A Not-So-Fine Fair

January 15, 2009

One of the many pleasures of being in Baroda is being able to visit the annual fair organized by the Fine Arts Faculty of the Maharaja Sayajirao University (MSU). Like most other public universities of repute in India, MSU too has been in a state of decline for many years now: falling standards, poor infrastructure, and overall neglect. A shining jewel in this otherwise effete crown, is the Faculty of Fine Arts.

The Fine Arts Faculty at Baroda has been home to some of the greatest luminaries of Indian art: N.S. Bendre, Sankho Chaudhuri, Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh, Bhupen Khakkar, K.G. Subramanyam, Vivan Sundaram, Rekha Rodwittiya and many many others (among them I should mention one of my favourite artists, the late Nasreen Mohamedi). Over the years, the Faculty has attracted thousands of young artists from far corners of India and indeed the world. The annual fair of the Faculty, then, is an opportunity for students and teachers (some of the finest in India) to showcase their best. Not surprisingly, its an event many Barodians eagerly look forward to each year.

I was, therefore, thrilled to learn that the fair this year happened to be when I was on a brief visit to Baroda. On the whole, it was great to attend the fair after a gap of 10 years. Together with two close friends, one of whom is an alumna of the department from its heyday, we checked out the usual mix of paintings, sculptures, street performances, and crafts including bookmarks, calendars, t-shirts and little trinkets of all kinds. A few paintings and installations that caught my eye:

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It has to be said that on the whole the fair was quite disappointing in terms of the quality of art work. What was on offer was very loud, swinging between the tastelessly showy to the utterly clichéd. There seemed to have been a greater emphasis by students to peddle “craftsy” stuff, presumably in order to boost sales; a dull ordinariness pervaded most of it. Even so, I had to turn away in horror upon encountering little kitsch terracotta Ganeshas, in a form that was more reminiscent of a railway platform than a premier fine arts school. Often, what’s missing reveals more than what’s on offer; very little was imbued with ingenuity, boldness, novelty, a sense of adventure – qualities that, one might expect, typify fledgling artists. Agreed this was a fair and not an exhibition, but as someone who has seen numerous such fairs in the past, this one was eminently forgettable.

Talking of forgetting, the most lamentable aspect was the extraordinary display of collective amnesia regarding the unfortunate events of 2007 at the faculty. This, after all, is the same faculty where in 2007 a bunch of worthless twits (honorifically referred to as right-wing Hindu fanatics, Hindu fascists, BJP/VHP etc. etc.) in collusion with a dunce of an ex-vice-chancellor, roughed-up a hapless arts student for painting “objectionable” pictures, had him arrested, closed down a a silent protest exhibition, which in the words of Ranjit Hoskote,

“celebrate the sensuous and the passionate dimensions of existence – which, in the Hindu world-view, are inseparably twinned with the austere and the contemplative.”

The then-dean of the faculty, Dr. Shivaji Panikker, was suspended (and c0ntinues to be so, I’m told). The issue might be old but the threat to freedom of expression, the threat of censorship never yields. A little remembrance of things past, a little more spine from young artists would not have been remiss.

What lingered with me long after the fair, was its setting: an interesting admixture of dust from the maidan, the light from naked bulbs hanging tenuously from gaunt wires, an unrelenting buzz from a distant DG set (a diesel generator for uninterrupted power supply) and sounds from thousands of people mingling together over works of art. And here comes the redeeming part: where else would one find thousands upon thousands of people of all manner, out on a January evening, sampling Art?