Investment in artistic lives - A fair exchange?

Susan Waten Naga

Latit Kala Akademy, the prestigious art institution from Delhi held its first National Art Camp & Festival in Kohima between 12 to 19 Dec., 2007 at State Academy Hall. 26 select artists from all over the country participated. This article seeks to understand the dynamism involved in the “exchange” that took place between participating artists and the organizing body. Vinod Aggarwal, the very gracious Gallery-in-charge of Lalit Kala Akademy asserted that the purpose of holding a national camp was to provide a “platform” for artists in the country. The institution has been holding camps for the last four decades or so and it was for the first time ever that they ventured into Nagaland. Aggarwal specified that all expenditures in art camps are fully sponsored by the government for the invited participants. As such, “Travel and hotel costs are totally free. Each artist is paid Rs 15,000/- to paint two canvases and an addition of Rs 2000/- is allotted for colors. Sculptors are paid Rs 20,000/- each for works done during the camp week.” It sounded like a noble gesture indeed, with participating artists in for a splendid treat by the government of India.However, the proposition also made one wonder - would the government indulge in unconditional generosity if it had no share in any benefit what so ever, whether immediate or long term? If the purpose of the art institution was solely philanthropic service to artists, what was the machinery for their continued economic sustenance? Surely there were clever strategies employed for generating their own income?

Looking at the quality and standard of many of the paintings and art works, one could easily understand that they completely surpassed the allotted amount of money’s worth. Certainly, some of the canvases looked like they could fetch thousands and perhaps even millions of rupees in the market. Aggarwal categorically stated, “The paintings are not for sale, only for display and exhibition purposes. They will become the permanent property of the government of India.”  The artists I spoke to regarding this arrangement appeared fairly contented and even grateful to say the least. Madhu V of Gokarmam, Kerela said, “Money is secondary. It’s a privilege to be a part of this camp and to interact with new minds.” Sajit Bin Amar of Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh mentioned, “All canvases will be national collections. It’s my responsibility to contribute to my country and the art society.” Shovin Bhattacharjee of Delhi expressed that besides the camp adding a bonus to his “bio-data,” he was happy to learn “new techniques of painting from other artists in the camp.” Veejayant Dash of Bhubaneshwar, Orissa felt highly privileged to be a part of the camp and to “mingle with beautiful minds in a new and beautiful place.” 

Ankur Khare of Delhi, and a student of NID, Ahmedabad, who was perhaps the youngest participant expressed his opinion about the benefit of such camps. Thus according to him, “We get to share our works with other artists. Most of all, I value the comments of senior artists. I learn just by observing them.” He also mentioned about how even as a student, he’d sacrifice time and energy to travel to the metros for art exhibitions in order to improve himself as an artist. A change of place, such as a totally unventured into land and culture like Nagaland was a welcome experience for artists who enjoyed exploring beyond the four walls of a private studio. Like Aggarwal elaborated, “Artists paint on their own every day. But in a platform and different setting like this, both senior and younger artists paint together and learn new things from each other.” Besides expressing appreciation to Lalit Kala Akademy for venturing a camp into Nagaland, Thech K of Kohima also expounded on the need to henceforth let the art scene in the state take off in a major way. 

She earnestly insisted, “We need support both from the government and the public for the art scene to grow. There’s so much to do. We need more platforms such as shows, exhibitions and camps in order to bring awareness and appreciation. Nagaland is a beautiful place and there’s so much talent here that can be expressed through our brushes and tools. Artists too need exposure. They need to visit galleries, look up works of other artists in the net and also participate in camps.” It was obvious that Lalit Kala Akademy’s decision to hold a national art camp for the 1st time in Nagaland was received with much gratefulness by the artist community. It motivated them to expand their scope and to further their avenues in the profession they so loved.

Partha Pratim Ganguly of Agartala, Tripura was all praise for the prestigious art institution. He narrated his observation, “I have noticed that Lalit Kala Akademy has a very ‘caring’ attitude. They search for artists and take personal interest in them by providing a platform. You cannot find this kind of care in other government organizations.” Talking about government initiated camps with humanitarian principles, one wonders how NGO’s fare in this as well. Kareen J Langstieh of Shillong, Megahalaya, a participant of the 2nd Riti International Camp (May 22-28, 2006 in Shillong) revealed some details about the camp which I considered somewhat unbecoming. About 25 artists (most of them young and upcoming) participated and were assigned to paint a canvas each. At the end of the week, the paintings were taken away in exchange for a measly sum of Rs 1000/- each. The concerned organizers then displayed some of the paintings in an art exhibition in Dhaka.  I found myself comparing this whole act with that of taking away a baby after the mother had painstakingly nourished in her womb and had lovingly given birth to. That too, for a pittance! Such a scheme of things appeared unflattering to an artist’s talent and credibility. Had the monetary consideration been more elevated than that, I guess it would not so much raise anybody’s eyebrow. No amount of justification that artists were “paid travel and hotel expenditure” would undo the imbalance in the measuring scale for transactions of such kinds. 

In contrast, does Lalit Kala Akademy’s “honorarium” look as stark or uncomplimentary to an artist’s significance and merit? In my personal opinion, it’s hard to say just yet. Only the future will tell, depending on the concerned artist’s destiny, accumulated wealth and belief system. Moreover, all these three variables are often in the hands of a thing called “change.” However as of now, the “package” (that is, the government’s offer and the artist’ consent, in other words, the exchange) appears to be fair enough. Artists themselves have testified about their satisfaction in the transaction and arrangement of things. They are convinced that they don’t lose out on any thing but in fact stand to gain, a classic win-win situation. The fact that the canvases will always be irretrievable and the exchange irrevocable did not appear to matter. One only hopes that their feelings about it in the years to come will not be thrown at the mercy of something even remotely resembling regret. Well, that’s just a far away “what if” thought that skeptics can harmlessly indulge in!

Most of the artists, I believe, are rooted in “commitment” and “purpose” about their chosen profession and way of life. I got a glimpse of the passion and zeal for art from some of the comments they gave. For instance, Sajit Bin Amar said that the love for art is just like “the love between couples, who pursue the desire for one another at any cost, regardless of the objection or opinion of others.”  Kusholhu Medeo of Nagaland made an equally catchy statement like, “Life is art and art is life!” Then there was Lanu Pongen of Nagaland who remarked with utmost fervor, “Are you willing to die for what you believe? I’m ready to give my life for my art and my principles.”  Drawing inspiration from the meaningful interaction I had with artists, I sincerely wish they would eventually be blessed with both fame and fortune, if these blessings are not evident in their lives as yet. Besides possessing innate talents, dedicated hard work and perseverance will bring out the unstoppable genius in them. With that, their ongoing works will in due course become priceless and their earlier canvases as a lesser known artist will stand proudly in a national museum or art gallery. It will even stand to serve as a reminder of the camp they participated in for exchange of “experience,” “bio-data information,” and also the government sponsored trip and the historic receipt of a few thousand rupees for the canvas they never dreamt might be worth the sky one day! It doesn’t matter if all of them don’t become legends or celebrity artists. What’s more important is that they all leave their “canvas of possibility” behind in safe hands! I convey my sincere heartfelt wishes and dreams for the future of artists. As believed, everything is ultimately fair in the gamble of life. So here’s to all incorrigible dreamers, “Dream on and wake to see them come true before your very eyes!”