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\’Curators are not mouthpieces for artists; nor do artists have to put forth the vision of a curator\’

Art curator and entrepreneur Satyajit Dave breaks down his approach to the academics behind art, and discusses with Abir Pothi how artists and curators can collaborate best, whether the art world is an exclusionary club, and if Indian art is free of the shackles of looking to the West


Tell us a bit about yourself.

I did a Bachelors and Masters in art history from Baroda. Interestingly, I was one of the few people who actually went to Baroda to do the course — it was not that I had applied elsewhere and not gotten in. Right from my time in school, I was very clear that I wanted to study art history, research, academics, curation, consultancy and so on.

While studying my Bachelors, I was constantly trying to figure out how art is made — if one studies at Baroda and makes good use of the opportunities, it is one of the few places where you have theory and practice happening at parallel within the same campus. You could just walk out of the art history department and into the sculpture department, for instance, and witness the students there making something at their own time and pace; or you could walk into the painting studios and see the artists at work, have a cup of tea and a couple of cigarettes with them, as you conversed about their ongoing artwork. It is a very informal environment and also within it somewhere there is dialogue being pushed.

Another major benefit is that it is a 70-year-old institution, so there is a kind of inherent culture already present within.

Because of this, my approach in terms of art is very hands-on. I am very curious and intrigued about the process of making art, and the thought process that an artist goes through. For instance, I like sitting at studios — literally most of my study years were mostly spent not in the art history department but in the studios of the painting, sculpture and printmaking departments. I would go there with a couple of books I had issued from the library and sit, read, or converse with the artists. I would try to figure out if what I was reading at the time was identifiable within somebody’s practice around me; we would also have group reading sessions.

That was the kind of honing that happened at the college level. Simultaneously, I also initiated my online curatorial activities, starting my own gallery-cum-curatorial space in colleges, at which time I did a couple of shows. Some were great, some not so — we were still students at the time!

Immediately after college I got through to the Khoj programme, where I was a critic-in-residence for Khoj peers 2016. This in some ways was a very important experience as it put me right away into a semi-professional space of sorts within a peer programme. Here we got pretty much all the freedom in the world to do and explore whatever we wanted, but at the same time they are also quite helpful in terms of making sure that there is critical dialogue on the writing taking place. The curatorial team was involved in having discussions with us about what our work is, and it was a nice, nurturing environment, that also gave the experience of the kind of work that happens within professionally run curatorial spaces, non-profit places and so on.

Thereafter, I was at CONA Foundation in Mumbai as a researcher for 6-8 months. I was editing exhibition catalogues, researching about printmaking and actually started the programming of the print studio there that exists till date. We also did a couple of workshops and artist presentations.

At the same time, I curated an exhibition at The Guild Art Gallery in Mumbai, and that is the point when my professional journey began on a serious note.

When you’re in college, you’re still exploring — one tends to dabble in a lot of things. It is only when you’re done with your full-time academic career that you get into a professional space.


What are the inner workings of an artist? What have you discovered?

I was always exposed to art, even when I was growing up, right from my childhood, even though ours was a business family and we don’t have artistic inclinations in the family per se. There was my grandfather\’s elder brother, who wanted to study art and got admission in JJ in the 1930s if I remember right — but fortunately or unfortunately for him, his father shipped him off to study engineering back in the day! My dad is an architect, so he has always encountered art in various projects. There is an invariable interaction that happens between architects and artists and designers. So that is where my exposure came from, looking at a lot of art — but not really much interaction with artists.

Today, having had that interaction, I feel more than a discovery, it has been a silent understanding of the kind of struggles one goes through in the making of art.

Like a lot of people, I also had the misconception that one had to be born an artist to understand art. But, that is one of the first things that break when you enter art school. It is quite a systematic process and this leads you to developing your own (for the lack of a better word) language.

What was exciting for me in the entire six years of studying was understanding the process of every artist — whether conceptual or formal — and understanding the frustrations born out of that process.

These are the things I value the most out of my interactions with artists.


How can you explain to emerging artists what a curator can do for them, to put it simply?

I have a slightly different approach to the entire process of curation, and would rather call what I do exhibition making. I genuinely believe that it is an extremely collaborative process and cannot function in an autocratic manner. Most curators invariably have that side to them — they make certain things very clear or are adamant about them. But exhibition making is by and large a very collaborative process.

At the moment, I am working with other curators to curate exhibitions for my online portal. Even with regard to this, I try to ensure that they have a conversation with the artists involved, and that the artists constantly question the curatorial premise, concept or write-up pitched to them. In fact, if I am working with an artist, I get slightly disappointed if there are no questions about the concept note I send across. When that happens, it makes the entire process much clearer for the artist and the curator as well. It is something that I genuinely look forward to and hope for more questions from artists and the gallery in terms of concept, or how things are going to function. That is where I am actually very curious.

There are no stupid questions. At studios, I find myself asking questions like ‘ye colour kyun use kiya yahaan pe’ (why did you use this colour here)? People don’t realize these seemingly naïve questions have a very deep-rooted significance in terms of the process of the artist. It is not like everything is a metaphor, but for me that process is very important, and leads to a more vibrant dialogue.

Another thing I actually like is studio visits — they are very fun for me! Just yesterday I went for a visit to a multidisciplinary visual artist’s studio in Baroda at 9 am and returned home only at 4 pm. What was supposed to be a one-hour meeting turned into one for 6-7 hours!

I am personally very keen on exhibition features and exhibit features, and it was at this studio visit that I could look at how the artist is working, or what is the process of the artist in making a particular work. This is exciting. And, from within that process, I try to identify certain elements and maybe objects that in some form eventually — redesigned in a way— could become part of the exhibition space itself. For example, at my Guild show, we had used wire mesh mesh as a surface to hang some works of artist Roshan Chhabria, who was working with a bunch of industrial tools and fabricators and metal ‘karigars’. The result was that the entire set of 5-6 drawings ceased to be framed drawings and became an installation of sorts. It changes the dimensions of the work and adds another layer. A lot of this is done involving the artist at various stages, because they also have a certain vision. One tries to recreate an experience of sorts for the viewer, which gives them an insight into the art process I keep talking about.

You can’t, say, expect viewers to go to the karigars and get the artist’s perspective, right? But if you can manage to bring that experience in some way through an element — the presence of the ubiquitous wire mesh in karigar workshops — then it can act as a stimulator of sorts.

Would you agree that the art world is an exclusive club where only a special few are allowed in and a handful of people control what is being said? People say curators write jargon-filled statements or brochures and nobody is the wiser to them. True or an extreme viewpoint?

Do I find a lot of art writing problematic in terms of what I see at exhibition spaces? Yes. But what is problematic is not that it is consciously done to create a club. You have to understand the entire academic practice and entire academic process which is there.

If you look at a lot of art history writing from the 1970s or 1990s, it is extremely dense. There was even a joke that said, “Art history is not written in English; art history is written in art history.” Admittedly, though I have a lot of pride in terms of my vocabulary, there are times when even I am left fumbling for a dictionary or thesaurus at galleries.

I would say this is not a question of it being a club, but on how academics works.

Secondly, how many newspapers, magazines, TV channels and more have a dedicated space for the arts? Forget visual arts, I mean all arts — theatre, music, dance, cinema and more. Usually, art is just clubbed within Page 3 or the entertainment section. We don’t have ample opportunities or spaces, which in some ways promote the cause of the arts or maybe even just talking about them. This is why you automatically find a select few academically inclined people within the premise of the arts.

Also look at the entire history of art education in India. I hate to say this but it was a colonial enterprise.

It also intended to dismantle the notion of indigenous forms of art and impose an idea of craft upon them. You don’t have a lot of writing on art in regional languages, so that amounts to a large section of people excluded. English is not the first or even second language for many people in India. One cannot expect them to read a text.

In terms of exhibition texts in private galleries — these are private spaces and not a lot of people are going to enter them. This does not mean that there is an element of exclusion, but it is just a matter of inclination. Like when going to the cinema hall, you tend to gravitate towards a movie or genre of preference. You may explore, but how often?

There has been a sea change for museums in the last few years but they still focus on the English language. This is a problem by and large. It leads to a lot of people not having access even though they want to. If people like us face trouble understanding art writing and catalogues, imagine what is faced by someone who considers English as their second or third language. This is where the conversation should be directed.


Are curators responsible for creating an otherness? Not all artists are articulate and the curator or art writer is the voice of the artist, which the latter sometimes just goes with. So, whatever is written may not be the complete truth, or may be just a reflection with something else behind it?

There are two sides to this entire thing — writing is certainly a reflection of the person writing it, which is where curators, art writers or art critics come in. But, they are not mouthpieces for artists anyway. They are talking about what they feel about any piece. This is the case in the entire professional practice

The director, actor, storywriter, scriptwriter everyone does their bit and collaborates to come together and tell a story. This is why I exhibition-making is a collaborative process.

Secondly, make a list of the 10 greatest exhibitions that took place in our country in the last 50 years. You could count them on your fingertips. How many of them are by curators and how many by artists? Let us take the Kochi Biennale for example, where all or most of the curators have been artists.

To sum it up, the role of a curator is not to be a spokesperson for an artist or group of artists, nor is this the role of the art writer. Similarly, the role of an artist is not to put forth the vision of a curator or art writer. An artist has their own vision, as do the curator and art writer. It is about how well these elements collaborate — which is why I keep referring to cinema, which is clearly a directly collaborative process. Now, the moment you start looking at exhibition-making from that lens…

Understand this — a gallery going to be involved in terms of space, monetary investment, engaging a lot of public relations activity, engaging with collectors, the media and more. The curator is responsible for engaging with the media, collector and artist; and, the artist is responsible for creating a work, not based on any curator brief, but wholly independent from their own chain of thought, ideas and subject matter. The curator works with their own set of subject matter and interest, as does the gallery. When these entities collaborate, it could be great and healthy, and you will have the finest exhibition — if not, it will fall flat on its face.

In this element of working together, naturally there are differences. But that is the whole point of a creative practice — differences are to be celebrated, not frowned upon. The way you go about it and the element of collaboration is very important. If you look at most successful exhibitions, you realize that collaboration was at its peak and it was all about the parts coming together and functioning smoothly.

For artists from smaller centres, they often have a hard time breaking into the mainstream. There is not much help to them or they are not taken seriously, especially if self taught. Is there enough being done from the curatorial viewpoint to enhance or bring these people up to where they deserve to be seen by the world?

I strongly recommend that you look at the work of Martand Singh and Pupul Jayakar, or even Rajeev Sethi. At one point of time, you had these government initiatives like India Festivals, with huge events happening all over the world wherein tribal and folk art forms of Bharat came to the fore. Post-liberalization, there was an entire phase wherein this kind of activity declined. Singh and Jayakar retired. Nobody else has been able to make that kind of change and impact.

After liberalization, for a period of 15-20 years, we were undergoing a correction. Every industry in the country was adjusting to this new space and way of functioning. It is only from 2010 that you have a lot of activities happening that have very seriously impacted indigenous art forms of this country.

Then, a lot of artists started consciously collaborating with weavers and textile producers and all, like Gauri Gill, who went and collaborated with Warli painters.

Now, you had a bunch of curatorial activity designed around this particular space. This does not mean only exhibition-making, but also research for an exhibition.

However, considering the fact that we have such few public venues, all this takes time.

In my projects, too I have consciously made sure there are some indigenous art forms.

Exhibition making takes a while. If you want a good exhibit, it takes a year to be worthwhile. For instance, one I did in Delhi took 2-3 years. It is not easy getting 70 artists on board and contextualizing those works or putting in that kind of research. For instance, I had books from the 1830s, such as journals of British explorers in India, or a book that had sections printed by the original Gutenberg press. To get all such elements together is a lot of work and takes a while.

One can look at such exhibits like pop-ups being created. They are also important and integral in getting new people to view the arts.

Also, not every exhibit needs to be an event nor does it have to be very academically inclined. A lot of them need to be light enough for people to enjoy — my Guild show was like that, and I remember that the moment anyone entered the hall, they had a smile on their face from ear to ear. This is another pleasure altogether! The critics may not have been happy about it but it is an important aspect of making exhibitions — to put a smile on someone’s face.


There is a view that while we say many contemporary voices in art are coming out now, they have their own language or something uniquely Indian, even in urban centres. There is a collective consciousness or language that is unique to India, which does not reference from the West anymore. Are we free from the shackles of the West, if you look at the progressive voices and influences?

I don’t feel that way. The way I view it goes back to the colonial process — art education as we have it today is courtesy the British. When the progressives were referring to ‘Westerners’ — that is what they saw and that is what their academic grounding was. I would not call it shackles, because if the progressives had not been there, one would not have had an entire section from say, the Baroda school, who would have renegotiated that space.

One of the most important things people forget when we make claims of shackles is that the progressives began studying and practicing in British India. The idea of the colonial enterprise was not there and it was just art education for them.

It is only in post-independence India, with the establishment of a faculty of fine arts at Baroda in 1950, that this rhetoric came about. It was just three years after independence and a brand new institution. From that particular point you see that the academic process took place in that direction, exploring the negotiation of an identity of old versus new, or tradition versus modernity. That need for negotiation and dialogue came about only in post-independence India and was not present pre-independence.

Having said that, I will also say — there were practitioners like Jamini Roy in West Bengal who were already part of looking at indigenous forms, completely merging or rather directing their practice within that space. There are a few like those time and again.

But, the academic pursuit is where the Baroda school makes a lot of difference, as does Shantiniketan.

While we were still under British rule, there was a conscious and constant effort to efforts to decolonize the curriculum. But you have to understand that all these things take time — literally and decades.

This is not a simple equation. One has to undergo a certain process to be able to understand and articulate oneself.

There are more instances we have today, where we feel that a lot of the work we see has a certain independent South Asian or Asian or Indian or indigenous voice. The West likes to keep throwing new terms at us — we were Indians at one point, then became Asians, and now we have become South Asians. It is up to use how we gauge these terms.

Also, we are living in a time where there is a lot of cross-pollination…

Yes, it is very easy for an artist sitting in say Bangladesh to talk about the Syrian refugee crisis, even though it is thousands of kilometers away. But because of the internet, our consciousness is heightened and so is its sensitivity. We could be moved by an episode happening leagues away. But that is also the point — while we are ‘decolonizing’ or finding an indigenous voice, at the very same time, new voices are becoming part of our vocabulary globally. It is very tricky to say something is an indigenous or Indian voice or has Indian-ness, because there is a conscious and constant change in focus.

This is where I feel using terms like decolonization is slightly more impactful, because those are the shackles we were trying to get out of.

If you look at thousands of years of history of this region (depending on whose theory you would like to subscribe to) or of South Asia or India or Bharat, we have always had relations with the world or rather vice versa, and there are so many references to this.

In the 1930s, when archaeologists excavated Pompeii, they found a figurine of the Goddess Lakshmi! This is just one instance of the global outlook South Asia has always had. So, it is not about rejecting a global voice or identity or a modern or contemporary or neo-global or neo-liberal identity. Pick a term you like! It is not about that, but about finding our voice, which was essentially suppressed because of 200 years of colonial rule. That is what we are doing right now and in a lot of ways, successfully.


Some believe we still look to the West. That we do not have, say, a Mona Lisa of our own, something that is thronged by people from all over the world, and we have to go to the Louvre to see it…

One has to understand the Indian market; conversation and dialogue about the art market becomes very important. The Indian art market is not even a sunrise industry. Its annual total market value is $300-500 million, and that is a positive estimation. That figure is what a Sotheby’s or Christie’s does in one night in their annual contemporary art sale.

Why is this happening? It is unfortunate that in a country of a billion people, we don’t even know how many art galleries we have?

The point is of not having the understanding of language, not because it is difficult. Did Pablo Picasso title his paintings in English? No, he did so in Spanish, even though he was living in France. Some art titled in French. And yes, we are talking about a modern artist, not Leonardo da Vinci or something.

So, when do we have artists who are not afraid to title their work in their mother tongues, perhaps providing English translations in brackets if needed. If someone is interested, they can come and ask for details!

Language is the issue, not the market. In the nascent stage we are in, the market does not have the necessary muscle power to change the academics. The academics need to accept this first, and change has to come from within the academic space. It is happening as we speak, but will need lots of time.

Is there an anecdote to illustrate this?

So since I work as an art consultant, I was consulting for someone’s residence in Karnataka, someone in the generations-old farming family business of Byadgi chillies. This man was fairly well-travelled in the country and was trying to professionalize his business. He had met other businessman from other big cities and centres in India, been to their offices and residences. For the first time in his family history, he had hired an architect to design a new house, and did a good job. This is when I was referred to him and he believed he needed art in the new house. As Kannada was his first language, I could not converse with him in English and our conversation was fairly broken and needed a translator. Now, at such times, one realizes the importance of art writing in regional languages.

If I had an art writer who writes about art in Kannada, my work would have become so easy! The moment you have regional language coming in, all regional voices also become part of the mainstream.

Also, what we understand as mainstream is not so. Contemporary art is actually an alternative space. If you look at the larger scope of the art market, out of the aforesaid $500 million, contemporary art takes up an at least 20 per cent tranche. This, I feel, is a very positive figure on a good day. On a bad day, it could be as low as 2 per cent. Modern art is the next major chunk and then antiquities. These things are now available online via various sources.

So coming back to the anecdote, the translator managed to ease communication somewhat, but admittedly, reception of art was not at all a problem in this instance. The buyer was fascinated by a lot of contemporary work; we also went over a lot of traditional pieces like Thanjavur art with gold elements, lots of folk art forms, textile work, wood and stone carvings… Actually, residents of tier 2 and 3 cities have a higher understanding of abstract concepts compared to urban dwellers.

I feel that if one has some command over their mother tongue (since most Indic languages have reference to Sanskrit), or there has been some ritual of going to a place of worship, performing rites, singing folk songs and more — if one has grown up in that culture, it is easier to understand abstract concepts.


How does the process of consulting an individual go?

To take this case for example, he talked to me about his likes and dislikes, interests, background, work — it was a very informal conversation and dialogue, and we shared a lot of images. If something strikes or attracts the person, that is where the conversation begins — if they do not like something, that is also interesting and opens up another dialogue altogether.

At the end of the day, it is about the value of co-existence. If a person does not really like the works put up, that could dissuade them on a permanent basis. It is a collaborative effort, not a negotiation, because someone always leaves a negotiation unhappy.

Could you recommend any artists and art pieces we should look at?

A lot of these are people I have worked with or am working with. Definitely look at the work of Subrat Kumar Behera — one of the most exciting, independent and straightforward voices out there. You can see his work at the Kochi Biennale and other work online, and he is also working on a bunch of other exciting projects online at the moment, including putting up his work at the Zuzeum Art Centre Latvia, which is not something many contemporary Indian artists have achieved. Another artist I strongly recommend looking at is Vishwa Shroff, who is with TARQ in Mumbai. Her vision with drawing is very exciting. There is also Gagan Singh, who I genuinely feel is taking the idea and element of drawing in a very interesting direction, and also Mrugen Rathod.

In terms of sculptural practice there is Rajat Gajjar, who was actually a college batch mate; he has worked as an industrial designer and also a curator. He uses 3D printing as his medium and does some exciting work.

Also, what are you reading right now?

I just got done re-reading Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight by Clifford Geertz; I was also reading Notes on \”Camp\” by Susan Sontag. I re-read a lot these days, have been in that phase. My genre of choice veers to books on drawing and architecture and technology at the moment. I don’t end up reading the books directly, but rather just pick up essays and chapters haphazardly, in quite a non-linear fashion. Some time ago, I was reading the works of Pupul Jayakar, a text on Islamic architecture, and the notes Charles and Ray Eames had written down during their conversation with Jawaharlal Nehru to start the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad — all at the same time.

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