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Vol. XXVIII No. 6, July 1-15, 2018

Corporate houses and contemporary art

by Geetha Doctor

A 20-year old article that’s still relevant.

Walking through the Peugeot Talbot factory near Coventry, U.K., recently, what struck me were the posters – pin-ups really – of lavishly endowed women that the assembly line crew had stuck near their work stations. Even in the most technologically perfect environment, where the workers hardly have the time to pause in between their carefully timed activity, people need to keep alive an element of fantasy.

The blonde bombshells are the modern Western equivalent of the brightly coloured calendar images that are to be found in the Indian context, hanging over the entrance of a car mechanic’s workshop, in a bank manager’s airconditioned room, no less than that in a pawn-broker’s shop, or over a modest hotel desk. Formerly, these were of smiling goddesses, no less well endowed, sitting on lotuses, attended by swans; now the nubile nymphs seem more intent on advertising a brand of soap or agarbathi. The basic theme in both societies remains the same. The representations are almost always of buxom women, erotically clad, with a “come hither” look, though I presume that goddesses work on a different level…

…In the last ten years, however, there has been a steady growth of goodwill and intelligent interest in the work of South Indian artists. This has been partly due to a more cosmopolitan clientele moving into the South with the growth of a five-star culture and easier travel, the support of banks and a more professional attitude in the purveying of art with the -establishment of art galleries. A.N.Z. Grindlay’s Bank started the trend with the commissioning of a large mural by Laxma Goud at their head office, which was chosen in a competition. Since that time, they have also opened a gallery on their premises that is open to all -artists.

At about the same time, the two new art galleries – the -Gallery, owned by Sharan Appa Rao, and Sakshi, owned by Geetha Mehra – set a new trend. By consistently promoting contemporary art with imaginative invitations, beautifully produced catalogues and interestingly arranged shows using exotic props and thematic content, they managed to attract both buyers and artists. They can well claim to have, at last, brought some degree of art awareness to Madras.

Sakshi Gallery went one step ahead in organising an exhibition entitled ‘Corporate Collection’ at the Lalit Kala Akademi on Graeme’s Road. The exhibition showed a fairly impressive number and range of works owned by different companies. Again, Grindlay’s Bank led the list with works by artists as different as Jatin Das, Laxma Goud, Surya Prakash, Palaniappan and Sunil Das. There were some excellent early works by Vasudev (Ashok Leyland), dramatic slashes of colour from his ‘Force’ series by Thotaa Tharani (Thiru Arooran Sugars Ltd.), and a series of prints commissioned by Hotel Shrilekha Intercontinental from the artist Vasudha Thozhur.

Besides this, a major portion of the exhibition consisted of works of art lent by Chemicals and Plastics India Ltd. and its subsidiaries. There were works from the collection of Durametallic India Ltd. and a small but interesting range from the collection of Overseas Sanmar Financial Ltd. (henceforth collectively referred to in the article as the Chemplast Collection).

“What’s interesting about them,” says Geetha Mehra, referring to the Chemplast Collection, “is that once they started buying, they have been consistently supporting contemporary art.” Of the more than thirty works on view, there were around fifteen different artists, ranging from Husain to Vijayavelu, Aziz to Thotaa Tharani, and others like Reddeppa Naidu, D.L.N. Reddy, Dakshinamurthy, Arnawaz, Ram Kumar, Parthaba Sinha, Vinod Kumar, Nagdev, Lahoti, Adimoolam, B. Prabha, Dimpy Krishnan Menon and B. Dasgupta.

These paintings, along with the metal reliefs and sculptural pieces, now occupy pride of places in the different rooms of the senior staff or are distributed at strategic locations either at the main head office or at the offices of the associate companies. On the ground floor of the Chemplast head office there is an Aziz work – one of chestnut horses in rich relief galloping against a brown background. The visitor to the Directors’ offices is greeted by a large abstract painting by Ram Kumar in the lobby. In the Vice-Chairman’s room itself, pride of place is given to an Aziz abstract, done in his distinctive style. There is a small but exquisite Husain from his “Tree” series of watercolours, a Badri Narayan and a dream-like landscape of fused colours by Nagdev.

The office of the former Chairman, K.S. Narayanan, has one of the earliest pieces bought by daughter-in-law, Chandra Sankar, an austerely beautiful Reddeppa Naidu, depicting a temple on a hill. There is a large metal relief by Vijayavelu, and a charming early piece by Thota Tharani showing a glass chimney lamp and a brass pot in a formal arrangement. Tharani has also executed an exuberant mural in ceramic chips in the terrace garden at the very top of the building, complementing the magnificent view of the city.

“I never force anyone to display a painting or work of art that they might not like,” says Chandra Sankar, the main force behind the drive for putting art into office rooms. The choice is, therefore, eclectic rather than heavyweight, personal rather than pretentious, meant for the present rather than for posterity. In some ways, this is admirable, as it reinforces the idea that art, whether modern or otherwise, must be enjoyed. People must want to live with a work of art and derive some measure of aesthetic enjoyment out of it.

The extraordinary thing is that most people have responded with tremendous pride and interest and are eager to flaunt their corporate collections. For instance, the person who sat in front of a superb piece by P.V. Janakiram of Lord Vishnu in His Varaha (boar) avatar, flanked by a more subtle metal relief by Arnawaz, was most reluctant to part with his Janakiram for the few days of the exhibition. A piece of art allows some measure of pride and self-expression to its owner that challenges the idea of an otherwise monotonous or impersonal work-space.

At the Durametallic factory, there are two excellent pieces of metal sculpture by Dimpy Krishnan Menon that reflect the lush beauty of the outside lawns and gardens. There is also a superb canvas by Adimoolam, which catches the serene command he has over both colour and space.

It was interesting to discover that the artist who found much favour was none other than Aziz, famous for his horses, done in a thick impasto technique with, in most cases, heavy strokes of the palette knife. It is worthwhile recalling that even the prodigious Husain first arrived on the artistic scene on the strength of his horses. One cannot help but draw a parallel. In the old days, kings who wanted to prove their superiority organised a ritual known as Aswamedha Yaga. The first part of the ritual consisted of letting loose a perfectly bred horse to roam free for a year through all the frontiers of the kingdom. If the horse returned unchallenged, the king could be certain of his supremacy.

Does the image of a horse in a corporate setting still convey a subtle message of strength and power? It is an interesting thought, which might account for the number of Aziz-bred horses galloping through the canvases of the Chemplast Collection. In the best sense of the word, the lessons of art are mooted in our past and form part of our subconscious dreams and desires as they branch out into the unknown. They are small lamps of brightness that float through the stream of eternity – nor vital perhaps in a technological age, and yet important in an intangible way  to remind us of our humanity (Courtesy: Matrix, July 1990).

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