Catering to art in the busy lanes

A hub to meet the needs of artists from outside

Catering to art in the busy lanes
NIV serves as a platform for struggling and upcoming artists

When Shaji Mathew left Thrissur, Kerala, at the age of 16, he only knew he wanted to “achieve something big”. As a newcomer to Delhi in the 1980s, after multiple odd jobs and meeting different types of people, including artists, he soon partnered with a friend to set up a handlooms business that became his livelihood and also a source of support for his dream project -- NIV Art Centre, an art studio, gallery and residency space in Neb Sarai in 2007.

“Though I missed five years of college, I gained practical knowledge in those years. As a newcomer to the city in the 1980s, I had to find means of survival. Meanwhile, I met quite a few upcoming artists like Arpana Caur, Manjit Bawa, Himmat Shah, and became friends with them,”  he said.

“Knowingly or unknowingly, I was inspired by them and also understood the harsh realities that they faced. There were so many artists coming from outside Delhi, but their survival in the city was difficult. They couldn't afford a residential space and galleries were not willing to entertain them. So, it restrained them from thinking of exhibitions in a city like Delhi. That is how, the idea to make space for outstation artists, from across the country and the world, to come, stay, work and exhibit came to my mind and the aim was to promote career-artists,” adds Mathew, who wanted to be an artist himself.

Since the late 1990s, the art scene in the city and its environs have swelled from a handful of galleries to a thriving constellation of non-profit, residency programme and artist-run spaces. From eye-catching portraits to abstract art, from the black and white figures of owls and monkeys to colourful murals, the walls leading to Neb Sarai offer a wide canvas space for artists in and around the area.

 “Till recently, this area was not a cool place or a hot property destination. But things are changing slowly. And you won’t be surprised to know that artists who work from this area are the prime movers of the cultural value of the place. When we came here, there were hardly any artists. Now, there are 300 plus artists in Neb Sarai. Most of them have stepped out of the NIV. Our aim is not to make them permanently dependent on us. We just want to be a stepping stone,” says Mathew, who is also the director of the NIV Art Centre. 

For struggling artists

Situated on a busy road that leads to Indira Gandhi National Open University, the NIV which means foundation or base in Hindi, has “served as a platform for struggling and upcoming artists” by reaching out to creative talents, including painters, sculptors, street artists, caricaturists and even performance artistes from across the globe.

“With a focus on facilitating the fundamental necessities for advancement of each of the forms of art, besides regular activities, we curate individual and group shows, host international artists-in-residency programmes, organise seminars, lectures, discussions and talks that contextualise art within critical discourse,” Mathew told Deccan Herald referring to their recent venture into film-making as well.

The artist-in-residence programme brings artists, performing artistes, academicians, curators, and creative people for a “time and space away” from their usual environment and obligations. “They provide time of reflection, research, presentation and production. They also allow an individual like me to explore her practice within another community; meet new people, use new materials, experience life in a new location. In fact, they emphasise the importance of meaningful and multi-layered cultural exchange and immersion into another culture,” says visual artist Jason Miranda Bilbao.

London-based Bilbao recently curated varied media-based art work show -- “Ideas travel faster than light” which saw nine artists from abroad collaborating with an equal number from India. “When I came to India, I met people in the art field – curators, critics, artists with whom I connected very well and I wanted to make art more than what it is now. Then, I thought that it would be really interesting to get them to meet each other and work on each others' ideas. I didn’t have money to transport the works and that is when I decided to transport the ideas instead. It was to just see how ideas from one land are grown beautifully at another land,” says Bilbao, who specialises in photography and sculpture.

With challenging abstract art, lens-based works, and new directions in painterly practices, working periods differ enormously-- from two weeks to six months or sometimes even a year. According to Mathew, these artists are not worried about money. “They can make their money by doing some commissioned works or taking up regular jobs. What they worry most is the lack of exhibition spaces. But now,  we have found our own ways of doing it,” he says.

Visual artist B Ajay Sharma from Jharkhand, who joined the residency after graduating from Jamia Millia Islamia in 2009, describes: “I trained as a pure painter. Slowly, due to my teacher, I also got inspired by analogue photography and I went on to understand sound as the interface between image and movement.” His collaborative work “Road to Home” was a part of Bilbao’s project documents the two sides of a coin through a woodcut installation at the centre.

Many of them help the neighbourhood children in developing their artistic skills. “These kids and artists have converted the whole village into a beautiful art gallery, where every wall narrates a story,” says Phoolwati, a resident referring to the works of French artists who painted graffiti on the walls as part of their last visit.

Artist Nishi Sharma, who lives nearby in Freedom Fighters Colony and works of the centre, says: “Though Delhi is more famous for its rich history and historical monuments, art is also being appreciated. This sort of space is essential for artists to express their creative instincts and will only enhance the field’s variety and reach.”

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