India’s ace birdman, naturalist, art-collector and art connoisseur Bikram Grewal is in Bhubaneswar to deliver a lecture at the Ila Panda Centre for Arts (IPCA) in the Art and Nature series. Bhubaneswar-based birdwatcher Panchami Manoo Ukil spoke to him on his ideas on art and natural history for The Odisha Story.
Panchami: Welcome to Odisha Bikram. First of all, congratulations on your magnum opus “Birds of India” being awarded the first prize in the reference section by the Federation of Indian Publishers. It’s a very proud moment and rewarding too after all the years of hard work that has been put in to structure a work of this magnitude.
Bikram Grewal: This is the first time that any bird book in the world has over 4500 photographs. I think the greater achievement was that I managed to convince the birdwatching community to donate their images free of cost. If I would have had to pay for the images, the book would have ended up costing Rs. 10,000 as against the Rs. 1500 that it actually costs now for 800 plus pages. What is also very heartening is that the book has sold out two months after publication and much interest is been shown by foreign publishing houses to bring out an overseas edition.
For a change, Bikram Grewal is here not as India’s big birdman, but as a connoisseur of art, especially art relating to our nation’s rich natural history. What is “An Embarrassment of Riches” all about?
I teach in IIT Kanpur. One day a student asked me: “is there anything at all you know apart from birds?” I realized I knew precious little. I loved art so decided to dig deeper. As I researched I realized that gems of information were being unearthed at every stage. I also sadly realized that much of research on art and natural history of our country was being done abroad. For e.g, the best work on botanical paintings in India was done by Henry Nolte of the Edinburgh Botanical Society. Therefore my interest in art relating to natural history only grew more intense and that is how “An Embarrassment of Riches” happened. I felt it was important to convey to a larger audience about what we had and what we have lost so that we garner the sense to preserve whatever little is left. Many people are curious to know the meaning behind the title – well, it simply means an abundance of something, so much so, that it is difficult to pick out or choose one or few. This phrase is wonderfully symbolic of India’s rich natural history represented through art and hence I chose this title for the presentation.
Being an avid naturalist, what drew you to art?
As I mentioned, I was always interested in art of all sorts. During the course of my studies on birds and bird art, I came across great artists like Ustad Mansur of the Mughal period. Then moving on to the colonial period I found that all the early pioneers of Indian ornithology also painted their specimens. They were others like the brilliant artist John Gould who never visited India but painted only from specimens that were sent to them. I was awestruck by the magnificence of their art, one thing led to the other and now I am completely hooked to natural history paintings and art.
In times we live today, when stress, strife, upheavals are a part of everyday living, do you think people actually have time or inclination for art? I’m talking mostly about the common man whose woes and worries never seem to end, especially with fast-paced living of modern times.
You’ll be surprised at how many people are interested in art across genres – be it street art, conventional art, futuristic art, cyber art etc. It’s a bit like birdwatching. You can observe art on the net today without having to pay for it. Indian museums are very very cheap to enter and in spite of abysmal conditions, lots of people regularly visit these museums. Art colleges are thriving as are computer graphics, and art in today’s world has taken on a completely new meaning. Having said that, we heard recently of a senior artist attracting crores for a minor painting. So it’s not as if art is being bought solely for investment. People are buying art for the love of art. As far as the common man goes, we tend to underestimate calendar art. Those who study calendar art will tell you that there are diverse schools even in this genre. So if a common man is unable to buy art by masters, then he will surely stick a piece of calendar art on his wall.
You are here to deliver a talk to Ila Panda Centre of Arts (IPCA) that has recently been founded with the aim to promote artists of our state. Do you think that bodies like IPCA would successfully create a sentiment towards art and what would be the broader role they could play in the arena of art promotion?
Obviously they can act as a bridge between the artists and the public at large. There is so much talent available in a state like Odisha both in terms of contemporary painting and tribal art. But the major challenge lies in helping the artists to find a larger audience and bodies like IPCA are integral to this. I also think that this august body should extend it’s range of activities to cover textiles and other crafts, especially those forms that are dying and need preservation.
Down the ages art has reflected society and much knowledge of past history is gleaned from art. Would you say that modern art or the kind of art we see today is as reflective of the times we live in, or is it more symbolic of the artist’s mind and thought process? I mean, is art as relevant today in the social context as it was say 200 years ago? Also, do artists have more creative freedom now without the shackles of being commissioned to themes and styles?
It’s very difficult to state what is art. Art could be anything, could take any form, follow any medium. Art in today’s world certainly allows the artist much more creative freedom. The craving for newness and commercial angle makes art more open to experimentation and allows the artiste to express his own vision. Before the 19th century, art in India was structured. There were the miniature paintings of Mughals, Rajputs and South India which followed a set of rules. With the decline of the Mughal empire and emergence of the British, the artists had to look for new masters and conform to their styles. Thus the styles of the miniaturists blended with the styles of the new masters and from this emerged the generically named Company School of Art. Many changes appeared. The new patrons wanted more realistic paintings. Gouache gave way to water colours, shading was introduced as was shadows and perspectives, new papers and inks were introduced. One of the reasons of the success of the company school paintings was that under these colonisers, paintings started being produced and reproduced in hundreds and took the shape of what postcards are today. This very prolific school finally came to end in the 1850’s with the introduction of photography.
You obviously would know of Orissa’s rich art history and heritage. We have the finest specimens of art in our temple sculptures, patachitras, handlooms and applique, metal art, ganjappa, tribal art and lots more. Now ofcourse we have some brilliant sand art as well. Our natural history is also abundantly rich. In the modern era, we have talented artists who are as good as artists from other states. Why is it that artists from Odisha have not been able to get the standing and recognition they deserve?
Well Odisha is not the only state whose artists paled because of the dominance of the Shantiniketan school in Bengal and the Raja Ravi Varma style of art in the south. Then in mercantile terms, Delhi and Mumbai were the centres of art. But now there is a resurgence of interest in tribal art and iconography and this has led to Odisha justifiably finding it’s place in the art scenario. Odia artists like Late Dinanath Pathy and Jatin Das are respected names in the art world. In any case, other art forms from Odisha like odissi dance and textiles have travelled the world as art ambassadors from the days of Bali and Kalinga. Again, bodies like IPCA are the facilitators that can push local artists to the mainstream by taking their work to larger audiences.
Do you think artists need to be effective verbal communicators as well? We have always been given to understand that the artist’s art must speak and convey it’s essence. So is selling art confined to the ambit of art curators or in these times of aggressive marketing, consumerism and duplications, do we need artists to be communication-savvy so that they are able to market their art better?
While it’s completely true that a great artist need not be a great communicator, yet we do know how important it is to market yourself today. So in cases where the artist cannot express himself in a public domain, it is the role of bodies like IPCA who have to take on the job of capacity-building of the artists they are promoting, give them that exposure and outlook, so that these artists can develop basic communication skills to hold their own.
What are your views on art education for children away from the usual art courses we see in school curriculums. I mean, telling them about art history and inculcating in them a sense of art appreciation.
It’s absolutely essential that every child from every walk of life is made to come into contact with art from a young age. Art without history is meaningless. Through art education, we familiarize young minds with their origins and roots. We also enable them to develop a sense of aesthetics and understanding of visual expressions. Children should be exposed to art forms in temples and museums just as much as they are taken to parks or a circus or cinema in order to learn to appreciate art. Unless inculcated from a young age they will remain disinterested.
Why do you think people should buy art?
Primarily for the love of art. It’s always nice to wake up in the morning and see a beautiful piece of art hanging on the wall. Then ofcourse as an investment. Buying art is a very interesting speculative game. It’s like the stock market – one has to be clever enough to spot talent early and invest in art cheaply.
Finally, how do you think government could promote our artists in the national and international art stage?
In today’s world where the only word used is “progress”, what we don’t realize is that this very progress is going to be the death of us. We only see promotion of the “art of making money” which destroys the soul. Half of this effort should go into promoting Art in it’s manifest state – music, painting, literature, iconography etc. The Prophet Mohammed (peace be on him) is believed to have said: “if you have a loaf of bread, cut it in half and sell one half to buy a bunch of narcissus, for while bread nourishes the body, narcissus nurtures the soul.”
Panchami: What is your message for IPCA and other organisations working for promotion of art?
Bikram Grewal: I’m delighted that a movement like IPCA has started and wish that their commitments gain momentum and reach fulfillment. After the wonderfully organized art conclave they held recently, the eyes of not only Odisha, but that of India and the world are on them and I’m sure they will deliver. I would once again reiterate patronage for older art forms like cire-perdue, sculpture, textiles, etc, which must not be overlooked in the pursuit of the contemporary. Systematic archiving of art is critical as is a continual engagement with audiences through dialogues, lectures, and exhibitions. Art promotion with art conservation has to be the mantra.
Panchami Manoo Ukil is a mother, birdwatcher, photography enthusiast, traveler and blogger.