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Classical kitsch: Art of the commons?
Mahima Dayal  30th Nov 2013

Himanshu Verma’s The Lad Holding Marigold Ball

avi Varma (1848-1906) is credited with many firsts — he is probably the first Indian artist to master perspective and the use of oil as a medium; the first to use human models to illustrate Hindu gods and goddesses (thereby helping all previous representations fade from popular imagination); and the first to make his work widely available not just to the rich elite but also to common through his oleographs.

Centuries later, these oleographs continue to be more than relevant and have become the inspiration behind an eight-day exhibition titled When High and Low Art Meet, which was inaugurated at the Lalit Kala Academy here on Tuesday.

The exhibition, which will shift to the Art Alive Gallery in Gurgaon on 2nd December, and be on display till February, features 'high' art by eminent artists like Pushpamala N, Himanshu Verma, Anjolie Ela Menon, Raghu Rai and Jaganath Panda, among others.

An interesting angle surfaces with Himanshu Verma's re-creation of Raja Ravi Verma's The Coquette. Here he poses as the coy, demure woman who is perhaps the objectified subject of the male gaze in Verma's painting with a self-portrait in the same pose, but holding his signature marigold instead of a fruit. "I am hoping to problematise the relationship of the viewer and the protagonist of the painting. This inversion is achieved subtly, as the gently seductive gaze of the subject is maintained."

The 1984 National Award winner Pushpamala N's performance photography held a subversive, conflict-ridden wit that stands out in this show. Working with hoarding and auto-rickshaw painters, the artist displays an archival Inkjet print of Kichaka Sairandhri from her Mother India Project. In this project, she talks about the nation-state, drawing from images used in political propaganda, calendar art and studio photography.

Verma's whole model of Indian neo-classical painting made the first conscious bid for a new national identity, which became the means of visualising a new body of Indian imagery in the 1870s — ranging from commissioned portraiture to a series of ethnic figure compositions of Indian women to themes from Hindu mythology and Sanskrit literature. Verma's work provides us with some of our earliest examples of the nation's modern art. This art has commonly been typified as 'low' given Verma's engagement with the mass production of his new brand of mythological paintings in his own press in the outskirts of Bombay in the 1980s.

Mass production was the root cause of the displacement of the neo-classical, transforming it into kitsch, which gradually became standardised. It was this move towards mass production that made Verma's brand of Indian art fall, and later be banished from the cannons of 'high' art, largely becoming a victim of his own success. In the case of this exhibition then, the world of artists who are challenging boundaries converge with that of Verma's, but herein lies the irony: these paintings will remain staunchly exclusive.

Venue: Art Alive Gallery

Date: 31st January

Timing:10 am – 7 pm

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