From Kochi and Bihar Museum's biennales to viral artworks, how Indian art world navigated first half of 2021

·5-min read

It's a deceptively straightforward artwork. The index finger has the indelible ink, or more commonly known as the voter's ink, and the middle finger is inside an oximeter, which became a household staple during the coronavirus' second wave in India. The inked finger is captioned '2014', and the middle one '2021'. The artwork, by the Vadodara-based artist Shailesh BR, went viral as the second wave spread across India this summer. The directness of the artwork's message could not be clearer. It was a stock-taking image on the distance India had travelled in a span of seven years, from 2014, the year of the record-breaking general elections, to 2021, when several COVID-infected patients in the country were gasping for oxygen support and lost their lives as the healthcare infrastructure struggled to cope with the soaring coronavirus infections.

Acknowledging the fact that the artwork reflected the collective outrage of Indians amid widespread criticism of the government's response to the pandemic's second wave, Shailesh wrote on his Instagram: "I was trying to reflect the political conundrum we are entangled in, and many could connect with the image."

As the artwork captured the imagination of an infuriated public on social media €" which turned out to be an effective platform where families and friends could seek urgent help for those infected with COVID-19 €" its representativeness will likely be perceived as a defining feature of viewing art in India in a pandemic year. Shailesh's work was not seen at a major art fair, biennale or an art exhibition, or at the more fashionable Zoom webinars, Instagram lives, online viewing rooms, etc. Its 'visual virality' surged after it was viewed in the privacy and isolations of our home simply through a smartphone screen, lending direct expression to what was happening in our lives.

If it dispelled the myth that the process of viewing and appreciating art can be an esoteric activity, far removed from the more mainstream interests such as cinema and sports, another development in our art and culture space may also have a bearing on our lives. The government's plan to redevelop the Central Vista in New Delhi has angered curators, historians, academics, and the general public. Through Op-Eds, open letters, and social media posts, they have raised, among other issues, serious concerns regarding the safety of historic objects and archival material housed at the National Museum, the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), and the National Archives of India, as well as about the future of these historic buildings. One of the questions that one can ask is this: what kind of exhibitions can we expect to see once the National Museum finds a new home?

When I was starting out as an art writer about eight years ago, the National Museum was my favourite jaunt. For a self-initiated art enthusiast like me, these places were not only sites of viewing pleasure but also classrooms of learning about our past, even though I could not help but notice the glaring maintenance and cleanliness issues at the museum. As the debate over the museum rages, we read that a small fraction of the museum's collection was on view, and that a large number of the objects have not been catalogued.

Some of the recent noteworthy exhibitions at the museum that come to my mind were: 'The Body in Indian Art' (2014), 'Nauras: The Many Arts of the Deccan' (2015), 'The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination' (2016), 'India and the World: A History in Nine Stories' (2018), among others. They demonstrated that India has a diverse, multicultural and shared past€"an aspect of our history that needs constant emphasis in today's intolerant climate. Therefore, at the heart of imagining a new future for the National Museum is a concern about the future of curatorial engagement with the institution's vast collection of over 200,000 historical objects. The curator, put simply, acts as a bridge between the objects and the viewing public, with the aim to not only disseminate and discuss knowledge about our histories (both known and hidden), but also to foreground historical narratives that have been distorted or erased for vested interests. In such a scenario, what kind of curatorial voice and independence of thought will the exhibitions have in the new National Museum?

Elsewhere in the Indian art world in the first six months of 2021, the year has been about sustaining physical programming and executing new online initiatives, such as the Bihar Museum Biennale (22-28 March). Its hybrid model of digital and physical programming was a breath of fresh air at a time when many of us want to pass on the option of enjoying art exhibitions on their phone screens. The Kochi Biennale Foundation's exhibition of over 200 Malayali artists ('Lokame Tharavadu,' which means the world is one family), scheduled to run from 18 April to 30 June at several venues in Alappuzha and Ernakulam, is a daring initiative involving walk-in visitors at this time. In Delhi, in the midst of the yearly edition of the India Art Fair not taking place, the Bikaner House hosted two large-scale physical exhibitions €" On Site (3-9 March) and Delhi Contemporary Art Week (8-15 April) €" suggesting a semblance of normalcy, until the second wave of the coronavirus caught us off-guard in April.

What do the remaining six months of the year look like for the art world? I can recall a gallerist's comment to a couple of visitors during an exhibition at Bikaner House: "If you haven't been vaccinated and you haven't got COVID, you shouldn't be here."

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