Hyderabad: London-based art expert Dr Cleo Roberts-Komireddi has a strong India, and in particular Hyderabad, connection, through marriage with the author and critic Kapil Komireddi, but her interest in art from Asia at large, and specifically India, stretches further back.
This interest pushed her to undertake her PhD in 2013, a joint project between the universities of Liverpool and Jadavpur in Kolkata with a research stint at Cambridge, on Indian arts.
“My first trip had me travelling straight away to Kolkata for my research,” said Dr Roberts-Komireddi, on a Zoom call from her London home-office. “I was struck by the proliferation of art and artists and at Jadavpur my colleagues combined exceptional intelligence with artistic inclinations. I spent the next three years visiting India, with a base in Delhi, but traveling to Goa, with a strengthening interest in contemporary art.”
“I value rigour, and so to further my understanding of art away from libraries and archives, I began working with the School of Design, Sushant University, Delhi. We organised an art exhibition at one of Delhi’s most prominent malls, Select CityWalk. It was an unusual context, with the work shown right in the centre so no one could miss it. The exhibition closed with an awards ceremony where the prizes were judged by a board of artists, academics and curators from England and India. I’m interested in the possibility of bridging art worlds and creating visibility for artists in a field that is dominated by the markets overseas,” she said.
Before she went back to England to finish her PhD, Dr Roberts-Komireddi met several artists in India, including Nikhil Chopra at his performance residency space, Heritage Hotel. On returning home, she began chronicling her observations and interactions, and writing about Indian arts and artists.
The intense writing resulting from conversations and interactions led to a mission to help make art more accessible, and increase awareness of art among non-specialist audiences. She began reaching out to artists across south Asia, which she described as “an exciting and varied art scene but sadly and mystifyingly not necessarily as well known in the west.”
How is South Asian and Indian art different, what are its peculiar characteristics, I ask. It is for instance, more political, I offer to point out.
“I have always been struck by how politically aware people in India are. The artists here are unapologetically engaged either with politics directly, or with how it influences or affects the lives of people. But when you try to understand or study contemporary Indian art and artists, however tempting, it is unproductive and artificial to try to find a single grand common theme. Artists are individuals after all,” she reflected.
“They have a holistic view of the world and are often critical about the workings of the world, but there is more to their art than politics or a solitary specific theme,” she explains.
Expounding on the evolution of Indian art, she says, “the art before Independence was predominantly shaped by pressure from a colonial sense of aesthetics. And Indian—or so-called ‘native’—artists were, in the large part, undervalued. The slew of Company School images without a named artist speaks to this. In Kolkata, Rabindranath and Abanindranath Tagore recognized that artistic agency, and recognition had to be fought for. And so ‘The Bengal School’ reclaimed Indian culture and creativity. We can see that this was a precursor to post-independence art, which would bring out aspirations of a new nation. Today, Indian art continues to thrive.”
Isn’t art rather abstract and elite? Does it have any meaning or pragmatic purpose, I quiz. She acknowledges the perception of art as a somewhat elitist preoccupation.
“Art needs certain resources at your disposal, including financial soundness. For a young person to go to an art school, he or she needs a certain financial ability. But art and creativity are important for every individual. For humanity as a whole, historically art has mattered. There’s been a visceral human need to be creative, whether it is a tool for social cohesion in the Upper Paleolithic or used to articulate faith. Artists are indispensable for their ability to expose the cracks and gaps in society and to bring them to the public’s notice. I tend to think that artists think sideways. Of course, it is important to make efforts to enhance engagement with art and make it reach, and speak to, more people.”
Speaking of her own preferences, Dr Roberts-Komireddi says, “I enjoy art which sees and projects stories we miss, work that supplies provocative ideas and draws out different ways of understanding the world. This isn’t to say I don’t find pleasure in art works that are, in my opinion, aesthetically beautiful.”
Her own role, she sees as straddling two diverse positions; where on one dimension she tries to understand art and artists, and strives to penetrate their abstract theoretic language, and on the other, to make it easily available to people.
“India is such a visually complex and rich country. And in its diverse images, which can cut across a formidable range of barriers, art is a great unifier,” she explains.
Currently, besides her podcasts on Asian art (@artworldspodcast), she is involved with the Museum of Art and Photography in Bengaluru who are compiling an innovative new encyclopedia of Indian art. As a member of the advisory board for the project, she is aiding the ambitious task of creating a compilation in simple language of an otherwise unfathomable volume of information on Indian art.
“It’s a challenge but perhaps the biggest challenge and most exciting part remains informing people about how important art can be, how intrinsic it is to society and therefore how valuable artists are,” she says passionately.
“In a larger way, every bit of human art is connected to some degree, but within those different histories, contexts and underlying motivations make the difference. I constantly explore the nuance and I am reticent to use catchall terminology”, she said.
There is a danger of people, especially those from the art world, using a standard or evaluation in one country or society and imposing that to other regions and countries.
“There is absolutely no need for Indian art to seek western validation,” she says.
Art has gone beyond the traditionally defined “art world” of galleries and institutions she says. “Digital technologies have recalibrated the arts.” Instagram is now at the forefront and a platform she herself uses engagingly, connecting with artists around the world. Let us celebrate this democratization of art, with people spreading awareness using social media over those sitting in old school ivory towers. Art needs a lot more fluid conversations about itself, involving those who are not artists but love art.
Are there great artists today, I question, a bit naively, a bit churlishly. “The only ‘good’ artists are the dead ones,” she says in jest and laughs. “I was very taken by Mrinalini Mukherjee, an amazing artist based in New Delhi who worked with jute and hemp to create astounding biomorphic hanging sculptures. Only now, post her death is she becoming a more internationally known name. Henri Matisse’s work was originally considered shocking—most critics were repulsed by his colour palette—and now he is hugely revered.”
“This is to say that opinions change, we’re fickle. We would have to travel to the future in a time machine in that sense to discover the greatest artists of our times. But let us brush aside hyperboles and focus on the art we have today, the artists of today, and understand, if not appreciate, their work,” she said.
Dismissing the commercial appraisal of value of art as a measure of intrinsic artistic worth, she said, “prices of a piece or collection of art in London or Delhi or Hyderabad may not always reflect the truest artistic worth. Artists, like everyone else, need commercial success but that is just one criteria. Art is more than its price label.”
How should a common man buy art? She smiles before explaining, “the commercial side of art is very important, especially for an artist to keep producing art. The purchase of art is therefore very important. Today, online portals like Artsy sell a lot of art. Beyond exhibitions and museums, there are initiatives like Art Chain India so people can buy directly from artists, and they have an income that helps them keep the focus on the art.”
But how should one appraise art? “It is hard to judge art, there is not an easy formula. Like music, there’s a kind of alchemy. Look at as much art as possible and see whose works speak to you. Build your own taste.”
I must be having a quizzical look, because she further explains, “it is not very different from other arts, like reading a book or listening to a song. Certain words, sentences or tunes may appeal to you more, or maybe certain moods. Something will resonate, if not today maybe later. Some aspects of the visual will leave an effect. Maybe it is the different angles and perspectives explored, or the light, or shading, some moments, mood or emotion.”
In summation, when asked about some of the exciting Indian artists on the scene, she says, “there are many. Shilpa Gupta is a very established name. Others I appreciate and admire would be Sajan Mani, and Priyanka D'Souza. Nikhil Chopra’s work is perpetually fascinating, his work enthrals.”
Speaking on the need for formal recognition for artists, she adds, “artists are tenacious people, with lots of patience. It is needed to make it to this world. Grants and awards, and other forms of public recognition, are rare. For example, Feroze Gujral, who heads the Gujral Foundation, is introducing an art prize in India. Hopefully it will help throw light on and bring fame to some.”
Inviting artists and art enthusiasts to connect with her best on her instagram (@cleo__robertskomireddi), she ends the conversation by sharing news of many exciting projects ahead in India next month, where she hopes to tour different art centers to discover more artists.
When asked about advice to artists, she says, “keep your day job and let some money flow in to supplement your art career. For example, Agnes Martin had multiple jobs to support her in the early days. Cindy Sherman was a receptionist, while Claes Oldenburg, an important artist of our times, was a library assistant. But since there is no clear success path in this area, just keep the faith in what you are doing, apply for residencies and fellowships, meet people, talk about your art and keep working. The world needs you.”...