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Culture comes with behaviour that persists over time: Christopher Charles Benninger, master architect, in conversation with Abir Pothi – Part 2

Nidheesh: I was thinking when you were saying about your journey from the US to these places and looking with a very keen eye on art from different times. Ram, I was thinking of the journeys of people who came from small places; I came from a small town myself and I think you too are that kind. Hussain was big but he himself came from a small town. Raza came from a tribal village. What do you think of these journeys?


Ramprasad Akkisetti: Before I take the question, I want to give a little clarity on art in India. Indian art can be divided into two broad categories. One is formally educated art where you go to colleges like JJ, or Baroda, or Santiniketan – to dispense what would be the art – so let’s call them the tastemakers of this century. But there was a parallel journey, the informal form of art education. It exists even now, and is dates thousands of years back, in the form of Madhubani art, Picchwai from Rajasthan, Kangra Valley art, Pattachitra from Orissa.


Their stories were taken from Mahabharata and Ramayana; they even till today provide the stories and characterisation to artists in the informal form of learning of art. When you have two layers, there is always a conjunction which happens between the formal form of art which we see in art galleries and the informal form of art has now shifted to craft. So when we talk about Indian art, I think we should definitely talk about these two.


We cannot just talk about art made in this century or exhibited in galleries. How did the journeys of famous artists that we have recognized, like Hussain, or Tyeb, Bhupen Khakhar, or Sagara begin – I think they were definitely influenced by the European School of Thought. They were definitely influenced by the art they were exposed to in Bombay Presidency and Calcutta and those influences have impacted in the way they wanted to excel in the form of the art that is showcased in galleries. Otherwise most of the art in India was essentially public art. It was always in temples, palaces, village squares, in walls of houses – it was always public, it was never private. It was galleries that introduced private art. That is what answers your question: what is the acceptance of art in public spaces – art was always public, we always had it.

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CCB: Let me also comment on that. Something has emerged. People now believe that you can now buy culture in an art gallery and hang it on your wall. That you have a painting by a well-known painter and when a guest comes you show them a Hussain and therefore claim to be a highly cultured person. I think culture comes with behaviour which persists over time. It is eating with your right hand, having an arranged marriage, wearing sarees and dhotis, what do you eat, how you eat. Recently I have come across some of my clients who hire art advisors. If you look at our collection, in our house everything is part of our life. We went to Valencia and we liked this work and carried it back. We have a very large painting from Bhutan which is a Peepal Tree. Every painting we have is a part of our journey. While what people are doing today seeing art as investment, as showpieces, as a brand. I think this shift has to be understood because this is affecting how art is made.

NT: Can I just ask Ram, there is a Krishna behind you, there’s a painting and then there’s a boat. I can see from here. I haven’t seen the full collection, but someday I will. Can you tell us about them?

RA: I was in Cochin and we have done the Cochin Refinery Headquarters there. I was walking through the Jewish street and I saw a beautiful Krishna carved out of one piece of wood, it is 75 years old. I found this a very interesting piece of sculpture, painted, and I picked it. This painting I bought at an auction for Concern for India, which is an NGO for artists and the boat I bought from the Hamptons. So effectively all the works of art we have stories with our journeys and found a place in our hearts and made it to our home.


NT: So it’s not an acquisition.

RA: We even have a client right now and they have an art advisor and they decide, ‘This wall must have a painting of a woman, this wall must have a landscape, this wall must have European art. So if you look at everything, it has become kind of a packaged kind of an experience rather than a natural experience. I think that Christopher was saying that the whole idea of art has become a fashion statement rather than the pieces of art becoming a part of your life because you don’t think of everything that you buy as an investment. Now people see it like ‘What would be the value of this 30 years from now?’ That should never be the beginning point of the purchase of your artwork; you buy it because you love it, you connect with it and you want to make it a part of your life and your home.


CCB: I think there is a very big shift and when there is a shift of this kind, you start comparing it with the stock market, land prices, acquisitions, buildings, everything because it just becomes an investment not because it is a piece of art. You buy it with a name; if you buy a certain artist’s painting it is going to appreciate in a certain time. That leads to a certain trend in the market, gallerists promote those artists and then only certain kinds of artwork is going to be coming out; so it is all fabricated. I have a friend, whose name I actually don’t mind taking, a very close friend of ours, Ghanshyam Gupta. He is a fantastic artist from MS University Baroda. We found him about 30 years back when he couldn’t even sell his sculptures in Jehangir Art Gallery and he was leaving them on the footpath and I remember Christopher said, “I have enough money in my pocket, 1500 rupees, to give to a tempo guy, and shift them from Bombay to Pune.” Later on he became famous, he went to London. But, that kind of guy who was doing original work, great guy, you know, 10 years back we met him and he was only doing Buddhas – you know why – because his clients buy only Buddhas. It’s become fashionable. Today he is not able to get out of the Buddhas or the Ganeshas. Brilliant talent has been lost to what is called market trends.


NT: Wow, that is such a great example. That is also a great insight for our young Indian artists. 

RA: Now I ask Gupta why he is doing this and he says he has to survive, he has to feed his kids, and has to follow the market. Now who decides these market trends. You can never become creative. It’s like making the films, remember, ‘Char gane laga do, do fight laga do, picture ban gayi’ (Put in four songs, two fights, and there you have a film!) The purity is missing.

Stay tuned for the third article of the series coming up soon!

The video interview can be accessed here.