India still remains a country full of divides that are shamelessly politically incorrect, yet nothing gets noticeably rectified even in the areas of art and culture. I studied under the tutelage of Prof. Jyoti Bhatt whose love of traditional folk art and craft is an informed area of research and documentation, and I was deeply impacted by these influences from those early years of learning.
I became aware as a student in the 70's that there was an unspoken divide between the urban art practice and the creative expressions born from ritual and other tribal art and craft forms in India. The overtones of elitist snobbery are palpable in the "English speaking domains" that art usually inhabits. Gestures of parity are often paraded as appeasements by the urban art fraternity to project an equality of status between these two areas of art practice, but which in fact is completely untrue due to the lack of belief in relation to this. Though scholars like J. Swaminathan and K.G Subramanyan have genuinely worked at the grass root levels to inform an art audience on the merits and aesthetics of this vibrant contemporary creative expression, this divide continues to remain. This is going to prove to be a great shame as the loss of this heritage will soon occur if we ignore the need to support it and create a genuine spaces for it to flourish and be seen.
I was deeply disturbed when I visited the Art Asia Pacific triennial in Queensland some years ago and observed the manner in which one of our tribal artists whose work was being exhibited, was never really able to feel personally comfortable within the event. Her sense of dislocation came from so many subtle factors of being marginalised unknowingly, in an event that was teaming with curators and artists preening their intellectual prowess! Necessary as emblems of political amendments to erase the horrors of Australia's past racist atrocities, such artists once again became a pawn in the bigger games of power brokerage and political diplomacy. I am sure the curatorial intentions were impeccable, but the complexity of this divide was "band-aided" over with a simplistic approach that did the issue more damage than good. What must constitutes the parity that we are attempting to create must be well comprehended by all, if we are to make the rightful amends for our past mistakes. Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal is one such institute that was founded with the right vision and with the appropriate agenda to showcase tribal art as a contemporary Indian art form, and to serve the needs of its art practitioners with no token concessions or condescension. That today Bharat Bhavan's leadership isn't able to sustain the legacy it was founded upon is another issue altogether.
Those in the art fraternity well know of the economic exploitation which occurred with so many of our tribal artists who became the new "souvenir art" of India for many American and Japanese art entrepreneurs in the 80's and 90's. Often badly treated, and being expected to fulfill contracts, one of our tribal artists committed suicide overseas, and the case hushed up. I grew up learning about kutchi embroidery, bandhani tie and dye, traditional bead jewelry, ritualistic floor designs, wall paintings, terracotta figurines, wood carvings, bastar metal works, pat paintings and so much more all filling my sensibilities, during my college education. I met with the artisans and partook of workshops during these years; peered at photo documentation and travelled through the stories of other's, and I have remained till today deeply connected to these early influences as an artist.
But in 2009 where are the galleries, the museums, the seminar venues, and the teaching to keep alive these fast dying art forms in our contemporary life as Indians today. We must assume a responsibility if we are to preserve this cultural. I sincerely hope that at the end of this century we are not all digital and video artists because the old traditions has been pushed out to make way and keep up with the great globalisation of culture! Is our minister for culture Ms. Ambiki Soni even listening?!!