Sentimental Education

Himali Singh Soin around the 8th India Art Fair

Left: Artist Dayanita Singh at KNMA. Right: Françoise Gardies with artist Joël Andrianomearisoa and Swiss Ambassador Linus von Castelmur. (Photo: Patrice Sour)

WE WERE CHAMPAGNE SOCIALISTS, sipping bubbly in an abandoned building, wandering through fictionalized fossils, curated cobwebs, light, dust, resin, residue. “What it did is make us all complicit,” said artist Rohini Devasher about Asim Waqif’s site-specific installation Autolysis, held at One Style Mile, the first of a row of heritage buildings with a view of the thirteenth-century QUTB Minar (the tallest brick minaret in the world), turned into contemporary restaurants and nightclubs. The opening party the Monday before last and the massive artwork’s debut, presented by Nature Morte, anticipated the rest of the week: It held up a mirror, reminding us that here beauty and glamour cannot be had without an eye to the rubble around us.

“Everything nowadays is about dystopia,” shrugged theater director Zuleikha Chaudhari. This sense of impending environmental doom as Delhi’s pollution levels escalate beyond “hazardous,” of distrust in a saffron government, of terror and its semantics, of falling technologies and too much speed, was ever present amid the false walls of the eighth India Art Fair and the events that spun off it. The unusually wide aisles at the NSIC Exhibition Grounds seemed built for an easy exit.

Left: The ruin at Asim Waqif's site-specific installation Autolysis, by Nature Morte. Right: Director Zuleikha Chaudhari with artists Rohini Devasher and Vishal Dar at One Style Mile.

The fair opened on Thursday to a slew of VIPs, including MoMA’s chief curator of performance, Stuart Comer, the Japan Society’s Amy Poster, patron Yola Noujaim, and Osman Waheed of the Lahore Biennale Foundation, as the business of buying peacefully merged with the clink of glasses and conversation. Twenty-eight galleries from Delhi joined fifty-two from elsewhere around the world, and while many of the well-known Bombay galleries chose to visit but not have booths, nonprofits such as the Nepal Art Council, Sri Lanka’s Theertha, and commercial galleries like Sabrina Amrani (Spain) and Edel Assanti (UK) showed for the first time, bringing subtlety and conceptual rigor. Also tucked into the neat white blocks were five special projects by solo artists, including Ram Rahman’s intriguing photographs of Brutalist architecture from modernist India and Delfina Foundation’s Politics of Food project, in which architect and artist duo Daniel Fernández Pascual and Alon Schwabe cook an edible map of the British Empire. In a city like Delhi, whose center has shifted from Shahjahanabad to the colonial Connaught Place, and which is still moving away from the quietude of bungalow life toward the tonier south, art that helps us locate this multiplicity is important. The fair became a microcosm of the city, where capital exists right beside its own dissent.

The sense of loss—of collective amnesia and a rawness ripe for revolution (or at least a new wash of paint)—permeated one of the week’s most promising shows. “This Night Bitten Dawn,” curated by Salima Hashmi, daughter of acclaimed Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, opened on Friday at 24 Jor Bagh, a dilapidated house owned by architect Mohit Gujral and entrepreneur and art patron Feroze Gujral, on one of the prime roads of Delhi’s most affluent neighborhoods. Inspired by Faiz’s poem “Dawn of Freedom,” the exhibition interprets the 1947 postcolonial partition between India and Pakistan through a less radical, more nostalgic lens than expected. “Emotional,” “moving,” “old-fashioned,” I heard on the staircases, through the cracked walls and the glassless windows. The disjunct between the fiction of a white cube and the reality of decay mimicked the political fiction of nationhood and the reality of division. But for a moment the evening felt communal, small-worldly, united in its brokenness. From Nissar and Amal Allana of the old Alkazi family to established artists such as Anita Dube and Bharti Kher, curators like Tate Modern’s Nada Raza, and younger thinkers such as Shanay Jhaveri and Srinivas Aditya Mopidevi, the lot teemed with a sense of legacy and regeneration.

Left: Shanay Jhaveri, assistant curator of South AsianaArt at the Metropolitan Museum. Right: Artist Subodh Gupta amid Krishna Reddy's sculptures.

In some ways, the last ten days of January are like a big Indian wedding in which the Gujral House, 24 Jor Bagh, is the house party culminating in happiness and hangovers. Our evenings together began with Martand Khosla’s architectural installations at Nature Morte, followed by Sarnath Banerjee and Guiseppe Stampone’s honest and elegant show at the Italian Embassy Cultural Centre. Later in the week we saw large-scale solos in diverse settings: Sudarshan Shetty amid the high-profile terra-cotta walls of the National Gallery of Modern Art in Lutyen’s Delhi, Sheela Gowda at Gallery SKE’s colonial building in the city’s center, Shilpa Gupta’s delicate meditations on borders, in a residential neighborhood at Vadehra Art Gallery, and Himmat Shah and Dayanita Singh’s stunning exhibitions at the mall-set Kiran Nadar Museum of Art. Here, anything is possible. I wouldn’t be surprised if I were invited to a show in a breast pocket or on top of a fort.

We were all in it together as we jumped into a variety of vehicles—from chauffeured to rickshaw—toward the Swiss Embassy on Nyaya Marg for the afterparty (theme: “Sentimental”). The black invitation read, in bold white letters, A RENDEZ-VOUS WITH THE NIGHT TO CONJURE UP THE UNFORGETTABLE AND THE UNCONSOLABLE THAT THE DAY HAS LEFT BEHIND. The building, completed in 1963, reflects a Nehru-era idea of a nonallied internationalism, its modernist structure simultaneously compact and sprawling. The pool, cut into the central foyer in a long vertical sliver, had black balloons floating in it, and bunches held up by string and helium, sporting the words AIR DE DELHI. Madagascar-born artist Joël Andrianomearisoa, who conceived the project, said that places are inherently sentimental, that “Delhi just has to explore its own desires and passions through some abstract materiality, like the air.” Still, when the balloons were set free on a strobe-lit sweaty audience dancing to Beyoncé and Katy Perry later in the night, they bounced off heads and hearts without criticality or concern. 1980s pop quickly gave way to EDM, and we resigned ourselves to the future. A library of perfumes carried scents from one side of the room to the other. A video projected phrases such as “The Progress of Love” and “I’m Yours” above us as black ties and blazers queued for fondue.

“I was never one for sentiment, rather very strong emotions,” said Raqs Media Collective’s Shuddhabrata Sengupta. “I am sentimental about tea and coffee, but emotional about people and ideas.” Toward the wee hours I said goodbye to art historian William Dalrymple, who told me that tulips had originated in Asia before the Dutch had carried them away. I can’t remember how that conversation started, but with the moon visible despite the air de Delhi, it had a sparkle of the many untold histories to which we had been made privy.

Left: At the Sentimental Swiss Party. Right: Salima Hashmi, curator of “This Night Bitten Dawn.”

Left: Art historian Sophia Powers inside Shilpa Gupta's installation at “This Night Bitten Dawn” at 24 Jor Bagh. Right: Designer Tahir Sultan and Delfina Foundation director Aaron Cezar at Sabrina Amrani's booth.

Left: Parmesh Shahani of Godrej Culture Lab. Right: ​A​rchitect and urbanist Daniel Fernández Pascual and artist Alon Schwabe from Delfina Foundation's Politics of Food project.

Left: Artist Aditya Pande. Right: Curators Gayatri Uppal and Rattanamol Singh Johal with artist Hemant Sareen, curator Andi-Asmita Rangari, artist Akanksha Rastogi, and curator Charu Maithani.

Left: Artist Giuseppe Stampone with dealer Marie-Laure Fleisch. Right: Dealer Peter Nagy and Brian Mulvill of the World Tea Party.

Left: Artist Mithu Sen. Right: Curator Vidya Shivadas and artist Jitish Kallat, curator of the 2014 Kochi Muziris Biennale.