Beyond the contemporariness of iconic artists Akbar Padamsee, Arpita Singh, Gulammohammed Sheikh, Himmat Shah, Jyoti Bhatt, Krishen Khanna and Vivan Sundaram is an award that binds them together. All the seven artists have won the Asia Arts Game Changer Vanguard Award presented by the Asia Society India to recognise their contribution to the development of modern and contemporary art in the continent.
At Delhi's Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA)'s new exhibition, "Around the Table: Conversations about Milestones, Memories, Mappings", on till December 4, in collaboration with the Asia Society India, the Vanguard Award is a gateway to an edifice of ideas inhabited by seven of the greatest Indian artists. In an avalanche of artworks, the show puts together a recollection of times and practices of a generation of artists who shaped the landscape of art in post-Independence India.
Conceptualised as a travelling exhibition (KNMA hasn't revealed the next venues and cities yet), "Around the Table" is designed as a maze of memories where art meets archive. “The exhibition is approached as a midnight feast where the seven co-travellers have gathered to rest their bundles of images and stories after their long travels," says KNMA's chief curator and director, Roobina Karode. "The many accounts constituted by the detritus of these artistic connections and crossings build up a vision of history and time that I was fortunate to inherit from some of the awardees showcased in the exhibition, who were also my teachers and mentors," adds Karode.
Nearly all artworks are from the KNMA collection while the exhibition has gathered a vast array of material, including prints of paintings, letters and old news reports, from the personal archives of the artists to document their impact and their own transition while creating new languages of art. The closely-knit nature of the Indian art community and art collectives reveal themselves in the long creative journey of the seven practitioners of modern and contemporary art. Towns like Baroda and events like the launch of the Group 1890 stand out as symbols of change and movements in a rapidly evolving landscape of art in the decades that followed India's independence.
“Asia Society India has always been deeply committed to the arts as one of its key areas of focus and impact. The Asia Arts Game Changer Awards are a testament to that. The year 2021 marked 15 years of Asia Society in India, and to commemorate this milestone, we decided to present a collaborative exhibition that would celebrate the legacy of our flagship awards," says Asia Society India CEO Inakshi Sobti.
Designed in a four-layered spectrum of creative leanings — Tree of History, River of Time; Conversation, Camaraderie, Community; Looking Through the Viewfinder; Tales from the Attic — the show mirrors the personal and the professional in each artist's life and works. Sheikh's 1996-97 work, Tree of Life, an oil on canvas, headlines the similarly titled first part of the exhibition. The work, which is part of the KNMA collection, does well to begin the mapping of memories belonging to the seven artists. Another massive canvas, Khanna's Celebration, connects the social contours of a newly-independent nation with its people's dreams and aspirations. Singh's 2004 work, The Golden Deer, a canopy of texts and image, Padamsee's untitled oil on canvas from 1961 and Sundaram's Two Boys Sitting on the Outer Wall (1984-85) complete the section.
The second section — Conversations, Camaraderie, Community — uses portrait as a tool to document the everyday life of an artist through images from campus as well as studio. Artist KG Subramanyan is seen in one such photograph by Jyoti Bhatt talking to students in Baroda. Another, also by Bhatt, shows J Swaminathan, giving a peep into the days of the Group 1890 of artists like Swaminathan, Sheikh, Shah, Bhatt and Jeram Patel. Also seen are MF Husain, FN Souza, Manjit Bawa and Mrinalini Sarabhai.
In a video speech that is part of the show, Sheikh recalls the origins of Group 1890. The 12 artists who founded the collective in a house in Bhavnagar, Gujarat, decided to name the group after the number of the house in which they gathered to "come together and show together". "We adopted the number as the name," says Sheikh, who also recollects the launch of a journal, Vrishchik, as a "forum and venue" to protest against stagnation of art institutions in the '80s.
While Singh credits her school principal for becoming an artist, Khanna's story of his beginnings is equally humble. "My father, who was keen on art, once brought a copy of The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci from a trip to Europe. I kept seeing the picture and finally drew it with a pencil. It was horrible," he says. Relationships among artists come to the fore, too. Bhatt recites a Kabir Das poem to drive home his point: "Kabira is the market place, wishes welfare for all, neither friendship nor enmity, with anyone at all."
The third section — Looking Through the Viewfinder — reflects the journey of artists while they move from one medium to another. Among the works in the section are Padamsee's nude series, Sheikh's architecture series and Sundaram's juxtaposing of photographic frames in his works on Amrita Sher-Gil. Tales From the Attic, the fourth and final section, assembles a series of archival material, and ends with the showstopper, a wall-to-wall photograph of Shah's untitled sculpture created in the desert of Rajasthan.