The room was barren, its floor spotlessly clean. There was no furniture in it, except for an architect’s drafting table, sitting beneath a single low-hanging bulb, in the middle of the room. She sat at the table, like a meditating monk at night time; her hands, which would otherwise involuntarily tremble because of a neurological disorder, were unwavering and steady. You could feel the room fill with the vibrations of her presence… and the voice of Bhimsen Joshi.
“People must know that her art and her space were inseparable,” says Roobina Karode, of Nasreen Mohamedi (1937-1990), while describing an exhibit she had curated in 2013 for an exhibition called ‘A view to infinity NASREEN MOHAMEDI: A retrospective’ at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) in New Delhi, depicting the studio in which Mohamedi worked.
Mohamedi, who did not receive much recognition in her lifetime, is now considered one of the most significant Indian artists within the modernist tradition, with her work receiving international critical acclaim only in recent years. “The studios of most artists are messy. But Nasreen’s studio in Baroda was impeccably clean and uncluttered. There were no distractions. The space had a very restorative feeling,” says Karode, director of KNMA.
This intimate space in which Karode had found herself as a 16-year-old student with Mohamedi left such a lasting impact on her impression and knowledge of the artist that she felt an exhibition of Mohamedi’s creations would not be complete if visitors could not see and feel the space and ambience in which she had worked.
That an artist’s tools are extensions of her hands, and the studio an extension of her being, is something Karode firmly believes in. This is the guiding force behind an exhibition that she is curating on Himmat Shah, scheduled to be on display at the KNMA in January 2016. Shah, a sculptor, now 82, works with a variety of material including plaster, ceramics and terracotta. “He is a recluse, but his studio in Jaipur is fascinating,” says Karode. “In between all the terracotta heads that he creates, you can see the tools that he works with; he has made some of these himself. They are like cookie cutters, or a carpenter’s tools. You cannot think of an artist without thinking of his tools.”
It is, however, rare for the tools and working spaces of artists in India to be preserved for posterity. Given that many artists work within their homes, it is often the families who find themselves as the custodians of these belongings.
The studio was a very special space for him,” says Ranjit Hoskote, curator of the exhibition at CSMVS and someone who had known the artist for many years. “This exhibition takes a very private space and recreates it in a public space.” The process of curating the exhibition, he admits, was a deeply emotional one; for, while one part of him wanted to protect the privacy and intimacy of Sabavala’s studio, the curator in him wanted to share it for the purpose of historical narrative.
The exhibition—which also comprises works by Sabavala from CSMVS’s collection—had two objectives, says Hoskote: First was to celebrate the bequest, which is a huge archive; and the second was to display Sabavala’s works in context. So, not only do you get to see a recreation of Sabavala’s studio, with his easel, his brushes and his palettes, you also get to appreciate the manner in which his work evolved over the decades and the influences that find reflection on his canvases.
“It is something very rare,” says Hoskote, “for a family to donate items and paintings like these. You can imagine how much these paintings would now be worth. But Jehangir always wanted these things to go to the city, to the people of the city.” Sabavala’s mother, Bapsy, belonged to the affluent and aristocratic Cowasjee Jehangir family, which was responsible for building some of the biggest and best-known institutions in Mumbai, including the Gothic structure that houses the Elphinstone College and the Mumbai University’s Convocation Hall. Philanthropy has had a long-standing position within the family.
The preservation, documentation and archiving of personal belongings do not follow a fixed pattern. Different methods and routes have been adopted, although with similar goals in mind. A bequest like Sabavala’s is very different from, say, the belongings of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore that are archived at Visva-Bharati University, Santiniketan, the university which he founded in 1921, and where he lived for many years, and at his ancestral home in Jorasanko, Kolkata.
Rabindra Bhavana, the museum at the university, was established in 1942, a year after Tagore’s death, with the intention of preserving several hundred of his manuscripts in Bengali and English, hundreds of correspondence, books, paint brushes and sketches for posterity and also for the purpose of research. Rabindra Bhavana also houses Tagore’s personal library and various objects used by him, his voice-recordings and thousands of photographs taken of him at different times and places, along with the many gifts, honours and addresses which he received from different parts of the world.
At the Uttarayan Complex of the university, the five homes in which Tagore lived at some point of time or the other have been kept in their original form. “Some of these have furniture from the years of his stay here, along with photographs. Although the rooms are kept in their original form, the furniture is rearranged sometimes,” says Anshuman Dasgupta, assistant professor II at Visva-Bharati University. “While more of his paintings are kept at the archives in Santiniketan, there are more personal belongings that are kept at Jorasanko.” The architecture of the houses, their interior decoration and the furniture strewn about the rooms bring to life Tagore’s persona. This unit of Rabindra Bhavana has more than 1,500 original paintings by Tagore and more than 500 by others, a curio collection of over 3,800 items, along with 52 statues.
Sometimes, it is not just the studios and working tools of artists that draw the attention of archivists and researchers. Personal living spaces, everyday objects of use and correspondence, too, provide significant insight into not just the minds and lives of the artists, but also the times in which they lived and worked.
‘The Photo We Never Got’, the exhibit that Gupta created out of numerous letters, photographs and other memorabilia, is like going back in time and joining the dots between events, meetings, conversations and correspondence that were merely a part of the artists’ lives, but which also, indelibly, have formed the narrative of art history of that period.
“An object of art does not exist in vacuum. Artists float in this loose community that has an effect on their artworks,” says Gupta, whose intention was to relook at art history narrative, which has traditionally focussed on just the artworks.
Constructed from material painstakingly acquired from artists—“most of the process comprises talking to artists; they are very happy actually to talk about the past”—the exhibit, for instance, has a photograph showing a group of artists protesting in front of the Lalit Kala Akademi, and then, in another photograph, the same artists are chatting with writer Mulk Raj Anand, who was part of the Akademi, and discussing an oncoming exhibition. The photographs show how the same group of people had relationships at different levels with each other, says Gupta. “They are very layered relationships.” There are instances too of artists becoming the subject of an artwork; for instance, photographs of a group out on an excursion. “You can see them in their sunglasses, and against the backdrop of the outdoors, of trees. They are just having a good time,” says Gupta.
Amrita Sher-Gil’s correspondence in the 1930s with Ram Chandra Tandan, who was the secretary of the Hindustani Academy in Allahabad, for instance, gives a glimpse into the organisation of an exhibition of her artworks in Allahabad in February 1937, and the printing of a catalogue of her works.
These letters, which were in the possession of the Tandan family, were recently auctioned by Saffronart in Mumbai. [The Tandan family had earlier (in 2009) auctioned correspondence that belonged to Nicholas Roerich, including a letter from Albert Einstein to Herrn Arnold Schwarz about the Roerich Museum in 1931, passports, visas and permits to travel in different countries, letters and documents of awards and citations, as well as exhibition catalogues.]
(This story appears in the Jan-Feb 2016 issue of ForbesLife India. To visit our Archives, click here.)