It is 9pm and about 200 people are crowding into Gallery Ske, Bangalore, for the opening of a new show titled Four Projects featuring the works of Orijit Sen, Abir Karmakar, Sunoj D, and Abhishek Hazra. The crowd mills round the lovely old bungalow with its “monkey-top” windows, increasingly rare in Bangalore, drinking wine and examining the art. A few first-time buyers in their mid-20s negotiate with Ske’s flamboyant founder, Sunitha Kumar Emmart, asking if they can pay by instalment for some works. Tellingly, there is no one from the industry that made this city famous, and introduced that ugly monicker “Bangalored” into the political lexicon. “We have never had anyone from the IT industry visit our gallery,” says Emmart. “We’ve always wondered why. Do they support other things like theatre or do they simply not connect to the arts and culture scene in Bangalore?”
Ske is among the handful of top Indian galleries that exhibits at Art Basel and Emmart, 35, represents some big names. These include Bharti Kher, Sudarshan Shetty, Sakshi Gupta and Bangalore-based Sheela Gowda, who has been shortlisted for this year’s Artes Mundi award – but she also nurtures some cutting-edge artists. Bangalore-based Navin Thomas, who is part of her stable, won this year’s Skoda Prize (a nascent Turner Prize) at the India Art Fair in Delhi earlier this year.
Until very recently, Bangalore was viewed as the sleepy “pensioner’s paradise” of India with no art scene to speak of. In the 1960s and 1970s influential artists such as KK Hebbar moved out of the city to gain fame. But in the 1980s a small group of artists such as Balan Nambiar, SG Vasudev, Yusuf Arakkal and GD Shenoy infused regionalism into the Indian modernist framework by using crafts, spirituality and regional folk idioms in their work.
Still there was no museum culture to speak of. Government museums such as Karnataka Chitra Kala Parishad (CKP) and Venkatappa Art Gallery were moribund institutions. Save for Krithika Art Gallery, a relaxed space curated by Kausalya Dayaram, there were no galleries. It was only in the 1990s that galleries sprung up: Renaissance, Time & Space, Sumukha, Crimson, Rightlines and later Ske, Kynkyny, Mahua and a few others. Today, there are dozens of galleries – though not all of them good.
Gallery Sumukha is one of the better ones, with a roster of artists including Paresh Maity, Vivek Vilasini, Baiju Parthan, Riyas Komu, Ravinder Reddy and others. Sumukha’s founder, Premilla Baid, admits that the Bangalore art scene is “not as vibrant” as that in Delhi or Mumbai and that art patrons here are not as regional as neighbouring Chennai. Baid lists Kiran Mazumdar Shaw (who founded Biocon and is on the FT’s top 50 women in business list), Abhishek Poddar and Harish Padmanabha as some of the top collectors in the city. She too says that she doesn’t have a single client from the IT industry.
In the past few years the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) has tried to enliven the scene with lectures, poetry readings and curated shows. The best part of the NGMA, however, is arguably its beautiful grounds and the heritage mansion that it occupies.
But more exciting things are happening on the streets, with artist collectives such as Jaaga, 1Shanti Road, and Bar1. “Bangalore has this unusual combination of scientists, designers, and geeks from IT,” says Archana Prasad, who, along with her partner, Freeman Murray, co-founded Jaaga, a creative arts space. Jaaga encourages public arts projects. Recently, it partnered with the Goethe Institute to bring Indian and German artists together for an Urban Avant-garde Project that included graffiti painting in public spaces and experimental dance performances at traffic signals.
Nearby, 1Shanti Road, an artist residency founded by Suresh Jayaram, has embarked on a three-year collaboration between Sri Lankan and local artists titled Sethusamudram Project, in reference to a mythical bridge that connected the two countries.
1Shanti Road is one of the few truly nurturing yet cutting-edge spaces in the city. Artists wander in and out of the house located under a large tree. Exhibits are called “Bondage and Beyond” or “Queer Perspective on Law”. There are lectures and discussions followed by a potluck dinner. The content is happily diverse. “Bangalore doesn’t have enough of anyone in any field for specialised cliques to form,” Jayaram says. “So poets, artists and writers are forced to socialise with each other.”
The city’s oldest artist co-operative, Bar1, recently moved to Mission Road, close to where Jaaga and 1Shanti Road are located. “We jokingly try to designate this as the new art district,” says Christoph Storz, who has been involved with Bar1 from the beginning. Storz, as it happens, is Sheela Gowda’s husband.
The word that is most often used to describe the Bangalore art scene is “non-commercial”; it is simply not as market-driven as India’s other big cities. Rents are cheap and Bangalore does not have a celebrity culture. Discussions in the art world don’t centre around “who came and bought what”, as Maithili Parekh, head of Sotheby’s India puts it. “Bangalore has a very determined and refined approach to art, which existed in other cities, but has since been forgotten or left behind.”
Although Bangalore has an art market, the stakes are not high, and prices relatively low. This allows for fellowship and camaraderie between artists, says Shanthamani M, who creates large figurative sculptures using charcoal pieces. Her studio, in a quiet lane with adjoining houses painted bright blue and yellow, has graphic designers on the ground floor. Shanthamani and her photographer husband, Mallikarjun Katakol, frequent gatherings such as Design Friday, where they interact with architects, artists, designers and gallerists.
In an excellent essay about the evolution of Bangalore’s art scene, Jayaram lists a growing number of artists who live and work in Bangalore, a number of whom are at the tipping point of becoming nationally and internationally known. “The kinds of work that Bangalore artists make is somehow bolder and reminds me of an earlier time in Bombay when I came out of art school,” says artist Sudharshan Shetty, whose family is from the area and who visits Bangalore frequently. “To do what you like because there is no market pressure is a gift.”
It is a gift that is hard-won. As Jayaram says: “The alternative art scene here in Bangalore is very fragile and depends on corporate or government funding.” The problem is that the government is indifferent and the big software conglomerates have other priorities. Ironically, the two institutions supporting 1Shanti Road are the Goethe Institute and Asialink, based in Australia, which sends Australian artists for residencies in Bangalore. “Politicians need to get sensitised to what is happening in the cultural scene here,” says Storz. “They need to help or just be positive and not scared.”
Long-time observers will tell you that Bangalore’s art scene has thrived in spite of the politicians. And even though the IT world hasn’t intersected with the art world, it has nevertheless become the city’s calling card. Art dealer Franck Barthelemy, who divides his time between Paris and Bangalore, says: “A lot of national and even international artists would like to come and spend time in Bangalore.” Why? “Because they know it through the software industry.”