GIRIDHAR KHASNIS, September 04, 2016
Seated in her studio-gallery on Advocate Chinna Tambi Street, Kirti Chandak, 45, sips green tea with self-made ragi cookies. Cheerful and lively, the visual artist doubles up as a curator, gallerist, activist and environmentalist.
Kirti has lived almost all her life in Pondicherry (renamed ‘Puducherry’ in September 2006; but everyone calls it ‘Pondy’). She speaks many languages (Sanskrit, Marathi, Rajasthani, Tamil, Gujarati, Bengali, Hindi, English and French); and rides her scooter (“my horse!”) with aplomb.
“Pondy is an interesting place for creative pursuits,” says Kirti who was instrumental in setting up two organisations: Shilpataru Foundation in 2007 (she is its managing trustee), and Tasmai, a centre of art and culture, in 2013. “There are many young, talented artists here. Through Shilpataru and Tasmai, we want to create a platform as well as a support system for them. Our mission is to see that artists are treated with dignity, and sustained financially.”
Kirti’s fine credentials include BFA in painting (Santiniketan/1997); and MFA (M S University, Baroda/1999). An arts scholarship took her to Paris in 1999. On return, she received the Junior Fellowship from the Ministry of Culture (2000-2002); and the prestigious Pollock-Krasner Foundation grant from New York (2003). She paints and exhibits regularly; her recent solo in April at Jahangir Art Gallery, Mumbai, was titled Soliloquies. “Painting for me is a meditative act,” she says.
Architecturally, Tasmai (located some 700 metres from Sri Aurobindo Ashram) is uniquely designed with open-to-sky niches, a lotus pond and unpolished granite stairways complementing each other. It houses Kirti’s personal studio, a high-ceiling exhibition gallery, and separate functional space for workshops, meetings and film screenings. “If in Pondicherry, Tasmai should be in the top 3 of your itinerary for the day around the heritage precinct,” writes an elated visitor on tripadvisor.
A highlight of Tasmai’s construct is its elaborate and eye-catching grillwork. It was young artist D Saravana who transformed Kirti’s intricate designs into an attractive metal tapestry. Interestingly, nothing but scrap material was used in its creation. An erstwhile worker in a nondescript welding workshop, Saravana thanks Kirti not only for her encouragement, but also for guiding him to become a full-fledged metal sculptor.
It is Saravana who rides me on his motorcycle to Auroville (about 15 km from Pondy) to meet 66-year old German painter Juergen Puetz with whom he is jointly holding a month-long exhibition at Gallery Square Circle. It is quite fascinating to see Puetz’s evocative abstract paintings displayed side-by-side Saravana’s ingeniously crafted metal sculptures.
“I came to Auroville in 1973 and got involved with several water conservation and regeneration projects here,” recalls Puetz. “Although my involvement with the art world was deep, I started painting with renewed vigour only in 2011, inspired mainly by the teachings of Ramana Maharshi. I find painting abstracts to be spiritually enriching. In my work I employ all kinds of material... oil, acrylic and glass paint; colour pigments; oxides; Arabic gum, and even soil collected from different locations of Auroville and the Arunachala.”
As we converse, we are joined by two other Aurovillians: Audrey Wallace-Taylor and Nele Martens. In her studio which we visit later, 83-year-old Audrey tells me about her growing up as a child in Southern California; and her travels across India, Russia, England and Ireland before settling in Auroville in 2007. “After painting professionally for years, now my work has become an exploration into what illuminates my spiritual path,” she says, while showing off her free-flowing abstract canvases which bear the marks of rollers, sprays, sponges and brushes. Audrey is delighted when I call her ‘Miss California’; even at her age, she finds time and energy to manage a cooperative art studio, give workshops, and participate in the wider community at Auroville.
Nele Martens too has been a long-term resident of Auroville, but retains her German passport. Striding effortlessly on her sturdy mobike, she shuttles between her beautifully designed home and two studios. Trained under reputed German and Italian sculptors, and adept at working with different mediums — canvas, ceramic, plexiglass, wood, and metal — Nele is both versatile and prolific. Her work explores subjects related to light, movement, transparency, inner and outer space. Dotting the green lawns of her cheerful home are colourful kinetic sculptures swaying to the rhythm of gently blowing wind.
Our next stop in Auroville is Mandala Pottery, established 22 years ago and famed for its production of a wide range of functional tableware, assorted ceramic items, architectural murals and installations. Here we meet Adil Writer, who joined Mandala as a partner in 2001. Trained as an architect at J J College of Architecture, Mumbai and University of Houston, Texas, USA, Adil came to Pondy first for a short-term course in clay work in 1998. Today, he is one the best-known names in Indian ceramics; his work being exhibited across the world. His latest project — a collaboration with veteran artist and printmaker Laxma Goud — resulted in a set of exquisite sculptures which was shown at Mumbai’s Pundole Art Gallery in April-May this year.
Adil tells us how he learnt the intricacies of ceramic art at the Golden Bridge Pottery (GBP), Pondy. Established 45 years ago by the American couple Ray Meeker and his wife Deborah Smith, GBP was the first dynamic workshop to make glazed stoneware pottery by hand in South India. Over time, it played a pivotal role in promoting studio pottery widely; as importantly, it produced some of the best contemporary ceramists and professional studios in the country through a rigorous and disciplined teaching programme. It is no wonder that many of their highly talented and successful students have retained a warm connection with Meeker, Deborah and GBP.
Anyone visiting Pondy should make it a point to call on Meeker and Deborah’s private gallery located near the Alliance Francaise. The building sports no signboards and the gallery itself can be visited only with appointment. When I visited it on a cloudy morning, I had no formal appointment. The Rene Magritte image on my visiting card perhaps did the trick and I was allowed in without a fuss. Meeker refused to settle for any impromptu tête-à-tête, but graciously allowed me to take a leisurely look at the magnificent artworks of the couple and GBP’s former students in the tastefully designed gallery. In a further friendly gesture, he gave me a few elegantly produced catalogues, a treasure by themselves. The incredible journey and enormous contributions of Ray Meeker, Deborah Smith and GBP can be glimpsed in their highly educative website: www.raymeeker.com
More gallery visits
Continuing my art tour, I visit the sprawling Ashram Exhibition Hall on the Beach Road where a show of tempera and watercolour paintings of Italian artist, architect and set designer Paolo Tommasi is on. The 88-year old artist, whose father was deported and killed in a concentration camp during the World War, reportedly arrived in Pondy in 1966 and came into contact with the Mother; two years later, he was energetically participating in the establishment of Auroville. It is interesting to see Tommasi (who now spends much of his time in Pondy) exploring themes which have spiritual/mythical connotations in his paintings.
A stone’s throw from Beach Road is Kalinka Art Gallery, owned and managed by Karine Pelade, a cheerful art aficionado, who in her previous avatar was a practising lawyer for over a decade in Paris. She tells me that her first visit to Pondy in 2009 was to participate in a dance workshop in Auroville. For the next six years she came to Pondy every year; and last year she opened Kalinka. Although relatively new, the gallery has already made its mark by hosting interesting exhibits and drawing up a calendar of shows with Indian and European artists. Karine is hopeful that in the course of time Kalinka would be able to play its role not only as a commercial gallery space, but also as a creative bridge connecting various artists and art communities of Pondy and Auroville.
Given its size and physical structure, it is not difficult to meet and interact with a variety of artists and art promoters in Pondy. Inviting me to her roof top café, Kasha Vande speaks excitedly about Pondy ART, an ongoing platform for public art, that she initiated a few years ago. Having grown up in Upstate New York and trained as an architect, Kasha chose to settle down in Pondy in 2001 as an entrepreneur with varied business interests; her most prominent venture is ‘Kasha Ki Aasha’, a boutique and vegetarian café on Surcouf Street.
Kasha was also the brain behind PondyPHOTO 2014, a 10-day event which featured as many as 22 exhibits, along with a clutch of concurrent workshops, performances and panel discussions.The main venue of the mega photo-fest, quite interestingly, was not a high profile gallery but the Old Distillery, a dilapidated and almost forgotten structure on the edge of Beach Road. Kasha recalls vividly all the trials and tribulations of putting up a show of this nature and scale in a place like Pondy, but smiles happily at the end result and experience gained. “The greatest success of the exhibition was the variety of people who came to look at the photographs in an otherwise disused building,” she beams. “Rickshawallahs, ashramites, diplomats, students, housewives, government officials, fishermen, children... they all came individually and with families. Watching them all was a great feeling.”
The second edition of PondyPHOTO (August 27 through September 11, 2016) is currently underway, with a larger repertoire of documentary and fine art photographers taking part. The theme of this edition is ‘Water’. Interactive installations, educational workshops, screening of international documentary and feature films, and street art exhibitions are all part of PondyPHOTO 2016. The main venue? The Old Port, another disused and derelict building in Pondy! (Check out details on www.pondyphoto.com)
So, a lot seems to be happening on the Pondy and Auroville art scene, but beneath the shimmering surface, not everything is hunky-dory. Some cracks within the art community are discernible with a fair bit of personal egos and snide innuendos floating around. More worrisome are fundamental and structural problems. “The government does not take art and culture seriously,” says an observer. “Its initiatives like the Crafts Bazaar (opposite the Gandhi Thidal) and Crafts Village (near the Chunnambar Boat House) have come a cropper. The upkeep of the government museum is pathetic. No dedicated spaces or initiatives to promote visual art and culture are forthcoming.”
Another serious issue relates to education and training. “The whole world knows Pondicherry and Auroville as centres for ceramics, but where are the facilities to train young ceramists?” asks Adil Writer. “With GBP having slowed down, there is practically nothing else. Every day, I receive calls and requests from people who want to come, learn and train ‘under’ me, but I have to say no because Mandala is not a coaching centre. We are a production unit and art studio with no facilities to teach.
In any case, I break rules most of the time, and if someone comes here, s/he should first know the rules before I can help break them! Ray, Deborah and GBP literally pushed us under fire and made us what we are today. Forget that kind of passion, even rudimentary facilities to train youngsters are lacking now.” (As an aside, Adil voices another complaint. “People club us into ‘Pondy’, which I am not thrilled about,” he says. “We pride ourselves as Auroville artists, not Pondicherians.”)
Gubendhiran K, a young artist who in minutes can convert a heap of sand into an attractive sculpture, says that he literally ran away from Pondy to Bangalore to study painting at Karnataka Chitrakala Parishat. “Total waste,” is how he describes his stint at the arts college in Pondy (Bharathiar Palkalai Koodam). Gubendhiran hails from a large fishermen family (“My father is 80; still he is out on the high sea every morning! My mother sells fish in the market...”); he shuttles between two cities, but it is Bangalore which gets him commissioned work, and hence some money.
The art market is another area of serious concern for artists working here. Karine seems a bit more optimistic, but Kirti and Adil do not mince words. “There is money for everything else,” observes Kirti, “but when it comes to supporting art and artists, people become tightfisted here.” Adil agrees. “We do have some galleries in Pondy which put up good shows. People come, admire, smile, and socialise, but do they buy? Mostly not. Artists from Pondy and Auroville invariably have to go outside to market their works.”
So, on the whole, how does the art scene in Pondy and Auroville look like today? Quite evidently, there is a rich reservoir of talent flourishing in several nooks and corners. Some cracks notwithstanding, there is also an overriding spirit of camaraderie among several artists and groups, which is heartening and augurs well for the future. Events such as PondyPHOTO would go a long way in drawing not just local, but national (and even international) attention.
If one were to look at the larger picture, in the last decade, apart from big ticket art activities in Delhi and Mumbai, there have been several encouraging developments taking place in relatively smaller locales. Kochi has surely taken the lead with its amazing Biennale. Goa is also making inroads, thanks to its art museums, residencies, and literary/art/photo festivals. (A major folk art museum, according to the grapevine, is also in the making). The question is: can the Pondy-Auroville combo be the next one to turn the Wheel?