Out in the open

New Delhi might tout itself as India’s capital of art, but that’s on account of its buying capacity rather than its ability to attract footfalls to its museums and galleries. Certainly, there’s little by way of public art in the city, while Mumbai recently got itself Sudarshan Shetty’s winged double-decker bus. Word is out that the Patna government is commissioning art for its public spaces, even if parochially by Bihari artists, and that includes its native star, Subodh Gupta, who currently lives and works in the National Capital Region.

The Delhi government too wanted to commission a public installation by Subodh Gupta but found his work too expensive. Thanks to a private initiative though, the city can still see Subodh Gupta’s first large installation in a public space — a mall, actually — allowing visitors to judge for themselves what the fuss about the artist with the pots and pans is all about. Last evening, his Line of Control was thrown open to public viewing at South Court Mall. A giant mushroom cloud that was first shown at Tate Modern in London in 2009, where it was soon blogged as being “worth the trip alone”, the installation towers over its physical space — drawing gasps from visitors.

Gupta’s first public outing in India has been made possible by the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, which opened at the same mall last year. The huge work, consisting of his characteristic steel milk pails, pans, glasses, containers and cooking vessels, acquired from London’s Hauser & Wirth gallery, required a mammoth effort to assemble. The team that put it together in London, along with special cranes, came together within the mall to install the work — and passers-by could not resist clicking pictures as they walked past, an acknowledgement of the drawing power of art.

While KNMA remains tight-lipped about its price, what’s interesting is how the installation will be critiqued not by art writers but judged by Delhi’s well-heeled as they pass through the mall. Much of Gupta’s fame came from overseas as he conquered Basel and Venice and Frieze while remaining a stranger in his own country (though Lekha and Anupam Poddar were among his early collectors). As a result, he has often been panned (pun intended) even by those who haven’t been exposed to his work, criticised by them for being deliberately Indian in his use of steel utensils without comprehending the enormity of his work in terms of ideas.

Opinions around art are valid provided the commenters have been exposed to art in the first place. Subodh Gupta’s Line of Control will attract as much attention as probably disparagement, but any discussion is more important than indifference born out of lacunae. Whether or not this moves the government to acquire art for its public spaces, initiatives by other private players will at least go a long way in addressing that absence. To an extent, this has already begun with Select City picking up Paresh Maity’s sculptures, art on the platforms of the Airport Express, and the city’s T3 airport and the new Leela Palace boasting of large sculptures. Enough private investors in art have expressed their desire to share or even acquire works especially for showing in public spaces provided the government is willing to partner with them in providing the space. With KNMA’s Subodh Gupta installation heralding a scale hitherto unknown in the city, it will hopefully help Delhi earn the crown it has already chosen to wear as India’s first city of the arts.

Saturday, April 21, 2012