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Unique modern art voices from the Himalaya

The spotlight on contemporary art from the Himalayan belt augurs well for an underrepresented region

'Untitled' by Skarma Sonam Tashi.
'Untitled' by Skarma Sonam Tashi. (Courtesy sa Ladakh)

Skarma Sonam Tashi, 27, is keeping busy hours these days. For the India Art Fair, he is collaborating with Germany-based artist Phillip Frank to create an installation, Transformations. It is an immersive landscape, resembling a littered mountain range, and has been made with egg cartons, cardboard boxes, papier-mâché, clay, and brought alive by light projections. Supported by Ladakh-based art organisations sā Ladakh and Ladakh Arts and Media Organisation (LAMO), along with the German embassy, New Delhi, the work by the two artists reflects on the rapidly changing climate, water scarcity, dwindling wildlife, and other environmental issues.

In the past, people from across the country have had some level of familiarity with traditional Himalayan art and sculpture, with its religious motifs and iconography. However, in the last three-four years, contemporary art from the region, such as the work by Tashi, has started getting recognised as well.

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New platforms

Tashi, a master’s degree holder in art from Santiniketan, West Bengal, whose artistic practice is less than three years old, came into the spotlight with sā Ladakh, South Asia’s highest-ever contemporary land art group exhibition that took place last year in Disko Valley Bike Park, Leh, at an altitude of 3,600m. The inaugural show was rooted in the rugged mountainous landscape, its people and resources. It was a collaboration between various stakeholders, including artists, local communities, corporates, art organisations and galleries, all coming together to promote art from the region. Instead of showcasing traditional art, sā Ladakh brought to the fore young, contemporary voices that talk about the climate crisis, rapid urbanisation and rampant tourism, much of it destroying the ecosystem in the name of development.

Besides Tashi, one got to see works by local artists Tsering Gurmet Kungyam, Anayat Ali and Arunima Dazess Wangchuk. The exhibition is now all set to become an annual feature and an important platform for contemporary voices. Raki Nikahetiya, artist and co-founder of sā Ladakh, confirms that work for the festival’s second edition (1-10 June) has already begun.

Unique voices

People from the arts ecosystem are of the opinion that contemporary practices from the Himalayan regions of Ladakh in India, Bhutan, Nepal and sub-Himalayan regions of North-East India—parts of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and Sikkim—are becoming more eclectic with each passing year.

According to Anubhav Nath, director of Ojas Art Gallery, Delhi, which specialises in folk and indigenous practices from across the country, the art of this region has a language of its own, is individualistic, and reflective of a deep-rooted culture while focusing on pressing issues.

Art critic and curator Georgina Maddox too notes that the practices offer a visual analysis of the artists’ quest for heritage and identity. At the India Art Fair, she is curating a segment, The Importance Of Loss: Migration, Memory And Continuity with Aakrit Collective, a four-year-old group formed by five young fine arts graduates from Nepal, in collaboration with the Unnati Cultural Village. The latter is a multidisciplinary arts centre supported by the Nepal-based conglomerate Chaudhary Group.

During her travels across the mountainous country, Maddox has noted huge efforts being made by art institutions to promote young artists. Galleries such as Siddhartha Art Gallery, Gallery McCube, Bikalp Art Center and the Taragaon Contemporary Art Gallery, among others, now regularly offer residencies and grants to promising young artists. And institutions like Unnati are taking these contemporary expressions to the world—its founder Surabhi Chaudhary is helping Tate Modern, London, curate exhibitions and promote art from the region.

Then there is an ongoing exhibition, Nepal: Contemporary Paintings And Early Photographs, at the Leonard Pearlstein Gallery of Drexel University, Philadelphia, US, making it the first ever showcase of contemporary paintings from Nepal in the city. It features works by artists like Sabin Acharya, Sabita Dangol and Prithvi Shreshtha. The artists grapple with questions of belonging, the impact of globalisation, and the preservation of cultural heritage in the face of rapid change.

Community stories 

The reasons for this emerging ecosystem across the Himalaya are many: a continuing rise in tourism, an increase in the number of annual events and exhibitions focused on art from this region, and artists willing to tell stories of their respective communities. According to Monisha Ahmed, co-founder of LAMO and co-curator of sā Ladakh, the interest in Himalayan contemporary art is a result of certain developments from the past decade. Many young artists from the Indian states and neighbouring countries in the region started studying fine arts, some going abroad to prestigious institutions to pursue the discipline. “Many of the artists who did residencies with us, were those who came back, set up their studios, and discovered their visual language to tell stories,” says Ahmed.

There is a corporate push as well, with brands collaborating with local art organisations to offer opportunities to emerging artists from the region. This stems from their own interest in the Himalayan belt. Royal Enfield is a case in point. The multinational motorcycle manufacturing company has, especially in the last three years, accelerated its corporate social responsibility initiatives with a clear mandate to support contemporary artists from the Indian Himalayan region.

According to Bidisha Dey, executive director, Eicher Group Foundation, Royal Enfield’s CSR arm, promotion of the arts has now become a core value of the brand. It has collaborated with sā Ladakh and LAMO, among other local NGOs in the region.

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Last year, it announced the Himalayan Fellowship for Creative Practitioners, offering grants of 3-4 lakh each to 10 upcoming painters, sculptors, printmakers, photographers, musicians, and filmmakers. “The Himalayan region is an integral part of our social mission programme and we are focused on collaborating with artists who are still underrepresented and belong to some of the remotest areas of this region,” says Dey. 

21st century ‘thangkhas’

Bhutan-based Serenity Arts is an arts forum founded in 2016 by Delhi-based Arjun Sawhney and Thimpu-based Tania Lefebvre to increase visibility of Bhutanese thangka paintings in the international arena. With exhibitions such as Whispered Wisdom (2023, Bikaner House), Tara: 21 Avatars Of The Goddess (2016, Delhi; 2018, Mumbai) and the forthcoming Wheel Of Life at the India Art Fair, Serenity Arts stresses on the reinvention of age-old techniques of thangka paintings.

“The reinvention,” explains Lefebvre, “happens without messing with traditional forms. We can experiment with the backdrops but never with the story, form, or the technique.” While her art company is focused on reviving the traditional techniques of thangka paintings, she is seeing an increasing number of young artists dabbling in current themes.

One such organisation working in this area is Voluntary Artists’ Studio of Bhutan (VAST), which was founded in 1998 to promote contemporary art in Bhutan. Last December, at the international airport of Paro, it exhibited works by young artists of the country. The founder of VAST, Karma Tenzin Choten, 28, is an artist herself. A political science graduate, she expresses personal memories through her work.

Just like the Himalayan landscape—with its beautiful vistas, which change with every season and fold—the art that is emerging from this fragile ecosystem seems to mirror this as well. There is a certain delicate and ephemeral quality to the works that are being created by young contemporary art practitioners. It remains to be seen whether the artists will get to extend the boundaries with both themes and materiality, or they will be pushed back by market forces into the realm of traditional art. For the time being, the contemporary art language seems to be holding its own.

Continuing the focus on the east

Contemporary art from the North East has been in sharp focus in the past few years. Collectives such as the Northeast Lightbox and the Anga Art Collective have focused on community-based conceptual practices to change the notion that only craft-based practices emerge from the region. There has been a steady focus on such practices not just within the North-East but outside as well.

Shahnaab Alam, curator of Mahabahu Brahmaputra Heritage Centre, an art centre, credits tourism as one of the biggest contributors to highlighting the interest in the region’s contemporary art. In his view, music festivals such as Mongeet: Majuli Festival of Assam; Hornbill, Nagaland, and Ziro have become more multidisciplinary in their approach to include visual arts as an important aspect of the festivals.

While the collectives work out of villages and towns, and festivals are annual affairs, the cities still lack concerted spaces for showcasing art. Alam, a prominent film producer (Lunchbox, Monsoon Shootout, Omerta, Dhoom, among others), returned in 2020 to Guwahati, his home city in Assam, and got involved in giving a makeover to a 170-year-old bungalow as a “live art installation centre”.

From traditional fishing equipment and tools being used as ceiling décor to a wall lined with sepia-toned photographs, and a textile art installation in one corner, the heritage centre hopes to fill the gap in the city, which lacks art spaces. “The heritage centre is a much-needed platform for artists from remote Himalayan regions in the east, who otherwise struggle to show their works,” says Alam.

In Agartala, photographer Abhijit Deb too feels that it was the lack of art galleries or open spaces that spurred him and his colleagues to start Egaro Photo Festival in 2017. Egaro, or “11” in Bengali, was named for the 11 founding members coming together as a not-for-profit collective of sorts to showcase their art despite.

The members have continued doing exhibitions in Agartala, garnering grants and fellowships, and this year, Egaro debuts at the India Art Fair to show important and relevant photographs in the present environmental, political, cultural, and socioeconomic context. Deb notes: “In the last two years, the buzz around the region has been picked up by curators, art organisations, and art galleries such as Emami, Experimenter, and UK-based Delfina, offering grants and residencies specifically for the northeast region.”

Abhilasha Ojha is a Delhi-based art and culture writer.

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