art, I have always been drawn to unconventional artwork that has challenged the status-quo in the art market,” says Modi.
Recalling her twenty-five-years as a gallery owner, who began her journey in a small board room with M.F .Husain’s autobiographical show in 1989, Modi feels proud that she now has a three-storied state of the art gallery in the nodal location of New Friends Colony. “It has been a long journey and I have learnt much along the way. I began collecting art and promoting artists like Husain, who designed my home, at a time when there was no concept of an ‘art market’,” she recalls. “I would say my first milestone exhibition was the Husain show, however on a larger scale in 1995, Mini Prints an exhibition curated by Madanlal featuring Anupam Sud, Zarina Hashmi, Sudarshan Shetty and Krishna Reddy, was key to my growth as a gallerist,” says Modi. This was followed by an exhibition titled Self and the World curated by Gayatri Sinah. The exhibition featured expressions and evocations by artists like Amrita Sher-Gil and several others. “Surprisingly I got a lot of flak from artists for using the terminology ‘woman artist’. Artists like Nilima Sheikh and Sud, did not like to be boxed in with gender—“Can you make out if this painting is made by a man or woman?” Sheikh once asked me….it was a learning experience and many of these artists including Sheikh continue to work with me,” says Modi.
Perhaps the most iconic, discussed and documented was Modi’s Kitsch-Kitsch Hota Hai exhibition. It premiered at the Habitat Centre in 2001 was curated by Madhu Jain who was a Paris trained art historian. “When we did Kitsch-Kitsch, I was bored by the usual group shows and wanted to experiment with something new and exciting. Madhu’s prevailing interest in the kitschy aspect of popular Indian culture was the perfect foil,” says Modi. They gathered artists like Bhupen Khakhar, Atul Dodiya, Anant Joshi, Birenda Pani and Anjolie Ela Menon who had experimented with kitschy elements in their work; Dodiya’s famed collaboration with film poster artists provided a perfect coming together of high-art and popular culture. Menon’s chairs painted with colourful portraits of film-stars become iconic. The show also featured works by actual hoarding painters who were thrilled to be part of the art scene and have their work finally acknowledged. The exhibition was perhaps one the most popular of its time and ‘ran to packed houses’.
Another experiment that Modi counts as an important milestone for Gallery Espace, was Video Wednesdays in 2009. “I approached Johnny M L to use my projector and viewing room and curate a package of video artworks that we showed over a whole month. We kept it simple with free popcorn, tea and coffee for all,” recalls Modi with a smile. “Video art is much more difficult to popularize and although it was already common in the West, India was still to acquaint itself with the genre,” says Modi. They featured pioneer artists like Nalini Malani, Sonia Khurana and Vivan Sundaram and younger names like Shilpa Gupta. “It was fun but difficult to sustain,” observes Modi.
One of her biggest regrets for the Indian art world is the lack of a Museum Culture. “We are slowly catching up with museums like the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) that has tried to reach out to a different crowd by virtue of its location in a mall, but much remains to be done in terms of popularizing museums. In order to sustain a healthy art market we need a better museum culture that will raise well informed viewers. An art market that is driven only by the auction houses is bound to collapse,” says Modi who has lived to tell the tale after the tumultuous art market crash of 2008 that saw many premier art galleries down its shutters. “There have been several market corrections after that as well and currently the art market is in a state of flux. It is high time now for the Contemporary artists to be valued on par with the Moderns. People still think of the Modern painters as the safer bet and that attitude leaves little space for growth or innovation,” says Modi gravely.
As her exhibition of drawings clearly indicates, it is a combination of the Moderns and Contemporaries that makes the art world a healthy and innovative space.