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Beyond the Institution and Behind the Artist : Sumant Batra

Koral Dasgupta @KoralDasgupta

Updated: July 28, 2015, 4:53 PM IST
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In every business there’s a Chanakya, the kingmaker, who channelizes appropriate support and wisdom for the kingdom to be effectively run. When it comes to art and artists, the same role is often assumed by an Art Curator, as he never sits on the throne but ensures that whoever occupies the seat is well protected and fairly represented among the audience! This kind of a role requires passion with a perspective; it needs one to tame emotions with a reasonably practical bent, to strike that resolute balance between mind and heart which helps in designing a journey forward instead of drowning in the zest of acquiring!

I’m not sure what Sumant Batra must be typing on his business card. When I spoke to him a while back, I restrained from asking is there one card he keeps in his wallet or there are multiple cards meant to introduce various facets of his professional existence! Given my interest in books, it made sense for me to keep in touch with whatever is happening in the publishing industry. I knew some of the important names in the industry, thanks to my author husband’s contributions to political fictions. And when I started writing books, it made better sense to connect and explore the corridors of Indian writing space through those who have been there, done that. Via social media I had tried to connect to the founder and convenor of Kumaon Literary Festival, Sumant Batra. But the person who connected back is a lavish art enthusiast, a corporate lawyer, an author, columnist, poet, cultural activist, educationist, hotelier founder of a film festival, and owner of a graphic arts museum called Chitrashala!

It was hence interesting to travel through the various layers of his personality with a focus on his interests in art. I thought law and art are completely different worlds, but this is how Batra connects them. “I am a lawyer by profession, and a poet and artist in my heart. I have always approached things from a creative perspective, have done things unconventionally, taken risks going by my instincts, dug into initiatives that were typically out-of-the-box, but more than anything else my soul is always in search of the element of art in things, all the while when I have had one foot in the court of law.”

During the book launch for my art fiction in Mumbai, which had become some sort of a get-together for artists and art enthusiasts, we had discussed how the romantic and mystic aspect of art (or artists) sometimes falls flat on the face of a rude intolerance when people are openly disinterested or exhibitions have been forcefully closed and intentions of artists questioned upon mercilessly! Sumant explains it with a non-negotiable logic, as he gets talking about his understanding of art as a reflection of life and society and his museum Chitrashala which houses vintage collection of graphic art. “Art gets you more sensitive. There is some degree of undervaluation that artists and art faces in India. People don’t really put much importance to it, except a few. Of course there are people who appreciate art but their presence is much less compared to those who are indifferent. It’s a cultural issue that we don’t invest in art in public or private sectors, as communities or societies or as individuals. We don’t see it as an integral part of growth or development or evolution of societies, or in our regular lifestyles. Role of art is unfortunately undermined. With respect to the art that I deal with, challenges are a bit different. These are visual graphic art which is individual and contributes generously by reflecting upon our history and society and economy and many other details. My collection houses works that even goes back to 1840-50. So these are an effective tool and medium to study and understand and appreciate how we have evolved as a country, how we have spread or modified as a culture, or how individual players or sections of communities have grown. Take women, for example. Women of calendar art are a vastly important subject to understand how women have evolved over a period of time, depending upon how she has been portrayed in calendar art. From Ma Durga to a political person to an outgoing person, women in various avatars appear on the calenders representing different periods and their social statements or mindsets are displayed chronologically according to the dates they come from. If you arrange these calenders in the ascending order of their origin, you will experience a complete journey of women across centuries. These are extremely effective in educate the young and the youth. They arouse in-depth thoughts and offer ample scopes of analysis.”

Unfortunately though, we have not learnt to learn History from Art. As a race, we are inclined to open a text book or sometimes listen to folk lore from grandparents. The later is also a dying habit now!

Coming back to the vision and contributions of Sumant Batra and Chitrashala, I request him to explain “graphic art” for the readers who may not know much about it. “Graphic art is a form of visual art, typically two dimensional, and covers a very broad section from calligraphy to photography to drawing, print making, typography, book binding, lithography and others. Today most of the advertisements in the newspapers are done with computer effects. But there was a time when those were hand painted and processed. Screens were prepared from the paintings or drawings; then stone or steel or lead or copper plates were made, and finally printed. Depending on the time when it was made, the technics for printing would obviously vary, and accordingly it would be called lithography, oleography, etc. After print technology formally came in, what was printed in the form of calendar or print would be called a graphic art.”

Explains Sumant,“Chitrashala covers a broad spectrum. We have calendar art of Raja Ravi Varma as he brought the printing technology in India. I have art from time zones before that as well but those were imported. Raja Ravi Varma painted mythology and royalty and more specifically, women. Later calendar art would narrow down to Gods and mythology, which could be relevantly displayed in homes and shops or workplaces. Lakshmi, for example, in shops; Saraswati in academic institutions. The second vertical that Chitrashala covers is promotional material for Indian cinema, which you call Cinema Memorabilia, including posters of films, lobby cards, show cards, banners outside cinema halls or hoardings, etc. The third vertical comprises of matchbox label art and other merchandise label art. Fourth is pulp fiction covers. Earlier English or Hindi or regional books had paintings or sketches on the book cover. Now usually it’s a photograph or the finesse of computers which require less manual skills and employ more of technical advancement. We also have under this vertical, the comic art including Chacha Chaudhary and other Indian comics”.

Chitrashala is only a part of a huge intellectual and physical property that Sumant has set up. Set at the backdrop of plush nature of Nainital, Te Aroha is a boutique hotel conceptualised by Batra. The artefact and antiques in the hotel are largely his personal collection. Chitrashala is located in the premises of Te Aroha, and it fits perfectly in that ambiance of peace and beauty and serenity, where the mind is more active and open to experience something as surreal as historical art.

The walls of the restaurant of Te Aroha are adorned with framed photographs of ads that are based on drawings. These are some 200 years old ads, the Cherry blossom or Johnson ads and ads of camera worked upon by graphic artists based on hand-made paintings.

Sumant’s plan is wholesome, aiming to convert Dhanachauli, some 6-7 hours drive from Delhi, into a complete cultural hub. There is a literature festival, a film festival, an artist’s retreat, all planned around Te Aroha to promote art at different levels. This ensures enormous footfall for Chitrashala, as it has the luxury of space with seven galleries. He is also working towards setting up two more museums. “I am a sophisticated kabadi,” he jokes as he discloses his varied interests and “properties”, including collections of old typewriters, pianos, books and instruments! His next project would be to set up a museum of books, most of which are expensive and rare!

I dive further to understand the collections of Chitrashala. “We house all original works,” explains Sumant. “Original is of two kinds. One is the actual art and the other is the prints that happen from the original. The prints that are taken from the original painting are called original and not reprints. A calendar of Raja Ravi Varma that we have goes back to the year 1856. It originated from a painting which today must be valued at Rs. 40-50 crores. I have calendars made from his paintings in the year 1902, 1888, 1876 etc. which are auctionable pieces valued at Rs.25-75 thousand depending on which one you are talking about. Chitrashala exhibits only vintage graphic art; we don’t include contemporary art here. Even the magazines and comics we display are not paper cuttings. We maintain them. Old magazines like Filmfare and Screen, newspapers that are 70-80 years old, comics etc. offer a world of knowledge and you must see them exactly as they appeared during their times.”

This brings me to the next obvious question about maintaining a museum like Chitrashala. I am given to understand that the content of such a property has to be relevant and powerful enough to touch the audience. Their value is not just about generating the visual appeal, but it has to come to use for researchers who might wish to dig out information from those materials. There must be an educational value, scope of learning for artists, some nostalgic and emotional value that gives the place its flavour. “Once you are sure of the content, you have to structure it and understand the curating part of it. That includes your insights and vision of capturing the history, artists, art, time and technology. You have to know the nuances of the trade. After spending a large part of my life absorbing art and literature of art, now I can look at a piece from a distance and say a lot about it. It was hence easy to support the museum with the knowledge I had acquired. Next I required resources to mobilise the collection. Framing building, getting them photographed, the designs and their layouts, planning the out-reach, everything was a saga of its own!”

Coming up with a museum is obviously not an easy task. It took Sumant Batra to engage and educate himself over a period of time, last 6-8 years in particular. Understanding the value of graphic art which is educational, is important in terms of visual appraisal, their relevance in raising the heritage value of country, and their financial implications, everything had to be studied and evaluated in detail. For Sumant, it was a gradual learning process through studying various articles, similar other art-products, visiting countless museums across the world, and striking lengthy conversations with insightful people.

“When I took a plunge to take my vision forward, the first challenge was to identify where to start from,” reminisces Batra. “There was so much I had, thousands of them. There was so much that I could have done. I had to sit down and reach a conclusion upon which ones to display, how to rotate them, and which ones to let lying on the shelf. This selection process was a difficult job. Once I had clarity on that, next stop was to take a call on whether I should do this myself or I should go out and ask for support. There are corporate houses, high net-worth individuals, or even government for that matter to whom I could reach out. We debated and discussed within the family and decided that I’ll do it myself. That would allow me to do it just the way I want, at a pace that I would like to, without any the pressure of justifying to anyone else how this would develop or get us returns. It will allow my creative freedom. Also, the aggressive marketing campaign that I choose to undertake won’t interfere with my ways of curating the art. Third challenge was real estate. Delhi would have been enormously expensive, though there are benefits attached to it. After a good deal of thought, I rested upon Dhanachuli.”

Unfortunately in India, such museums are very less in number and they are mostly in very bad shape. Most of the people with huge antique collections don’t want to go ahead and put them on display because often these are procured through black money and declaring them would attract attention! Says Sumant, “I don’t have that risk because the kind of art I own doesn’t value up to crores of rupees. Two, most people discard them as garbage and don’t find sense in collecting these, unless they are educated on their importance. Three, I being a lawyer professionally, know how to go about things systematically without messing up the process or papers.”

Having discussed the museum and art at this level, I couldn’t stop myself from asking the most dreaded question. How important is it to be economically stable otherwise, if you have to invest yourself in art? If one doesn’t have the luxury of a well-paying profession or the blessing of inheritance, how challenging would it be to bring this kind of a dream into reality? Sumant releases a deep sigh before responding to this.

“With my background and education and financial stabilities, I could take that leap of faith. Given a choice, real estate would rather be given to a restaurant than to a museum, purely based on the economic returns the former can generate. People are too practical to understand the educational and historical relevance behind such investments; neither are we a lavish economy to splurge irrespective of returns. So, there are more disincentives than incentives for anyone in this kind of a rare dream. Government has provisions for grants for museums but there are complicated conditions that are supposed to be addressed. Banks or financial institutions wouldn’t come forward because this doesn’t yet come under a particular industry. So there are no scopes for loans! Even insurance companies don’t have the knowhow or intellectual capabilities to do the valuation of such collections. They feel I’m investing in junk! Having said that, I must say that this can’t be done unless you have deep intense passion bubbling inside your veins. Such engagement with art can’t be pursued as a hobby or as a commercial aspect. You have to feel too strongly about it; you have to be crazy about it, and not stop till you have found a way. I wanted to do this not because I didn’t yet have it; rather I wanted it because it was already there in too much inside my brain. You certainly need to have a commercial wisdom to be able to sense what you are investing upon has an appreciating resale value and you should be able to economically afford it. Temptations are endless, and there is always a greed for more. You need personal judgement to understand where to stop. I personally follow two guidelines for myself. One, I’ll not buy beyond a particular price. And two, I’ll not buy beyond this quantity in a month. These two guidelines have always helped me carve a fair acquisition and allocation between my multiple ventures.”

Perhaps we need more of Sumant Batra’s among ourselves to value art more as a fundamental way of life rather than treating it as a commercial interest, and yet finding that perfect balance between art and commerce, so that it can be treated with proper educational and social relevance. This space will keep exploring such stories which celebrate art by defeating the resistance that comes with it!
First Published: July 28, 2015, 4:53 PM IST
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