Since childhood, I have had a keen interest in the arts — coming from a family with a strong tradition in arts and crafts, this was not surprising. Growing up, I visited museums and emporiums on customary school trips and saw a lot of it in my home and family-run stores.
While in the US for my undergraduate studies, I started looking at art — both there and here, in India — mostly via the Internet. On graduating, I returned to India and joined the family business. Dealing in jewellery and handicrafts was interesting, but clearly not enough. I found myself drawn to the contemporary visual arts scene. The main attraction was the conversations with artists, historians and curators that transported me back to the university atmosphere that I missed.
I believe “art found me”. My first project, which evolved rather organically, started with organising simple art workshops for young inmates at Tihar Jail and resulted in being a first-of-its-kind exhibition by jail inmates and contemporary artists — all displayed in the same exhibition. The exhibition was a big success with a large number of visitors, good press coverage and great feedback from the artists, who said that visiting the prison was an unparalleled experience. One of the participating artists explored the Panopticon experience and presented the work internationally.
The next art project explored the notion of Mahatma Gandhi and entailed travelling with artists along the Dandi March route. The resulting exhibition also travelled to London, Washington, D.C., and Port of Spain. After having gained this experience of two major exhibitions, I started a permanent gallery space. There was a paradigm shift in the kind and number of exhibitions to be put together — worked with some master artists and organised a few typical contemporary shows, all of which were great learning experience but did not compare to the involvement that I was used to.
Art has a bigger social good is a childhood belief and I saw art at work in changing the lives of communities through the economic independence and sustainability that it had the potential to provide. Also, the self-respect that the Tihar Jail inmates felt was gratifying for all of us who worked on the project.
In 2009, Maybach Foundation announced a mentorship residency for young photographers wherein the winners were to spend six months living and working in NYC, photo-documenting the reconstruction of the World Trade Centre. Ramchander Nath Foundation nominated Vicky Roy, a young photographer who grew up at the Salaam Baalak Trust; he was among the four selected from across the world and this six-month experience resulted in a paradigm shift in his work and personality. Today, Vicky is a motivational speaker at conferences and his artworks are a part of FotoFest 2018 in Houston.
A few years back, I met some accomplished Gond artists in Delhi and was inspired by their art and the history behind it. Subsequent reading and visits to Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal revealed a lot. The genre has thousands of years of recorded history and is probably the oldest surviving art form along with the Australian Aboriginal art.
There was immense pedagogical material available on the history but not much on the current scene. Of course, there were other institutions in the vicinity that showed artworks by contemporary Gond artists but not much was available in terms of books and catalogues. There was not sufficient recorded contemporary history being created, like for the mainstream counterpart artists who were graduating from art schools in Delhi, Mumbai and Vadordra and having shows in galleries. Also, the price-points varied greatly.
Keeping commercials aside, I felt that the contemporary tribal and traditional artists must get greater visibility and have exhibitions in galleries with publications. This would also help collectors and institutions look at these artists more seriously.
With these thoughts, we proposed an Ojas Art Award — a holistic concept — to the organisers of the immensely popular and well-attended Jaipur Literature Festival. Annually, indigenous artists will be honoured at the festival along with a display of artworks in Jaipur with a potential audience of more than 250,000 visitors followed by an exhibition and publication at the gallery in Delhi and an exhibition overseas.
Since 2015, Ojas Art Award has had four editions and has done surverys in Gond, Madhubani-Mithila, Bheel and Bengal Patachitra with great feedback from all stakeholders — especially the artists. The award and related activities helped the artists earn respect, recognition and has reassuringly empowered them.
Bhajju Shyam, our first Ojas Art Awardee, was recently conferred with the Padma Shri, making him the first Gond artist ever to receive this high civilian honour.
(In our “Shifting Sands of Culture” series, Anubhav Nath, the fourth of five noted personalities, reflects upon the power of the arts and the increasing opportunities in the sector in this article written exclusively for IANS. Anubhav Nath is the Director of Ojas Art and a Trustee at the Salaam Baalak Trust. He can be contacted at [email protected] <mailto:[email protected]>)