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Return to Santiniketan, India

I was first introduced to Indian art in the early 1990’s when Indian art dealers from Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Chennai visited me in Singapore. Their introduction stirred immense curiosity in me and led me in search of Indian art.

In the 1990s China had not yet opened her doors to the outside world, so to look for art beyond Southeast Asia, I decided to investigate into India.

My first trip to India was in 1990 when I visited many well-known galleries in particular, Gallery Chemold and Pundole Art Gallery in Mumbai and Gallery Espace in Delhi. Subsequently I made a few more visits to India. Everything I saw fascinated me, from sculptures to folk art and textiles.

I wrote my book ‘Understanding Contemporary Southeast Asian Art’ in 2003 and in it I devoted a section to my field trip with Singapore artists to Rajasthan in 1999. The late Dr Earl Lu was on that trip and he stated,

"There is a completeness of Indian culture and tradition. They are artistic without needing to look outside for their inspiration, because they have their landscape, the people, the tradition, history, myth and legends. If you’re an Indian painter you can borrow from Indian iconography, village traditions and the colourful decorations. India is truly the sort of place that wherever you look you see a painting."

(Chu, M., 2003, p. 115)

Luck played a good part in my research journey and in the 1990s I saw the works of Jogen Chowdhury’ at a show in Mumbai. I was determined to meet Jogen, so in 2008 I flew to Kolkata. We then travelled by train to Santiniketan after meeting in Kolkata.

In Santiniketan he passed me on to two of his favourite students, Suranjana and Rudra, to look after me and show me around. They, being BFA and MFA graduates of Kala Bhavana (Institute of Fine Art), introduced me to the best artists in Santiniketan. Kala Bhavana is a noted institution of education and research in visual arts. Founded in 1919, it is the fine arts faculty of the Visva-Bharati University, Shantiniketan, established by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore.

That trip, I brought back numerous works by Santiniketan artists and was so excited to have discovered so many good works.

Then in Delhi I met another great artist Arpana Caur who took me under her wing. Naturally I came away with some of her best works and introduced them to my Singapore audience. Arpana also came to Singapore to exhibit her works and gave talks at SAM. Through her I saw Indian folk art, and she taught me that story telling is very much a part of the Indian tradition. I collected very charming folk art at random, not really understanding the styles and the regions they come from, until I chanced upon an exhibition in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford UK, showing folk art collected by Howard Hodgkin (b.1932). Using Hodgkin’s collection and another book on Indian popular works from 1589 to the present I was able to make some sort of classification of these charming folk art.

The Indian folk art and India's continuous 5000 years of culture helped me to realise that these traditions are the factors that has influenced Indian modern art and continues to be an inspiration to contemporary artists today. Santiniketan has been one of the important centres of art.

I decided to to make a trip back to Santiniketan in February this year and in this coming show, opening March 31, I have made available some Indian folk art to be displayed alongside art by contemporary artists from the magical land. It will be a feast for the eyes.

Here, I have picked out some images of what I saw this trip. Hope to share more. Mark your diaries for next Saturday.

Chu, M. (2003), Understanding Contemporary Southeast Asian Art. Singapore : Art Forum.

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