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Roobina Karode of Kiran Nadar Museum of Art deliberates on the art ecosystem

In an exclusive interview with STIR, Roobina Karode looks back at her journey to evolve KNMA into a world-class museum and shares her views on the role of arts.

by Rahul KumarPublished on : Sep 02, 2020

In the general discourse of our contemporary times and hyper-connected world, we deliberate, argue, and discuss on various topics. From films and theatre, dance and music to politics and judiciary, fashion and even culinary. Visual arts, however, appears to be fairly low on the list of something that people like to actively engage with. While most would agree on the importance of arts in protecting and documenting heritage and histories, I have often wondered why then it remains on the periphery of public dialogue. In the context of India specifically, we are far from the museum going culture. Some would argue the sheer lack of opportunities of accessing art with just a handful of museums, and galleries that are perceived to be ‘unapproachable’.

Is there a role that art plays in the contemporary times?
Has the lack of discourse made arts irrelevant?
Has the capitalistic framework of viewing and acquiring works of art made it inaccessible to most?

Pond near the field | STIRworld
Pond near the field Image: Ram Rahman, Courtesy of Kiran Nadar Museum of Art

I ask Roobina Karode some of these pertinent questions. Director and Chief Curator of Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA), Karode has curatorially led the organisation since its inception. KNMA is the first private, modern and contemporary art museum in India. She has curated several acclaimed exhibitions in the past 10 years of the museum with the objective of expanding the audience-base and connecting the general public with urban art practices. A Fulbright scholar, Karode specialises in art history and in education. She has been involved with the teaching of Western and Indian art history (1990-2006) at various institutions.

‘Hammer on The Square’ – Himmat Shah: A Retrospective | STIRworld
Hammer on The Square – Himmat Shah: A Retrospective Image: Courtesy of Kiran Nadar Museum of Art

Rahul Kumar (Rahul): At a time like the current crisis (owing to COVID-19 pandemic), people are not interested in buying art. In fact, ‘artist’ tops the list of non-essential ‘jobs’ in a recent research (published on June 14, 2020 by The Sunday Times, Singapore). While this economic slowdown by itself may be a temporary phase, art is far from becoming a topic of larger discourse (in contrast to say films or culinary). What are your views on this and how do you see this changing over time?

Roobina Karode (Roobina): Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) as a research-based philanthropic museum is different from how a commercial gallery or auction house works. Being an institution dedicated to modern and contemporary art, we start with the realisation that great works of art are often created outside the networks of market, and the popular notions about what is palatable and buyable. 

Not getting into details of the survey you mention, or into the question about how ‘essential’ an artist is for a society that struggles to survive by reducing its culture to the bare minimum of existence, let’s look at the problem from the perspective of artists and the history of art. The great works of art are often produced when the situation around the artist is most hostile, unwelcoming and even catastrophic, not to mention financially unfavourable. Examples are numerous: The European avant-garde movements during the two World Wars, Fascism, and the so-called ‘Spanish flu’; Chittaprosad and Somnath Hore during the Bengal Famine; and numerous contemporary artists all over the world responding to civil war, racism, and ecological devastations. The purpose of art in such a context is not to distract people from their pain, but to make them more aware of the reasons behind their agony, as well as its shared nature. This could be where, perhaps, the cathartic capacity of art also comes to play – a realisation that we at KNMA tried to bring forth in the recently started online exhibition, City Tales: crisis, care, catharsis.

B.M.R.C.C. at Work, 1944 | Chittaprosad Bhattacharya| STIRworld
B.M.R.C.C. at Work by Chittaprosad Bhattacharya, 1944 Image: Courtesy of Kiran Nadar Museum of Art

The current situation due to the pandemic has affected the larger framework in which art is created and sold, and artists and gallerists face issues related to economic downturn, postponement or cancellation of exhibitions nationally and internationally as well. As far as people not interested in buying art, I am getting to hear that auctions are doing well and a few leading galleries have begun monthly auctions, making art affordable and accessible to the initiated and young art collectors, even sharing a percentage of the sales in the support of NGOs. It is possible that the pandemic may also push gallerists and dealers to think creatively about how to keep the art market going, by reverting to barter or inventing new forms to keep the art market afloat.

Tebhaga | Somnath Hore | STIRworld
Tebhaga by Somnath Hore Image: Courtesy of Kiran Nadar Museum of Art

Rahul: Is patronage critical for flourishing of the arts? Is it true that the capitalistic framework encourages furtherance of a few practitioners?

Roobina: This question is partly answered in the previous one. Capitalism encourages competition, and at times this allows for certain discoveries and inventions, which would have taken centuries to be made, had the economy been otherwise. But on the flip side, there is something lost when the society gets too competitive: it recedes the care and concern for the other, the very humane values which are needed today, more than ever. Patronage in art and science is definitely an example of such a care, and its importance in the history of art cannot be overlooked. For example, Mughal Art of which flourish made ripple effects throughout the subcontinent, surpassing even the boundaries of the empire. But it will be wrong to reduce the whole history of art into different regimes of sponsorship, like feudal, state, or private forms of patronage. The history of art is much wider and resilient than the history of patronage. Even architecture, the most labour intensive and capital-demanding art form among the visual arts, can have a history relatively freed from that of patronage. This is what we see in contemporary architecture where there are no patrons, only clients.     

Portrait of the family (Majumdar's Family) | Raja Ravi Verma | STIRworld
Portrait of the family (Majumdar's Family) by Raja Ravi Verma Image: Courtesy of Kiran Nadar Museum of Art

Rahul: In continuation, what is the ideal framework of a healthy art-ecosystem and how should a country like ours get there?

Roobina: The recognition of the arts as a necessary ingredient to circumvent a lopsided development in our society, is first and foremost important. Unless this is realised, art will be devoid of real experiences of life and life will be devoid of the compassion/empathy of art. It is art that enables us to explore the mysterious, deep within us and all around us. A robust art ecosystem in my opinion is built through networks, collaborations and healthy coexistence of different agencies of art. It must rise above monopolies and manipulations.

Above all, freedom of expression, pure and simple, is to be valued. This is the minimum condition to have a healthy ecosystem for art, where people can be introduced to new ideas and perceptions, and issues can be debated without fear.

Exhibition shot: Crossings – Time Unfolded II | STIRworld
Exhibition shot: Crossings – Time Unfolded II Image: Courtesy of Kiran Nadar Museum of Art

We can understand the limitations of state funding in art in the Third World countries, and that is where the philanthropic institutions like KNMA come into the picture. There is still the lack of an open-minded dialogue between government-led and private art institutions. There is a general feeling that in India, the state and the government get interested in art only when they think that there is something that needs to be censored, and put away from the public view. This perception has to change.

Between spider and the lamp (triptych) | Atul Dodiya | STIRworld
Between spider and the lamp (triptych) by Atul Dodiya Image: Courtesy of Kiran Nadar Museum of Art

Rahul: What is the role of an art museum, especially in the current times of economic, political, and social distress?

Roobina: An immediate answer would be this: to preserve civilisational memories for the future generations, so that they can learn from us, even from our mistakes to prevent repeating them. A second answer to this question needs to start from what history can teach us about the present. What is at stake here is not just certain similarity one would find between the present and the past – for example, the different episodes in history where people were asked to self-isolate for reasons varying from progressive health measures to regressive practices of untouchability.

Exhibition shot: ‘Zarina: A Life in Nine Lines l Across Decades • Borders• Geographies’ | STIRworld
Exhibition shot: Zarina: A Life in Nine Lines l Across Decades • Borders• Geographies Image: Courtesy of Kiran Nadar Museum of Art

Let’s assume something radically novel has taken place, a promising situation or event, which has no parallel or precedent in history – a completely new body of work developing from the present pandemic crisis for example. Even then, in order to discover its novelty, one needs to have the repository of historical knowledge against which the former’s uniqueness can be examined and understood. In the absence of institutions like the art museum, the division between the old and the new will be completely blurred, and confusion and disarray can/may lead to a dysfunctional society. 

‘Hammer on The Square’ – Himmat Shah | STIRworld
Hammer on The Square – Himmat Shah Image: Courtesy of Kiran Nadar Museum of Art

Rahul: Please tell us about your significant upcoming projects.

Roobina: The pandemic has taught us to widen the nature of our practices, not only in the sense of expanding more rigorously into online platforms, but also to have more reflective and discursive forms of curatorial practices, so that a physical interaction with the materiality of the artwork is not considered the only way to experience and retain the feeling or memory of an artwork. The focus right now is more on the exchange of ideas and memories, and sharing multiple propositions on the future. Keeping this in mind, we are planning a series of theme-based curations from the museum collection, of which the first iteration is the ongoing exhibition City Tales. We have also started conducting online interviews and discussions with senior artists, which, in the next stage, will develop into a pedagogic programme involving students and young practitioners.

While some of the KNMA projects that were already in the pipeline will remain under construction till the situation betters, the museum has really strengthened and expanded its collection of photography. We are definitely thinking of an exhibition or multiple small exhibitions around this collection.

Our ambitious undertaking along with the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow to present a huge exhibition on ‘Contemporary Art of/from India’ that was to happen in June this year has been postponed to April 2021. We look forward to this collaboration and presenting a wide spectrum of contemporary Indian art in that part of the world.

Time Unfolded| STIRworld
Time Unfolded Image: Courtesy of Kiran Nadar Museum of Art

Rahul: We are excited about the proposed new building /complex for KNMA. Could you share some details of what to expect?

Roobina: Given that the architect is Sir David Adjaye, you can expect nothing less than a museum building that will bring together traditional wisdom, modernity and contemporaneity in an extraordinary way. He is an architect sensitive to the cultural context, choice of material/s and experience of spaces unique to the nature of the building.  His proposed new building will be a much-awaited desirable home for the substantial and expanding KNMA Collection. Equally, the museum’s design, its aesthetics and ambience will make visitors feel at home and spend long hours in the museum. This is the only thing I can share as of now. We all await the suspense to unfold someday, sooner than later.

Exhibition view: ‘Difficult Loves: A View to Infinity’ | Nasreen Mohamedi | STIRworld
Exhibition view: Difficult Loves: A View to Infinity, Nasreen Mohamedi: A retrospective Image: Courtesy of Kiran Nadar Museum of Art

Rahul: KNMA has completed 10 years of its existence. I am sure it has been an eventful journey to lay the foundation stone, all the way to conceive and present some monumental exhibitions. What has been your biggest learning?

Roobina: Working for a museum right through its inception and a journey of 10 productive years, I would say, my biggest learnings have been -

    • Museums are (eventually) made by people who embrace the institution .. they become relevant through the audience they cultivate and reach out to. KNMA has been working diligently on inviting diverse audiences through a spectrum of public and educational programmes, through the integration of the arts, and by being a visitor-friendly place.
    • Exhibitions as tools of mediation and engagement help bridge the distance between viewers and the art. They help access the work physically, conceptually and spiritually if you will. Making exhibitions is an intense activity/occupation that is so often misread/misunderstood as ‘placing pictures on walls’. It is a self-learning exercise in cultivating patience, perseverance, meditation and resilience, all necessary to conceive and realise an exhibition, its character and its various aspects.
    • Equally, it is not only about leading a team to work together but also about learning to enjoy the process.
    • And last but not the least, trust is not handed over to you when you enter any organisation. You have to earn it. I can say for myself without thinking for a moment, that it is Kiran’s trust and faith in me that made the 10-year journey of KNMA more adventurous, fun, ambitious and unconventional. As a museum, KNMA now bears that image and the dedicated team at KNMA hopes to carry the museum’s presence into the future with more rigor and responsibility.

    Roobina Karode | STIRworld
    Roobina Karode Image: Courtesy of Kiran Nadar Museum of Art

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