One of Delhi’s oldest galleries, the Dhoomimal, is this week staging an impressive and exciting exhibition of 200 works by Francis Newton Souza, one of India most famous and successful modern artists who died in 2002.
More importantly, the Dhoomimal has linked up with Fourth Dimension, which ran last August’s highly successful Art Summit in Delhi, to make the show more accessible and relevant than is usual in this city where the cultural elite rarely show much interest in widening access to art events.
Dating from the 1940’s to the 1990’s and demonstrating the dramatic range of Souza’s moods and art, the works have mostly been hidden away in the collection of the Jain family who run the Dhoomimal. Like other collectors, the family acquired many works decades ago from Souza and other members of the 1950s Progressive Group such as M.F.Husain and Krishen Khanna, often as gifts or for miniscule prices compared with the hundreds of thousands of pounds realised today.
Uday Jain and his mother Uma plan to build a museum behind their gallery in Delhi’s Connaught Circus, where the Souza’s and more of family’s total of 2,000 works will eventually be on display. In the meantime, a taste of what will be available can been seen with this week’s show at Delhi’s Lalit Kala Akademi, curated by Yashodhara Dalmia. With Fourth Dimension, the Jains organised events around the launch at the end of last week, plus walks round the gallery, a poetry session and talks.
This evening Ebrahim Alkazi, a veteran art historian and theatre director, and Krishen Khanna talked about their memories of Souza and his often angry and tortured paintings and drawings, along with another modern artist, Anjoli Menon.
Alkazi remembered Souza “seemed quite destructive because he couldn’t come to terms with society”, and wondered if he would have felt “more at home” in his native Goa rather than moving to New York where he was far from successful or happy. Khanna said Souza had explained to him that artists “gravitate to where the money is”. When Menon once asked him why he stayed in New York where he lived in a tiny scruffy flat, Souza replied: “I have a bordello upstairs and a sandwich bar below so never need to leave the building!”
Few public or privately run museums try to broaden the appeal and appreciation of modern art with such conversations. The Government’s National Gallery of Modern Art does little, even though it opened a new extension a year ago that is crammed full of exciting modern and contemporary works, while the Ministry of Culture adds little beyond official prestige. There are hundreds of privately owned art galleries in India’s major cities, but scarcely any do much more than stage shows and focus on ramping up prices.
Consequently, little if anything has been done to widen public appreciation of modern and contemporary Indian art, which became internationally recognised by collectors and investors during the past decade’s boom with auction prices peaking in 2008 at $2.5m for a Souza painting.
The best work by artists such as Husain, Tyeb Mehta and S.H.Raza, as well as Souza, are now again fetching good auction prices from top collectors. General and sustained growth in the market however needs a much broader base of potential buyers, and therefore of public understanding and interest.
That is why the Art Summit, which is to be repeated next January, and this week’s Dhoomimal show are important. Other initiatives have included FICA, an arts foundation and reading room launched by Delhi’s Vadhera gallery, and a foundation and photographic collection developed by Alkazi. Osian’s, an auction house that diversified into other activities, has built an enviable art collection, but now has financial problems and its works are not easily accessible.
One of India’s leading collectors, Anupam Poddar, runs the Devi Art Foundation with his mother Lekha. Devi has outreach programmes but the gallery, which houses an impressive collection of contemporary art, is remotely located in the concrete canyons of Gurgaon, a satellite city on the edge of Delhi. Similarly Kiran Nadar, whose husband founded HCL, a leading software company, has recently opened a museum of modern and contemporary art, but that also hidden away in the satellite city of Noida.
Religare Arts Initiative , founded two years ago by Malvinder Singh, an art collector whose family used to control Ranbaxy pharmaceuticals, has a gallery that is better located near the Dhoomimal in central Delhi. Singh now runs Fortis and Religare healthcare and financial services businesses, which include investment advice on the art market.
Mukesh Panika, Religare Arts’ director, is planning a series of events to coincide with Delhi’s Commonwealth Games in October. Centred around a first-ever show of India’s top 20 contemporary artists, there will be symposiums and talks, and a book of the artists’ work. Panika hopes to co-operate with the cultural centres of the UK, US and German embassies that are located nearby, possibly including street displays.
“The process of public engagement in art has scarcely begun,” says Panika. “We need to build participation by more people, including public displays of art in streets and on the metro, as well as inter-active projects”.
Opening up the elite world of India’s modern and contemporary art has therefore begun. But there is a long way to go before it becomes significant and involves more than a lucky few.