By Vinay Seth
Back-to-back schedule: A lucky coincidence for Delhi art lovers!
Anahita Taneja, Director of Shrine Empire Gallery, informed me that the Delhi Art Week and the Delhi Contemporary Art Week being back-to-back affairs this year was a lucky coincidence. “Bikaner House needed to be booked months in advance, and we had no idea that we would get scheduled right after the Delhi Art Week.” This coincidence, though, is a lucky opportunity for Delhi’s art lovers, as it gives them a wide window of two weeks to witness exhibitions from various art galleries in the city, showcasing varied contemporary artists from across the country.
Ridhi Bhalla, co-founder of gallery Blueprint 12, informed me that the DCAW used to be held in the last week of August since the beginning, except in 2020 when it didn’t take place due to the Pandemic, and in 2021 when it was preponed owing to the disruption in schedules by the lockdowns.
DCAW: Pre-pandemic solidarity still going strong
When I came across the Delhi Art Week’s website, I found that the Delhi Contemporary Art Week (DCAW) was mentioned there as a participant last year. So I assumed that the former was either a subsidiary of the same, or had started at the same time.
Neither of these assumptions was true though, as informed to me by Anahita Taneja. She explained that the Delhi Contemporary Art Week was actually started first, and has been in existence since 2017, way before the Pandemic. It was called the Delhi Contemporary Art Weekend at that time, and was a 4-day affair (including the preview day). The DCAW galleries — 6 in number at the time — had exhibited in The Claridges Hotel in 2017. Over time the number of participating galleries has grown to to 7.
While talking to Anahita, I learned that the idea was to bring the gallery-hopping experience into a single space. Apart from the Claridges, DCAW has taken place in the India Habitat Centre in the past, and this time around shall take place in the Bikaner House for the second time in a row. The fourth, post-pandemic edition of the DCAW was held in Bikaner House in 2021, and turned out to be very successful, according to Anahita. Hence, the galleries decided to continue exhibiting in Bikaner House this year as well.
Ridhi informed me that the overarching goal of DCAW is to showcase artists from the South Asian region.
DAW: Competitors collaborating during the Pandemic, starting from a Whatsapp group
The Delhi Art Week (Delhi Art Week), comprising a large number of art galleries and organizations — over 40 in the maiden edition in 2021 alone — began amidst the lockdown situation, over a Whatsapp group! In a MASH Mutters podcast, the core team members got together to explain how and why the initiative started. I learned from this conversation that during the COVID lockdown, many art gallerists got together to create a Whatsapp group for Indian art galleries, since they were not able to meet each other physically.
Amidst the cancellation of the India Art Fair, which generally takes place from January-end to February-beginning, it was through virtual viewings and collaborations that art galleries were operating in Delhi. Gallerists were in touch with each other virtually, and this spirit of collaboration led to the build-up that culminated in the massive undertaking in the form of DAW. One of the now-core team members visited a fellow gallerist last February, when lockdown rules were relaxed, and came up with the idea of inter-gallery collaboration for Delhi, on the spot. They spontaneously made a whatsapp message and sent it to the Whatsapp group. Finally, in a very short period of time, they held the very first edition of the Delhi Art Week that April. The Delhi Art Weeks was thus born out of a pandemic-driven bonhomie among competitor-colleagues, in a domain with high stakes yet great need for collaboration. On core team member commented in the podcast, “We are all one; let’s hold hands, let’s get together, let’s do our own thing, but let’s put it all together.” Another member stated the defining values of the Delhi Art Week are, “Community, healthy ecosystem, momentum.”
Delhi Art Scene: Continued resilience amidst COVID scare
When probed about the sales and footfall for DCAW ’21, two gallerists and a curator informed me that there was a renewed fervour last year, followed by an unfortunate slump during the closing days, owing to the Delta variant rise in April 2021. As per both Anahita Taneja and Ridhi Bhalla, the edition saw a surprisingly high attendance — that followed COVID precautions — despite the COVID Delta variant scare.
Shristi Sainani, an independent curator working for Gallerie Nvya for the Delhi Art Week 2022, informed me that for Gallerie Nvya, during the first edition of DAW, “Because of the buzz, 50 people came for the preview itself — a very good number considering the slump in the art audience at the time due to the various pandemic shutdowns. Thereupon, 5-10 people visited every day,” with each spending a lot of time viewing the works, as well as interacting with the gallerists seated there. Not only was the footfall healthy, but so were the sales, “There were 4 sales on the first day itself!” Anahita Taneja had also told me something similar about the footfall for her gallery’s DCAW participation, “We witnessed a lot of footfall for the first 2 days.”
Unique curatorial approach
The programming of the exhibits at both the Art Weeks is an ingenious one, bringing together varied galleries, while at the same time being responsive to the need for an individual approach by each. Ridhi Bhalla informed me that for DCAW, the entire CCA (Centre for Contemporary Art) building of Bikaner House has been booked for individual exhibits by the 7 galleries, while at the same time the old building gallery shall be dedicated to a group show, curated by art writer-curator Meera Menezes, with selected artists from each of the galleries. So, a conglomeration of group shows by 7 galleries shall be showcased in one building, while the gallery of another will be dedicated to a group show bringing together artists from across these galleries! An interesting configuration indeed, enticing one to look forward to the meaning-makings that could emerge from the viewership to follow.
While the Delhi Contemporary Art Week takes place in a single location, the Delhi Art Week is an event where various galleries participate during a shared time, with exhibitions going on in their own respective space. The synchronous occurrence is aimed at inviting art lovers to experience various galley exhibitions during one time period.
Opportunity for young curators to showcase their flair, and also for young artists to exhibit alongside established ones
With more than 40 art galleries and organisations taking part in the Art Weeks, young curators get a good space for showcasing their unique curatorial approach at established galleries.
Shristi Sainani, curating for Gallerie Nvya for the the DAW, has chosen a poem, ‘Threadsuns’, by the poet of German language who wrote under the pseudonym ‘Paul Celan’, as the curatorial theme for this edition. The show shall entail an interesting mix of senior artists such as Sohan Qadri and Mona Rai, mid-career artists such as Manish Pushkale and emerging artists such as Murari Jha and Jithin Jayakumar. Not only will the show display works by artists at different stages of their career, but it will also showcase a display of works made out of different mediums, some in ceramic, some in paper, and some even in new media, such as a piece by Mrudula Kunatharaju.
DCAW vs. IAF: Two different poetics
While the India Art Fair is a ginormous, glamorous affair, the poetics of the exhibition space could feel a bit restrictive because of the uniform squarish exhibition booth for each gallery. “When I was curating for Gallerie Nvya’s show for the DCAW, I was curating as per the gallery space’s poetics.” says Shristi. Gallerie Nvya itself is located in different outlets. Shristi is curating for their Saket gallery. She stresses that when she is curating for a distinct gallery space, as opposed to a uniform Art Fair booth, she needs to respond to what she refers to as the unique “spatial aesthetics”.
India Art Fair and Delhi Art Week are experientially different. Shristi commented, “While the India Art Fair is more about the sales, and confined to the booth, the Delhi Art Weeks are more about the experience.” She further added, “Also, after 2 days, it gets slightly overwhelming.” With the Delhi Art Week, one can not only experience various gallery exhibitions, curated in accordance with the unique spatial poetics of each gallery, but, according the Shristi, also “experience the city via gallery-hopping” across different locales.
And while the Art Fair is organised for 3 days, the additional 4 days — 5, if we count the preview day — of each Art Week lend it a more relaxed atmosphere. Anahita informed me that at the DCAW last year, “the visitors were very openly talking to the curators and gallerists at the Bikaner House.” Both Anahita and Shristi said that the Art Weeks, spread out over many days, give the viewer a relaxed environment to view and appreciate artworks, while also allowing them to candidly interact with the gallerists and curators. While the India Art Fair brings together galleries on a monumental scale, the Delhi Art Weeks, though similarly massive undertakings, imbue the art gallery experience with a more intimate engagement.
A good time for outreach activities and performances
The Art Weeks are also a good time to host parallel outreach events, such as talks and workshops, along with performances. “This year, we have a performance artist as part of our exhibition,” says Shristi from Gallerie Nvya.
Ridhi states that the DCAW “is a week-long event that has many parallels such as art talks, curatorial walks, workshops and other outreach programmes under one roof!” Anahita informed me that planned workshop and talks for the DCAW had to be cancelled last year due to another lockdown imposed due to the Delta variant in April. This time around though, such activities shall hopefully take place, with the lockdown slumps seemingly a thing of the past. For the Delhi Art Week as well, while the Pandemic had given birth to solidarity among competitors, this year shall give a better idea of the impact of outreach initiatives, as last year the sales and footfall were affected by the sudden onslaught of the Delta variant-related lockdown.
Collaboration: The way forward for the Indian contemporary art scene!
The one thing in common among all the gallerists I spoke to, was that both these Art Weeks were an attempt to bring together dispersed art galleries in Delhi, inspired by co-ordination between Mumbai galleries. When the From the MASH podcast I learned that when the Art Week planning was going on, the Mumbai Gallery Weekend for the year had got planned. The Delhi Art Week team were inspired by the Mumbai Gallery Weekend — an initiative started in 2012 — to have something like it for Delhi. This sentiment was shared by the DCAW organisers as well. Anahita, of Shrine Empire, had told me, “Unlike in Mumbai, where a lot of art galleries happen to be located in the small space of Colaba, and other areas nearby, Delhi’s art scene is spread across a wide area.” In fact, in order to make the navigating experience easier for viewers, the Delhi Art Week Team has divided the city into 4 zones, spread across central and south Delhi.
As per Ridhi, collaboration is the way forward and “the synergy works so well that each one only benefits with the joint effort.” And what’s fascinating is that this collaboration doesn’t lie inside of just one endeavour such as the Delhi Contemporary Art Week, but also exists among the different endeavours as well. The DCAW galleries shall also be exhibiting as part of the DAW, in their respective gallery spaces. Ridhi urged that both the Weeks should be considered as important initiatives expanding the Delhi, as well as the South Asian art scene, “While DAW was much needed to map the Delhi Art Scene, DCAW is an annual programming kickstarted by 7 South Asian contemporary galleries.”
The Delhi art scene already seems to be bigger in volume than its Mumbai cousin. But will the Delhi Art Weeks be able to make it even bigger in terms of impact? This remains to be seen. Also, while the Delhi Art Week is a gigantic collaboration, what intrigued me was that its 4 zones covered only the central and south area of the city. Could the buzz created by initiatives such as the Art Weeks help expand the art gallery footprint in the city beyond the hallowed socializing zones of central and south Delhi?
The Delhi Art Week takes place from 24th August to 31st August ‘22, while the Delhi Contemporary Art Week is to be held from 31st August to 7th September ‘22.