The Arts

'India Should Consider Cultural Exchanges Much More Diverse Than British'

French art historian Catherine David on Indian art, cuisine, Calcutta and more.

Catherine David is in the beautiful upgraded Painting Gallery of the Indian Museum in Kolkata. She is a French art historian who is deputy director of the National Museum of Modern Art at the Centre Georges Pompidou, and was the first woman and the first non-German speaker to curate documenta X in Kassel, Germany, in 1997. Till date, she has curated 80 exhibitions.

David stands before a Sunayani Debi painting of a folk doll-like cross-dressed Krishna Radha in the gallery. Asked about the gender switch, she exclaims “gender fluid…” And it hangs in the air …

She inspects a painting of Gaganendranath Tagore in the same gallery – a small work depicting steps receding into the darkness that has splintered liked a shattered mirror. “You see there are extraneous elements in his work. It reminds me of the great German director …” She trails off when cannot recall the name right then. Perhaps she was referring to Max Reinhardt.

While David said the conservation of the paintings was of high quality, she felt the miniature gallery is better organised than the Bengal School collection as, in the former, even without looking at the labels, one could easily trace the evolution of the works. And a signage should attract visitors’ attention to “exceptional nature” of the Bharhut gallery, which can otherwise be easily overlooked.

David was in India last month on the invitation of the Raza Foundation and the French Embassy and was exploring the possibilities of holding an exhibition of Sayed Haider Raza’s works at the Centre Pompidou to coincide with the artist’s birth centenary in 2022. During her three-day stay in Kolkata, she was hosted by Reena and Abhijit Lath of Akar Prakar. She even visited Santiniketan for two days.

I had conversations with her on two successive days after lunch, veering from one topic to another – from Bengali meals on the first day to the Laths served spicy Marwari food on the second, supplemented by biryani and firni, and on both occasions she enjoyed the rich cuisine. David seemed to take the heat and crowds of the city in her stride. That was probably in keeping with the keen interest she takes in the Bengal School and the city – “Calcutta” for her – where it was born.

“When you look at the development of Calcutta, it was much more pragmatic than Rio or other capitals. Calcutta was one of the first globalised capitalist cities. When it comes to visual art, modernity begins with the Bengal School and what it produced,” Catherine David says, rebutting claims made by the camp that would have us believe that the honour of pioneering the modernist movement in India should go to the Progressive Artists’ Group formed in 1947 in Bombay by the likes of F.N. Souza, Raza and Husain. “Souza’s manifesto is OK. I don’t see that as radical. They became famous only after the group dissolved. It is not an interesting discourse. It has to be more sophisticated, analytical.”

David puts much store by sophistication – complexity and subtlety. After the launch of a book titled Purity of Vision on Meera Mukherjee published by Akar Prakar, Raza Foundation and Emami Art, where a film on the sculptor was screened, David said: “She is not famous in Europe. She is interesting not just because of her technique, or because each figure she created was different, but because there was a different idea behind each of them.” David was taken in by Mukherjee’s immersion in Indian classical music, her sophistication and her “idiosyncratic” art “which referred to a specific socio-cultural and political moment.”

Also read: Pursuing Critical Practice – the Works of ‘Theatrewallah’ Sunil Shanbag

David made a strong case for the intellectual breadth of the Bengal School, which, in certain circles, is written off as a mere revivalist movement. “In Bengal they were very conscious. Abanindranath [Tagore] was not copying the Japanese. There were many elements introduced in his miniatures,” David continued.

She said the Bengal School artists and even Ganesh Pyne chose to work on paper not because it is cheap, but because of its “intimacy”. She went so far as to say that these works are often “underestimated” because these are “small images – not good for collections”, and one has to pay attention to the climate and surroundings when storing them. She feels that “when it comes to modern, there are many things to be done.” The Indian modern is not known very well, not even in India, a point she stressed several times during the conversation.

David emphasised that India should stop obsessing with the UK, because “it is important for India today to look at itself in different mirrors.” She cited the examples of Octavio Paz, who “pushed to see connections between Mexico and India,” and the French historian, Indologist and musicologist Alain Danielou, who in early 20th century looked beyond the “bizarre” and “exotic” India, “India should unwrap itself, consider cultural exchanges much more diverse than British.”

Underlining the difference between modern and contemporary art, David said globalisation goes way back to the 16th century when the connection with the market was established, and its effect has not always been beneficial. “What we see is only one aspect of Indian art” – “cliché simplification” sought by the market. One has to work so that a collection is more “inclusive” and not just “tutti-frutti” – one of Tagore and one of Abanindranath, and such like. “One has to find a good dynamic between one’s collection and temporary exhibitions. It should help people understand different forms of modernism, not necessarily Cubist.”

David was not totally dismissive of the market, because the “market contributed to bringing certain kind of art to the world.” Yet, sounding a note of warning, she added: “But a market is not all. There should be a balance between what market seeks and critical practice.”

Referring to the works of Bhupen Khakhar, Catherine David was opposed to over-emphasis on him being gay – “he opened up only after the death of his mother” – and overplaying gender politics. “I can’t stand any of this,” she exclaimed in exasperation. She was all for gender fluidity though. To her, Khakhar’s “porosity”, his “attention to common people and the unattractive” were more vital.

Touching on the exhibition being planned for Sayed Haider Raza’s birth centenary, David said she was considering putting him in dialogue with a contemporary like Kishen Khanna or maybe Ram Kumar, as their early works had a “common point.” Everything being in a fluid state now, Catherine David is expected to make her decisions by the end of this month.

Soumitra Das is a Kolkata-based journalist.