HAVE YOU SEEN Star Wars?” asks gallerist Nupur Dalmia, invoking George Lucas’ cult classic. She has borrowed the title of her ongoing group exhibition — Parsec — from the Harrison Ford character Han Solo’s claim that his spaceship Millennium Falcon “made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs.” Nupur, who is the curator of Parsec and also doubles up as the director of Gallery Ark in Baroda, Gujarat where the show is being held, says she doesn’t exactly remember when she got the idea for the title. Nevertheless, she’s thrilled that it turned out to be just perfect. “The term ‘Parsec’ is a measure of time and not distance. And this being the last commercial show at Gallery Ark before its formal transition to an arts foundation, I think the title couldn’t have been better as it implies the adventurous distance we have covered since we launched this space five years ago. It has been a dream journey for us and through this closing show, we want to honour the memories and experiences of all the artists and patrons who have helped and guided us along the way,” she says.
The gallery was founded by her art-loving parents, Atul and Seema Dalmia, in 2017. (Atul is the chairman of the Baroda-based chemicals and metallurgy company Rubamin). At the launch of Parsec the Dalmias announced their decision to turn it into a cultural institution. The Ark Foundation, as it is now called, will allow them to enhance and broaden their vision towards “widespread engagement with the arts, using narratives centred around Baroda’s visual arts oeuvre,” writes Nupur in her mission statement. As the gallery stands at the turn of a transformation, Parsec assumes a greater personal significance for the Dalmias. Describing it as a personal landmark, the 30-year-old says, “There’s a lot to be celebrated and a lot to look forward to. We are at an interesting intersection. A new chapter is about to begin—which is perhaps why Parsec is so close to my heart. It will outline the future.”
Parsec, on view till May 31, features a line up of 19 artists, each representing an eclectic conglomeration of styles, techniques and even a wide array of work experiences. Some of them, like Shilpa Rangnekar, Roshan Chhabria, Nihaal Faizal and Teja Gavankar, are promising names while others such as KG
Subramanyan, Vasudevan Akkitham, Jyoti Bhatt, Rekha Rodwittiya and Alexander Gorlizki are established masters of their craft. Browsing through the show virtually, one can’t help but be struck by the sheer diversity and perspective that Dalmia has pulled off in her selection of artists and their artworks. Whether you are inclined towards multimedia art, video or a simple piece of drawing, the show has a little something for everyone. Take the works of Nihaal Faizal, for instance. A conceptual artist based in Bengaluru, Faizal is showing an intriguing suite of drawings. In one of them, we see a smiling visage of Aishwarya Rai Bachchan from the Tamil film Enthiran. This sci-fi movie features a scene in which a humanoid robot played by Rajinikanth makes a sketch of Rai. Faizal, who finds the idea of drawing exciting (“it is one of the earliest forms of human expression”) has recreated the AI-rendered sketches as faithfully as possible. Besides Enthiran, he has also reached back into the Hollywood sci-fi canon for inspiration — AI Artificial Intelligence, Ex Machina, Class of 1999, to cite a few. “The drawing I make is very much like a remake or reproduction but this time by a human counterpart, that is myself,” he says. Through this series, he wants to “question the idea of human creativity and what constitutes a drawing.” He’s particularly fascinated by Artificial Intelligence’s gift for creative endeavours. “An AI doing a drawing within the narrative of a film is something of a recurring motif in many sci-fi films. I really don’t know why that’s the case,” he says, adding, “But if you look at how the element of drawing is used by the robot it appears as if the filmmakers or the scientists are using it as a proof towards establishing AI’s humanity. The fact that it is imaginative and more than just a machine.” Like Faizal’s AI sketches, Shilpa Rangnekar’s series of serigraphic female portraits are just as rich in nature and dense in their symbolism. A closer peek and you will notice written text in her drawings that serves to highlight “the beauty and complexities that surround female identity,” she says.
What distinguishes Parsec, according to Nupur, is that the exhibition includes a number of artists who have been frequent collaborators at Gallery Ark. One of them is Rekha Rodwittiya, whose two artworks on display are marked by a sense of magical whimsicality. Rodwittiya, who over the years has formed a close relationship with the Dalmias, tells us over email, “My engagement with Gallery Ark comes from a more personal space of interaction, which started with conversations with Atul Dalmia, and then percolating to a more intimate relationship of discourse about art with Nupur. What I admire most about the workings that propel the vision of Gallery Ark and the Ark Foundation, and which is what I identify with, is the spirit of learning that guides all that is done by them. Today, Nupur who is at the helm of decision-making for all that Gallery Ark and the Ark Foundation does, presents a maturity to envisage how the present cultural context is viewed through the past, and how a future gets imagined. I see my own involvement with this growing institution as being a friend forever and a well-wisher who is always there in their corner.”
THE LATE KG Subramanyan and the octogenarian Jyoti Bhatt are two other major artists with whom the gallery has shared a warm friendship — nay, mentorship. As Nupur puts it aptly, “KG, or Mani sir as we lovingly called him, was more like a father figure. Not just a leading modern artist, he was also a beloved teacher.” Needless to say, maximum works in the show are by Subramanyan who passed away aged 92 in 2016. In fact, the Dalmias’ love affair with art began when Atul and Seema Dalmia bought their first KG Subramanyan painting in 2000. Subsequently, spending time in the company of this Baroda Group stalwart fuelled their passion for art. Nupur says, “My dad is a first-generation entrepreneur. When he started acquiring art he had no money. Later on, as he obtained some wealth he also ensured that it was spent wisely on things that he loved and cared most deeply about. He had a curiosity about art, which made him gravitate towards the artistic community of Baroda. My mother, on the other hand, was born and raised in Calcutta, so she had some cultural background, which she carried from her childhood. Being with artists certainly inspired my parents’ way of thinking and gave them a point of entry into a new world.” Subramanyan and Jyoti Bhatt are two artists whose works “on our walls have become a part of our family’s identification of what is ‘home.’” She first met Subramanyan, whose dynamic art was a unique blend of narrative style and folksy influences, through her parents. “When I knew Mani sir I was much younger and a visitor in the city for the most part. I had left Baroda at the age of 11 to study at the Rishi Valley boarding school. Therefore, I feel that our fondness for one another, profound as it was, was by association and entirely to my parents’ credit,” reveals Nupur, a literature and political science graduate from the University of California, Berkeley. “We met frequently though, at both his and our homes. I wasn’t into art so much before,” she goes on. “Even then it was hard not to be floored by Mani sir’s sharp wit, intelligent humour, educated opinions and broad interests including politics, literature, performing arts and not to mention, food. He never visited anyone’s home empty handed. Instead of bearing flowers, as you would typically expect from a guest, he would bring a card with a small watercolour drawing by him as a token of love. He was an incredibly charming man.”
She admits that she had no interest in pursuing art as a career, until she returned to India after studying in the US and working for tech companies there. “I had no previous education or work experience in this field,” says Nupur, who came back to Baroda to assist her father in the family business. Her learning came purely by observation and her encounters with senior artists while managing the day-to-day affairs of the gallery. “I had the privilege of growing up with art, so the appreciation for it was always there even though I had no idea that someday I would find myself working in this profession. Meeting and forming a deep relationship with the likes of Mani sir, Jyoti Bhatt or Rekha Rodwittiya has had a transformative effect on me. In my own art journey so far, I have often felt myself to be both an observer and cohabitor. Art can be intimidating initially but ultimately, few pursuits have as much intellectual and spiritual payoff.” She also believes Baroda’s vibrant cultural life influenced her taste and aesthetics. Despite its commercial spirit, the city has always reserved an important place for art and culture and has hosted a close-knit artistic community. Adds Rekha Rodwittiya, “Baroda has been known for the patronage invested in the visual arts by industrial houses. I see this legacy continued today by the Dalmias who comprehend that a healthy and vibrant society needs a thriving environment of the arts.”
Having taken over the reins of the gallery from her parents two years ago, Nupur is now full of zeitgeisty ideas on the ways in which to move forward. To begin with, she will operate the foundation from the same space as the gallery. Designed by the architect Aniket Bhagwat, it is located on the ground floor of the Rubamin headquarters where the contradictory forces of business and culture have thrived hand in hand. “Our shows often extend all the way to the basement, which is a space for car parking,” she says with a laugh. In a short period of time, the gallery has quickly become a hub for visual arts in Baroda’s buzzing cultural scene. Nupur intends to use this space for more education-based activities. “The Ark Foundation will carry on the work that Gallery Ark leaves behind,” she says, adding that the foundation’s core focus will be on initiatives promoting scholarship and learning. Some of the curatorial programming championed by Gallery Ark — for example, the KG Subramanyan Memorial Lecture Series, Jyotsna Bhatt Ceramics Award and Embark which offers scholarship and residency grants to young arts graduates — will continue as usual. Meanwhile, plans are also afoot to make the Dalmias’ private collection, largely consisting of KG Subramanyan and Jyoti Bhatt’s works as well as the Baroda Group paintings that Nupur herself has been acquiring over the past two years, open to the wider public. Especially invested in the fields of pedagogy, archiving legacies and patronage, Nupur says, “More than a reinvention, I believe the Ark Foundation is a continuation of what we had been doing. We have always been committed to bringing to the fore Baroda’s rich artistic legacy.”
(Parsec, curated by Nupur Dalmia, runs at Gallery Ark, Baroda till May 31)