Art in My Life - Musings (From my book on art and lifestyle)
A year ago, a parcel arrived innocuously at my doorstep. It was a bottle of Absolut Vodka with a signature work of art –Mandarin calligraphy in a colour palette of orange and brown painted by acclaimed writer-artist and poet Vikram Seth. The bottle knighted “Chinese-Jiu” carried a stray line from Vikram Seth’s poetry at the bottom of the calligraphic art – “the character embraces what it is”.
The lettering was the work of a master of professional standing on a three-dimensional plane created by a complex play of light and shadow on a thick impasto surface in a monochrome shade of orange.
As I sipped the content of the bottle, I looked around the room for a strategic showcase to flaunt the trophy – the Absolut ART as it is labelled in the market. A week later, writer Vikram Seth while launching three Absolut art bottles with Mandarin, Devnagari and Nastaliq Arabic calligraphy in orange, blue and green said “art was an extension of his writing” that was connecting to his fans in a new way - through brand loyalty.
Seth disclosed that he had joined the Absolut gallery of 800 art works by 132 artists that toted new wave icons like Andy Warhol, Angus Fairhurst, Francesco Clemente, Louise Bourgeois, Subodh Gupta and Bharti Kher. Absolut’s brand forte is art. It wrests space for itself in art fairs across the world. In India, the brand travels the extra distance by mounting largescale bottle-enabled landscape art and installations in public displays.
In 2012, Absolut and an communication and creative design agency SapientNitro created the Absolut Blank Campaign at the India Art Fair in the capital. The campaign built itself around a sound and sensory installations – the core of new media art – using digitised Absolut Vodka bottles that allowed the viewer a spiritual journey of India through the eclectic sounds of the country by peeping into the bottles.
The company Pernod Ricard brands the growth of the product as a creative journey – a two-pronged odyssey to connect to buyers with novel promotion capsules and take new art to those terrain of lifestyle where it has never been before.
Haute art on your bottle of liquor adds a fashionable spring to the whole gala of drinking as a lifestyle statement - bringing an awareness about aesthetics in modern lifestyle as it gets faster and manic.
Art is known to redeem, heal and regenerate stimulants in recesses of the human brain frayed by stress and speed.
Consequently, the thin line between lifestyle and art has been overlapping post-globalization. Private collectors have lent art as new lifestyle definitions by letting drawing room art grow on the owner’s personality. It is often the grist of conversation in parties and gatherings with individual collectors lobbing nuggets about their favourite artist, latest acquisitions, oscillating price bands and debating the impact of the global stock market crash in the art market.
Businesses that till five years ago saw art as lucrative return on investment enterprise have a new outlook to art post the Lehman Brothers catastrophe. Companies now look at art as a strategic brand positioning platform in the lifestyle segment rather than collectibles for investment.
The Sula range of wine— India’s largest wine producing chain — has been walking in the Absolut footsteps for some time. Four years ago, Kapil and Karan Grover of Grover Vineyards that brews Sula, handed out a bouquet of four elegant bottles imprinted with art motifs by four contemporary Indian artists — Sanjay Bhattacharya, Paresh Maity, Rini Dhumal and Rekha Rodiwittiya. The company said it wanted to give the bottles life beyond the wine it packaged to make them signature collectibles for the buyers of Sula wine. The “Art Collection” as the wine bottles have been christened has breathed “an element of colour” to the range endearing it to new segments of lifestyle consumers, the company admits. “Some people look for the art collection in superstores only for the bottles”.
In the Indian milieu, art has been the bulwark of interior décor since early history. The grand ornate palaces of the Mauryan, Gupta, Chola, Chera, Pandya, Pallava and the Rajput kings were edifices of art — with opulent facades and equally intricate living spaces lit up by jewelled art works. Floral etchings and figurative expressions of man, animal and nature were the iconography of the architectural and temple designs.
Later, the Mughals carried palace art to new heights. Art in the medieval lifestyles was not confined to architecture — every aspect of the existence of the monarchs, kings, sultans and emperors from the niches of history was dominated by art.
The jewellery were crafted by skilled metal artists as were the battle armours, weapons, clothes and articles of domestic use. The kings commissioned artists to compile family and court albums by manually recording proceedings and people in works of exquisite art. Almost all our knowledge of history is derived from works of art and accompanying texts.
The Europeans, well after the arrival of the early plate-making technology in the pre-photography years, used painters to document lifestyles and history. In colonial India, the European rulers commissioned painted documentation of India till the 19th century that sold at hefty prices in Europe.
The ruling elite of the country – the former rajahs and the maharajas — swore by the their collections of art and antiquities. The homes of the ruling clans like the Holkar, Scindia, the former Nizam of Hyderabad and the former Rajput royalties of Rajasthan are living archives of baroque and art deco accessories and actual works of art.
In a period of three years between 1930- 1933, Maharaja Yashwant Rao Holkar Bahadur commissioned German architect Echart Muthesius to design his palace Manik Bagh in the latest European art deco fashion. As the project was mammoth, Muthesius brought in famous artists and designers from Germany, France and England to design the furniture. One of the chief attractions of the erstwhile royal interiors was designer carpets by Ivan Da Silva Bruhns and Ernest Boiceau.
One such carpet was sold as rare lifestyle accessories by auctioneer Christie’s in 2009 from the collection iconic designers Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Berge.
The designers, both flashing lifestyle symbols, was sought after for their impeccable collection of lifestyle art and accessories - beside their cult popularity as fashion designers. Keen buyers of vintage and classic lifestyle art, they acquired art deco decorative antiquities from across the world.
The former princely homes of the central and northern India found their artistic muse in the extravagant abode of the formers rulers of Gwalior - the Scindia clan. The Jai Vilas Palace of the Maharaja of Scindia built by erstwhile Maharaja Jayaji Rao Scindia (Shinde) around 1875 was inspired by the Italian-Baroque décor of the European palaces of the 19th century.
Historical records say the Maharaja, a friend of the former British Raj, sent his friend
Colonel Michael Filose to Europe to study the then design trends. Filose came back to India with a chest of treasure — shipments of Chippendale furniture, yards and yards of fabric, piles of tapestries, artifacts and maps of buildings resembling the Buckingham Palace, the Palace of Versailles and genteel villas of Europe to create a combination of Tuscan, Doric and Corinthian architecture.
The cynosure of the shining crystals, ceramics, gemstone and wood accessories in the palace was a silver toy train - now at the Jiyaji Rao Museum – that carted liquor and smoke (cigars) to guests after dinner.
The baroque past – one of lavish indulgence, pomp and status — has made way to a more utilitarian present with the changing definition of lifestyle art. Art in contemporary mosaic of life is measured by its usability and umbilical connections to life rather than its price and social standing as an object of envy and rarity.
Noted Indian animal rights activist, politician and art promoter Maneka Gandhi, a prolific collector of art, says there is no reason why art should remain confined to canvas. “It has to move beyond visual aesthetics to connect to the masses and promote social causes,” Gandhi argues.
In 2011, Gandhi tied up with the Delhi Art Gallery and a design studio Transmedia to raise awareness about animals with a utility art project, “The Master Collection” for her organization, People for Animals.
The project was an experiment with ceramics as a medium lifestyle utility. Fifty top Indian contemporary artists like Raja Ravi Varma, Jamini Roy, F.N. Souza, Ramkinkar Baij, S.H. Raza, Arpita Singh, Paramjit Singh, Thota Vaikuntam, Paresh Maity, Nayaana Kanodia, Benoy Verghese and Farhad Husain to name some lent rights of their creations – some through their respective galleries and family foundations posthumously – to create a line of designer mugs for sale.
The proceeds went to the welfare of stray animals while the 2000-year medium of ceramic carved a deeper nook in the kitchens of the country’s rich and the famous.
Gandhi manages a similar project in designer carpets as well – embroidered with art works by leading Indian artists. She says her carpets provide poor weavers in the Bhadoi region of Uttar Pradesh a measure of livelihood.
A designer art carpet, a mug with art imprints, kitchen ceramic ware with painted art, home linen embossed with art works, ethnic artifacts, crystals, designer vases, arty stoneware, furniture inspired by new art movements worldwide and paintings on the walls are the mainstay of every upper middle class Indian home in metropolitan centres.
In the last decade, with rising disposable incomes- barring a few years after 2008 when the markets crashed- Indian homes have sprung voracious appetite for art in their lifestyles.
The dawn of the cyber revolution has honed tastes from an early sense of random aesthetic awareness of the 1970s when everything that appeared ornamental and beautiful on the counter was worth buying to a contemporary mindset that the art acquired as lifestyle accessory must have a “sense of history” – provenance as it is known in the art world- “a story to tell” and a “cause to preach”.
Ethnicity is the latest slogan together with exclusivity at the exclusive lifestyle retail brand outlets like Goodearth, FabIndia and Anokhi, some of the leading brands that have brought the “ethnic” on the fashion street.
“We are seeing a revivalism in the arts and crafts related lifestyle segments- a kind of return to the roots. Everyone wants a cause to wear or to keep at home,” says crafts activist Jaya Jaitly.
Price sometime is not a constraint if a collectible is the right blend of striking artistry, quality and utility. People are spending on lifestyle art in a big way, says Deepika Jindal, who manages an art and lifestyle platform, JSL Lifestyle Ltd.
Jindal has been trying to open stainless steel as a lifestyle art medium and push it to the mainstream. Used traditionally in kitchen cutlery, industries and hospitals, the medium in India has been given a new life by Jindal’s “Arttd’inox”- a lifestyle accessory store — as a material for cutting-edge home design, objects d’ art and trendy utility artifacts often in harmony with natural elements like wood, glass and metals.
Jindal’s mascot is top artist Subodh Gupta, who transports the humdrum stainless steel kitchen utensils (made from steel manufactured by the Jindal Group) into his complex abstract and figurative installations.
Heart and home are irrevocably twined with art for veteran artist Satish Gupta, who lives in a studio villa at Meherauli in the outskirts of the Lutyen’s Delhi – a upscale residential neighbourhood in the national capital. Large bronze and stone sculptures from Indian mythology, religion and cosmology colour his home with a calm zen-like meditative air.
At the centre of the garden stands a landscape sculpture of a “stupa”- a replica of a Buddhist shrine under a Bodhi tree – the tree of enlightenment sculpted from natural elements by the artist over years. “I connect to the cosmos here. I can be in Byzantium making gilded mosaics of the lord, admire the perfection of the pantheon or travel back to the creation of Angkor or make my way up the labyranthine steps past the Virochana Buddhas enclosed in hundreds of stupas and reach the summit of Borabodur to experience the divine emptiness or experience the Zen Gardens of Ryonji,” Gupta chants.
Impresario and art writer-curator Ina Puri wakes up every morning to a torrent of art at home that she allows to wash over her like waves of memories. The surfeit of art in muted shades with gentle flowing figures — covering the walls of her sunny home in Gurgaon (in Haryana) — is her bridge to one her closest friends Manjit Bawa, a leading figurative artist who passed away in 2008 “I acquired as many works by Manjit as possible,” says Puri.
The tall dusky beauty met Bawa in 1998 when accompanying a group of artists to Singapore where the artist was the chief guest. He was 19 years older than Puri, but a chemistry clicked. Bawa, the son of an aristocratic Sikh family of frugal means, shared little with wife Sharda.
In the foreword of his biography, “In Black and White: The Authorised Biography of Manjit Bawa”, the artist wrote, “And then I found Ina and Ina found me”. Bawa filled a void in Puri’s life.
Even now, Puri owes her drive to newer forms of creative expressions and artistic pursuits to her decade-long association with Manjit Bawa.
Art is no longer confined to the canvas – it paints the canvas of life in every shade imaginable, Puri says.
The Thursday afternoon at the Pint Room, a hip beer pub in a mall in the national capital was alive a new kind of heat – other than the blistering April mercury outside. Leading contemporary artist Jagnnath Panda was speaking about his art and his journey as a struggling artist from a small town in Odhisa to the mainstream art circuit. It was the second session of “Art & Ale”, a lifestyle art outreach programme that the café has launched to reach out to young pub revelers to hand-hold them through the basics of visual art.
The crowd was barely out of high school and most of them had no clue to contemporary Indian art.
“But there is enthusiasm. I like conservations on art. We have always learnt that what is not normal, what nobody can think of and what pushes the envelope is art,” says Panda.
Between sips of beer and bites of cheese croquets and fried chicken morsels, boys in long hair, pigtails and spiked fringes wanted to know about Panda’s art foundation in Bhubaneswar – and the kind of art and artists it was encouraging. What is new media art, what is digital art, what is recycled art, can we buy them — the queries negotiated across sheer naivete to intelligent understanding.
Entrepreneur and art promoter Pradeep Gidwani says art is communication. A café or an eatery is essentially a meeting place and when art connects to meeting grounds like a café or a hotel it strikes a chord in our lives.
Art is a community that is evolving in India and when we take it out of traditional spheres, it becomes a talking head in public discourses opening new dialogues to engage societies.
“It is not about up there in the stereotypes. Art is something everyone can put up on their walls and allow it to grow,” Gidwani, who manages the Pint Room, says.
He uses the café as an exhibition space — to push the business of buying between the beer and young faces.
In the national capital, contemporary art has three lifestyle retreats. The oldest if the Garhi Studio Village – a print-makers and artists’ cluster set up in the 1970s with the help of the government. Visitors to the village — which is slipping off the consciousness in the last couple of years because of neglect — can move through print-makers studio, artists’ workshops and sift through piles of art works, prints and artifacts. Garhi still has an old world purity of purpose to it unlike its city-slicking counterparts Haus Khas Art Village and Lado Sarai, a studio village near the historical landmark Qutab Minar.
Haus Khas is an integrated arts experience where art boutiques exist cheek by jowl with designer lifestyle accessory stores, eateries and kiosks surrounded by historical monuments.
Lado Sarai hosts an opening night every three months when 10 art houses unveil new exhibitions on particular weekends to uninterrupted rounds of wine, cheese, discussions, viewings and buying of art across a kilometer-long potholed street flanked by galleries on either side.
At the last opening night in March, I spied at least 3,000 people hopping from gallery to gallery in a file.
“Art is really a part of life. Actually we are trying to build an art community on the street,” says gallerist Rasika Kajaria, who owns an art house at Lado Sarai.
Kajaria loves the way the art studios connect to cross-sections in the society bringing different kind of people together.
At a dinner in the Hotel Imperial a year ago — one of the oldest hotels in the capital built in 1934 and inaugurated by Lord and Lady Willingdon — I was struck by the collection of old British East India Company paintings that hung throughout the hotel. I realized that the British Imperial style hotel built to honour foreign dignitaries during the British rule went by the name of Museum Hotel as well.
Each floor of the hotel is dedicated to one British documentary artist of the British Raj. The rolls flaunt names like Bourne & Shepherd, Thomas and William Daniell, Charles D’Oyly, William Hodges, John Zillony, J.B. Fraser and James Ferguson.
“That is not all. This art-deco hotel has a special place in the Indian history,” said my host for the evening.
History records that Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Muhammed Ali Jinnah and Lord Mountbatten often met at the hotel to chart the future course of India in the days leading to Partition and Independence.
The ITC Maurya Hotel in the national capital cuts a very contemporary picture in contrast. Maqbool Fida Husain’s brazen colour-scapes are etched like a shroud across the glass panels of the lobby with village scenes by artist Kishen Khanna.
The arty grapevine says the ITC Welcomegroup has one of the largest collections of Indian contemporary art. An estimate by the Business Traveller South Asia in January 2013 cites the collection at the ITC Maurya in New Delhi, inspired by Emperor Ashoka’s philosophy of oneness, is estimated at nearly Rs 25 million – in a count two years ago.
Art in lifestyle spreads across vistas in infinity, lifestyle gurus muse trying to explain its scope in words. Birth to death — food to society, politics, protest and the very act of living is loaded with art for the planet to stay afloat.