CRAFTING ART TREASURE Hunter
Rakhi Sarkar celebrates 25 years of her iconic Kolkata art gallery CIMA with a specially curated art fair which was as accessible as it was eclectic
CIMA’s Rakhi Sarkar has taken art out of its bubble by pioneering the affordable art movement
From the 19th century when art was supported primarily by the maharajas, in the 20th century art became secular and started to be collected by Parsi professionals and wealthy Gujarati businessmen in Mumbai, helped in large measure by Mahatma Gandhi’s push for young Bengal artists to help his friend Rabindranath Tagore raise funds for Viswabharati University. The art market began in real earnest in the early 90s, which is when Rakhi Sarkar, 70, started her Kolkata gallery, Centre for International Modern Art (CIMA) in 1993, fusing her love for art and her passion for collecting.
CIMA’s inception was through an exhibition she curated in 1986 called Visions, where she showcased over 200 works. “It was virtually four retrospectives in one. Jogen Chowdhury, Bikash Bhattacharjee, Somnath Hore and Ganesh Pyne. The artists helped because this was the first time their works were being documented. We went from collector to collector, home to home, and dug out great works of art, some of which were hanging next to the washroom,” she recalls. That was when she truly discovered what art was all about, though she had taken private classes from the reclusive Kamala Roy Chowdhury, who trained in Paris in the 1950s, and had created quite a stir by exhibiting her nudes with the press describing her work as a danger for ethics of people.
Art didn’t sell in the 80s and 90s. People who collected art were those who loved it. Artists who created did so because of their passion. “My husband (Vice Chairman and Editor Emeritus of ABP Group Aveek Sarkar) used to collect but artists such as Ganesh Pyne would refuse to give him anything unless he truly loved it. I used to tease Ganesh that I will settle down next to his dustbin because even the work he would tear and throw away was so beautiful. He was extremely finicky and would call my husband only when the work he felt was truly serious and perfect,” she says. Few people even knew about Pyne in those days. MF Husain was interviewed in The Illustrated Weekly of India in 1974 and called him the best artist in India. “That’s when we discovered him. He was living in his ancestral home in central Kolkata till the 90s. That was the first time Bengal saw its own artists being represented,’’ she adds.
Those days Sarkar was involved in the social projects of the Indian Chamber of Commerce and spearheaded a big campaign against drugs which led to the formation of the Narcotics Control Bureau and National AIDS Control Organisation. But when the artists pressed her to do something more permanent than a one-off exhibition, she spent the next few years visiting galleries and museums around the world. So CIMA was born. Since then it has had many offshoots through the non profit Art & Heritage Foundation—among them the CIMA AWARDS-Kolkata Art Festival has been designed as a biennial event in search of countrywide talent in visual arts, which began in 2015. For the past ten years, Sarkar has also been running the CIMA Affordable Art Mela, which has become an institution in Kolkata. This was the first time this was held in Delhi. It’s something she started at the behest of friends, and also to mark the 25th anniversary of CIMA’s creation. “It caught the imagination of the intelligentsia and young people, who are earning well, have an aspirational level, understand and appreciate art, but couldn’t afford it. In Kolkata we have lines going down to the road,’ she says.
Much of the credit for that mass appeal of art goes to Sarkar, who is knowledgeable and particular about what she showcases. What to keep, what to display, what to put into storage, and what to discard—that is what the curator’s job is and Sarkar does it admirably.