Art for everybody

Haven

Sanskriti rejects conventional notions of antiquity, novelty, curiosity and exoticism for art to be authentic, and provides a retreat to artists and scholars to reflect, interact and create, writes M A Siraj

Art is a vehicle of self-expression. In India, art and culture are inextricably intertwined with all aspects of our life, from birth to death and from the ancient to the contemporary. While everyone looks for classicism for art to be authentic, it is not always classical. In the Indian context, it is mainly utilitarian. It is not only for preservation or object d’art for showcases or museums, but also for daily life. It seeps down our consciousness.

It manifests itself in myriad aspects of our daily lives. It creeps into the implements of kitchen, lamps, nut-crackers, snuff bottles, betel boxes, vanity bags, barber’s razor, housewives’ rolling pins, milkman’s can, fishmonger’s baskets, or skirts of the trapeze artists.  The 40-acre Sanskriti campus in Anandgram, in Delhi’s outskirts Ayanagar, amply mirrors what the erstwhile merchant and now art czar O P Jain had for years visualised while visiting craft melas, shandies and haats in India’s countryside. For Jain, art need not be essentially rooted in primitivism, for it had been an integral part of the fabric of everyday existence and not simply a source of recreation, a gentle diversion from real life, a leisure pursuit, or a mere means of economic gain, as is often the case in some Western cultures.  

So when Jain conceived the idea of Sanskriti, he was not thinking of a hub for culture vultures, or patrons from high society who could fund extravaganzas. For him, art was neither a symbol of prestige nor glamour.

Anandgram was therefore the outcome of considerable churning of thought and refining of vision and occasional course correction, ably aided by renowned experts in the field such as Kapila Vatsyayan, Jyotindra Jain and L M Singhvi. Jain was sure of the arduousness of the path he had taken and aware of the hazards of a drastic departure from the conventional. But he was simultaneously convinced of the need to put in place something that represented his instinctive urge to bring in the continuity context of art in the country.  

Jain says, “Art is a mirror of its time. It develops into heritage for the future generations. Tradition is not a static entity. Authenticity need not be rooted in primitivism. Nor even rarity or exoticism be its essence or determine its quality. The West isolated the art objects from their evolving context. An evolving context was considered a departure from tradition.”

Expressive

Sights and sounds, shades and scents at the campus cast a spell on every visitor to Anandgram. The music of walking on dry leaves in the campus and the powerful fragrance of raat ki rani lingering till afternoon is too alluring to be missed. A giant banyan tree at the entrance sums up the concept of Sanskriti, literally meaning the ‘process of cultivating’. Nothing could be more meaningful as the institutional credo stresses that the need to create, discover and imagine is universal and requires expression and therefore support.  

The village was founded in 1979. Author and writer Mulk Raj Anand provided the initial inspiration. Sensing Jain’s interest in art and culture, he provoked him by telling, “It will be a shame indeed if you die a shopkeeper.” This sowed the seeds of Sanskriti as an idea that later developed into a shared vision. 

Terracotta Museum, Textiles Museum and Everyday Arts Museum came up subsequently in 1984, putting on display objects and exhibits that belong to the evolving context of everyday life and are symbolic reminders of ‘mutating identities’ which have belonged to the kaleidoscope of Indian life. They are real and down to earth, telling us that culture is the living substance of everyday life and its joys.  

According to Jain, artists became artisans in colonial India and art became ‘Applied Art’.

This had a beneficial aspect too as artists were exposed to and trained in geometry, ornamentation, drawing, perspective, chiaroscuro, anatomy and were encouraged to produce colonial novelties: to scale miniature models of monuments carved in wood or ivory, latticework screens, ivory replicas of ceremonial boats, paisley shawls, decorative shields, and sheaths for swords and daggers. 

Vibrant and vital

Jain rues the fact that what is offered in the name of art education today is in fact a process of deculturisation. He says, “Even the so-called schools of art do not and cannot employ artists or craftspersons as teachers of art in the very schools that are called schools of art. At the policy level, art became associated with culture and crafts with commerce. The market decontextualises it by considering them only as products. It is here that it is threatened with losing its reason d’etre. The tradition is not a static entity. It is here that the need to introduce art education in schools is felt. But thanks to remarkable resilience shown by crafts and their utilitarian relevance to popular life, Indian art retains its vibrancy and vitality, although dignity eludes its practitioners. 

Jain’s ideology finds ample expression in the three museums and the constantly inclusive and dynamic nature of art interweaving the past, present and future could be seen in the objects on display. Be it the prayer room lamps, horse saddles, kalamkari, himroo or paithan saris, terracotta horses adorning the Tamilnadu countryside, blowpipes or butter-churners used by housewives of yore or even paandans from hoary haveli and devdis (mansions) of Lucknow, they all serve to indicate that culture or art is not only classical but happens even to this day and is essentially an add-on thing. “Our museums are resource museums. Main emphasis is on continuity. What was produced 200 years ago can still be/and is being produced. We have 40 million artisans or crafstpersons,” he adds.  

Clearly, Jain is on a mission to liberate Indian art from the parameters of curiosity, antiquity, exoticism and rarity. The three museums celebrate the anonymity of Indian artists. While conventional museums carry name tags, Sanskriti’s showcases bear none of them. 

Conscious of promoting the discussion further, Sanskriti took upon itself two more projects. The first project was that of nurturing young men and women in the fields of art, literature, journalism, music-dance-theatre and social and cultural achievements.

Talents were recognised by conferring Sanskriti Awards annually on practitioners in these five fields. A significant departure from the conventional was made by rejecting the rule of seniority roll call. Awards were reserved for persons aged between 35 and 45.

Jain feels it has given a fillip to the creativity of these practitioners. The second programme was to provide a retreat to artists and scholars to reflect, interact and create in Anandgram. Nearly 300 artists have so far been hosted under the Sanskriti Residency Programme.

Jain observes, “It is not basically an experiment in preserving art, but providing a space for interaction among its practitioners, between selves and others, between local and global. It is an exercise in suffixing the art with ‘inter’, ‘trans’ and ‘multi’. Our role is catalytic to present, promote and preserve art.”

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