The decade of the biennale

The decade of the biennale

The Indian art scene has seen some spectacular ups and gloomy downs. Giridhar Khasnis does a quick recap

M F Hussain's painting on cloth displayed in 2015 at an exhibition.

The decade is perhaps going to be best remembered in India for the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB). Spearheaded by Mumbai-based artists of Kerala origin, Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu, the event was conceived as a large-scale international exhibition on the lines of the famed Venice Biennale.

The first edition, inaugurated on 12th December 2012, saw structured exhibition spaces created in nondescript warehouses and abandoned godowns in the coastal township of Fort Kochi–Mattancherry to hoist giant installations, paintings, sculptures and multimedia artworks. The founders overcame major challenges in raising funds, admirably managed infrastructural roadblocks and faced a strangely hostile media. In the end, however, the edition, with the participation of 89 artists from 23 countries, concluded successfully, attracting national and international attention, besides an estimated four lakh visitors.

KMB is now an important event in the art calendar of Asia. Mumbai-born Singapore-based artist Shubigi Rao will be the curator for the 2020 edition. Incidentally, both Bose Krishnamachari and Shubigi Rao, were included in Art Review’s coveted list of this year’s 100 most influential people in the global contemporary art scene.

International presence

In 2011, India had its national pavilion at the Venice Biennale for the first time in the art event’s 116-year history. It was curated by Ranjit Hoskote. At the Venice Biennale 2019, India’s pavilion hosted ‘Our Time for a Future Caring’, celebrating 150 years of Mahatma Gandhi.

Most influential artists

Among the scores of artists featured in shows during the decade was the celebrated Indo-British sculptor Anish Kapoor. One of the most influential artists of his generation, the Mumbai-born London-based artist held his first ever exhibition in India (and his biggest ever outside Britain) at the Mehboob Studio in Mumbai and the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in Delhi in 2011, where he presented some stunning pieces of work made of fibreglass, steel, glass, cement, wax and other materials. Kapoor came up with a mesmerising site-specific installation titled ‘Descension’ at KMB 2014; the swirling vortex of blackish water was one of the highlights of the biennale.

Mrinalini Mukherjee’s show ‘Transfigurations’, at NGMA, New Delhi, in 2015, was another exceptional event. It brought together the artist’s radical and awe-inspiring hemp sculptures portraying mammoth, and, at times, grotesque forms of mysterious deities, along with her ceramics and bronzes. Sadly, the 65-year old artist passed away days after the opening of the memorable retrospective show.

The ones who left us

With the passing away of Maqbool Fida Husain on 9 June 2011, the Indian art world lost one of its most famous, glamorous and controversial painters. Sadly, in his final years, the ageing artist chose to leave India due to persistent physical, legal and psychological threats and harassment by a group of right-wing activists. The Padma Vibhushan awardee, who accepted Qatar nationality in 2010, died of a heart attack in a London hospital, aged 95, and received a quiet burial at a cemetery outside London.

The country lost a host of other outstanding artists during the decade, including Husain’s two close friends and renowned painters Sayed Haider Raza (1922–2016) and Ram Kumar (1924–2018). The demise of polymath K G Subramanyan (1924–2016) was another severe blow. Professor Krishna Reddy, father figure to generations of printmakers, passed away on August 22, 2018 in New York, aged 93. In Bangalore, the departure of the much-admired artist Yusuf Arakkal on 4 October 2016 was met with shock and grief.  

Fall from grace

The #MeToo movement did not leave the art world untouched. Several women alleged sexual misconduct and harassment by artists. The list included prominent names like Padma Bhushan awardee Jatin Das, KMB co-founder Riyas Komu, multi-media artist Subodh Gupta, curator Rahul Bhattacharya and sculptor Valsan Koorma Kolleri.

Record sales, but...

During the decade, some artists did hit the headlines for their record sales. In March 2019, V S Gaitonde’s untitled abstract sold for a whopping Rs 25.24 crore at Saffronart’s auction. In June 2019, at the Sotheby’s auction, Bhupen Khakhar’s ‘Two Men in Benares’ (1982) fetched £2.54 million (about Rs 22.5 crore), setting a new record for the artist.

Notwithstanding such occasional triumphs, art pundits feel that the decade was marked by an overall climate of declining sales and weakened sentiments. Slowing down of the economy and policy decisions such as demonetisation and GST have curbed the enthusiasm of buyers and collectors. Incidentally, the auction house Christie’s, after four years of live auctions in Mumbai, which generated plenty of excitement, but alas, nothing much else, shut shop in 2017.

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