Resisting Convention: Experimental and Intellectual Engagements
The field of modern and contemporary Indian art is ever-evolving with emerging artists, individuals and institutions consistently making new contributions.
As we studied earlier in the Course, the viewership of such art in India was historically led in many ways by the establishment of commercial art galleries, situated in urban centres like Bombay (now Mumbai). Over the past few decades, these have served as places that introduce audiences to the artists they represent. While these spaces host regular exhibitions and related programmes and have supported the careers of many of the artists we have studied in this course, they are primarily for-profit institutions established to sell artworks. Their role within the ecosystem of art — which also includes commissioning major catalogues and publications, and supporting museum exhibitions in different ways — has resulted in a market-driven writing of the history of modern and contemporary Indian art, a circumstance that is not unique to India alone.
Following the explosive commercial growth of the ‘boom’ period that ended abruptly in 2008 with a global market collapse, the field of contemporary Indian art shifted to a more deliberate pattern, privileging institutional commitments and episodic events like art fairs and biennials in a still fledgling ecosystem and economy. As regular exhibitions such as the Kochi-Muziris Biennale and the commercially-led India Art Fair solidified since this period, there has also been a gradual increase in opportunities for emerging artists in the form of residencies, exhibition spaces dedicated to nurturing artists and curatorial visions, and more recently, virtual engagements.
Let’s look more closely at two experimental spaces that have provided opportunities for more intellectual engagement with art.
Artistic and Intellectual Collaborations: Experimenter Curators’ Hub
The Experimenter Curators’ Hub (ECH) began in 2011 and is held annually in Kolkata. Experimenter Gallery founders Prateek and Priyanka Raja established the programme to bring leading Indian and international curators to Kolkata annually to share their recent work as well as new ideas. Through a multi-day intensive programme, curators and broader audiences are introduced to new artists and methodologies through peer presentations. The ECH has also been instrumental in elevating the visibility of curatorial work in India and has grown alongside other regional organisations and programmes, including regularly over the past twenty years at KHOJ in New Delhi (mentioned earlier in the context of ‘Performance Art’) and the bi-annual Dhaka Art Summit in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which integrates interdisciplinary exhibitions, public programming and educational initiatives over one or two weeks every other February.
Emphasising discussion, ideas of collaboration as well as intellectual rigour, the ECH has served as a valuable space for curators to thoughtfully engage in larger ideas, through which they can continue developing meaningful projects centred on modern and contemporary Indian art across the country, and the world.
Let us now look in more depth at an experimental curatorial initiative, residency and artists’ union.
Radical Socio-Political Experiments: Clark House Initiative
Clark House Initiative was founded by curators Sumesh Sharma and Zasha Colah in a derelict south Mumbai building in 2010. A key thread of Clark House’s work was its attempt to push back against a market-driven canon of modern Indian art, to broaden art history through commitments to important and understudied artists. For example, Clark House was instrumental in contextualising and presenting the art of printmaker Krishna Reddy (1925–2018) in India and it also embarked on the study and re-presentation of lesser-known modernist AA Raiba’s (1922–2016) work on the occasion of his 90th birthday in 2012.
Reacting against what they perceived as a static, elitist and exclusionary gallery system and a lingering recession, Sharma and Colah began a series of seemingly modest but political efforts, such as creating a series of photographs that told the story of metaphoric changes they wished to see in their city. This became the thesis of their joint curatorial practice and a guidepost for their future work, which were concerned with ideas of freedom, equality and re-reading history. At the same time, they began mentoring and working with students in the printmaking department at the JJ School of Art, some of whom would join Clark House as assistants, interns or participants in workshops.
Over time, Clark House’s experiments with anti-capitalist approaches and inquiries into collectivism led to it becoming a union. Individual members included a number of now well-recognised artists exploring personal, political, and sometimes difficult topics that have often extended beyond the purview of India’s elite. These included Amol Patil (b. 1987) and Prabkhar Pachpute (b. 1986). Patil’s mixed-media work, for instance, has reflected on his working-class family history, including his father’s journey as a rural migrant working in Mumbai and a life of creative work lost to a lack of documentation. Pachpute works across mediums with a particular affinity for charcoal because of its direct connection to coal mines and miners, as he grew up in a coal-mining region of Maharashtra and much of his family works in that industry. Pachpute is likely the artist associated with Clark House who has achieved the greatest renown in India and beyond, with his inclusion in the 4th Kochi-Muziris Biennale in 2018 and the 59th Venice Biennale in 2022, to point out just two of many exhibitions he has been a part of.
Clark House remained active in its original location as an exhibition site, residency, and talk and performance space until 2019, when its base shifted to the suburb of Borivali as an artist union focused on socio-political art. Sharma and Colah’s rigorous interventions in less than a decade continue to be impactful in democratising the art world in Mumbai and beyond.
While older establishments and institutions across India continue to showcase works by many modern artists as well as those who emerged during the boom, recent years have witnessed a parallel movement of artist-run spaces and organisations that have sought to provide spaces of representation for younger, emerging artists. Particularly with the rise in social media, artist-led initiatives and non-profit initiatives such as Art Chain India, Carpe Arte and Young Art Support also highlight works of artists that might be underrepresented in canonical narratives and institutions. Moreover, many initiatives taking place outside of major urban centres have also helped make engagements with the subject more accessible to wider audiences.
In this final Topic, while looking at new modes of artistic engagement, we mention several art exhibitions, fairs, institutions and more. The following materials will guide you to find out more about them.
- India Art Fair
- Prateek and Priyanka Raja
- KHOJ International Artists' Association
- Krishna Reddy
- Sir JJ School of Art Mumbai
- Kochi Muziris Biennale
- Alkazi Foundation
- India Foundation for the Arts
- Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art
- Start India Foundation
- Kanoria Centre for Arts
- Gujral Foundation
- Vadehra Art Gallery
- Delhi Art Gallery
- Volte Gallery
- Sakshi Art Gallery
- Chemould Prescott Road
- Project 88
- Jhaveri Contemporary
- Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum