Rakhi Sarkar is a cosmopolitan woman. We meet at her daughter’s house in Golf Links, where she sits in a room full of vintage maps, as comfortable amid them as they seem with her.
The reputed founder of Kolkata’s Centre of International Modern Art began as a collector of the Bengal School in the early 1990s, at a time when collecting was limited to curios and crockery. She travelled a show, ‘Chamatkara - Myth and Magic in Indian Art,’ with two hundred modernists, including Ganesh Pyne and Vikas Bhattacharya, to London’s Whiteleys shopping centre. It was attended by “the Swaraj Pauls and Hindujas of the world,” she remembers, as well as Bianca Jagger: “mainly a white circuit.”
Mrs. S spent the next two decades building an elite network of viewers and patrons, and the decade after that creating an ‘art mela’ in Calcutta for both a public and artists who do not have access to such networks. This week, she’s bringing it to Delhi for its first edition. She says, “people are buying for the love of it, the pure love of it. The love is there, the hankering and aspiration is there. Somehow, the prices baffled them.”
Showing art is ultimately a manifestation of the profound and strange workings of a singular mind, she believes: showing art is showing an idea, a person’s strange workings. It’s another matter that the mela—besides selling the work at prices between 3,000 and 75,000—does not fully exhibit this radical freedom.
“Mediums such as video art don’t sell in mainstream India,” she points out. “The middle class are a newly excited generation. They don’t understand too much, they’re not interested in the theory of art.” The art mela, she says, “is about creating a young clientele for art. We don’t go in for very high art. Even an artist such as Ganesh Pyne who would normally create very esoteric art, would give us very interesting, playful work that would appeal to the newcomer.”
Pause. Here, let us acknowledge two glaring gaps in the art world in India. The first is the sense of an unusual distance between aspiration and commercial constraints - a distance that, in fact, every artist in history has had to confront. The second gap: we think “they” don’t want the theory, the absurd poetry, the tantalizing philosophy. Imagine, instead: they want all of this. The premise of existence itself is abstract and everyone, even on the most banal of days, ponders existential matters. Perhaps it is not that the middle class is not trendy enough for new media, but that risk-averse curation and the comfort of the two-dimensional finally works against both artist and contemporary collecting culture.
Mrs Sarkar insists that painting will never die. This may be true: love will also endure forever. But painting is having its own dramatic changes, self-reflexively responding to our evolving bio-technological tactility and her selection, while beautiful, is not necessarily forward-looking.
“Trends will always be part of the art language, technologies will change, trends will also die,” she responds. “First there were cave paintings, then oils. But never forget that something you can hang, preserve easily, will live on. It’s the most convenient form. An artist must have the total freedom to do whatever he lives and that is what extends the frontiers of art, and as people go to Mars, that’ll become part of art. These will come and go. But be prepared that they will go. Paintings will not disappear”.
Would we like to possess a serene portrait of a woman drawn in smooth lines, pensive, with a yellow background, as if she were rising out of something, into light? Maybe her face is like an ocean, infinite. Yes. At the fair next weekend, there will be spellbinding Arpita Singhs and Manu Parekhs, names you know. There will be pieces by artists you’ve never heard of but that will move you for no real reason.
In an atmosphere of political attrition, environmental catastrophe and neo-fascist discrimination, we wouldn’t be afraid to pick the art that feels like it gives a shit; pick what heals. Maybe someone who buys their first work of art here will someday yearn for work that doesn't exist as a thing at all. Maybe an artist who makes their first major sale here will test these lines of lines of visibility, materiality and human experience. Mrs Sarkar knows.
Getting there: 80 artists will show at the Visual Art Gallery, India Habitat Centre between April 26-30, from 10am-8pm daily.
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