Art in India seems to have come full circle. Not long ago, Indian artists made a beeline to work on art projects on foreign shores, especially the United States and Europe. But in a role reversal of sorts, art centres in India are now offering foreign artists ample opportunities to work and share their experience with their Indian counterparts.
These “art residencies” allow foreign artists to explore the country, to mix freely with the local people, to get a first-hand experience of their life and culture and to paint it.
It goes in the country’s favour that most Westerners feel India is a magical place full of colour and culture.
Says Darrell Roberts, an artist who hails from the US, “It’s people, history and way of life that make India an exotic destination.”
Terming the experience of working in India as unique, he said, “My colour palette changed dramatically. I loved the fact that I got to work not only with a group with artists from Europe, but most importantly, I shared space with Indian artists, which made me see what they were working on and what influenced them.”
Roberts speaks about his Delhi experience: “I got to explore the city with new friends without feeling like I was in a bubble. By working in a different culture I could define how my environment really swayed my artwork. I was tremendously influenced by my walks, photographs that I shot, and the colours that are in the varied architecture in the city that is not so common in the US.”
Amazed by the country’s enormous variety in all spheres, he adds: “Some of the layout is similar to what is in the US. For instance, the metro rail in a large city and rural country areas being less populated.”
The artist, though, admits that he was not at all prepared for the way millions of people in India went about their lives. “The crowds in the streets — everyone walking, driving, riding motorbikes, autorickshaws and going around. And it all seemed to work! In the West, everything is laid out on a strict grid. But then that’s what makes India different and all this also reflects in its art.”
Roberts finds the Indian traditional art quite intriguing and loves miniature paintings. “The great detail and colours fascinated me and I could look at them for hours,” he says.
Over the years, art centres in the country have been drawing a vast number of artists from countries across the world.
A decade ago, Aruna and Shaji Mathew founded the NIV Art Centre in Delhi with a focus on facilitating the advancement of arts. Having a broad vision and outlook on the varied cultural practices, they were particularly interested in plastic and new media arts.
Aruna, director of NIV, says: “We have a vision and determination to build a strong foundation for the young artists. Having hosted three international artist residencies and an equal number of domestic artist residencies annually for the last many years, NIV receives a number of applications from artists across the globe.”
NIV brings under one roof international artist-in-residency programme, individual artist studios with accommodation, twin gallery space for exhibition, theatre, and installation arena and facilities for working in sculpture and ceramics.
Besides, NIV holds residency shows in Delhi’s prestigious galleries, including the Lalit Kala Academy and Visual Art Gallery at the India Habitat Centre. This enables art connoisseurs to view varied works, which, in turn, benefits the artists.
Studio Verve in Ahmedabad uses a similar concept, with individual studio space for visual artists looking for a short-term stay to work and at the same time interact with other artists.
Comprising studios reserved for foreign nationals, Verve connects artists from various genres and fosters cross-cultural dialogue, seeking to make an impact on local and global communities and transforming society. Its Residence Fellowship Programme is open to artists for a period of 15 days to three months.
The studios conduct exhibitions of paintings, sculptures and installations, providing a common platform for artists to showcase their art, hold camps with lectures and organise presentations and workshops for art students.
It is a space for artists to work, talk and meet, and facilitates greater communication with galleries, buyers, collectors and critics.
Spanish artist Montse Caraballo Caro, who attended an Indian residency, says the experience was like having a small multicultural family. “The experience of working in a new environment, which is so different from mine, has always been positive. Knowing another culture certainly brings new insights into my work,” she adds.
On how she related to the cultural differences between Spain and India, Caraballo says: “The differences are enormous, yet one can find plastic similarities in architecture, fashion and painting. I come from a city that enjoys a lot of Baroque and surprisingly, I discovered Baroque elements in the culture of Delhi as well.”
The coexistence of many traditional artistic styles in the city fascinated her the most. “The colours, sounds, smell and everything else influence the perception of art. For instance, if we change the location of any temple in Delhi, its perception would change completely.”
The artist says there are important differences between India and her country and this is reflected in the way of living, food and mobility.
Foreign artists doing residencies in India are often pleasantly surprised by the shift that emerges in their works. They find infrastructure facilities here as good as in European countries. Those who weave in colours, textures and vibrancy in their work say India meets their aesthetic needs with its vibrant and all-absorbing lifestyle.
From its modest beginnings in 1997 the Khoj International Artists Association has built an international reputation through its residency programme.
Considered one of the country’s oldest residency spaces, Khoj has discovered and pooled an international community of topmost contemporary artists. It claims to have drawn several artists from countries such as the US, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Mexico, Thailand, Korea, Brazil and Argentina.
For artists from across the world, the key to evolution is mobility and the India experience engrosses them.
Nilima Pathak is a journalist based in New Delhi.