There’s something to be said when, on reflection, the highlight of an art fair is a row of design stalls and food counters outside the main pavilion. The glamorous Nira Kehar, from the now shut Chez Nini, had assembled a bunch of her cool hipster friends for a design and food pop-up at the India Art Fair this season. There were Karishma Jhalani’s leather bags, Jahnvi Dameron Nandan’s small-batch fragrances, Sonal Sood’s En Inde steel jewellery, Radhika Chopra’s No. 3 Clive Road teas and even a CMKY mini-bookstore. While it was indeed nice to browse through all of these while stuffing my face with Nira’s delish gooseberry tarts (or with a snack from Soda Bottle Opener Wala, Caara or the Lodhi) that is not why anyone would intentionally go all the way into a smog-filled Delhi winter, and, even worse, into Okhla, no?
Maybe I’m being a bit harsh. The talks within the Girish Shahane-curated Speakers Forum were excellent. And I quite enjoyed observing Chitra Ganesh and Dhruvi Acharya working together to create their collaborative painting, as much as I liked watching Priyanka Choudhary eat the leaves and fruits off a citrus plant, while wearing a white dress with fruit juice dribbling all over it — a performance courtesy Gallery Maskara. It was lovely to witness a young artist like Valay Gada come into bloom (his single sculpture at The Loft’s booth was snapped up within an hour of the fair opening) and also to see how established names like Sudarshan Shetty and Dayanita Singh played with form and format in their non-gallery interventions at the fair.
But overall, there was a drabness that hung over the NSIC grounds in Okhla like a grey industrial cloud of smog. As I walked through the stalls, it just felt like same-old, same-old, everywhere. There were hardly any big international galleries this year, and the few good Indian ones were lost in a maze of mediocrity. I didn’t even get a glimpse of any big Indian collectors at the opening — never a good sign! It might be nice if Neha Kirpal and her team did some chintan-baithak about how to get back the fizz.
Once you got out of Okhla though, things improved considerably. The Alwar Balasubramaniam show — Layers of Wind, Lines of Time — at Talwar Gallery in Neeti Bagh was sublime. Bala’s meditative exploration continues — this time with magnets, rust, stone, cast aluminium, fibreglass, acrylic and plaster of Paris. His breakaways from his trademark white — when they take place — give you a jolt, with deep sunshine oranges and vivid indigo. I also loved visiting Nature Morte and doing a walkthrough with Jiten Thukral and Sumir Tagra. Their new video (slow-motion wrestlers circling a woman ironing clothes who discovers a letter in one of their pockets, in a surreal set piece) is one of nine proposed works dealing with the larger themes of gender, migration and modernity that have informed all their work. I can’t wait to see how all the videos will come together ultimately.
Feroze Gujral threw a fun Outset party. I love CAMP and this time, they’d skinned Feroze’s Jor Bagh residence with their recent works — both inside and outside, including a rather neat conversion of an entire room into a pinhole camera. RAQs, which I tend to think of at the CAMP from Delhi, had a much larger retrospective in Delhi’s NGMA, which was clever, breathtakingly beautiful and intense. With 50 works, it was also their biggest show ever — and spanned film, objects, text and textiles all talking to themselves across the past, present and future, within an asamayvali or untimely calendar. I like what NGMA director Rajeev Lochan has been doing — he’s made their moribund sarkari Jaipur House cool with back-to-back hit shows by contemporary artists like Atul Dodiya and Subodh Gupta, placed alongside exhibitions of old masters like Amrita Sher Gil.
I made sure to visit Pooja Sood’s visionary Khoj Studios in Khirkee village. As a proud supporter, in a tiny minuscule capacity, of Pooja’s enormous endeavour to create a vibrant art ecosystem in our country, I feel excited each time I return, to see how Khoj is growing — and the view of the dilapidated building opposite is an art installation by itself! This time, as we chatted, a line of autos blaring a Kejriwal song whizzed by. Change was palpably in the air.
Anupam and Lekha Poddar’s art lunch was as glamorous as ever. This year, they’d brought out a whole bunch of drawings — a large number from the Sri Lankan experiment that they supported recently — which involved artists sending their works to each other, chain letter style. These were then laid out all over their farmhouse, in a conversation with key artworks from the gargantuan Poddar collection. Fresh buttered peas, kulchas, a chatty artist gang including Subodh, Bharti and Sudarshan, and Nikhil Khanna cracking his trademark raunchy jokes on a crisp Delhi winter afternoon. I spent some time there with my favourite Dilliwallah, textile guru Kaka, which raised my spirits considerably.
Speaking of textiles, what really made my Delhi visit sparkle were two extraordinary shows — one involving textiles, and another, raw fibre. It was a privilege to witness the retrospective show of Mrinalini Mukherjee, India’s leading sculptor. The daughter of artists Benod Behri and Leela Mukherjee, and a student of KG Subramanyam, Mrinalini’s entire life was a kind of tapasya — a quest to master the materials she chose to work with. Beginning with hemp fibre — of which she dyed 100s of kilos and wove into figurative sculptures — she then moved on to ceramics, and finally at the apex of her career, to her ‘palmscapes’ in bronze. Whatever the medium, Mrinalini’s primordial erotic sculptures hit you in the gut with their purity of vision when you encounter them. Tragically, Mrinalini was taken ill and hospitalised on January 26 this year, just a day before her show was inaugurated by fellow artist Nilima Sheikh, and she passed away in hospital a few days later.
Some kilometres away in Gurgaon, I found myself experiencing a similar kind of awe at the Devi Art Foundation, which was exhibiting textiles that had been commissioned from a range of creative individuals, including textile and fashion designers, master-craftspeople, visual artists, graphic designers and filmmakers. Curators Mayank Mansingh Kaul, Rahul Jain and Sanjay Garg had asked themselves a set of questions: In the 21st century, when new technology offers unimaginable opportunities, why does the hand-made continue to remain valid? How does the legacy of hand-craftsmanship provoke new conversations in the field of textiles? The response to these questions was laid out at Devi as a sumptuous visual feast. From Rimzim Dadu’s silicone threads to Ashdeen Lilaowala’s gara bust, from Ishan Khosla’s clever monogrammed turbans to Aneeth Arora’s wispy delicate dream home — this show at Devi was both deeply traditional and fiercely modern at the same time.
My textile odyssey continued after I came back to Mumbai, when I visited the opening of Geeta Khandelwal’s Godharis of Maharashtra exhibition at Coomaraswamy Hall. Geeta had collected quilts (godharis) from Lonavla, Wai, Pune, Baramati, Kolhapur, Solapur, Konkan, Chiplun, Sakhartara, Nagpur and other towns over several years of research. She displayed these at the exhibition, alongside quilts that she had created herself. Geeta told me about how godharis are living art — used in daily life, and that because they are made by rural women using old saris, they follow concepts like recycling and upcycling naturally, terms that have now become trendy for urban eco-conscious consumers. They are also much more than functional objects — quilt-making serves as a space for creative expression as well as for socialising for rural women. I feel so glad to be living in a country where such traditions are all around us, and accessible, not just in galleries and museums, but also in the warp and weft of our daily lives.
*This blog post is a modified version of my column Parmesh’s Viewfinder that appears in Verve magazine each month.