THE YEAR WAS 1986. Fresh off the success of her first curated art exhibition Visions, young art connoisseur and collector, Rakhi Sarkar, was being persuaded by several artists to continue her work by creating a serious centre for art. Never one to undertake a venture lightly, Sarkar set out to learn the nuances of running a space dedicated to art. By working closely with many international institutions and museums, she learnt the rudiments of the job. The culmination of this hard work was the launch of CIMA—the Centre of International Modern Art—in Kolkata in 1993.
Thirty years on and in celebration of three fruitful decades in the field, Sarkar has now curated an exhibition titled 12 Masters, which she refers to as a “sequel” to her 1986 show Visions. What is common to that first show and CIMA’s latest offering is the vision of formalising and integrating the Indian art establishment with international practices, while presenting Indian art (in an art historical context) abroad and introducing global art to an Indian audience.
“As CIMA completes three decades, we revisit earlier concerns and pose some new ones. This is also a way to re-contextualise earlier investigations in new light. The idea is to broaden the ambit and provide the generation of today with an opportunity to witness and experience visual history as it evolves, shapes and unravels new territories,” she explains.
12 masters, runs at CIMA till April 13, spread out in groups of four over a period of four months. The celebration culminates with the 30th-anniversary show titled Fantastic Realities and Beyond which opens at the Visual Arts Gallery in Delhi in February before moving to CIMA in April.
The exhibit of masters’ work includes Arpita Singh, Ganesh Pyne, Jogen Chowdhury, Bikash Bhattacharjee, Somnath Hore, Lalu Prasad Shaw, and more. On the other hand, the finale show has the work of 36 artists both celebrated and emerging talents, with some works by anonymous contributors. There is even a musical excerpt from Satyajit Ray’s fantasy adventure, Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne. Sarkar says, “12 Masters incorporates generational, gender and media variations, aiming to make the exposition more comprehensive, and Fantastic Realities and Beyond is an opportunity to pay homage to some of the artists who have made this journey possible.”
As part of the celebrations, ‘Lifetime Achievement Awards’ for outstanding achievements in the field of art and culture, were also handed out at a ceremony held at Taj Kolkata. Its three recipients include art historian and curator Alka Pande, artist Sushen Ghosh, and author and editor Ruby Palchoudhuri, known for her work on craft revival and documentation.
A legacy three decades long is certainly worth celebrating, but perhaps what’s even more important to celebrate is CIMA’s spirit of embracing and promoting the arts in their entirety, including visual, cinematic, architectural, performative and pertaining to fine craftsmanship. Sarkar has also helmed the movement to make art affordable to a wider section of prospective buyers in India.
When asked about the defining moments of her career, she recalls some interesting anecdotes: “Once, a simple and unpretentious lady visited our gallery with her children. I saw her admiring the works of Husain in a landmark exhibition called Knightwatch. I asked her what she thought of this art, and she responded, ‘His work is full of dard (pathos). I am a simple woman and that is all I felt.’ Another incident I recall was when Gaitonde, whom we called Gai, was asked why he had stopped painting. He said, ‘I don’t experience any need to paint now. If works don’t emanate from an inner need, then an artist should stop working.’”
A third incident took place at CIMA’s first international exhibition Chamatkara, which was displayed at London in 1996. “A large group of German artists who had come to view it seemed extremely agitated in front of the section portraying some of the finest art from Indian ethnic artists. On asking, the group remarked—‘You have preserved your heritage, but we have lost it all. How sad, how sad!’ they continued to lament,” says Sarkar. This captured CIMA’s mandate better than any written testament could.
At its first formal exhibition Wounds in February 1993, CIMA established itself as a gallery showcasing modern Indian artists who were unafraid to highlight social unrest. Next came Trends and Images in November of the same year, which diversified their offerings with a display of contemporary trends in art. Their reputation as a noteworthy artistic space grew in the early 2000s with two seminal exhibitions. These were Art of Bengal—Past and Present and Sidewinder.
The ongoing series of 12 Masters lives up to these early shows in many ways, even as it expands on them. The first leg 12 Masters—Fantasy to Subliminal, which concluded on January 20, showed the works of Ganesh Pyne exploring the realms of fantasy; Arpita Singh’s feminist perspectives in her signature vibrant palette; Shreyasi Chatterjee’s interesting combination of medieval miniature painting with kantha embroidery craft; and Sushen Ghosh’s stark yet poignant sculptures.
Phase two, to open on January 27, is titled 12 Masters—Neorealism to Social Realism and will run till March 1. It’s an exploration of the artistic movement from the 1940s and ’50s and includes the magic realism of Bikash Bhattacharjee’s works, and the social realist ideals of Jogen Chowdhury, Meera Mukherjee and Jaya Ganguly.
For the latest and second phase of the series, the four artists were chosen for their style and voice. Sarkar writes of Bikash Bhattacharjee, “The best of his art was not pretty; it was intensely powerful, disturbing and deeply moving.”
One sees this power in his striking and thought-provoking works. The haunting look of Jalil’s Family where three human figures shrouded in blue, hide from the hustle and bustle of a city is particularly important as it’s also one of Sarkar’s favourite works. “It has been in our private collection since the late 1980s and it still haunts me,” she says. His iconic Doll from the 1970s makes an appearance in a work where she is depicted repeatedly peeking over a green wall wearing a curious expression.
Another artist who doesn’t shy away from making bold statements is Jaya Ganguly. “I live for and in it,” she says, referencing her art practice. Sarkar summarises Ganguly’s abstract paintings as a “jihad against a misogynistic world” to which Ganguly responds, “I often seek breakages and destruction which provide me with lasting insight and realisation. My reactions are intuitive, and so is my art. Once I begin (on an artwork) I am completely subsumed by it, and rarely do I rest till I resolve my imminent creative challenges.”
Having faced her fair share of challenges as a female born into a Brahmin household in Kolkata and a single woman attempting to navigate life in a world run by men, her starkly disturbing paintings depict her emotions better than words can. Distorted faces, mangled bodies, and an unabashed use of black to depict her chosen themes, are some of the signature elements of her work. Sarkar brings attention to Ganguly’s untitled diptych of 2009 as one of the most powerful works to be featured in 12 Masters, as it was done immediately after her mother’s death.
Jogen Chowdhury’s practice is more informed by its surroundings. Sarkar highlights that Chowdhury had to learn to reconcile his academic training which focussed on the outer surfaces of objects, with his personal desire to show the inner depths of the self. His signature cross-hatching technique was developed as a response to this, as it sought to bring out the underlying tension of the faces and figures he depicts. Social realities, political interventions, and personal tensions all find their way to the surface in his works showing individuals and couples in varying stages of undress as they stand, sit or recline.
As CIMA completes three decades, we revisit earlier concerns and pose some new ones. The idea is to broaden the ambit and provide the generation of today with an opportunity to witness and experience visual history as it evolves,” says Rakhi Sarkar, director, Centre of International Modern Art
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The only sculptural practice shown in this exhibit is Meera Mukherjee’s. What she captured best in her poetic works were scenes of everyday life, such as grandmothers telling stories, women performing household tasks like fetching water, children at play, and more, in an attempt to capture life in its essence. Having worked closely with several tribal metal casters as part of a project in the 1960s, she also takes inspiration from their methodologies.
Though her most famous works are the nine-foot long Ashoka and the Weaver, in this exhibition other works of importance are on display. Five happy figures carrying their load are melded together in Water Bearers, while other figurines bring out the intricate nature of certain tasks— Wool Gatherer and Woman Breaking Husk are prime examples. A small bust of the Banaras Ghat and another of the Paltola Nauka are teeming with life despite their diminutive size.
With three successful decades behind her, what’s in store for the next decade of CIMA? Sarkar says, “Young emerging artists from India need support and CIMA will dedicate much of its resources in that direction. We do this through the CIMA Awards Triennale and large curated exhibitions as well as historical documentation, preservation and publishing art monographs and books. We believe passionately that it is utter faith in creative freedom and intellectual engagement that compels societies and cultures to question, excel, sustain and overcome. Team CIMA, in its humble capacity, hopes to continue and take that vision forward.” n
(12 Masters—Neorealism to Social Realism will be on display at CIMA, Kolkata, from January 27 to March 1)