Monday, August 24, 2009

The Indian Art Summit

I'm back after spending the 21st and 22nd at the second Indian Art Summit in Delhi. The atmosphere was upbeat throughout, with the occasional shift to frantic. Dealers seemed pretty happy with the sales as well as new contacts they made among the 40,000 or so who thronged Pragati Maidan over the four days the art was on display.
I was invited to chair one session and speak in another at a conference accompanying the art fair. The organisers were a little overambitious, stuffing the programme with more speakers than it could comfortably hold. I didn't mind having my slot reduced to 15 minutes, but the squeeze was unfair to some foreign invitees.
For maximum effect, I took on one of the holiest cows of modern critical theory, the work of Walter Benjamin, in arguing that art writing and curation today concerns itself too much with politics. Following the principle of shoot first, mumble later, I thought I'd clarify and modify my position during question time, but no questions were forthcoming.
I've taken to checking weather websites before any travel, and they all forecast heavy rain for Delhi the day I landed. Our Met departments, which follow an interpretative strategy all their own, had failed to spot the coming showers. The capital isn't equipped for downpours, and the streets soon flooded, as did access roads to the art fair venue and a couple of rooms within, though luckily not the main exhibition halls. Pragati Maidan forbids private cars from crossing its main gate, and a shuttle had been arranged to take visitors the final 200 meters. Unfortunately, a lake formed between the car park and the shuttle stop. Visitors had to walk through knee-deep water to get to the minibus, and repeat the process while returning to their vehicles after being dropped off.
Since I hadn't got much sleep the night before my 6am flight to Delhi, I thought I'd turn in early and wake up fresh to rework my paper. As my head touched the pillow in my room at the Indian Islamic Cultural Centre, a twanging noise began next door, in the backyard of the India International Centre Annexe. It was the start of a weird new age electronic fusion concert that kept me awake for another 90 minutes.
Speaking of weird, the Islamic Centre is weird. The foundation stone was laid by Indira Gandhi the year she died, 1984, and the place was inaugurated by Sonia Gandhi 22 years later. It was funded by a mix of state, private and foreign donors, whose names appear on a plaque near the reception. Much of the space is given over to lodgings beginning to show signs of wear -- stains on carpets, doors that won't latch and so on -- but the building has delusions of grandeur, boasting an Iranian dome of glazed blue tiles which covers a rotunda that's entirely bare apart from a fancy staircase curving along its side. Ramzan began the last day I was in the capital, and the coffee shop opened at 3.30am in response, but the religious presence was pretty muted otherwise. There wasn't even a mihrab in my room. Come to think of it, I didn't notice any pointer to the direction of Mecca in the hotels we stayed at during our Iran-Syria holiday.
The Art Summit is the brainchild of Neha Kirpal, who works for the PR firm Hanmer MS&L. Neha had little connection with the art world before she thought up the idea, but obviously knew a lot about event management. She and the Hanmer team have created an exhibition that is already, in its second year, the biggest of its kind in India.


Alexander Keefe said...

Sorry to have missed that panel, although not necessarily the art summit itself... last year's was more morbidly fascinating than anything else. Are you going to post your talk in some form?

Girish Shahane said...

I hope to publish an expanded version of it, Alex. Will post a link to the piece if and when it appears.