Nandita Das on the JD Centre of Arts, the vision nurtured by her father, the artist Jatin Das
Every January for the past ten years, I have gone to Bhubanesawar to participate in the National Film Festival on Art and Artists. It’s the only festival of its kind in the country. While it is attended by film-makers, artists and the Who’s Who of the city, the largest growing contingent is always of young people. It’s exciting to see new faces with every passing festival, many who have never seen a documentary film – let alone one on art.
But the festival is only a means to an end, like some of the other programmes of the JD Centre of Art, founded by my father Jatin Das. As an artist, he should have focused more on his own work, but instead he nurtured the vision of an art centre that would preserve and promote tribal, folk, classical and contemporary art all under one roof, without the conventional boundaries between them.
This vision is finally manifesting itself on an acre of land, across from the 2nd Century BCE Khandgiri caves. It was given to him by the Odisha government, and the construction of the first phase has begun with the help of some funds given by the Union ministry of culture. The master-plan and design are by the renowned architect Balakrishna V Doshi, a close friend of Baba’s (that’s what I call him).
When he was in his twenties, in Mumbai, my father began what has grown into a major collection of contemporary paintings, artifacts, handicrafts, antiquities and books from India and all over the world. All this – along with his own body of work, spanning 50 years – will be the primary collection at JDCA. It has about 5,000 art objects, in addition to the 5,000 hand fans that have already been exhibited nationally and internationally; more than 20,000 hours of audio and video-recording on traditional, tribal and folk art and culture; over 8,000 books, about 1700 films, close to 50,000 slides and 100,000 photographs on art and crafts. All these are meticulously preserved in boxes and are waiting to be exhibited.
Baba is deeply rooted to his birthplace, and having grown up surrounded by art and handicrafts, he aches at seeing it vanish or morph to cater to kitschy market demands. Odisha has had many names in different periods of history – Orissa, Kalinga and Utkala, which comes from Utkrishta kala which literally means ‘excellence in arts’. But despite the state’s rich cultural heritage, it is falling into the trap of plastic culture. The idea of a film festival purely about art and artists stemmed from that need to provide an exposure and create an awareness about the visual arts.
Earlier this January, this festival was held in its usual public venue, the IDCOL auditorium. It opened with a short film, On BV Doshi, followed by The Seventh Walk, a film by Amit Dutta on the artist Paramjit Singh. Among the other films were Avijit Mukul Kishore’s Certified Universal, and A Painter’s Portrait, a film on artist Amitav Das by K. Bikram Singh. Every year there is a section on a particular theme, for instance Buddhist Art and Culture or Tribal and Folk Art.
Since this year’s focus was Odisha’s Art and Culture, there were films like Patachitra by Punendu Patri and Divine Shadows by Girija Pattnaik. International films like Vincent van Gogh by Eline Timmer and on Let the Scream be Heard, about Edvard Munch, by Dheeraj Akolkar were hugely attended and appreciated. While we take it for granted that artists like these don’t need any introduction, in Odisha they did. Young people watched Van Gogh’s work in complete awe, and after Dheeraj’s film, they couldn’t fathom why The Scream fetched 120 million dollars in auction in 2012.
Between screenings there were talks: Geeti Sen, an art historian, talked about the ‘Figure in Contemporary Indian Painting’, while Baba shared his ‘Journey of JDCA’. I spoke about ‘Volunteering in Art’, reminiscing on the days in college when I volunteered with Spic Macay. Art is always seen as an indulgence of the elite – a field that needs patronage, not volunteers. So I shared what I understood as art and what an intrinsic part of life it has been, right from the stone age. It adds colour to our lives and deserves support. Baba used to lament, “Why is someone like me called an artist, but a folk or tribal artist is called an artisan? Why are they nameless, faceless people while contemporary artists are mostly about a name?” I’ve known of master craftsmen and women who struggle to make ends meet – whose children, despite learning the art, prefer to break stones on the road. My session ran long past its time-slot as we shared questions, concerns and personal experiences.
Outside there were stalls of crafts and handloom, with live demonstrations of lacquer toy making and weaving. The delegates from outside the state learnt a lot about the Odisha they never knew. Few people in the rest of the country even know what Odiyas eat, or that the cuisine is so sophisticated, with many kinds of peethas (pancakes), tarkaris (vegetables) and – being a coastal state with rivers like the Mahanadi and Subarnarekha – fish preparations. I say this not as an Odiya, but as a reasonably travelled foodie: The variety and subtlety of home-cooked Odiya meals is unique. At the JDCA, the cooking was not by Bhubaneswar caterers, but by women from Mayurbhanj, who had never cooked for more than 40 people before, and now had to cook for hundreds. Of course, that’s what the outsiders ended up talking about the most.
Everything the JDCA has undertaken so far, including the Film Festival, has largely been funded by my father. As a painter who seldom likes to exhibit, and is not in the ‘art market’, he has had a challenging journey. It is primarily his own passion and that of others who have joined as trustees or friends of JDCA – and of course his children — that has kept it going. But at this year’s Festival, the Chief Minister of Odisha, Naveen Patnaik, announced that the government would fully partner with JDCA to organise the Festival from the next year.
I am personally invested in this project not just as a daughter, a trustee of JDCA and an art lover but because I have seen a man relentlessly, selflessly committed to it. Baba once said, “In my mind, the Centre is already there – the objects are in place, a poet is reading under a tree and a potter is working at the wheel. I am in a hurry to build because the building itself is only the beginning.”
It is hard for me to believe that Baba will turn seventy five this year. His childlike wonderment has made him dream of this Centre, and his optimism has kept him going against all odds. The walls of the first gallery have barely come up, but he already knows where to serve the tulsi and lemongrass tea.
Nandita Das is an award-winning actress, director and a trustee of the JD Centre of Art.