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Brilliant talent lost to market trends: Christopher Charles Benninger, master architect, in conversation with Abir Pothi – Part 1

Abir Pothi had the honour of interacting with two esteemed guests who run one of the biggest architectural practices in the country. Christopher Charles Benninger is a master architect and he has executed some great projects in India. He was part of CEPT, he set up Christopher Charles Benninger Architects (CCBA) in Pune, he also designed the campus for Suzlon, and now he is setting up the campus for IIT Hyderabad, and Azim Premji University. He is also a guru, a mentor, and a keen art lover. We are very grateful to Christopher and his Managing Director and Partner Ramprasad Akkisetti who was also part of our discussion. Ram is also an art lover and has set up an art gallery in India House where they work and live from. He also runs a children’s art competition called Earth Matters and does a film festival on art and architecture. Let’s dive into the first of a four-part series about the discussion the two had with our Editor, Nidheesh Tyagi. The video interview can be accessed here. 

Nidheesh Tyagi: First I will start with Christopher because he has been there long before us, he came to the country when it had just gained independence and he came with loads of western insights and influences to a country which was still in formation where art had been there for long but at the same time it was shaping up. So when you came to this country, what did you perceive of the arts and aesthetics of what we see and what we think of as a very chaotic place?

Christopher Charles Benninger: First of all, I don’t think it is chaotic. I think it is layers of rationality one placed over another. Some of the layers are very ancient, some are medieval, some are British 19th century or early 20th-century thinking patterns, and some are very local. So you have all of these layers of cultures and the way people think as one floating above the other but interacting with each other. This to me is extremely interesting. When I visit America I find it extremely boring. It is kind of a dynamic situation (in India) where one can learn a lot every day because there are so many different cultures interacting. In fact, one of my professors Margaret Mead told me, ‘When you go to India don’t be critical and don’t take your own value system and start judging other people by your little little tribal values that you picked up as a Catholic or as a student at Harvard and MIT. Try to understand other people’s value systems, their mores, their habits and try to understand what they are doing within that system and not within some system you brought from abroad.’ So I think when I came to India in 1968 to work with Bal Krishna Doshi in Ahmedabad, I came with a rather open mind and I fell in love with India pretty quickly and I built an indelible link with India at that time.

\"\" Christopher Charles Benninger and Ramprasad Akkisetti at India House

NT: What about the post-Independence art? We saw new art movements coming from Baroda and Mumbai, and bits from north as well, from Himachal. There was also increasingly a Soviet influence at the time the way we used to think and to our creativity as well. How did you find that then?

CCB: Let me start with my own little background. I had a teacher called Josep Lluis Sert and his best friend was Joan Miro. He was a very famous Catalonian, Barcelona painter and when I got my degree at Harvard he got an Honorary PhD and there were very small classes, about 12-15 kids in the class, so we knew people like him and a famous painting by Piccasso was painted for my professor. So we knew a lot about Picasso. When I was a kid in my uncle’s house I had Monet’s Water Lilies in my bedroom which was on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art for particular reasons. So I grew up knowing famous artists from my youth and when I came to India I think I had a good eye for Western Art and that can create a problem because you keep evaluating Indian Art and Western Art.

\"\" Water Lilies by Monet

Now coming back to India. Keep in mind modern Indian architecture is built on a great foundation of history. You have regional art from ancient times, I can talk about Rajput painting, about Mysore paintings, even Travancore, you have Mughal art, you have a whole history of very famous art schools that evolved in India and created a foundation. Then another impact was the British painters who came to India. People like James Wales came to Poona who did very graphic work. These people were definitely artists, highly trained, they did very graphic work – Why? They were actually the espionage of the British. There was no television then, no moving cameras, no digital for people sitting in London, to know what the court looked like, the Maharaja of Travancore, what are the palaces like, what do the animals look like. There are some beautiful paintings of George Stubbs painting of cheetahs and elephants and things like that and we think these are beautiful paintings but no, they were not painted to be beautiful, they were painted to document to the British what their empire looked like, what did their lands look like in a foreign country. So the British artists were actually making documents for the foreign ministry of Britain and the East India Company.

\"\" By Vasudeo Gaitonde

You have all of these layers in the minds of people like Nandalal Bose, Tagore, and all the current school painters they were trying to break away from and they were trying to create Indian art. Then you come up to Independence and you have two or three very well-known schools of art. I think the progressive group in Bombay had many artists associated with the JJ School and probably all of them Akbar, Gaitonde, Hussain, Jogen, all these people became very well-known big names in Indian art.

Then you had the Baroda School which developed around the Maharaja Sayajirao University, Fine Arts Department, and people like Subramnian whom I was fortunate to meet, Bhupen Kakar whom I met in 1968, Amit Ambalal who lived in Ahmedabad but was definitely part of the group. Gulam Mohhamed Shaikh is still alive and one of the famous artists of the Baroda School. So you have the Baroda School and the Bombay School and the Calcutta Group and there was a lot of energy going between Baroda and Bombay.

\"\" By Gulam Mohammed Sheikh

Keep in mind we didn’t have television in 1976 by the time I left Ahmedabad, so there were no television links, no journals, no form of art with images where they could copy and there was a very indigenous movement in different places in India. It is also worth noting there were people like Haku Shah, Piraji Sagara who didn’t live in Baroda or Bombay but who worked basically as a lifestyle they weren’t trying to brand themselves as famous painters.

I think the Bombay Group, the Progressive Group, they got in their minds the Western idea of Picasso and Miro and all these famous painters and they wanted to be like that. Some of them even lived in Paris their whole life. Though the Progressive School started by saying we don’t want to be Western, we want to be Indian, they ended up in Paris and became wildly famous and their paintings became very expensive.

You had this kind of evolution take place after independence when people were struggling to find their identity and at the same time slowly-slowly as communication improved until today people became aware of branding. So I think post-independence was a complex period for art, it had many influences. You could see that Bal Krishna Doshi’s is very much influenced by Rajasthani art, two-dimensional, wonderful art with the prints he makes. So these influences are coming into work being done even today. My partner Ramprasad has done a number of great paintings which are influenced by historical mythology, great cities like Varanasi, and even myths about Krishna and things like that. I think the good thing about India is we have not broken our links with the mediaeval times when there was great art going on in the country.

\"\" Cloud Gate at Chicago by Anish Kapoor

In the future, yes we have a connection now with New York, Milan, Paris, and Tokyo. But I think some people are struggling with their identity. If I think of something by Anish Kapoor, who is installing art in India now, he is a British citizen, his work is very enticing, very beautiful, but it has no context. His work in Chicago, the Cloud Gate, could be picked up and put in Singapore, Tokyo. But then Subodh Gupta is highly influenced by Kapoor but his work is like a banyan tree or some pots and pans from India. So I think he is highly influenced by Kapoor as well and at the same time he is trying to make it Indian. This type of struggle you can see, people being influenced. If you see Hussain’s work, you can see Picasso in a lot of his paintings, influences from Guernica, you see a lot of geometry, figures, and a lot of colours come from Picasso.

\"\" An installation by Subodh Gupta

But, then when you think of Piraji Sagara, I don’t think he gave a hoot about what was happening in Paris or New York. He lived art. He painted because he loved to paint and not because he had a clientele or was looking at galleries who would post his works. It was just part of his life. And I think that’s something you find in India, like Haku Shah, and some of the painters who lived in smaller towns or very isolated places.

\"\" By Haku Shah

I think that is a very wonderful thing about art in India that you have a reaching of contextual paintings of things that are Indian. And that’s not the case in New York City where everyone is hustling to be in a big gallery, to be on social media, to have a brand name, everyone should recognize them when they see their painting. I think that destroys the whole intention of art.

\"\" By Piraji Sagara

The next part of the series will be updated soon. Stay tuned!

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