In Conversation With Mitch Crites

Could you tell us about your journey as a collector – what set you off on this path, when did you begin, how long have you been collecting?

I’m an American. I was born on the banks of the Mississippi river in Missouri, and I did my PhD in ancient Indian history from the University of Chicago. I first came to India in 1968 and I stayed. I’ve been here for more than 50 years. When I came here, I realised that I didn’t want to teach, I wanted to work with craftsmen. So, for many years, I worked with marble carvers and inlay workers who work in the Mughal tradition.

But even while I was working with these wonderful classical craftsmen, I was fascinated by the Indian indigenous folk and tribal art, or Adivasi art. And I began collecting from the early 1970s. In those days, Delhi had the wonderful Crafts Museum that had a new group of artists coming in each month on Dr Jyotindra Jain’s invitation. Those of us who loved folk and tribal art ran there on the first day to be the first to buy, and that’s how I started collecting.

What prompted you to pick up ancient Indian history as a subject?

I’m part native American. My grandfather and I used to go to excavate ancient burial mounds in search of arrowheads, etc. He was a doctor, but he loved Egyptology. So, there were always books around the house on the ancient world. When I first went to the University of Missouri for my BA, they didn’t have anything on Egyptology, but they had just started an Indian studies programme. And I was hooked. I did my BA, my MA, and then started my PhD at Chicago in this subject. I got a Ford Foundation Fellowship to come and study here. And I’ve been here ever since. This is home.

Jivya Soma Mashe, The Wedding Train, mid-1990s

You’ve spoken of your friendship with Jangarh Singh Shyam. Could you tell us how this came about?

In the mid-eighties, there was an artist whose work was beginning to appear with art dealers in Delhi. And I loved the art. His name was Jangarh Singh Shyam. And he became a close friend of mine. Then one day, around 1987, word came that he was showing at the Surajkund Mela. So, I got there early. He was putting out his paintings on a bamboo chatai. I ran up to him and told him that I loved his work. I think he got a little scared because here was this big American talking to him in Hindi!

I repeated that I loved his work and asked him if he visited Delhi. He mentioned that he came to Delhi every 3-4 months. I told him, “The next time you come to Delhi, you come to me. I’m not a foreigner who’s going away. I live here and I will buy from you.” And he came for the next 20 years or so, and I bought something from him every single time. We became friends. And then of course, he tragically committed suicide in 2001 which was a great loss.

A few years ago, we took out all of Jangarh’s paintings that were a part of our collection – about 250 of them – and made a book titled Jangarh Singh Shyam: The Enchanted Forest. It’s a wonderful one, written by Dr Aurogeeta Das, on Jangarh’s works in The Crites Collection.

Jangarh Singh Shyam, Two White Tigers in the Forest, 1997

Tell us a little more about your association with Jangarh, particularly from the perspective of your conversations around his art.

I remember a conversation I once had with Jangarh where I said, “Jangarh, in America, we have a concept called wall power.”

Jangarh: “Sahab, what is wall power?”

Mitch: “Some artists, not all, can paint big.”

Jangarh: “Do you think I can paint big?”

Mitch: “I think so, and here are some big canvases and very big pieces of paper. You go home and you try.”

Two months later he came back, and he had painted big, wonderful deer, creatures of the forest, and trees, and he never looked back. He kept on painting bigger and bigger.

Jangarh also painted a lot of the gods and the goddesses. In fact, he once came to me and said, “You know sahab, I’m very scared. I didn’t ask them permission to show what they look like, and they’ve never been drawn before. Some of them are very strong and powerful, they come out at night and maybe they’ll come out and get me.” I said, “Jangarh, they haven’t come, have they? I think they’re happy with how you’re showing people what they look like. So, you keep on doing it.”

After Jangarh passed away, I was very sad. I kept looking for another artist of his incredible calibre. He was like a Renaissance painter, a Da Vinci who could do everything. I kept looking but I couldn’t find anyone. No Gond artist came, nobody. Then I found this artist – Jodhaiya Bai Baiga. She’s on the cover of our book (Bhumijan: Artists of the Earth), and I think she has the same talent as Jangarh. She’s 82 now and she started painting only when she was 69. She is remarkable. She just got the Nari Shakti award, the female empowerment award from the President. She’s very special. 

(L-R) Jodhaiya Bai Baiga, Bholenath (Lord Shiva), 2020; Jodhaiya Bai Baiga, The Mahua Tree, 2021

What motivates you to keep working within this space of indigenous folk and tribal art?

Part of the appeal is that you get to interact with great artists. You get to help them, you get to nourish them, you get to support them, you see their lives change in front of your eyes, you see their families’ lives change. And I like that. I like interacting with them and coming up with ideas together. I never direct them too much though. I love the act of releasing what’s inside them. Sometimes they just need a tiny bit of paper or pigments or paint or brushes. Others might need a bit more guidance, but you have to do it in a gentle unobtrusive way. You have to let them do it their way.

I like interacting with the human condition, I like interacting with people – where they come from. I like to see change – families doing better, having enough money to educate their children, get medicines, etc. My mother was the same – she loved helping people, going to the old people’s home, giving to the poor. I like to, in a gentle way, improve their situation – see them grow, see it pass on to the next generation. I also encourage them to teach. Not just their own children, but others as well so the traditions are passed on since it’s the only way it’ll continue. I’m lucky to be doing what I love, and I plan to keep on doing it, no matter how many years I’ve got.

(L-R) Rajendran, Village Scene, 1993-1994; Rajendran, Man and Monitor Lizard, 1993-1994

Why do you want to focus primarily on contemporary folk and tribal artists?

Well, I’m not as young as I used to be. And I think that the Adivasi artists need help more than anybody else. They’re struggling, more so during the pandemic which was a very difficult time for all artists. Some of them are virtually untrained, unschooled and don’t even have a visual tradition to draw from. But when you give them paper, pigments, and paint, somehow, they reach deep within themselves to find something I call ‘design DNA’. It goes back to the earliest roots of Indian culture and civilisation. This is the heartland; this is the beginning of your culture, and this is so exciting. A lot of contemporary artists get influenced by the West, or they studied under the British system – they’ve been polluted in a way. That’s not the case with these artists – these people are pure – and that’s what makes them so powerful.

There’s a group of baiga artists at our studio that we’re working with at the moment. The studio was set up by Aashish Swami, a contemporary artist from Umaria in Madhya Pradesh. He taught them about mixing paints and all that, not just how to paint. And out of it came this lady – Jodhaiya Bai Baiga.

In the show, there are these two paintings here. Dr Thiagarajan from Chennai, who was a clinical psychologist, he found a village of snake and rat catchers (Irulas) in Tamil Nadu. This was a very isolated village – no buses, no contact. He went there and gave them paints and everything and this is what they painted. Just extraordinary!

Shaikh Usman Tirandaz, Porcupine, 2015

Talk to us about the genesis of Bhumijan.

It was during my conversations with other collectors like Minal [Vazirani] that I decided to do a show – one last big show. And I decided to go into my cupboards and trunks and warehouses and find the early paintings that I bought in the ‘70s and ‘80s and combine them with the best of emerging talent. So that’s what this show is about.

Bhumijan are, of course, people of the earth – a term that anthropologist Verrier Elwin liked to use for the Adivasi people. We adopted that phrase. This show is very important. Visually, it’s a treat. You see things from tantric to tribal and contemporary – you see a range of traditional talent. And we’ll never be able to do it again because I don’t have enough early material. The early material is all gone. I never had very much, most of it has been sold or destroyed because nobody took care of it. So, I can never do a show like this again. And, in a way, I’m glad because I don’t have to focus on the old masters anymore. I can just focus on the new talent. I’m 77 and I want to live the rest of my days in your country which has been so good to me and I’m going to continue working with folk and tribal artists and help them with their careers. And I’ll keep on going. Like I tell my assistant Caroline, one day I might be in a wheelchair, but I’ll still be able to hold the paintings and look at them. I’ll keep on working till I drop.

Lipai works by Sundari Bai Rajwar and Phoolmani: (clockwise from L-R) Bhoomi (Earth), 2021; Jal (Water), 2021; Akash (Ether), 2021; Agni (Fire), 2021; Vayu (Air), 2021

If you had to pick three of your favourites from the works on display here, which ones would they be?

One is the large porcupine. The artist Shaikh Usman Tirandaz was my friend, and he was wonderfully talented. He was from Jaipur, and he died last year. The porcupine is on a huge scale, something I wanted him to work on since he had wall power. He had the ability to take the Mughal tradition and contemporise it.

The second would be the Bholenath and the Mahua tree by Jodhaiya Bai.

And finally, I love this set of five paintings [seen above]. This is the panchtattva – earth, air, water, fire, ether. This is by Sundari Bai Rajwar who was the greatest in this tradition called Lipai. It’s a finger-painting tradition but it’s a very technical and complicated procedure. She also passed away last year. And she was a great master. She used to decorate homes with patterns. But I wanted her to try something conceptual. So, we started with fire. I told Sundari Bai, “I don’t want you to draw fire, I want you to draw the spirit of fire, the essence of fire.” When she remained puzzled, I asked her to take some time and think it over. She came to me in some time and said she wanted to try. The first thing she painted was this. And it’s fire! It’s the spirit of fire, it’s the essence of it. And then we went on to the other elements. She was wonderful. She had two disciples who are still alive, who I’m working with right now because the tradition is dying. Nobody wants this anymore, they want to put tiles on the walls, they want something more modern. So, unless you contemporise it, the tradition will die out. Luckily, this set is modern. These works have a level of abstraction in them that’s very powerful and will fit in any ultra-modern home.

Bhumijan: Artists of the Earth is an ongoing exhibition at the Visual Arts Gallery, India Habitat Centre in New Delhi. The exhibition consists of paintings and drawings from The Crites Collection and continues till 7 May 2022.

Beyond the Commodity Fetish: Art and the Public Sphere in India by Nancy Adajania

Manjari Sihare recommends an article by cultural theorist, Nancy Adajania commissioned for the Guggenheim UBS MAP Initiative on South and South East Asia

New York: A few weeks ago, I shared an article by Susan Hapgood on performance art in India commissioned for the Guggenheim’s UBS MAP Initiative on South East and South Asian Art. The exhibition, No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia, features works of some of the most compelling artists and collectives in South and South East Asia today. It is on view at the Guggenheim, New York, until May 22nd, after which it will travel to the Asia Society Center in Hong Kong followed by a venue in Singapore, details of which are yet to be confirmed. All the works in this exhibition have been acquired by the Museum for its permanent collection. The exhibition’s title is drawn from the opening line of the William Butler Yeat’s (one of the foremost figures of 20th century literature) poem “Sailing to Byzantium” (1928) that is referenced in the title of American novelist, Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel No Country for Old Men. The use of this title brings forth the concept of a culture without borders. The concept has been emulated on the exhibition webpage, which hosts a series of essays on the different facets of art creation from South and South East Asia. June Yap, Guggenheim UBS MAP Curator, South and Southeast Asia, introduces the project in this video. We are thankful to the Guggenheim Museum for sharing this content on our blog.

Here is an article by Mumbai based cultural theorist and curator, Nancy Adajania, discussing  two Indian institutions who have largely facilitated the creation of cultural knowledge in post-colonial India, Gallery Chemould in Bombay (now Mumbai) and the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), New Delhi. In the coming weeks, we will be re-posting more essays from this series, and also a review. Stay tuned.

Beyond the Commodity Fetish: Art and the Public Sphere in India

by Nancy Adajania

Nikolaus Hirsch and Michel Müller with Cybermohalla Ensemble, Bureau of Contemporary Jobs in the Cybermohalla Hub at Sarai Reader 09: The Exhibition, Devi Art Foundation, Gurgaon, 2012–2013. Photo: Shamsher Ali

Nikolaus Hirsch and Michel Müller with Cybermohalla Ensemble, Bureau of Contemporary Jobs in the Cybermohalla Hub at Sarai Reader 09: The Exhibition, Devi Art Foundation, Gurgaon, 2012–2013. Photo: Shamsher Ali . Image credit: Guggenheim Museum

Rather than conduct a general survey of contemporary Indian art, I would like to draw attention to two major and formative histories of artistic production and the creation of an infrastructure of cultural knowledge in postcolonial India. These histories, which have not so far received the appropriate degree of critical attention in the Indian art world, were brought dramatically to light by two recent events: first, the death of Kekoo Gandhy, founder of Gallery Chemould, Bombay, one of India’s earliest commercial art galleries; and second, by the fiftieth-anniversary celebrations of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), New Delhi, a transdisciplinary research institute devoted to the social sciences and humanities.

The Progressive Artists Group surrounded by supporters at the Bombay Art Society Salon. Photo: Courtesy Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai. Image credit: Guggenheim Museum

The Progressive Artists Group surrounded by supporters at the Bombay Art Society Salon. Photo: Courtesy Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai. Image credit: Guggenheim Museum

Why link two institutions—Chemould and CSDS—that, at first glance, appear to have little in common? Both were founded in 1963 and embodied the impulses of a late Nehruvian modernity, with its simultaneous emphasis on a self-critical national renaissance and an internationalist expansion of horizons. Both institutions have made important contributions to the production and sustenance of a lively public sphere, building coherent communities around themselves: while Chemould was active in mobilizing both the art world and civil society, CSDS has worked in a hybrid space between scholarship and activism.

Khorshed, Shireen and Kekoo Gandhy outside Gallery Chemould, Mumbai. Photo: Courtesy Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai

Khorshed, Shireen and Kekoo Gandhy outside Gallery Chemould, Mumbai. Photo: Courtesy Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai. Image credit: Guggenheim Museum

Kekoo Gandhy (1920–2012) was a visionary and cultural catalyst who shaped the contours of Indian modernism by generating cultural infrastructure. His tenacious lobbying for private and state patronage resulted in the foundation of the Jehangir Art Gallery and the Bombay branch of the National Gallery of Modern Art. A cultural entrepreneur of great foresight, Gandhy first brought visibility to the works of modernists such as K. K. Hebbar, S. H. Raza, K. H. Ara, and M. F. Husain, exhibiting them at his framing shop, Chemould Frames, in the 1940s and ’50s. From the early ’60s onward, Gallery Chemould, which he cofounded with his wife Khorshed, was housed on the first floor of the Jehangir Art Gallery, Bombay’s first public gallery. Chemould’s small space, which hosted exhibitions of work by significant artists including Tyeb Mehta, Bhupen Khakhar, Nalini Malani, Vivan Sundaram, Atul and Anju Dodiya, and Jitish and Reena Saini Kallat, greeted the visitor with a table for conversation before curving away toward a wall of paintings. At this table, Gandhy shared his dreams of political and cultural freedom with artists, cultural producers, lawyers, and activists.

Gallery Chemould does not fit into a classical gallery ecology because Gandhy did not see the production of art as separate from larger political and cultural questions. During the Emergency (1975–77), when an authoritarian regime muzzled dissent and imprisoned those in opposition, the Gandhys sheltered activists in their home. During the 1992–93 riots in Bombay, when Hindu majoritarian militants targeted the city’s Muslim community, Gandhy contributed actively to the mohalla committees—neighborhood groups that promoted interreligious amity. Whether by presenting subaltern artists for the first time at his gallery (Warli artist Jivya Soma Mashe’s exhibition in 1975, for example) or by helping secure the secular ideals of the republic, Gandhy devoted his life to the pursuit of equity and justice.

Both Gandhy and CSDS (which was founded by political scientist Rajni Kothari and funded mainly by the Indian Council of Social Science Research) believed in sustaining and strengthening Indian democracy—still a work in progress. Early on, academics at CSDS polemicized Western theoretical models of modernity, instead advocating the approach of multiple modernities. After the Emergency, Lokayan, which was linked to CSDS, propagated non-party politics and worked with social movements at a grassroots level, nurturing civil-society activists such as the environmentalists Vandana Shiva and Medha Patkar, who would go on to develop and articulate alternative, sustainable models of development.

Sarai Reader 09, curated by the Raqs Media Collective, Devi Art Foundation, Gurgaon, 2012–2013. Photo: Shveta Sarda. Image credit: Guggenheim Museum

Sarai Reader 09, curated by the Raqs Media Collective, Devi Art Foundation, Gurgaon, 2012–2013. Photo: Shveta Sarda. Image credit: Guggenheim Museum

Academic research conducted at CSDS resonates in public life, particularly in debates conducted around policymaking and the transformation of the media. In 2000, CSDS’s Ravi Sundaram and Ravi Vasudevan launched the new media initiative Sarai, working in collaboration with Raqs Media Collective (artists Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula, and Shuddhabrata Sengupta), to analyze critically the impact of emergent, informal, and independent media in the public domain. Sarai, true to its name, which is taken from a word for public resting place, has become a refuge and transit point for architects, filmmakers, writers, and artists, and has avoided a narrow academicization of knowledge by adopting multiple methodologies. As a Sarai-CSDS fellow myself in the early 2000s, I found the space to generate alternative contexts for new media art and to test out what Okwui Enwezor has called the “will to globality” expressed by subaltern media practitioners in a post-national context—one in which the old certitudes of nationalism have failed, but have yet to be replaced by new interpretative frameworks.

Sarai, along with the NGO Ankur, gave birth to the Cybermohalla project, which works in the interstices between legal and illegal domains, old and new media, creative pedagogy and art, in Delhi’s working-class neighborhoods. Participants in the Cybermohalla project are today published writers and established media practitioners in their own right. In an art world that tends to fetishize creative output as commodity rather than nurture it as conversation, Kekoo Gandhy and Sarai-CSDS (more informally in the former case and more programmatically in the latter) have attempted to produce new socialities in which the Gandhian, the Nehruvian, and the Marxist, the academy-trained artist and his or her subaltern rural/urban counterpart have generated a discourse through the alternately tight and loose weave of consensus and dissensus. Especially over the past decade, when all value seems to have been dictated by the market, it is important to flag alternative frameworks and platforms that have sustained significant forms of artistic articulation and critical inquiry in the Indian art world.

Nancy Adajania is a Bombay-based cultural theorist and independent curator. She was artistic codirector of the 2012 Gwangju Biennale.

Warli Artists: The Other Masters

Medha Kapur shares a note on Warli painting, one of India’s most well known tribal art forms

Warli

Warli

The Warlis are the largest tribe found on the northern outskirts of Mumbai. The name is derived from the word ‘Warla’, which means ‘piece of land’. Maharashtra is known for its Warli folk paintings. These are vivid expressions of daily and social events of the tribe, used by them to decorate the walls of village houses.

Jivya Soma Mashe, acrylique et terra cota sur toile, 1997

Jivya Soma Mashe, 1997

Jivya Soma Mashe, acrylique et bouse de vache sur toile, 2003,

Jivya Soma Mashe, 2003

The trademark of Warli paintings is the use of geometric designs such as triangles, circles, dots and crooked lines to depict human figures, animals, houses, crops etc. The circle represents the sun and the moon, and the triangle is derived from mountains and pointed trees. The square indicates a sacred enclosure or a piece of land. The subject on which Warli art is done includes festivals, harvests, marriages and other celebrations. Women are mainly engaged in the creation of these paintings. These tribal paintings of Maharashtra are traditionally done in the homes of the Warli people. An interesting fact about Warli paintings is that it is rare to see a straight line; it usually is a series of dots and dashes that make one line. The artists have recently started to draw straight lines in their paintings. Warli paintings are ancient painting made on the walls. The colours used were not permanent. But the paintings were made again on different occasions. Today,  Warli paintings on paper, cloth and canvas have become very popular and are now sold all over India.  Small paintings are done on cloth and paper but they look best on the walls or in the form of huge murals that bring out the vast and magical world of the Warlis.

Warli

“Histoires de Voir: Show and Tell”

Medha Kapur of Saffronart on ‘Histoires de Voir: Show and Tell’ at the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art, Paris

Histoires de voirParis: From May 15 to October 21, 2012, the exhibition ‘Histoires de Voir: Show and Tell’ at the Cartier Foundation in Paris will display a selection of “naïve” or “tribal” art from around the globe. This exceptional exhibition is interesting because it features artists from Brazil, Japan, Europe, Haïti, India, and Mexico, whom most of us haven’t heard of. Many of these artists live in isolated regions and have worked under difficult economic conditions. Over 400 works, including film, sculpture, and text – represent art not often found in traditional galleries. Show and Tell arose from a desire to explore the meaning of the terms “naïve” “primitive” and “self-taught” art, to meet artists who pursue paths outside the norm of conventional visual codes, and to examine the relationships between contemporary art and folk art, artist and artisan.

Works on display include paintings by Alcides Pereira dos Santos, sculptures by José Bezerra, and traditional ceramics by Isabel Mendes da Cunha, all from Brazil, as well as a series of paintings by Japanese artist Tadanori Yokoo and much more.

Hans Scherfig, Alcides Pereira dos Santos, Isabel Mendes da Cunha

Contemporary folk and tribal Indian art will be highlighted through a series of works  including pieces by Warli artist Jivya Soma Mashe, who paints with cow dung, and the multi-colored paintings of Gond artist, Jangarh Singh Shyam.

Jivya Soma Mashe

Jivya Soma Mashe

Jangarh Singh Shyam

Jangarh Singh Shyam

For these artists, the desire to create was stronger than the monetary or societal reasons that prevented them from attending a formal art school. They taught themselves the craft, and alone, became experts.

Click here for more information.

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