How a scientist friend opened my eyes — to modern art

The mental trigger for this article were back-to-back discussions on Indian art. The first was a chat with archaeologist Kurush Dalal about a trip to Ajanta a year ago. I was then a newly-minted student of archaeology, visiting the caves under the guidance of the world-renowned Walter Spink. Allowing myself the conceit of no longer being a mere ‘tourist’ (a term of disdain I know I should be ashamed of), it was bemusing to watch the visitors gasping at the line and form and colour of the cave murals. And saying to themselves that it was impossible anyone could do it today. And then to watch the same folk haggling with vendors outside who had replicas of the same murals. I must admit nevertheless, as several readers might testify, most simply walked past the murals, rushing to complete all 27 caves within their two- or three-hour window.

On the other hand, I will easily (but not happily) admit, that I haven’t heard of Devajyoti Ray or any of India’s modern artists. Abanindranath Tagore and V S Gaitonde are names that I know but mean nothing to me. I buy the stereotype of modern art — splashes and squares and triangles and other shapes, that are supposedly imbued with deep political, social and philosophical meanings. I, like most folk I know (and I know only middle class people), enjoy scoffing at it, because true art is really a painting of a woman which looks like her photograph, or a landscape that can fool birds. And I join the man on the Chinchpokli omnibus in gasping when some billionaire lightens their wallet by a few millions.

So, when Sukant Khurana (an old friend of mine from my M.Sc. days) called me out of the blue to tell me about an exhibition that he is doing, I was, well, I was a sailing ship whose wind had stopped. WTF was my first reaction. And there was a spark between the two thoughts, and this article was born. How could I not see the irony of being the pedant at Ajanta and the ignoramus at Gallerie Chemould?

But let me make a guilty confession. I join those scoffing at modern art because it cannot be understood, but secretly like it. Over time I’ve come to understand that I don’t have to understand something to like it. What was an old truth for classical Indian music also works for modern art. I just have to enjoy it, and the art will fulfil whatever function I get out of it. And Sukant has nicely helped me along in this journey.

I like my Indian tradition of silo-ing people into science or arts or commerce streams, so at first I could not quite understand how someone can be a professional scientist (with a PhD and a job at Central Drug Research Institute, Lucknow) and a professional artist who has actually sold paintings. This intersectionality confuses me (and makes me jealous), but Sukant straddles them easily.

Then, when he tells me that in his exhibitions, he takes an old work of art of his, and then destroys it to make, um, a new work of art, I am pissed. (Then I realise I’ve also created separate silos for art history and modern art.) But we all evolve, and that is rather oddly his point — that our days don’t stack up to a linear narrative, that each has to be taken as it comes. If not willy, nilly.

So, It can be art to take an old work of art and destroy it — and make something new of it (but that doesn’t extend to the sort of bashers who destroyed the plastic cow installation at Jaipur). It can be art to paint a canvas over 70 times. And a scientist can do art and be good at it.

This has been the hard bit. I grew up in a middle class where the only legitimate job aspirations were those which took education and hard work — like medicine and engineering. It was assumed that you were mediocre and luckless otherwise — so born without the talent to be an artist, without the talent and luck to be a cricketer, and certainly without the luck and nepotism to make it into films or politics. A grounding in aesthetics was unnecessary, and any expression of a native aesthetic sense — say in choosing curtains — was a woman’s thing to do. To undo all this conditioning took a lot of shampooing. (I’m sorry but I’m addicted to puns and wordplay. And brackets. They’re my way of rebelling.)

Then Sukant happened in my life. And unrelated to him, the Centre for Extramural Studies, University of Mumbai, with its not-so-conventional approach to art history, where I am now a student. And between the two, I’ve learned to shake off my silo — and begin to appreciate modern art. And If I manage the tatkal tickets, I will go to Delhi to see the making and unmaking of art by Sukant. If not, I hope someone will give me a free pass to Jahangir. While I am brushing up on Abanindranath Tagore and the Bombay School and V. S Gaitonde, as an old science student, I would like some practical lessons too.

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Sukant Khurana’s exhibition lasts from the 20th to the 30th of April, with the movie “What’s The Fuss About Sukant Khurana’s Art?” being shown alongside from the 20th to the 24th April.

Venue: Café de Art, G-14, Marina Arcade, Connaught Place, Outer Circle. New Delhi 110001

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The author once studied genetics and molecular biology, but now studies archaeology and art history at the Centre for Extra-Mural Studies, University of Mumbai.