|Creator of Cultural Debris, Acrylic on canvas, 2009, by N S Harsha|
ALMOST OUT of the blue, global eyeballs have been riveted on a location beyond the Indian metros over six months in 2008. Their focus? An artist named N.S. Harsha, 39, in Mysore.
In November 2007, his painting, a 2003 acrylic titled Mass Marriage, attracted the top bid of HK$6.4 million at the Christie’s Hong Kong sale of Asian contemporary art (as a second sale, it did not benefit the artist). More recently, in April, H arsha was awarded the £40,000 biennial third Artes Mundi prize in Cardiff, for his collective body of work over the past five-eight years. It is the first time in recent memory that an Indian has bagged a major international art award. Call it the Booker prize of the visual arts world, if you will.
In the Indian art market, valued at roughly Rs 1,000-1,400 crore, art auctions have been the arbitrary arbiters of pricing and reputation over the past 15 years or more, fuelled by a market-fixated media. The Artes Mundi (Arts of the World) award realigns this perspective. It is the largest British international art prize, one of the most generously endowed globally. It recognises outstanding emerging artists from around the world who discuss the human condition.
This year’s prize had 400 nominations from 64 countries, chosen through visits to major expositions such as the Kassel Documenta and the Venice Biennale, besides artists’ studios, by two eminent curator-selectors — Isabel Carlos from Portugal (artistic director, Sydney Biennale, 2004), and Olabisi Silva from Nigeria (co-curator, Dakar Biennale, 2006). Five judges then picked from a shortlist of eight.
Ever since its launch in 2004, the Artes Mundi award has celebrated individuality, including non-traditional art media such as performance, photography, video and installation. The first winner, China-born, New York-based conceptual artist Xu Bing, was one of the five judges for the 2008 award. He covered the floor of the Welsh National Museum and Gallery with 9/11 dust gathered from Ground Zero. On its surface, a line from the founder of Zen Buddhism in China, Hiu-neng (638-713), stood out, “As there is nothing from the first, where does the dust collect itself?”
In 2006, Finnish artist Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s installation The House, projected on three huge video screens for 13.5 minutes, accompanied by a disembodied female voice, determined the final choice.
|Detail from NS Harsha, 'Mass Marriage,' 2003, acrylic on canvas, 168 x 290 cm|
Globally, art has long moved beyond drawing, painting, and sculpture. Once a Mysore-rooted graphic designer, Harsha celebrates multiplicity — through narrative paintings, installations, and community workshops with children in Mysore, Tumkur, Brisbane, even Taipei. His references stem from historical Mysore, besides his travels to China, Ireland, France, Japan and beyond. He toys with botanical roots, the rangoli, textbook illustrations, bazaar art, the comic book, even Company painting. In the adventurous spirit of Bing and Ahtila, he is uniquely himself, an individual sans boundaries.
At the ongoing Artes Mundi exhibition at Cardiff from March 15 to June 8, Harsha shares a 36 ft. wide, six-panel, 2007-08 acrylic titled ‘Come give us a speech,’ which he painted for six months. Sly, witty and potent with timely reflections, it appears repetitive, yet morphs with every engagement. Its hundreds of dramatis personae include Ganesha, Ravana, Gandhi-capped figures, a woman giving birth, besides a Rodin sculpture! Alongside it is his floor painting, ‘The School Within,’ vibrant with sleeping figures, monuments, even pages from Indian textbooks.
Schooled in art at Mysore and Baroda, Harsha’s journey to Cardiff began, in a sense, when his work was presented at the 1999 Third Asia Pacific Triennial at Brisbane, alongside stalwarts such as Rummana Husain, Surendran Nair, and Ravinder Reddy, each an individual resonance in today’s art mart. Since then, Harsha — the uprooted inheritor of a future imperfect — has juggled traditional rites and a contemporary aesthetic, folktales and futuristic narratives.
In his first (rather belated) 2006-07 solo show, titled ‘Charming Nation,’ his 12 linked canvases melded yet questioned the local-global schism. ‘Nations’, his installation at the Shanghai Art Fair 2007, drew together hand-painted flags from the 192 United Nations States, atop Chinese sewing machines, amidst a tangle of threads and scattered fabric on the floor. Does the Artes Mundi award portend the coming of age of the small-town Indian artist? Premilla Baid of Bangalore’s Gallery Sumukha observes, “The award underlines international interest in Indian art. The catalogue for the Sotheby’s New York sale on May 14-15 lists work by Indians like Subodh Gupta, Riyaz Komu, Bose Krishnamachari and T V Santosh, along with western contemporary giants like Robert Rauschenberg, Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock! Next year, India will be the guest country at both Madrid’s Arco 2009 and at the Korea International Art Fair.”
Bangalore-based art collector Harish Padmanabha says, “This sets a new benchmark, catapulting Indian art into a league beyond NRI collectors. We now take the lead over Chinese or Vietnamese art… Harsha is uniquely relevant to our geographical and historical scenario. He’s not aping anybody.”
Pushpamala N., Bangalore’s internationally noted photo-performance and video artist, states, “In Bangalore/ Karnataka, artists are recognised for making experimental socially-aware work in media such as earth works, public art, installations, collaborative works, photography, video and performance. The Artes Mundi award is like the saffron in the payasa or the cherry on the icing….”
Is art finally a gauge of its own worth? Xu Bing, responding over email from London, says, “I focus on the creative quality of my work, in making a contribution to a new artistic language, and having an impact on society. This value will naturally translate into commercial value…. Winning the award made me believe that making good work is still what is most important, that nothing else is.”
Caught in the cross-beams of international limelight, perhaps Harsha will be tempted to opt for a studio year in, say, New York or Berlin. Speaking at his century-old home in Mysore’s Lakshmipuram, the reticent artist muses, “Creativity is a phenomenon that needs to be understood within the social context. Money poses challenges in its different avatars. I am trying to live with such external events: a record today, maybe an unsold piece in my studio tomorrow. It should not matter….”
He smiles, “The more I travel, the more I am a stranger to myself. I am from neither here nor there. I feel like a beaker, brimming with deeply-rooted yet nomadic thoughts. It’s a fabulous internal journey. I guess my art reflects these thoughts.”
Brave words in a global art scene brimming with uncharted horizons. Harsha’s is a distinctive voice in a generation set free by the legacy of Abanindranath Tagore and M F Husain, Riyaz Komu and Sheela Gowda, to pick random stars. His future, in all possibility, will fuse a homing with a roaming.
(Originally in The Hindu Business Line, 2008)