by Pallavi MehraJan 12, 2023
A selection of archival photographs are presented as part of Mycelial Legacies II, exhibited at Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation (JNAF), CSMVS, Mumbai, showing scenes from the Fine Arts Fair at MSU Baroda between 1960 and 1980, initiated by artist and pedagogue Sankho Chaudhuri. The selection from the Fine Arts Fair at MSU Baroda shows the activities and preparations, art and craft meetings through theatre, costumes, toys, and looking at local craft forms. Notably, several artists who have come to be prominent figures in contemporary art, are captured in these photographs as students, displaying youthful energy and creative ambition. The photographs display scenes of collective work and play, as the fine arts department came together to produce the space of the fair each year. The Fine Arts Fair ran as a tradition for about 50 years. Through these photographs, we are able to catch a glimpse into the carnivalesque and exuberant kind of setup that might have been at the helm of the fair, where the question of gender collapses through masks, costumes and performative gestures. The following conversation is with Samira Bose, curator at Asia Art Archive in India (AAAI), who speaks to STIR about the background of these photographs and the kind of scenes that were captured.
Sukanya Deb: With a selection of images spanning across years of the Fine Arts Fair at MSU Baroda, could you speak to the initiation of the Fair and its inspirations arising from Sankho Chaudhuri’s own background having been at Santiniketan?
Samira Bose: The Fine Arts Fair was initiated in 1961, with Sankho Chaudhuri very much at its forefront. And it drew on the fairs and melas that were prevalent, since the early 20th century at Santiniketan, and he was supported in this endeavour and project by colleagues like KG Subramanyan, who was also associated with Vishva Bharati at different points. And they all shared an interest and pursuit in thinking about historical and vernacular art forms in India, and how these need to be paid attention to in a post-independent Fine Arts curriculum. At that time, the term that was used was postcolonial. It's interesting to consider Sankho Chaudhuri’s own practice in sculpture, in that he was deeply interested in the vocabularies of craft and the purposeful embellishment of utilitarian objects by different communities, where he would go and visit Adivasi villages quite frequently. So in that sense, the Fine Arts Fair was an experimental site where students were made to step outside the classroom. Together with the faculty, they would be making artworks, which were also utilitarian objects such as jewellery, toys, etc. These would be sold to a wider public that was through this event invited into the faculty. And generally, the idea was for the atmosphere to be fun and festive. But sort of underlying that was also a concern about raising funds for the faculty and potentially supporting less privileged students within the department. So we are able to witness the Fine Arts Fair in the archive, from its early days till about the 1980s, through abundant photo documentation in the archives of Jyoti Bhatt, and images and some materials from Gulam Mohammed Sheikh and KG Subramanyan’s archives.
Sukanya: Could you speak about the melding of arts, crafts and theatre and the practice of collaboration to create as they appear in the Fine Arts Fair?
Samira: The title of the event itself, which brings together the loaded term, ‘Fine Arts’, together with the fair, portrays the combination of orientations of the faculty and students who inhabited the department, and it was quite intentional in bringing together arts, crafts and theatre as a demonstration for students engaging in the arts at this moment, to widen its scope and to reconsider hierarchies of form and material within their own practices. You also have to understand that it's a very sort of situated post-Independence postcolonial moment where these modern art curriculums were being shaped on their own terms, in a certain sense, for the first time in India. It was a site where you could see highly renowned figures like Subramanyan making toys from bamboo, or you could see Jyoti Bhatt making paper puppets. Now these are senior renowned figures whose works are extremely precious, but the photographs sort of show you another side of that experience. Within the archive, you can see how the fair expanded in scale and scope, and it brought into its fore different activities, including live performances, theatre and puppet shows. You also see all kinds of carnivalesque costuming, which you can't really make sense of in the sense of performance, but you'd have Pushpamala N donning this absolutely surreal outfit and moving across the fair.
For me, what really stands out in the archive is this kind of spreading out of methods and materials that you can see in the images. Instead of the usual photographs of students bent over their desks or studio tables, or which there are many, in the archive, this is the moment where a lot of these students and teachers are sitting on the floor and they are all surrounding, say, one big textile work with paper strips and fibre spilling across the room and into the outdoors. And it feels accentuated because, at this moment, the authorship is becoming blurred. And there's a large number of images of the making of objects and artworks for the art fair. But you also see that students and faculty are very actively involved in selling these to the public that visited and are also taking part in the performance. It's a very active space. And I think, looking at that bit of selling your object as a craft object is, I think, quite something important to consider.
Sukanya: Significantly these photographs have been included in the exhibition Mycelial Legacies II at Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation (JNAF). How do you see the role of women being explored through these archival documents? Could you also shed light on the background of whether there was a certain amount of creative freedom in these programmes that allowed for a certain kind of milieu to develop?
Samira: The curatorial initiative in Mycelial Legacies is to foreground women practitioners from the Faculty of Fine Arts at MSU University of Baroda, particularly considering how the context has been viewed or is viewed primarily through male stalwarts and their lineages. And so the invitation to us by Deeksha Nath, the curator for the group art exhibition, and JNAF was very interesting, in that it's also sort of an ongoing interest of ours at Asia Art Archive in India (AAAI), to consider Women and Gender within art history in the region. It also allowed me to relook at the same set of materials around the Fine Arts Fair with a very specific sort of gaze or lens one could say. First and foremost, when you see the number of women students at the faculty, not just in the Fine Arts Fair images, but more generally, you can see that there are so many women students that graduate from the faculty, but not as many women students that are active in the field. Shukla Sawant (Professor and current Head of Department at School of Arts and Aesthetics at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU)), says that, obviously, something happens. We don't know what it is that happens to women artists, with students when they graduate and go back home, that they're not able to exactly translate into being practitioners in the field. So one thing that's really evident in the Fine Arts Fair is the active and abundant participation of women students. So the selected images in the display foreground, looking very specifically at the dissipation of certain women practitioners, and what it does is reveal a lot of the early experiments and student life of artists who are now known, some of whom have become extremely well established. So you see Mrinalini Mukherjee, for example. There is a very sort of signature image of her using hemp for the first time and donning it, on her body. And now you can see sort of what happened since then to her practice, as we know it today. So this becomes a formative kind of imagery.
You can see that this was sort of a site of testing. And apart from that, with the figures who are known so much for their highly individualised styles that we are familiar with today, this was a moment, or this was an event that necessitated working collectively across the disciplinary interests. So they'd be testing and experimenting on their own, but you had to make objects together. And these objects would not have that sort of authorship, that possibly they work with today. So that part was kind of interesting to look at, to look at them as friends and peers working together across their interests.
The fair also encouraged students to understand the indigenous, through very laborious techniques of craft practices, but was not limited to sewing, weaving and repair. And often these are undertaken in domestic spaces and regarded as women's work. But you can see that within the Fine Arts Fair, there's an attempt to appreciate them anew in a Fine Arts school to extend this, not to say that it was only the women students doing it. Everyone was at least trying to understand these techniques of labour that are generally carried out by women in the household. I mean, it's a very complex question, but it's something that I wanted to raise in the context of this selection, and also complicate what it means to look at women's art in this moment and in this perspective. I think the last framework within this small selection of images is that the images can capture a very playful and performative aspect of the mela. And like I was saying, there's a lot of these carnivalesque props such as masks, and then these decadent costumes that do tend to sort of exceed traditional conceptions of gender. So again, while you are looking in, in a certain binary be at the women's students, what you are also seeing is that they are all also dressing up.
The exhibition 'Mycelial Legacies II' is on view until September 3, 2023.