by Vidya Shivadas – Guest Editor
The issue starts on a semi fictional note with Anshuman Dasgupta and Grant Watson recreating the 1922 Bauhaus exhibition that took place in Calcutta. The first of its kind and scale outside Europe, the exhibition containing works by Kandinsky, Feininger and Klee, among others, made its way to The Fourteenth Annual Exhibition of the Indian Society of Oriental Art. Today the exhibition is relegated to a brief footnote in the history of modern Indian art, few traces remain – even the works are said to have mysteriously disappeared after the exhibition.
‘… An important curatorial juxtaposition – a moment in the history of exhibitions, which if were to be repeated today would still seem audacious,’ the authors note on the close placement of seemingly divergent art practices of the Bengal and Bauhaus schools. They reconstruct the exhibitory context allowing us to walk past the works of Bengal artists and confront original Bauhaus works while overhearing Rabindranath Tagore instruct Rupam editor O.C. Ganguly to make a case for the latter through his writings. In the process they provide us with an animated account of the role the exhibition played in materializing and making visible the longstanding debates around the international avant garde and its relation to modern art practice taking place in the intellectual and critical climate of Bengal.
We find this part-fictional, part-historical account of the Bauhaus exhibition as a useful starting point for this issue on curation which reflects on current preoccupations with the practice and role of curation but equally stretches back into time to reclaim fragile and forgotten histories of exhibition-making within the Indian context. The act of retrieval is not driven by the desire to set in place a linear and canonical history of curatorial practice but to dialogue, as my co-editor Natasha Ginwala points out, ‘with a series of ‘moments’ – set in the past, present and future – through personal articulations’.
Giorgio Agamben in his essay on what it means to be contemporary, writes, “… one can say that the entry point to the present necessarily takes the form of an archeology; an archeology that does not, however, regress to a historical past, but returns to that part within the present that we are absolutely incapable of living.”  He makes note of the peculiar insight and courage required to be contemporary, which requires both adherence and distance from one’s own time.
The issue has its beginnings in the two part workshop Dialogues on Curating held in July 2010 and January 2011. Organised by Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art (FICA), in collaboration with Ginwala and with additional support from Take on Art, the workshops undertook precisely such excavations. Here we looked at the informal histories of exhibition-making as well made note of the extended roles artists, scholars and critics had played in conceptualizing exhibitory contexts without necessarily being designated as ‘curators’. We also capitalized on the current interest in the figure of the contemporary curator– with any number of seminars and publications dedicated to the theme in the recent past– to look at the prospects, problems and institutional frameworks within which such practices are being made possible. This issue on curation is in many ways a continuation of the discussions undertaken at these forums.
How does one retrieve these ephemeral histories? From what vantage point does one make these retrievals? Can these accounts emerge from an interplay of fiction, memory and fact? How do they affect our current practice?
In some cases the relationship between the present and the past is analysed through commentaries by curators, writers and artists on exhibitions that were significant to them. We have Nancy Adajania, Chaitanya Sambrani, Grant Watson, Sudhir Patwardhan, Shukla Sawant, Saloni Mathur and Parvez Kabir presenting their perspectives on the exhibitions Place for People, Question and Dialogue, Hum Sab Ayodhya, Combine, Group 1890 Inaugural Exhibition, FOCUS, Bombay/Mumbai, while also reproducing materials from the exhibitions themselves. Patwardhan, for example, recounts his experience of the 1979 exhibition Focus which showcased works of four artists who were important to him –Tyeb Mehta, Akbar Padamsee, Gieve Patel and Bhupen Khakhar. From the vantage point of a practitioner, he introspects on the relevance of art history and how this knowledge structures the artist’s experience of artworks, by others and his own. Saloni Mathur, on her part, connects the exhibition ‘Bombay /Mumbai 1992-2001’, curated by Geeta Kapur and Ashish Rajyadakshya, within larger thematic of Century City: Art and Culture in the Modern Metropolis at Tate Modern, to the critical discussions that developed in the 1980s-90s in the pages of the Journal of Arts and Ideas around issues of ‘civil society, public sphere and secularism’.
This archival section is also interspersed with images which present another kind of record. I am struck by two somewhat similar photographs of artists K H Ara and Jehangir Sabavala captured amidst their paintings, ironically pointing to the affinities between the modern artist and the craftsman sitting surrounded by their wares. They also point to the centrality of this artist figure in independent India in determining the art scene with its newly formed institutions, nascent patronage systems and critical apparatus. This becomes clear when we look at some of the important exhibitions of the 1950s where the artists time and again make a case for their right to select works. In a joint statement published on the occasion of the 1956 exhibition Eight Painters in Delhi, the artists stressed the need for an independent exhibition “where each painter freely chooses what he considers his best and most representative works is of value to him and his public. Such an exhibition is more satisfactory than one where an anonymous selection body attempts to make a comparative evaluation”. The matter reached its height in 1968 when Krishen Khanna, as the commissioner of the Indian section of the first ever Triennale, pitched the idea of selecting ‘eminent works rather than eminent artists’ and was met with stiff resistance.
The issue also contains essays that work through a more seamless understanding of the past and present, while analyzing central questions of presentation and the making of identities. Annapurna Garimella looks at the political implications of placing vernacular artists alongside modern and contemporary artists within art exhibitions and institutions. The curatorial models deployed by J Swaminathan, Gulammohammed Sheikh, Jyotindra Jain and Chaitanya Sambrani are bought into discussion as she examines the national and global contexts within which these interventions were staged. Avigna Bhattacharya, on her part, engages with discussions about the relevance of socially engaged, communitarian art and curatorial projects by looking at the early initiatives of Santiniketan artists to make public sculptures and murals. Through these interventions by artists like Nandalal Bose, Ram Kinker Baij, Benode Behari Mukherjee, K G Subramanyan, among others, the campus itself emerges as a curatorial artifact where works executed at different moments dialogue with each other, with the environment and the audiences, and present in the process radically different artistic, curatorial and pedagogical models.
We also have curators sharing their experiences and projects, via case studies and interviews. Ram Rahman compares notes on two photography based exhibitions he curated – for the permanent collection of Indira Gandhi Memorial Museum and the other a retrospective of Sunil Jannah – while Naman Ahuja talks of curating a retrospective of the painter, photographer and potter Devi Prasad, presenting the specific milieu of Santiniketan and the ideology of Swadeshi to contextualize his practice.
Last but not the least while dealing with archival material in the issue, we have also featured excerpts from individual archives that are now in the public domain – the personal archive of Geeta Kapur and Vivan Sundaram which has been painstakingly digitized by the Hong Kong based Asia Art Archive and the Jehangir Nicholson Collection which recently began its new life as the modern and contemporary section of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya and also offers a space for research into this collection by making visible its storage, library and Nicholson’s archive of photography. Sabih Ahmad, in his role as the AAA researcher who undertook the task of digitizing of the Kapur Sundaram archive, writes about the task of facilitating the passage of a personal archive into a public one. He points to the paradoxical role that this act plays – on one hand memoralising the personal archive and on the other dispersing it so as to “produce endless possibilities of combination, configuration as well as interpretation of even that which is not collected in their archive”.
The endless possibilities, that contact with transitory and ephemeral contexts of exhibitions generate, interests us. And we hope that working through their material histories, we can arrive at a more complex and nuanced understanding of the creative and ethical roles of curators in our current milieu.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Vidya Shivadas is a curator and art critic based in New Delhi. After her Masters in Art Criticism from Faculty of Fine Arts, MS University, Vadodara, Vidya joined the Vadehra Art Gallery in 2002. Her recent curatorial projects at the Gallery include Something I’ve been meaning to tell you (with Sunil Gupta), April 2011, ID/entity (with Bhooma Padmanabhan and Julia Villasenor), October 2010 and Fluid Structures: Gender and Abstraction in India (1970s – 2008) (April 2008). She was a guest curator at Devi Art Foundation and worked on the solo exhibition of Bangladeshi artist Mahbubur Rahman in August 2009. She is also actively involved with the Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art (FICA), a non-profit organization set up in 2007 to provide support to artists, art historians, curators, art critics, and other professionals devoted to the study of contemporary Indian art. In 2009- 2010 she received the Asia Art Archive Research Grant for her project Mapping the Field of Art Criticism in India, Post Independence.