Introducing the Stars of India Art Fair 2022

One of the crowd pleasers at the 2022 India Art Fair in Delhi was a garish imp.

About two and a half feet tall, the toy-like terracotta figurine perched on a platform in the booth occupied by Mumbai-based art gallery Jhaveri Contemporary. The design was zoomorphic – the head had a pig-like snout and four twisted faces, filled with teeth and gums, protruded from the torso and limbs. On the head was a strange spiked helmet.

One of the dominant features of the work – titled, simply, “Figure with Spiky Crown and Pig I” – was the eyes. They were big, round and bloodshot. They were also glassy, ​​like those of a comic book villain, or maybe something more sinister.

“It has an ambiguous expression,” said Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran, the sculptor. “Either he’s threatening, or he’s smiling and happy, or he’s about to act some kind of way. I am in this kind of ambiguous expressions. From a sculptural point of view, it is a figure that sticks to the archetype of the warrior. It is a kind of fantasy warrior figure.

People throw their rubbish, their rubbish, into these garbage bags. But I store my most beautiful emotions in the same material. —Khalil Chishtee, “Bedtime Ritual” sculptor, who uses trash bags as material

Nithiyendran, born in Colombo to a Tamil father and a middle-class Dutch mother, is best known for his irreverent approach to ceramic media. Bold in his use of color and ornamentation, he creates mutilated, toy-like figures that seduce and repel, attract and frighten. “Sometimes subtle works that are more poetic often lose their ability to speak. In my practice, I have a sense of hyperbole, exaggeration and performance in these numbers,” said Nithiyendran, who lives and works in Australia.

Just like the imp, the 13th edition of India Art Fair (April 28 to May 1) was a lot of fun. One of the biggest such events in South Asia, the fair had returned to dry land after two years of pandemic-related restrictions. Pleasantly back was the hubbub of artists, critics, collectors, curators, museum directors and enthusiasts mingling, browsing, buying, selling and networking. The timing of the event was not so pleasant; instead of its usual slot in Delhi’s mild winter cold – the time of long jackets and chunky knitwear – the fair had to be rescheduled this time for the peak of summer. As the mercury soared, the room’s air conditioning often stopped working. But art lovers, with their unwavering enthusiasm, braved the oppressive heat.

“We miss some of the old ones,” said Bhavna Kakar, founder and director of Delhi-based art gallery Latitude 28. “But there’s a good buzz around the fair and they’ve done a good job of inviting people in. Some of our artists have done wonders. Expensive pieces take time [to sell]but things under Rs10 lakh are progressing well.

The highlight of Latitude 28 in this edition was a 72-inch multimedia installation in paper, watercolour, steel and wire mesh called “Home” by Sudipta Das. It effectively captured the locked down nature of our lives during lockdown. Made up of 1,000 paper figures falling on top of each other, the inhabitants of this roofless house cling to their suitcases and umbrellas for life.

On the outside wall of the Delhi-based Vadehra Art Gallery booth was ‘Riverbank’, an artwork that takes viewers into the world of Rabindranath Tagore’s poem ‘The Golden Boat’. “Clouds Rumbling in the Sky; pouring rain/ I sit by the river, sad and alone/ The sheaves are gathered, the harvest is over/ The river is swollen and fierce in its flow,” the lines tell, which turn into a richly restrained patchwork of 24 frames made of ink, acrylic, watercolor, tape, wrapping paper, barcodes and stickers, executed on screen-printed paper. ‘Riverbank’ contains within itself a whole universe of love and hate, life and philosophy, politics and insecurity.

“This body of work explores observations and thoughts derived from a riverbank,” said Shailesh BR, the creator. “The long riverside walks in Kolkata were a preview.”

New Delhi-based artist Shailesh creates assemblages of frames that often have a scribble aesthetic. Various images and texts interact on his canvas as on a manuscript. “My studio is a kabaddi store,” he said. “I collect the most mundane objects and they go into a magic box, which I later open to create art. I saw it all on this ghat in Kolkata with every emotion on display.

While international galleries were conspicuous by their absence, New York-based Aicon Contemporary, which focuses on non-Western art, made its presence felt. A highlight was Maya Varadaraj’s acrylic on canvas series ‘Absolute and Adequate Positions’. Raised in Coimbatore and Kodaikanal, Varadaraj moved to the United States and forged her identity as an interdisciplinary artist after a brief stint in fashion design. While her previous work dealt detached with female narratives and representations in South Asia, a miscarriage caused her to experience femininity on a more visceral level.

“It was the incident that sparked this new series, where I use my work to come to terms with personal loss and also explore childhood, motherhood and what it means to be feminine and a woman in South Asia,” said said Varadaraj.

Khalil Chishtee, a Pakistani-born artist based in New York, said South Asian artists are doing well in galleries outside their region. “But sometimes I believe they’re not exactly ready for the intensity of content that most South Asian artists are producing right now,” he said. “We started talking about our inner lives and our reality, and that narrative is very strong; it’s just not about beautiful colors or attractive shapes. I think that makes a white audience a little uncomfortable.

Two of Chishtee’s sculptures – “Bedtime Ritual” (a reclining plastic blue figure with a book, wearing slippers and comfort clothes) and “The Servant” (cast in metal, showing a king seated on a throne composed of words of the popular Pakistani patriotic song “Yeh watan tumhara hai”) – has attracted a lot of attention due to its simplicity and political resonance.

“People throw their rubbish, their rubbish, into these garbage bags. But I store my most beautiful emotions in the same material. I found a relationship of trust between the two, and in doing so, I also challenge the hierarchy of materials used by artists,” said Chishtee, who is world famous for using trash bags and plastic as his material.

There were several other surprises, including the expansive black-and-white Shutter paintings by Atul Dodiya which combined illustration, sculptural installation, photography and film, and were inspired by the life of Georgian painter Niko Pirosmani.

But not everyone seemed happy. “In terms of freshness or quality of workmanship, I find it more decorative this time around, targeting architects, designers and spaces, to sell. I’m always on the lookout for deep art,” said art consultant Leena Namjoshi. “I wish there was more experimentation, like the way Bangladeshi and Pakistani artists show here.”

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