The Girl Who Didn’t Play with Fire

Rashmi Rajgopal repents from the depths of hell while telling you about Manmayee Desai, a promising digital artist from Mumbai.

It’s really hot in here. I can’t remember what happened. I interviewed a digital artist, and then I woke up and found myself on fire. And these awful midget demons jabbing me—stop that! How did this happen?

Till now, I’ve had reason to believe that post-1985 millennials from Mumbai are part of a doomed generation. Which includes me *gasp*. Because it’s been rubbed in so often—from school, right into college; stuff popping up on the internet and this slightly ominous article about Gen-Y from TIME I read a few months ago. For those of you NOT part of my generation and yearning to find a reason to shake your disappointed heads at us but unable to indulge in that pleasure thanks to restrictions on reading this article, it’s everything you hate about us with a slightly positive note at the end of it. We get saved. Kind of like Noah’s Ark. Or Vishnu’s matsya avatar. Not to say you’re Noah or the matsya, but we’re saved.

But before that, we must suffer. I’ll be honest. I’m most—if not all—of what this article says my generation is. I was drowning along with the rest of the millennials in a cesspool of narcissism and entitlement.  Then a dubious-looking-yet-graceful horse appeared and pulled me out. I jumped onto it, big as it was, and scoffed at the drowning millennials. Horse went trotting along prettily for a bit, tripped and fell along with me into a quicksand of narcissism, entitlement, arrogance and tripey ingenuity-without-having-to-try-too-hard and drowned. Just when I was about to resign, a girl walked along.

“You look like you could do with a little help,” she said, offering me a hand. Source: (Reproduced with artist’s permission)

“You look like you could do with a little help,” she said, offering me a hand.
Source: (Reproduced with artist’s permission)

Manmayee Desai, digital artist, NID graduate. I looked at her askance, caught somewhere between a thank-you and a how-did-you-avoid-falling-into-the-quicksand enquiry. Googling her, deviantART threw up some pretty awesome artwork. Her works—what I initially perceived to be an influence of manga—also feature on her blog Guzuguzu, where you get to see how she has been growing with her work. Couldn’t risk falling into another cesspool of misinformed opinions running in my head, though. When asked, she spoke of her admiration for and understanding of Japanese aesthetics (me: bingo…oh wait, not manga): of a “quiet sense of symmetry”, and the beauty in the dichotomy of Indian and Japanese culture.

“Ah yes, I see what you mean,” I said, scratching my chin. Source: (Reproduced with artist’s permission)

“Ah yes, I see what you mean,” I said, scratching my chin.
Source: (Reproduced with artist’s permission)

But that wasn’t good enough for info-gluttony-me, so I turned it into a very brief Q&A session, and she kindly obliged. My partiality led me to frame questions based on her more recent art:

Me: When did you first discover Japanese art? Was this an immediate liking you developed, or did it intrigue you into researching the technique and style of the art?

Manmayee: I recently discovered that I was very subconsciously influenced by Japanese art. The encyclopaedias that I pored over when I was very young, the bedtime stories that my mother read me, were all (incidentally) Japanese publications. One of my most prized childhood books (that influenced me quite a bit in my formative years) was ‘14 Mice Move House’ by Kazuo Iwamura. I began reading Japanese literature in high school and watched a lot of Japanese modern classics during the time as well. Since then it has become a more obvious and conscious fascination. I have researched Japanese art and culture out of curiosity rather than a conscious desire to inculcate its sensibilities in my work. If some of my work happens to look Japanese, it is a happy coincidence, or a very subconscious integration of my Japanese-biased (so to speak) ideas of aesthetics in art.

Iwamura’s mice have it better than Gen-Y. Source:

Iwamura’s mice have it better than Gen-Y.

Me: Reading about the Bengal School and Progressives gives rise to many questions—a pertinent one being their need for seeking inspiration from indigenous sources. Agreed that their circumstances were very different from ours—we were born amidst a free India and grew up with markets opening up to other countries, which has given us the freedom to carve our own paths. Yet the need to “conform” to a collective identity—though rightfully this shouldn’t be held as a prototype—in some way often seeps in for anyone dealing with the fine arts. As an artist, do you find the need for being “rooted” in Indian traditions?

Manmayee: I do not feel bound to Indian art. Is it beckoning me and asking me to be more like it? Not really, simply because it isn’t me, I do not identify with it fully. I have never really been forced by my parents or loved ones to be ‘more Indian’, ‘more normal’, ‘more like a girl’ and have therefore found a very comfortable place for myself between all of these things. I do respect and admire Indian art and culture, but at the same time I do not feel obligated to subscribe to it.

“The nationalists never saw this coming,” I thought to myself. Source: (Reproduced with artist’s permission)

“The nationalists never saw this coming,” I thought to myself.
Source: (Reproduced with artist’s permission)

Me: Is it important for you to develop a personal idiom? If you do, do you see a probability of a collision in dichotomy that you see in the cultures of India and Japan? Would you want for them to reconcile in some way, or would you like for them to remain mutually exclusive?

Manmayee: It would certainly be interesting to see the twain meet, as they are so very different from one another in every aspect. Again, it is not a conscious decision to inculcate a certain cultural identity into my work. I rarely think about what I am going to make. It is often a brief glimpse of an idea, a concept, a colour combination, a certain composition of forms: which then transforms itself into a finished piece of work. Having said that, yes it is important for every artist to develop a personal idiom. It is such an expressive medium that one can rarely ever lie through it. Sometimes it is difficult to connect with an artist’s work because it is trying so hard to be something it is not.
As of now I am exploring the many possibilities of art and design and am yet to find a definite and personal form of self-expression.

“And the inspiration for The Magic Faraway Tree is Enid Blyton,” said Manmayee. Source: (Reproduced with artist’s permission)

“And the inspiration for The Magic Faraway Tree is Enid Blyton,” said Manmayee.
Source: (Reproduced with artist’s permission)

Me: I believe you still see yourself growing with your artwork, and growth never does cease. But at this point, do you feel a need to consciously seek out a personal style, or do you see it as a shackling down of possibilities?

Manmayee: In a way I am trying to find a personal style. It is necessary as a designer (which is my primary position) to have a certain way of doing things, for which clients approach you and choose you. This is what sets you apart from the millions of other designers and makes you such a necessary component of the design industry. However as an artist, I am in no hurry to find that definite style since discovering art as a medium itself has been such a rewarding process.  There is no real hurry to be a certain way or to fit into a certain glove because I think the medium fits around you instead. It develops and hones you into a certain kind of person and helps you transcend many personal shortcomings. I think this is a lifelong process, and I think really lucky artists are still being moulded and changed to the very end, until their work transcends them and becomes a part of the human experience, something that is universal and celebrated.


After the interview, Rashmi thanked Manmayee and turned around beaming, thinking she’d discovered some secret formula to success. Since she’d clearly not learned her lesson from the cesspool OR quicksand incident, the ground below her opened up to the fires of hell and she fell right in. She will return after suffering for her sins.

The Little Taj Mahal of France

Elisabetta Marabotto of Saffronart reveals a secret place in France

London: If you have always wanted to visit one of the world seven wonders i.e. The Taj Mahal, but never managed to accomplish your dream I have the perfect solution for you!

Last week for the first time in 135 years “The Pavilion of India” in Courbevoie near Paris, opened to the public. Originally the building was erected in 1878 for the Universal Exhibition of Paris in order to display Indian art, jewellery and crafts after the return of the Prince of Wales from India in 1876.


Its initial location was on the spot where the Eiffel Tower is now located and it was set up in a larger building. The original structure was almost destroyed and parts of it were sold to different owners.

Now a set of shiny domes covered in 10,000 gold foils overlook the town of Courbevoie. The current architecture and interior of the building are not strictly Indian but shows a variety of styles. The director of the “Pavilion des Indes”, Emanuelle Trief-Touchard says, “It’s a vision that we had of India, of the far-east, at that time. We’ve freely mixed the styles, forms and colour to give an idea of the exoticism at the end of the 19th century.”


One of the highlights of the pavilion is the extraordinary view on the Eiffel Tower.


Perhaps the story behind the Pavilion of India is not as romantic as the one of The Taj Mahal, but it is still an interesting building narrating our past history.

Book your visit in advance since only 19 people are allowed at a time. For more information visit Pavillon des Indes.

Kallat for Kochi

Aaina Bhargava of Saffronart on Jitish Kallat’s appointment as the curator for the second edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennial in 2014.


London: Jitish Kallat, by any standard, is one of the internationally most well established Indian contemporary artists.  Which is perhaps why his appointment as the next curator of the Kochi-Muziris Biennial (KMB) comes as no surprise. Declared by Hon. Mayor of Cochin, Mr. Tony Chammany, as the official curator of Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2014, he was selected by an elite and diverse panel of Indian art professionals put together by the Kochi Biennial Foundation.  Consisting of art historian Geeta Kapur, director of Dr. Bhau Daji Laad Museum, Tasneem Mehta, director of Outset India and the Gujral Foundation, Feroz Gujral, director of Gallery Maskara, Abhay Maskara, artists Sheela Gowda and Balan Nambiar, and the President and General Secretary of the Kochi Biennale Foundation, Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu, they provided the following official statement in support of their choice:

“To continue the unique character of this artist led Biennale we are selecting Jitish Kallat as the new curator for the 2014 edition. Jitish brings immense international experience to the next Biennale. He possesses sound theoretical knowledge about contemporary art along with a diverse yet meticulous approach to his own practice. We are confident that Jitish will curate an innovative and experiential second edition.”

Because the legitimacy of biennials is essentially evaluated based on their constant recurrence,  the successful execution of the second edition biennial becomes imperative to its future continuation and representation of contemporary art in India.  The first edition of the KMB, already having been declared ‘the second largest running biennial in the world after Venice, with almost 400,000 visitors’, has provided the KB Foundation and government of Kerala with motive to not only maintain but progress the standard established in 2012.  Appointing Kallat as curator is clearly an attempt to cement the KMB’s reputation as a legitimate institution.  He has participated in countless biennials, his works have been exhibited at major museums around the world, so given his international exposure, critical acclaim, and commercial success as an artist his representation and endorsement of the biennial certainly adds great value to the entire event.  Even if he does lack curatorial experience, he has extensive experience with biennials, and an understanding of how they function.  Additionally, he also happens have Keralite roots, hailing from Thrissur, although he was born and bought up in Mumbai.

Jitish Kallat for Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2014

Jitish Kallat for Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2014. Image Credit:

From a political perspective, the commitment to promoting Kerala as a cultural center remains a priority, however, for the coming editions, there is a greater responsibility of establishing India as a destination for contemporary art, outside of a commercial context.  Intentions to push this standard and expand the the impact of the biennial have been voiced by the officials and organizers of the biennial:

“The first edition of the Biennale accentuated the tourism and cultural sectors of Kerala,  the biennale requires a permanent venue as it promises to return every two years, and we are searching for such a place to make this possible.” – Mayor of Cochin, Mr. Tony Chammany

“This return is required for the Biennale to develop its unique grammar and vocabulary. ” He also said that the media played a vital role in initiating a dialogue and bringing biennale to people’s home’s.” – Jitish Kallat.

As the contemporary art scene is constantly growing and evolving, the appointment of Jitish Kallat as curator is highly reflective of it’s current situations.  Kallat’s career is representative of a culmination of the academic acclaim and popular or commercial success, much like Subodh Gupta or Atul Dodiya – and since the biennial is an institution that is essentially non commercial, but is trying to navigate itself in a very commercially driven art society, Kallat could be the negotiating factor between both worlds.  He has also managed to achieve his success at a relatively young age (he is just 39) and since the KMB seeks to affect mainly the youth, perhaps a fresher perspective is the next step to progressing the already impactful biennial.  Furthermore, contemporary art is still relatively an unknown field to the general public and one of the goals of the biennial is to expand the reach of contemporary art, it is perhaps more effective to approach it with a more popular manner, rather than an extremely academic one.  Again, the mesh between the academic and the commercial becomes critical.  The notion of recurrence and repetition is essential to the longevity of biennials, and in order to keep occurring, the nature of the biennial must adapt to its current situations, and by attracting as many visitors as possible.

“That’s what art is all about. Sometimes it’s just a shift of vision…Let us hope it will be different but the genetic link will remain and it will be the continuation of the same language…I want to bring a new set of tools to work with the same set of ideas.”- Jitish Kallat

Preparations are clearly underway to ensure the next KMB as impacting as the inaugral edition, until then we just have to wait and see what Kallat’s unique vision will hold.


Raqs Media Collective’s “The Last International”

Elizabeth Prendiville of Saffronart discusses Raqs Media Collective’s performance at Performa 13. 

"The Last International" By Raqs Media Collective

“The Last International” By Raqs Media Collective

New York: During my intensive work on the performance art biennial Performa 13 one performance was often discussed with excitement and mystery. Raqs Media Collective’s contribution to the month-long biennial was heavily anticipated, because it was intended to involve film footage, music, spoken word, sculpture, history and a number of other major themes all in one piece. “The Last International” was described in the Peforma publications as “a celebratory performance that takes New York’s history as an international gathering place for people from all over the world as a starting point, and proposes a moment of coming together”. This description brings on so many different themes and approaches that I had no idea what to expect from the artist’s group credited as India’s artistic “think tank”.

"The Last International" by Raqs Media Collective

“The Last International” by Raqs Media Collective

The Connelly Theater in the Alphabet City neighborhood of Manhattan was the ideal venue for this performance, because it allowed Raqs Media Collective to immerse every inch of the multi-leveled space in their fantastical and literal imagery. Although it was quite conceptual from start to finish, the performance created such rich visuals for the audience. The jumping point for the performance was Karl Marx and Friedrich Engel’s aspirations to move the Council General of the First International Working Men’s Association to New York City. However, imagery of a rhinoceros, a wealth of film projection and endless use of language transported viewers completely from these historical roots. Just as the description of the performance implied, it was such a full sensory experience that I could barely decide where to look.

"The Last International" by Raqs Media Collective

“The Last International” by Raqs Media Collective

Prior to the performance beginning viewers were invited to explore the space. This included areas that would normally be off limits to an audience such as behind the stage and in the wings where a traditional performer would prepare in secrecy. The space was filled with impressively sized potted citrus trees, which immediately transported the audience away from the urban New York City environment. A large mountain of plastic chairs was also piled in the center of the room looking equal parts chaotic and architectural. The audience was invited to completely explore this transformed space before sitting in the round to take in the performance. There was no traditional start of the performance, no dimming of the lights or a call for viewers to take their seats. The performance just began (a trend that would repeat itself in the finale of the performance). The piece began with performers stacking, crawling through and negotiating the space around and within this huge pile of chairs. From there each aspect of the performance was a striking visual narrative snowballing from one idea to another. Raqs utilized everything from spoken word to tape and chalk on the ground. Ideas and concepts were illustrated both literally and verbally. One of the most striking visuals was a large ladder allowing performers to move from the ground level to the upper balcony freely. In the same vain as letting the audience explore every inch of the space, this ladder broke the normal spatial rules of a theater. The area where performers present and the audience observes blurred together more and more throughout the performance.  This concept was even clearer when massive balloons were blown up and then released (one from the highest point of the ladder) to float through the audience. In “The Last International” Raqs Media Collective presented the most visually rich and conceptually intricate performances that I encountered during the entire biennial.

For more information on Performa 13 please visit their website. To read more about my experience working with Performa click here. 

Raqib Shaw’s ‘Paradise Lost’ at Pace Gallery

Ipshita Sen of Saffronart shares a note on Raqib Shaw’s current exhibition at Pace Gallery.

New York: Raqib Shaw once again makes his mark in the New York public art scene. With his last show in 2008 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, this year Pace Gallery holds a three-venue exhibition of the artist.


Arrival of the Ram King – PARADISE LOST II, 2011-2013. Oil, acrylic, enamel, glitter and rhinestones on Birch wood

 The exhibition titled ‘Paradise Lost’ is based on the theme of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. His works are a blend of Indian mythological figures, half man half beast, warring through renaissance inspired landscapes. They are an interesting juxtaposition between Indian miniatures and classical Western architecture. This series of work portrays the triumph of the East over the West –illustrated through the shattered monuments depicted in the works.

His artistic oeuvre is unique and distinctive. Sir Norman Rosenthal says that “Shaw creates truly modern transformations of lost worlds of culture that arise from the exotic gardens of Kashmir to the memories that lie ‘imprisoned’ in the great museums of the Western World.”

Raqib Shaw is born in Calcutta and educated in London. He has had a solo exhibition at the Tate Modern in 2006 and several other group shows.

This exhibition is on until January 11, 2014

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