Kolkata moves step closer to Arts Biennale with arts festival

The history of Kolkata’s cultural soul is evolving with its political maturity – capturing the imagination of growing segments of young practitioners and lovers of art with its contemporary sensitivities and its manifests on the canvas.  Art as a medium of the mass dialogue and propagation of social awareness has acquired wider connotations to include the continuum of living cultures and the political ethos of the geography in which it flourishes. Festivals are the best showcases to collate the diverse strains – and oeuvres – of artistic movements for the viewer to appreciate, understand and engage with the practitioner.
In India – the concept of art showcases like festivals of literature – has seen a spurt in the last decade with the explosion of the Internet, penetration of education, heightened aesthetic awareness and rising disposable incomes in cities for the common man to take time out for the arts – thus bringing complex practices out of the schoolrooms in the process to involve a gamut of stakeholders. The Kolkata Art Festival which began 5 February – 4 March like the Kolkata Book Fair is one such endeavour to integrate the arts into the mainstream of the greater cultural and social-scape of the metropolis with multi-disciplinary expositions.
An initiative of the Art Heritage Foundation, the festival has been woven around the promotion of young artists from across the country with the CIMA Awards on 4 February to help the arts and their practitioners sustain – with a head start. The buzz is yet to gather around the festival – unlike the India Art Fair in the national capital, but as the director of CIMA pointed out non-commercial activity in the arts require time to take off in the popular cultural consciousness.  She described the initiative as the countdown to a full-scale Kolkata Art Biennale.
“The  purpose of the award (and the festival as well) was that while we were working for CIMA for the last 24 years, we were not being able to get to the backwaters of India and know what was happening outside the bigger cities unless we did something that would bring out new talent. We have a hierarchy of artists and a whole system over there … it creates a back. How do we evaluate artists who are young,” director of the CIMA Rakhi Sarkar told The Statesman.
The awards were up in 2015 is across seven categories carrying a prize purse of Rs 500,000 for the winner –a solo show and participation in an international residency. The first runner-up trophy carries a bourse of Rs 300,000 followed by Rs 200,000 for the second runner-up, two jury awards of Rs 100,000 each, two special mentors’ prizes of Rs 50,000 each, four merit awards Rs 25,000 and a director’s booty of Rs 25,000.
“The shortlist of 15 finalists are selected by a two-tier jury – one early set and a final line-up . This year, out of the 1,500 entries for the awards, works of 196 artists are displayed across five sites,” Sarkar said. The age group caters to the burgeoning tribe of the young Indian contemporary artists –  between 25 and 45 – most of them art school graduates and relatively unheard of – “but talented”.
The artist has to be an Indian resident. “We prefer Indian curators and artists to do the screening for us,” Sarkar pointed out.
This year, the preliminary jury comprised artists Shreyasi Chatterjee, Partha Pratim Deb, Sushen Ghosh, Sanat Kar, Paresh Maity, Pankaj Panwar, Ajit Seal, cinematographer Abhik Mukhopadhyay and Rakhi Sarkar. The final jury was made of author Kunal Basu, Arpita Singh, Paramjit Singh, MA Palaniappan, Prabhakar Nolte, Anju Chaudhuri, NN Rimzon and Shreyasi Chatterjee.
The entries were diverse spanning a range in acrylic, graphic, pencil, ink, lightboxes, paper and thread – including odd solid works. The exhibits, according to Sarkar, threw up few startling trends. Artists were using “less of colours” on their canvas – choosing monochromes, unicolours and muted colour palettes instead of “brightly coloured compositions”. Artists are using less of oil paints now. “We have no oil paintings this year – because oil takes a longer while. Life has become fast and we don’t want to give so much. Artists look for easy mediums, excitement, bigger counters…” she said.
The mediums speak of the evolution and transformation in the art of Bengal –the crucible of modern Indian art dating back to 200 years – and the larger aesthetic psyche of India developing a global language and homogenous practices, embodying similar concerns. Bulk of the winning works on display is in acrylic, collages and mixed eclectic mediums on bigger and bolder formats – expanding in size and scope than on glitz. The works were more profound, Sarkar said. “More and More artists are refraining from using colours. Is colour fading out of our lives- the jury was discussing this. Lot of works are very dark,” she said.
The CIMA 2017 winner, Kolkata-based Harendra Kumar Kushwaha lives to the spirit of the jury’s observation in his stark and simple installation fashioned out of Nepali paper and thread – a swathe of rattan spread woven like  cane thatch and threaded in white tendrils of asymmetrical lines. The ends hang loose – and shed is propped by bamboo batons, whose surface and knobby hinges are left untouched by the artists. “The awards have given young creativity and innovation a huge fillip. The winning entry is a fantastic installation work – it needs a lot of imagination to show something like that – what’s this all about… It is very sensitively done, a very profound piece. It could be a part of a shelter, an ambivalence or the insecurity inherent in so inherent in society, the rough edges of our lives. It is very spontaneous, fragile,” Sarkar explained.
Convention and quality are the underlining threads in the choice of award-winning exhibits- dominated by installations and innovative use of mediums. “We are not going to promote a kind of art – but all that we consider of merit and excellence. If it is a bad piece of work, it is a bad piece of work,” she said.
Two of the highlights of the expositions of the shortlisted artworks are “experimental use of space” and an “education module” designed to help students and lovers of art understand the movements and linkages of the arts – on local, national and global scales for more discerning appreciation. The once derelict Gem cinema in Entally – a popular relic of our childhood- which called the curtains down in the slump in cinema business over the two decades along with a crop of nostalgic cinematic landmarks like Tiger, Globe, Jamuna, Lighthouse, Minerva (Chaplin), Orient and New Cinema – has been resurrected to a new incarnation by the CIMA initiative.
“We are using it as a wonderful space to showcase contemporary art,” Sarkar said. The theatre has been remodelled on the lines of P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Centre in New York – though on a makeshift scale to fit the festival’s time table. Sarkar hailed Studio Gem as a “precursor to a movement in promoting alternative art space”- a concept that is yet to catch on in the metropolis and in the country as a whole where “spaces” abound. The movement rolled out in its nascent concept on the night of the award on 4 February at the Oberoi Grand, where CIMA and Art & Heritage Foundation felicitated Alana Heiss, the creative motif force behind the P.S.1 Centre of Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) – whose journey across the alternative space was narrated in a brief-capsule. The spatial experts’ panel was graced by Chris Dercon, former director, Tate Modern, intendant of Volksbuhne in Berlin. Heiss paid her tribute to the spatial opulence of the metropolis by suggesting that “she should move to Kolkata” in her pursuit of her calling – developing alternative display sites.
Initiation into art corollaries such as these – and emerging concepts – have found platforms in staggered education module of seminars that will connect world art histories, spaces, movements, designs, aesthetic storytelling, systems, pedagogies, technicalities and semantics by panels of experts- both national and international, institutions  like the Indian Institute of Technology (Kharagpur), CREDI, the Architecture Association of India and 18 city schools spread across the Oberoi Grand, 3 Dover Park, the Studio Gem, Academy of Fine Arts, Studio 21, the Bengal Club and CIMA gallery.  The showcases and “symposium” will be complemented by performance arts capsule, television broadcasts and cinema- a core component of the contemporary arts movement worldwide.
“We have not conducted too many art education programmes,” Sarkar said. Consequently, it is watershed for CIMA and Art & Heritage Foundation with the involvement of several collateral organisations to spread awareness about arts – and educate new segments of viewers, collectors, aspiring practitioners and students.
Sarkar said the festival will push ahead as a two yearly affair similar to the Kochi Biennale in Kerala – in contiguity with the India Art Fair and the Kerala government initiative to bring West Bengal and the country on the bigger arts canvas globally and project the metropolis as a cultural destination. “I want to develop it more as a festival – theatre, music, food… Next time, we are planning to approach the state government for a street food festival in different parts of Kolkata so that the fringe sections of the metropolis get activated in a positive and efficacious manner. The state has plenty of hasta shilpa – handicrafts tradition – we wanted to have it this time (both food and crafts) but the municipality controls the hawkers. We need permission from the municipality. They (government) can help do it – an east-west north-south Kolkata Arts Festival. It will be good for the economy, good for tourism – Kolkata has everything to do it. We are testing the format this year,” Sarkar said.
The festival, the director of CIMA pointed out, has been built on a unique model apart from Kochi – a non-profit venture – and the India Art Fair, a commercial showcase with awareness programmes. The Kolkata Arts Festival is planned around an award, Sarkar said.
“You have to have balance between non-commercial activity and commerce in arts. You cannot do the big projects without non-commercial activity. Our’s is an award centric programme which does not exist anywhere in India. We want to bring out the evaluation system – support the arts with non-commercial projects,” she said.
The stakeholders are diverse from the (ProHelvetia) Swiss Arts Council, Alliance Francaise to the Japan Art Foundation and Star Television – among the few. And the festival promises integration – of the city, sensitivities, global-local and national cultural codes. “We have to hold each other’s hand,” Sarkar said.
It is a bustling beginning to the spring tide in the city of the golden renaissance.

Madhusree Chatterjee
Editorial Consultant
Foreign Affairs (inc-charge)
The Statesman, Kolkata
Asia News Network (The Statesman/ANN) Coordinator


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