Last November, young artist Masum Asick Molla, could be seen tinkering with batteries, leaves and wires in a small space, located within the village of Boner Pukur Danga in Santiniketan. A graduate from Kala Bhawan, who went on to do his masters in fine arts from Hyderabad, Molla had been collecting dead leaves and insects from the surrounding landscape for his series, A Project into the Forest. “How can I give them a new life? How can I recreate the motion of the leaf—the way it would swirl in the wind, or even the way it falls to the ground?” said the artist in a video statement. He then went on to use an apparatus, consisting of batteries and wires, to give these natural objects a fresh lease of life.
Artists such as Molla have been trying to further their practices—experimenting with form and material—at a project called the Hidden Artist Initiative, started by 40-year-old Surajit Biswas. In 2019, he rented a house in the village and set up Bhumi Kriya as a free space for artists to deepen their visual language. This endeavour stems from very personal experiences in the art world. Biswas graduated from Kala Bhawan and moved to Baroda for his masters in fine arts. “I faced a lot of problems. My solo show in Mumbai got postponed as the gallery kept haggling over the prices,” he says. “I realised that a lot of artists like me, who come from the grassroots, might never be able to reach the gallery due to barriers in the ecosystem. I thought to myself that if I was facing this problem in spite of being based in Baroda, which is a centre for the arts, what must be happening to the rest.”
So he started the Hidden Artist Initiative for visual arts practitioners from the grassroots, who worked beyond the metros. The space is open to all sorts of creators—self-taught, mid-level, senior artists, and more. “The initiative forms a bridge between Baroda and Santiniketan, allowing a free flow of creative energy between the two centres,” says Biswas, who has self-funded this initiative.
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Similar endeavours are taking place across the country to promote emerging and mid-level artists from towns and villages across India. One of the pioneers of such efforts was the famous Indian modernist, Syed Haider Raza. Not many people know that Raza would make a special effort to meet with young artists on visits to India from Paris. Friends would often find him seated on the floor, surrounded by budding painters and their canvases, discussing their ideas and occasionally even buying their paintings. Raza was also the only major modern Indian artist to create a foundation to encourage and promote the work of young Indian art practitioners. And in a fitting homage to him, last month the Raza Foundation decided to mark his birth centenary with a mammoth exhibition of 100 young artists, drawn from all over the country.
‘Yuva Sumbhava’ was conceptualised by the well-known painter Akhilesh and ably assisted by fellow artist Manish Pushkale. To ensure that there was equal representation from all parts of the country, the Foundation invited five curators to help in the selection of 20 artists each: Ushmita Sahu from the east, Jesal Thacker from the west, Geeta Hudson from the south and I was tasked with the north zone, with Akhilesh himself was responsible for the central zone. Spread across Bikaner House, Triveni Kala Sangam, India International Centre, Habitat Centre and Alliance Francaise, the exhibition opened simultaneously at all five venues.
Given that Raza’s medium of expression was painting, the curators were asked to focus on painting, sculpture and printmaking, with each artist submitting three works. In his note for the catalogue, Ashok Vajpeyi, managing trustee of the Raza Foundation, wrote, “There is adequate visual evidence to make us see and feel as to how anxieties and concerns, dreams and fantasies, longings and daring, feelings and ideas of the young play out in art practice,” adding, “Luckily, as of now, the young are not concerned about being labelled or burdened with ideologies or being pushed into the marketable and fashionable registers.” Certainly, the zeal for experimentation and risk-taking was abundantly evident, which injected a sense of raw energy into the works.
Considering its geographic spread, the exhibition could well be regarded as a microcosm of developments in painting across the country. As Saha mentioned in her catalogue essay, “By inviting curators from across India to choose visual artists living and working outside better-known artistic centres, the exposition becomes a survey of peripheries and, by extension, a cultural experiment that addresses identity politics and intersectional perspectives.”
The show has introduced both curators and audiences to diverse practices, which are very rooted in the artist’s surroundings. Take, for instance, Ladakhi artist Tsering Motup Siddho’s triptych Objects at Home, which is reminiscent of a carpet that takes on the contours of a mountain landscape, While Vishwanath Kuttum draws on his memories from his time spent on the Andaman Islands, Shillong-based artist Naphisabiang Khongwir creates whimsical watercolours. Sewon Rai from Sikkim addresses the environmental crisis in works such as Commemoration of blood swept land VII.
In some cases, the regional specificities are more pronounced. Rajasthan-based Chirag Kumawat’s gouache on wasli paintings are anchored in the miniature tradition, while Mithila-based 32 year-old Avinash Karn’s acrylic paintings use the idiom of Madhubani paintings to articulate more contemporary themes. Gond tribal painters, Baldev Mandavi and Mayank Shyam, have taken recourse to local stories and Snober Jeelani Shah’s Dastarkhan indicates her Kashmiri heritage.
While the figurative, narrative style is certainly the dominant mode of expression, there is also a strong push towards abstraction. This can be seen in the geometric abstraction of 38 year-old Rafique Shah (from Madhya Pradesh), in the focus on texture and colour in 40-year old Puducherry-based Ezhilarasan Ezhumale, and more. This turn towards abstraction is a trend that Atul Bhalla, professor and the head of the Department of Art and Performing Arts, Shiv Nadar University, has also observed among successive batches of his students. Rather than viewing it as a disengagement with the world around them, he sees it signposting a loss of language to address the pressing issues of our time.
Today’s younger generation often eschews these “academic” practices in favour of installations or more digital modes of production, whether photography, sound or video.
Some of the artists who participated in the Raza Foundation show are engaged simultaneously in many new media practices. The experimentation with medium and form has also led a younger generation of artists to the graphic novel. Anirban Saha has showcased his traumatic tales of Covid-19, illustrated over the course of the last two years, at the Alliance Francaise. Artist book-making too is generating considerable interest among younger artists with new platforms springing up. For instance, Reliable Copy describes itself as a “publishing house and curatorial practice dedicated to the realisation and circulation of works, projects, and writing by and with artists.” Then there is BlueJackal that has positioned itself as a collective that provides an avenue for creating and publishing visual narratives, comics and picture books.
Vidya Shivadas from the Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art (FICA) points to the growing popularity of artist collectives, whether it is the Anga Art Collective in Assam or the Yusmarg Collective in Kashmir. There is a renewed spirit of collaboration and sharing among artists as they address issues relating to ecology, environment and climate change. FICA has set up Agriforum with the Sher-Gil Sundaram Arts Foundation, which helps artists working with agrarian practices to discuss and share their enquiries. Its practitioners include an NCR-based ecological collective, Saagwala, which practices organic farming in Ghaziabad. Another artist from Agriforum, who was part of Yuva Sumbhava, is Gyanwant Yadav. Yadav’s semi-abstract compositions draw from his family’s farming traditions in their village Chandpur in Uttar Pradesh, and he spends several months in the year back home researching and observing the shifts in the agricultural landscape. It's heartening to see such diverse practices become accessible to audiences across the country now.