INDIA’S UNSUNG VIDEO ARTISTS FIND A RARE PLATFORM
A major multi-city group exhibition is highlighting the diversity of audiovisual art being made in the country. Vishwas Kulkarni speaks to the show’s curators
Video art in India has always been the poorer cousin of the modernist painting or art installation. To address this, curators Bharati Kapadia and Chandita Mukherjee have put together Video Art by Indian Contemporary Artists, or Vaica, the biggest festival of video art the country has seen.
The event, which runs throughout the month in Mumbai, before moving to New Delhi in December, features 65 works by 35 seminal and emerging practitioners from across the country. Yet, for an exhibition this expansive, the format is deceptively simple. There are no fancy gadgets or multi-screen video walls. There isn’t even a theme that binds the show. Instead, the festival is split into five days of screenings from a single channel.
“I had only two criteria for the show,” says Kapadia. “As a practising artist, I have been following the works of these artists for decades now, so my shortlist was largely based on works I had visually responded to. The other criteria was to restrict the artworks to 15 minutes at most. As a result, viewers can come and watch a spectrum of works by various artists spread across a month. We don’t want this to be a show where viewers saunter in and out of a gallery. We want this to be a festival in which viewers get to engage with an impressive spectrum of a hitherto overlooked medium.”
It is ironic that video art should be sidelined in a nation that has one of the world’s largest film industries. Modernist work by Indian artists who started painting in the first half of the 20th century remains the biggest draw at any given auction of Indian art. And while new media has made some strides in the past decade, with Indian artists showcasing their works in museums and international biennales to positive reviews, it is still too niche for investors.
Besides this, Indians are still bound to the craft of storytelling. Thus, while the short film has found many patrons, video art, with its non-narrative, amorphous format, is a difficult sell. Also, since India was a socialist nation until 1991, only the national broadcaster Doordarshan and a handful of government agencies such as the Indian Space Research Organisation were authorised to import video equipment. It was illegal to own video equipment privately. With economic liberalisation in 1991 and the emergence of satellite TV in India, video technology became democratic.
Given this history, curator Kapadia was overwhelmed by the massive response she received for the festival. “Out of 39 invitations sent out to shortlisted artists, we received a positive response from 35. That is when the exhibition expanded to become a festival.”
One of those responses came from Meera Devidayal, 72, a prominent artist in India who came to video art later in his career. “I was born in 1947 [the year India achieved independence] and I had my first show in 1975. This is my 44th year in the Indian art world. I worked largely with paintings and mixed media, but only chanced upon video art as late as 2008. But then it never left me. Almost every show of mine since then has featured video art – and my last show primarily featured video art,” she says.
Institutional support, too, has played a part in making Vaica expand beyond expectations. The curators have managed to attract the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art and the Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation, two private charitable trusts, to work with them as partners. In addition, four reputed cultural venues – the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, the Goethe-Institut Max Mueller Bhavan, the G5A Foundation for Contemporary Culture and the Godrej India Culture Lab – have offered their premises to the organisers free of charge to host the event. “Aside from the range of artists involved, this festival is also an interesting experiment in how the public and private sectors can collide to create an educational and entertaining showcase of a valid art form,” says Mukherjee. “The festival will be held in Mumbai and Delhi, but given the mobility of video art, we are looking to collaborate with museums and partners in the Middle East and Europe as well.”
Collaboration is a key theme in the festival as well as the medium as a whole. Although that has presented some challenges for artists. “You have to be lucky to find the right folks to work with,” Devidayal says. “For
instance, the idea is mine, but the editing and the sound come from collaborators. And to my shock, sound artists are very expensive in this city. Moreover, video technology itself is a slippery customer. I actually wanted to present my first video artwork from 2008 for Vaica. But times have changed – and the technology I used then was not compatible with the formats the curators were using. It’s the sort of medium that necessitates being constantly agile,” she says.
Vaica is an essential starting point for introducing video art into the dialogue of popular culture. By treating the showcase as “a series of screenings” as opposed to a show, the curators have taken a bold, and necessary, step. However, institutional funding and gallery support will be the true test of whether Indian video art will bloom or become a flash in the pan.
More information is available at www.vaica.org
From left, ‘Water has Memory’ by Meera Devidayal; ‘Counterfeit’ by Babu Eshwar Prasad; curator Bharati Kapadia