Recession is the best thing that's happened to the art market, says Tunty Chauhan
We all know about art curators, art critics, art historians and even art-dealers. But we are not too sure about the place and the role of a gallerist in the system. But we meet them all the time, especially at the opening of the art exhibitions with their regulation wine-and-cheese parties.
Tunty Chauhan of Threshold Art Gallery is willing to talk about what it is to be a gallerist. She hints at the need to have deep pockets to be able to run a gallery or the mad passion for being in it. She confesses that her journey began with nothing but passion, but now she realises that it is also a business and she thinks that she has been managed to arrive at a balance between the two. But Chauhan has no doubts that it is her love of art that keeps her in the business above anything else, though she knows that money is needed to hold shows, pay the rent of the gallery as well as the salaries of the staff.
Chauhan is friendly, charming and a little mysterious. She tells you about the forthcoming marriage of her daughter and how she would be taking her mind away from the gallery and art shows for quite some time, her admiration for her eldest son who is a fund manager and a third son who is into his first job in Bengaluru. “I was married young,” she says with an enigmatic smile playing on the lips.
She is no artist – “I cannot even draw” – but she is quite assertive when she says that she is passionate about art and she is not in the business for money. “There is no money in art,” she says, the smile that does not reveal much is back again on her lips.
Chauhan thinks she acquired her love for art because of her parents — father was an army officer and mother an artist — who took their children on travels across the country in the Fiat first, then in the Ambassador car, trundling into towns and villages, looking at architecture. “We got to see a lot,” she says.
After 12 schools and a B.A. in French — “I can’t speak a word of French,” she says and smiles yet again — and economics from St. Bede’s College in Shimla. She went to live in Vishakhapatnam post-marriage, where her husband had a seafood export business. And it is in Vishakhapatnam that she took to art as an organiser of workshops instead of settling down to “the life of a lady of leisure” and going to kitty parties to fill the empty hours. Instead, she went to the Fine Arts Department at the University of Andhra, where painter Laxma Goud was teaching, and discovered artists like V Ramesh.
Chauhan moved to and fro between Vishakhapatnam and Delhi, taking more than 60 artists to the eastern port town, where there were workshops, interaction with the students, and the works that were created formed the base for the gallery she had set up—Threshold — in 1997. The first show she organised was that of the ‘pata-chitra’ artists of Raghurajpur in Odisha.
What was it like engaging with art in Vishakhapatnam? “There is no awareness of art in the south,” she says quite emphatically, throwing hesitancy and mildness to winds, and willing to indulge in a provocative generalisation. “One identified south with culture, with music, with dance. My daughter started learning dance at the age of three. But there is no appreciation for visual art in the south.”
She moved back to Delhi in 2003 after a family setback and relocated her gallery as well. She set up shop in Lado Sarai in south Delhi. Chauhan thinks that there was a mutual respect and bonhomie among the gallery owners in Delhi, and it was a good time for the art market for a few years. She is, however, quick to add, “I am not a successful businesswoman. I was successful in finding myself,” she says with a quiet certainty in her voice. The smile recedes into the background this time round.
What is her view of the art-buyer in India? Is there a new class of buyers? What kind of taste do they reveal? She is sure that buying of art is not confined to the super-rich any longer. “The upper middle class, private company executives are the new buyers. They are in a position to spend Rs 10 lakh to Rs 20 lakh for a work of art.”
But she has critical observations up her sleeve: “The buyers of art do not as yet see the work of art. They listen to what others are saying about a work of art and what others have bought.” Secondly, she thinks that acquiring an artwork is seen as part of the interior decoration project. The buyers have no inherent interest in the work of art itself.
And then she comes out with a sharp observation: “The economic recession is the best thing to have happened to the art market.” People are not any more buying art as an investment. It has been good for the artists too. She says, “They have gone back to doing what they should be doing— working on artwork.”
So, has it given her satisfaction that she discovered new artists in her role as a gallerist? She says that her greatest finds have been V Ramesh and Achie Anzi, an Israeli, who now lives in India and translates Ghalib’s poetry into Hebrew even as he does his sculptures. She remembers how she did not pay attention to the importunate Anzi when he sent her an e-mail with pictures of his work, seeking the gallery space for exhibiting his work. It was only later when he approached her to hold the show of an Indian artist living in Israel that he reminded her about his e-mail. And she was bowled over.
What are the lessons she learned on the way as a gallerist? She says that Laxma Goud once told her that it is not right for a gallerist to facilitate the show of an art school student. He told her that the student has not developed the “vocabulary of art”, and that it would be a “disservice” to give him or her early exposure because that would not allow the novice to gain mastery over the medium. The premature art exhibition would derail his learning process. “That was a valuable lesson for me,” she says and she acknowledges it as part of her learning curve.
She has come a long way. She says that she “trusts her eye”. Chauhan is happy when an exhibition is not popular, or an artwork is overlooked because she is aware that the art worth of the neglected works is more and not less.
After 19 years on the scene, she felt strong enough to do an exhibition of her own, based on the elusive and daring question, “What is beauty in art?” She approached artists with the question as the idea of the exhibition. It opened on August 24 at Threshold Art Gallery and will be on till October 4. She found that her rapport with the artists over the years has been such that they were ready to collaborate. Apart from the many new artists, she has the works of Gulam Shaikh and Nilima Shaikh in the show, exploring the question that she has formulated.
It appears that after all these years as a gallerist and the fluctuations in fortune that she has undergone, the lessons she has learned and the experience she has gained, Chauhan has now arrived with a proposition with regard to art.
This was Tunty Chauhan’s proposition: “Is beauty a ‘bad’ word in the age of cutting-edge, angst-ridden art?”
She lays down the plan of the exhibition, which she says she had been working on her in mind for many years now:
“For this exhibition, we invited ten contemporary artists whose practice is rooted in the miniature tradition of painting. They were asked to critically examine the aesthetics of our time from their own individual standpoints.
Keeping in view their concerns and ideologies we posited the question, is the concept of beauty consciously/subconsciously an important ingredient in the execution of their artwork? Does it decide the imagery and the formal choices they make?”
Art historian BN Goswami has provided the text, which serves as a context for the exhibition, and the artworks themselves make their own statement.
But the fact that Tunty Chauhan picked up the courage to raise the question remains significant. She refers to the Andy Warhol remark that anything that can get away is art. She is not dismissive of the iconoclast but she wants to get back to the basic question about art. The exhibition is aptly titled: Revisiting Beauty.