It’s pretty rare to see Gond and Madhubani paintings rub noses with the Subodh Guptas and Manjit Bawas. It’s even stranger when the setting is the India Art Fair, where commerce takes precedence over culture.
Tribal, folk, naive or native art — all labels that art historians now vehemently oppose — is usually to be found in craft museums, trade fairs or Dilli Haat. Most contemporary art shows give it a wide berth. At best, you get the odd work hung in the name of “inclusion”.
But with the India Art Fair, once considered a scrappy upstart, becoming more confident of its place on the global art map, it’s decided to not only represent work from across South Asia but also widen the definition of contemporary Indian art to include vernacular art.
At the ‘Vernacular in Flux’ section curated by art historian Annapurna Garimella hang some of the best names in Gond, Mithila and Guruvayoor art. “I feel the term vernacular is more apt as it signifies a traditional art language without the limitations that terms like folk, tribal or native have,” says Garimella, who has borrowed works of artists like Gond’s Bhajju Shyam and Mithila’s Baua Devi from noted private collections.
And proving that craft and contemporary are not two different worlds is Gond artist Durga bai Vyam. If one of her accordion books titled Purani Shaadi shows a big, fat and long wedding, Nayi Shadi is short and sweet. Boy sees girl, they romance over a mobile, have a no-fuss shaadi and ride off into the sunset on a scooter. “Though the artists have a committed engagement to traditional knowledge, they are very much influenced by the world around them,” points out Garimella.
Delhi-based Gallery Espace has devoted one booth to 19th century leather puppets from Karnataka that have been painstakingly restored, and plans to expand the initiative.
“Galleries are beginning to put serious consideration into becoming more diverse,” says Garimella. But her worry, shared by many, is that if the market dries up, commitment might dry up with it.