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Placing contemporary art in history

The inimitable Sculpture Park in Jaipur, featuring works of reputed artists, is situated in an 18th century fort

‘Migrant’ by Ravinder Reddy, 2017. Painted fibreglass. Courtesy the Artist.
‘Migrant’ by Ravinder Reddy, 2017. Painted fibreglass. Courtesy the Artist.

Peter Nagy is one of the most respected art curators in the country. The Sculpture Park in Jaipur, one of its kind in concept and grandeur in India, is his latest offering. The Park invites visitors to experience contemporary art on a mammoth scale, showcasing an ensemble of 55 sculptures, which will be on display for 11 months. Situated within the precincts of Nahargarh fort—a historical, undulating sculpture in its own right, made of 18th century stones chiselled into form—the Park offers a clever juxtaposition. Nagy, who is the co-director of the art gallery Nature Morte, has painstakingly handpicked the sculptures from the studios of 15 Indian and nine international artists who have a formidable repertoire.

Featuring works by artists such as Subodh Gupta, Thukral & Tagra, Bharti Kher, Stephen Cox and Evan Holloway, the Park boasts of larger-than-life bronzes, beautifully carved out wood pieces and stone works. Only three pieces have been made from scratch for this space, “everything else is borrowed and are older works", says Nagy. Some even date back three decades, including a 1984 bronze creation by the late French artist Arman.

To pull off something on this scale is no small feat. There are many things to consider, including finance. Aparajita Jain, co-director of Nature Morte and founder of Saat Saath Arts, brought together 21 corporate houses to support this project, which took a year to come to fruition. Lounge spoke to both Nagy and Jain a few days ahead of the Park’s opening, slated for 10 December. Edited excerpts:

When and how did the idea of a sculpture park germinate?

Nagy: It came about in 2000-01, when I was working in Jaipur with Faith Singh, the lady who had co-initiated the Jaipur Virasat festival, a citywide, pan-art festival. They were looking for somebody to help them with contemporary art, so I volunteered and worked on that for about three years. During that period, I imagined that it might be a good idea to curate and assemble large sculptures in the Amer Fort. I was in touch with some art gallerists in New York who represented some very big names, but the problem was that to do something like this would take a lot of time. Recently, I happened to mention the idea to Malvika Singh, a friend. She has been working closely with Vasundhara Raje (Rajasthan’s chief minister), focusing a lot on promoting contemporary culture in Rajasthan. When I mentioned it to her, she said, “That’s fantastic. Let’s think about it." And now, here we are.

What drew you to the Nahargarh Fort?

Nagy: I’ve always wanted to place contemporary art in historical buildings. For this project, we looked at different sites within Rajasthan, including the Amer Fort, but it was far too sprawling. We finally considered the Nahargarh Fort, which is also quite big and rambling, but the Madhavendra Palace inside it (built later in 1868) is a beautiful monument and quite concise. So it proved to be more suitable.

What was the first major challenge that confronted you?

Jain: When we decided that we were going to take this fort, there was no proper road leading all the way up. It was a kaccha bumpy road. So Peter told the government representatives, “I will only do this project if you build me a road. We are not spending all this time and energy without proper, convenient access," because otherwise it would be terribly challenging for visitors to go there. It would defeat the whole purpose of the project. So Vasundhara (Raje) got the road made, and now it’s like a carpet.

Peter Nagy and Aparajita Jain. Credit: Priyanka Parashar/Mint.

How accommodating was the state government, which offered you the space? Were there any caveats?

Jain: The government had to be ready to let go and trust us completely. To tell you the truth, they haven’t interfered at all. The only thing we were told was to be sensitive to all religions—they did not want anything inflammatory put up—and objected to overt display of sexuality through artworks. Those were the only caveats. It was with that direction and sensitivity that we’ve gone ahead with the project. We didn’t want to tamper with the beautiful historic grounds or its walls, because it belongs to the future generation.

Peter, what guided your process of presenting these exquisite works of art? Could you give an example?

Nagy: Well, the Madhavendra Palace was built as a royal pleasure palace. It was a home for the maharaja and his wives during the monsoons. It is large and luxurious. The palace was once filled with opulent furniture and thrived with parties and intrigue. Now it is an empty monument. I wanted to bring some sense of life back into it. Another thing is that there are fabulous decorative wall paintings in the palace. That is the only thing that remains there and these are being restored. They are quite elaborate and are in almost every suite in the palace. I am using contemporary artworks to bounce off these historical paintings, so that there is a conversation going on between the sculptures and the paintings that are in situ.

There is Evan Holloway, for instance, who casts small tree branches in bronze and then welds them together to form a recto-linear structure that resembles a tree, but it’s all at right angles. The piece is almost 7ft high and it’s painted in multiple colours. That work will be an interesting juxtaposition against the painted florals and the tree branches that are on the wall. Both have very different visual languages, but both are man-made diagrams based on flowers and trees.

‘Untitled’ by Evan Holloway, 2017, Bronze, oil enamel. Courtesy of the Artist and Xavier Hufkens, Brussels.

Which are the three works made especially for this project?

Nagy: Vikram Goyal, who is an artist/interior designer, is creating an installation for the roof. He works with a lot of stone and metal. He has created something that kind of looks like pinnacles, referenced from those we see on top of (traditional) Rajasthani buildings. His work will be quite dramatic, because it’s the largest space that (the installation) is occupying. Then there is Reena Saini Kallat, who makes spider webs out of rubber stamps. She has made one specifically for the proportions of a particular courtyard in one of the rooms. So, it’s not a brand new work, but it’s a new variation of it. And then there is Benitha Perciyal. There are older works of hers which could’ve gone in there, but she wanted to create something new.

How have you tried creating a rich, immersive experience for the visitors?

Jain: We wanted to make it a smart site. To begin with, we needed Wi-Fi—there is patchy network in the fort. So the government got in touch with Reliance and said, “We want a Jio connection." Then we asked, “How do we get people to understand these artworks?" So we decided to do research, create content and do voice-overs. You will be able to either download this audio content on your phone or pick up headsets with audio. There will be two versions—English and Hindi—because we feel everything should be bilingual.

Why do you feel this Sculpture Park is important?

Jain: I visited Greece last year and I saw that it was a country in shambles. It boasts of a rich civilization, in terms of what it gave the world, but everybody seems to have forgotten it. The youth doesn’t seem to care. What went wrong? As Indian citizens, it’s very critical for us to know where we come from and not let go of who we are. Now, I’m not talking about extreme nationalism, but there is a lot that we have given to the world. We are a very sophisticated race of people. So this is something very important to me, to help the future generations look at the beauty that we were capable of creating, and the beauty that we are creating now.

The palace was once filled with opulent furniture and thrived with parties and intrigue. Now it is an empty monument. I wanted to bring some sense of life back into it.- Peter Nagy

And this project is corporate funded?

Jain: This entire thing is fully sponsored by corporate houses. The government has offered us space, electricity and security. Rest is corporate India, which has been able to take on the role of being cultural philanthropists. The first people I called up were, of course, my family, who decided to give their full support. We are all from Rajasthan, we are all Marwaris. So I consider this project as a “giving back" gesture towards my state. Then Shreyasi Goenka (content adviser at the DNA newspaper and Saat Saath Arts’ co-director), came on board as a private sponsor with her team and got this project rolling. It has been eight months of long, arduous conversations and convincing, and six months of intense work. And it has been all about getting the right partners, because this is not my project, this is a collective initiative. This is larger than you and me. We have been brought up to ask, “What are we going to give back to our society and our country?" This is one way of contributing.

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