N Pushpamala

Arts Practice
2016-2017

Grant Period: Over six months

This grant supports Bangalore-based visual artist N Pushpamala to organise an international seminar on K Venkatappa, a seminal figure from Karnataka in early modern Indian art, to be held in Bangalore in November, 2016.

Since 1996, when Pushpamala built her studio in Bangalore, she has been thinking about creating a platform to discuss the work of Venkatappa. While the community of artists in Bangalore at that time was active in collaborating, organising arts spaces and residencies, Pushpamala found that there was a lack of intellectual discourse and discussions on art. She started organising various events in order to open up the space for dialogue, and soon her studio which came to be named as Somberikatte (Idlers’ Platform, in Kannada) soon became a hub for artists and scholars. The idea of organising a discussion on Venkatappa had germinated then, but could never take shape. The recent protests by artists against the government’s move to allow the takeover of the Venkatappa Art Gallery (VAG) by a corporate house, brought several visual artists under a common group called the VAG Forum. This triggered the old idea and she felt that given the current political and cultural situation, a seminar on Venkatappa would be of absolute significance now. Hence she approached IFA with a proposal.

K Venkatappa (1886 – 1965) was the first modern artist in the Karnataka region. Hailing from the traditional Chitrakaar family of traditional palace painters, he did his early studies in the Chamarajendra Technical Institute in Mysore. He later went to the Madras College of Art and then, on a scholarship from the Mysore Maharaja, to the Calcutta School of Art to study under Abanindranath Tagore. There he was assigned a key role in the nationalist interpretation of traditional aesthetics and he joined Nandalal Bose to illustrate for Abanindranath’s treatise on Indian aesthetics – the Shadanga. He later came back to Mysore and worked as an ‘independent intellectual artist’. His paintings were predominantly in watercolour, in contrast to a popular movement in the Mysore court towards oils following the influence of Ravi Varma.   

As one of the early protagonists of the movement, Venkatappa’s life and his large body of work offers a lens through which the history of early artistic modernism and modernity as a sociological phenomenon can be critically revisited, Pushpamala believes. However, despite Venkatappa’s stature and the significance of his work, currently there is limited research and scholarship on him. Apart from a few essays and monographs, there has been no major art historical study on him and his context. He remains a minor figure in the dominant art history of the country, which is mostly restricted to, as Pushpamala says, ‘the history of the Gangetic plain’. The ignored narrative of Venkatappa is also the unexplored history of early modernism in Karnataka and a big gap, in the history of Indian art.

This international seminar will attempt to create a rich tapestry of research, debate and discourse around the life and work of Venkatappa, locating him in his contemporary context. It will examine the various bodies of Venkatappa’s work, their aesthetic innovations, flaws and contradictions; as well as explore his eccentricities, austerities and interests. It will also study his influence on later generations. This is the first major attempt to seriously historicise the advent of modernity in art in Karnataka by focusing on the figure of Venkatappa, thus engaging the early modern period via our current location in history. By studying a figure who is both national and regional, cosmopolitan and rooted, Pushpamala hopes to make more complex the history of early modern art, and therefore, of early modernity both in terms of the regional and the national.

The speakers for this seminar have been carefully chosen so as to bring prismatic perspectives on Venkatappa with each paper illuminating a different aspect or argument about his work. Discussions will also explore the various ideas that formed the early modernity of this region. A tentative list of speakers include Partha Mitter, R Sivakumar, Parul Dave Mukherjee, Janaki Nair, R Nandakumar, Ajay Sinha, Shukla Sawant, Raghavendra Kulkarni, Suresh Jayaram, Srujana Kaikini and Abhishek Hazra.

Pushpamala will put together a small team that will help her organise the seminar. Intensive publicity through press and social media will ensure outreach to the broader arts community, especially students in arts colleges across Karnataka. The seminar will take place on November 26 and 27, 2016 at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Bangalore. A few performances that are part of the seminar will take place at the Venkatappa Art Gallery.

The deliverables from this grant to IFA will be seminar papers of all the speakers and video documentation of the entire seminar. The seminar papers will also be translated and made available in Kannada very shortly.