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Spirit of experimentation lives here

Baroda is the hub of Indian contemporary art. The country’s best have lived and taught here.

"The sea, which had been beating against the shores, suddenly broke the boundary that was imposed on it by nature. The sea rushed into the city. It coursed through the streets of the beautiful city. The sea covered up everything in the city. Even as they were all looking, Arjuna saw the beautiful buildings becoming submerged one by one. He took a last look at the mansion of Krishna. It was soon covered by the sea. In a matter of a few moments it was all over. The sea had now become as placid as a lake. There was no trace of the beautiful city that had been the favourite haunt of all the Pandavas. Dwaraka became just a name; just a memory". This is an account of the submergence of Dwarka taken from the Mahabharata. It is said that at about the time that Lord Krishna, was killed by a hunter’s arrow near Somnath, Dwarka, Krishna’s capital, disappeared into the sea.

It is not rare to come upon eager-beaver-eyed art dealers and impresarios alighting from trains and planes at Vadodara with shopping lists. Nor to see them depart with rolled up canvases and sheaths of watercolours under their arms and a triumphant look in their eyes - the metres in their heads ticking up the percentages. Trend-spotting art historians and art critics also converge in this mecca of sorts for contemporary art. International art experts and museum wallahs make it a point to stop by and absorb some of the atmosphere of this happening city in Gujarat.

To say that Baroda is the paramount centre and exclusive fountainhead of contemporary art in India would be an exaggeration. But there is no denying the fact that this eloquently designed city remains the hub of modern Indian art. Many of the bright Indian artists have studied here, taught here, and often, done both. Some, like Bhupen Khakar, just live and paint here. The internationally known painter (the National Portrait Gallery in London commissioned him to do a portrait of author Salman Rushdie) could almost be described as a tourist attraction for the cognoscenti of the art world.

He may look a bit like a leprechaun with a shoulder bag and an impish grin and of course, his shock of white hair. But this chronicler of the middle class and the world of ordinary human beings has changed the vocabulary of images for many of the young artists and students in Baroda. The characters of his painted world seem to even spill out into the streets. You know, often we see a man go by on a bicycle or walk past and we say: ‘There goes a Bhupen Khakar character’," says Birender Pani, a young painter in Baroda who moved here from Calcutta. Khakar, in fact, was the first to take calendar and poster art into an art gallery. And he, along with Mansaram and Vivan Sundaram was able to exploit the subversive potential of Pop art.

Most movements or fads of art find their way to Baroda. And many of its much-laurelled artist-inhabitants like Shibu Natesan, Dhruva Mistry, Rekha Rodwittiya, Nilima Sheikh, Surenderan Nair, Gulam Muhamad Sheikh, Natraj Sharma, Anandjit Ray, Akkitham Vasudevan and many others are among the well considered and significant artists of the country. The network of Baroda alumni spans the country and many parts of the word. Former students of Faculty of Fine Arts at Maharaja Siyajirao University of Baroda now head many of the art institutions in India and in some of the SAARC countries.

What sets Baroda apart from other cities is its spirit of experimentation and a sense of dynamism. And one of the reasons for this ambiance could be the Faculty of Fine Arts. Attached to the M.S. University of Baroda, the FFA is the epicenter of art activity in this city. The most important aspect of the FFA is its legacy of tradition. And for this one has to thank its lodestars-artist-teachers Nandalal Bose, Sankho Chadhuri, NS Bendre, K.G. Subramanyan and art historian V.R. Ambekar who redefined the teaching of art and history.

These gurus also brought with them the tradition of looking at art as a vocation. As painter Nilima Sheikh so cogently writes in the book, Contemporary Art in Baroda: Sanko Chadhuri and K.G. Subramanyan brought to Baroda the inspiring lineage of the most fecund days at Santiniketan. But they also brought caution - about the freezing of creativity, the degeneration of ideology into dogma and stereotype, once the day of the genius passes…..It may be ventured that the unworldly spirit that had infused the vocational at Santiniketan, encountered at Baroda a down-to-earth Gujarati reality." The ideal was the integration of work and life.

Not only was M.S. University of Baroda the first to offer a degree in fine arts, it also pioneered art education. One must add, however, that the FFA is just one of the factors responsible for giving Baroda so prominent a place on the art map of the world. The city has a long tradition of art, much of the impetus from its erstwhile rulers, especially Maharaja Sayajirao III Gaekwad. He invited Raja Raja Ravi Varma to Baroda-and his legacy of fourteen canvases still does the city proud. Established in the late 19th century Kalabhavan was a school for crafts and technology and there was a fair amount of flexibility here. In fact, the city even had its share of the Bengal revivalist style: Nandalal Bose worked on murals at Kiriti Mandir.

The royal tradition continues. The Baroda School is best known for its narrative-figurative style, which came into existence in the 70s and 80s. But the figures began to disappear in the 90s. And the era of installations, pop art, kitsch, minimalist and post-modern art began. Today the art scene may appear fragmented, with most artists following their own styles. In today’s world, anything goes with everything: Western with Eastern, old with new.

But Baroda continues to be at the crossroads, with a confluence of artists and trends from all over the country and elsewhere. The sons and daughters of Gujarat like painters Manu Parekh and his wife Madhavai (and even their daughter Maneesha) keep coming back.) As do Baroda alumni, and indeed the hunter-impresarios when the art scene gets dull elsewhere.

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