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Bikaner House 2.0

After nearly a year, the public institution is back with a new centre for the contemporary arts

‘An Absence of Assignable Cause’ by Bharti Kher
‘An Absence of Assignable Cause’ by Bharti Kher (Photo courtesy Nature Morte)

Bikaner House, located in the leafy environs of Lutyens’ Delhi, is back in action after nearly a year. When we visited the heritage building recently, three exhibitions were taking place. One was Art Of The Automobile—themed on cars as moving pieces of art—by Vidita Singh, a member of the erstwhile royal family of Barwani from Madhya Pradesh. The second, The Idea Of The Acrobat, featured a series of paintings, sculptures, photographs, videos and installations by 12 contemporary artists, including Atul Dodiya, Bharti Kher, Shilpa Gupta, Manish Nai, Dayanita Singh, L.N. Tallur and Reena Saini Kallat. And the third was Terranum Nuncius by Jitish Kallat, which had travelled from Mumbai. The show, curated by Peter Nagy, and organized by Nature Morte in collaboration with Chemould Prescott Road and the Gujral Foundation, also marked the opening of the Centre for Contemporary Art at Bikaner House.

An untitled work by Manish Nai made of cloth and jute
An untitled work by Manish Nai made of cloth and jute (Photo courtesy Nature Morte)

This new white cube space, located within a building constructed in 1929 as a working space for architects—which later housed offices of the Research and Analysis Wing—presents a mix of the colonial and the contemporary in its design. Its minimalistic interiors offer a contrast to the vaulted corridors of the main building, dating back to 1932, designed by Edwin Lutyens and built by C.G. Blomfield. The nine exhibition spaces, of varying dimensions, have been designed to adapt to exhibitions of all shapes and sizes. “This is the only centre in a public institution that aims to promote contemporary art. The idea is to have high-quality and neutral programming of global standards," says Priya Pall, executive director, Bikaner House.

The Idea Of The Acrobat drew parallels between the process of creating art and the practice of an acrobat—with both requiring a sense of balance, flexibility and risk-taking. The outdoor space displayed Bharti Kher’s 4.8m-high The Intermediary Family—her largest sculpture so far. Made with copper, it was first shown at Frieze Sculpture 2018 in London and carries forward the artist’s engagement with hybrids, half-female forms, myths and in-between spaces.

Kher’s work made an appearance indoors as well, with An Absence Of Assignable Cause, a life-size sculpture of a sperm whale’s heart, with its veins and arteries embellished with bindis. “This is an interesting juxtaposition with her other work, Sing To Them That Will Listen. It is a brass bowl mounted on a marble stone, with rice kernels featuring snippets of matrimonial ads. After all, one needs a big heart to feel emotions," said Arunam, a volunteer with Nature Morte, who is studying photojournalism at the Shahidul Alam Pathshala in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and has been conducting walk-throughs at the centre.

A video by L.N. Tallur—incidentally, his first—showed an 18th century carpet in a museum in Gujarat being cleaned after 80-90 years. The swirls of dust came at the viewer like a tsunami. “This dust represents history. In a way, it shows the cleaning of time," said Arunam.

Aparajita Jain
Aparajita Jain (Photo courtesy Nature Morte)

When asked why she chose Bikaner House over her own gallery space in south Delhi for this exhibition, Aparajita Jain, co-owner, Nature Morte, says: “It has always been a dream for Peter (Nagy) and me to show outside of the gallery space sometimes and make art public. We wanted to have mini solos of artists to help people understand the breadth of their practice, and this new centre was perfect for that. And the exhibition has been getting around 800 people a day."

Additionally, the Centre for Contemporary Art has planned exhibitions of young and mid-career contemporary artists, such as Vadodara-based Nataraj Sharma and Delhi-based Pooja Iranna, Mekhala Bahl and Baaraan Ijlal, lined up. The team is currently mulling over a proposal by Mumbai-based Studio Renn for a show on the intersection of design and music. With shows like these, Bikaner House hopes to go back to being a multidisciplinary space, showcasing an intersection of design, fashion and visual and performing arts.

A two-day event about conscious living, Future Collective, organized by Vidyun Singh, Asha Kochhar and Roma Narsinghani, will be held on the weekend, starting 29 February. It will have designers like Abraham and Thakore, péro, 11.11 and Nicobar doing a special line for the show, while also roping in the Indian Accent restaurant for an organic food pop-up.

“We wanted to open the centre in time for the (recently concluded) India Art Fair, despite the fact that the additional team to run the expanded Bikaner House will join us April onwards," says Pall. A not-for-profit space, the centre is also trying to figure out a patronage model, which has already received a significant amount of interest.

Bikaner House, which opened as a space for the arts four years ago, had come to be known for the varied format of shows. The galleries would transform with every exhibition, be it World Ikat Textiles…Ties That Bind by World Crafts Council or Property Of A Gentleman: Stamps From The Nizam Of Hyderabad’s Dominions, presented by the Gujral Foundation. Given the lack of public spaces for viewing art, it soon became an integral part of Delhi’s cultural calendar. After March 2019, however, it went quiet. Bharti Kher’s solo, which was to be held there, was postponed.

According to sources, it started with the new Rajasthan government under Ashok Gehlot coming to power. They wanted to assess initiatives that the old government had started and then decide if they wanted to take them forward or not. In the process, initiatives that were working got stalled. Today, the Jawahar Kala Kendra and The Museum of Legacies only have government programming.

The two places that continued to run in some form were the Sculpture Park at Madhavendra Palace, Jaipur, and Bikaner House—maybe because they had successful public-private partnerships in place, and were self-sustaining. According to a previous team member who wishes to remain anonymous, despite the efforts of the state government to ensure that there is no hitch in the running of the spaces, the state elections held in October 2018, and the general elections held in May 2019, did inadvertently affect the running of Bikaner House due to the fact that at the time of the implementation of the model code of conduct, important meetings couldn’t take place and contracts couldn’t be renewed. As soon as that got over, the team led by Pall was called back, and active efforts are now being made to build a new program with the vision of Bikaner House being a new-age cultural institution.

For young design practitioners, this lull at Bikaner House, coupled with the unravelling of programming at Jawahar Kala Kendra, was extremely disheartening. “Where do I go now? Which place will offer me this kind of independence?" Mayank Mansingh Kaul, a Delhi-based curator and writer, had rued last year. “For the past four years, I got to show projects outside of the contemporary art field like textile, fashion, design, product and craft." Today, Kaul is happy to see the revival of the Bikaner House in recent weeks, and the opening of the new wing.

However, it remains to be seen if Bikaner House can once again fill this gap.

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