Travels, Visual Arts

Kochi – Mumbai – Bangalore: A la recherche de l’art indien

I traveled to India in December for the fourth time within a few years because the country still holds so much for me to learn and discover. Of course, I am interested in the contemporary art production, so I visited the Kochi Biennale in Fort Kochi on the coast of the Arabian Sea in the southern Indian state of Kerala. Like all other Indian and international colleagues, artists, and art lovers, I had arrived on schedule for the opening. Only, nothing was ready on time, and literally in the last minute, the opening was postponed from the beginning of December to just before Christmas…

The gathered art public decided to make the best of the Biennale-less situation, and we simply met without viewing exhibitions. Fort Kochi, the venue of the Biennale since 2012, is a very pleasant, peaceful place located directly on the coast. It is perfect for enjoying yourself and an ideal destination for a first-time visit to India.

Apparently, during the pandemic no one had looked after the historical site of the Biennale: There was no electricity but plenty of water damage, contractor bills from the previous Biennale still hadn’t been paid… The predicament was primarily due to the lack of political will and missing professionalism on the part of the institutional organizers. The artists and the curator were powerless in face of circumstances.

Bendable bamboo (a work by the Indian artist Asim Waqif)—a metaphor for the mysterious and intricate ways of contemporary Indian art?

Even though India Art Fair, the subcontinent’s important and only major art fair, has been established since 2011 in Delhi, the Indian art world always has one eye on Mumbai (Bombay), where some of the country’s most prestigious and influential private art galleries are based.

With some 20 million inhabitants, Mumbai is India’s largest city, financial center, home of the Indian film industry Bollywood—and a bubbling, fascinating metropolis.

Colaba is the historical, i.e. British colonial, city center. In terms of urbanism, its splendid, representational colonial architecture almost has the feel of being in London.

Gateway of India: Inaugurated in 1924 as an imperialist symbol of the British Empire, Mumbai’s landmark is nowadays casually accepted by Indians as an emblem of their national pride.

Despite housing some truly superb collections, Mumbai’s History Museum does have a rather dusty appearance. The same holds true for the somewhat dated National Gallery of Modern Art.

Some of Colaba’s outwardly neglected and formerly magnificent houses accommodate very elegant art and design galleries, which are currently highly popular with affluent buyers for their shabby chic.

The art and design objects apparently find their customers. As in the past in other parts of the world, art mostly serves as a playground for the elite, from which both the producers and buyers of art stem.

Although not so much in the limelight as successful and popular Mumbai, Bangalore is definitely worth mentioning, too. The capital of the state of Karnataka with a population of more than 10 million is one of India’s metropolises and holds quite a bit of attraction of its own. Situated at an altitude of almost 1,000 meters, Bangalore has an excellent climate. As India’s IT hub, it is served with direct flights to the rest of the world. On top of that, it boasts a good number of interesting art spaces and galleries, all of them perhaps less spectacular, but also less pretentious than those in Mumbai.

A Bangalore art gallery

Moreover, the MAP (Museum of Art & Photography Bengaluru) has recently opened. Based on a unique, highly professional, private initiative, the museum will hopefully become a beacon and model for similar setups all over India in the years to come.

Not to be forgotten are the local and regional art activities that are gradually becoming established, for instance, the Chennai (Madras) Photo Biennale, now in its 3rd edition, or the Mumbai Urban Art Festival, first held in 2014. The desire for something new is palpable everywhere in the art scene, even if the structural and financial bedrocks are still frequently lacking.

A reason for hope lies in the fact that, for the first time in the art history of India, young artists from the lowest social strata (which amount to a quarter of the total population, or about 300,000,000 people) are participating in the production of art. Throughout India, currently about a dozen young artists from the «untouchable» outcaste are achieving increasing international recognition.


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