Sunday, July 15, 2007

Business Standard : Art for a cause

K S Shekhawat / New Delhi July 14, 2007

With the season's first charity exhibition kicking in, it's time to examine what keeps them ticking.

For some time now Bollywood beefcake Salman Khan has been making news as a painter, but Saif Ali Khan? Aishwarya Bachchan? Vijay Mallya? Or for that matter the Indian cricket team, Praful Patel or Parmeshwar Godrej?

Last year, Ratan Tata picked up the brush and, with artist Laxman Shreshtha, did his bit with oil on canvas in an effort that went on to be auctioned for Rs 70 lakh (I know � blame it on the spirit of charity!). There�s something about art and charity that seems to go together, and as the season kicks off this weekend, it is with another charity exhibition for art.

Art for Prabhat is not new. It started in 2001 in a small way and has been an annual event since, though it got larger last year. This year, it seems to have set its sights even higher, though the money it hopes to make from it � Rs 10 lakh � might appear laughably small to those who surprised themselves by bagging more in the kitty than they had even wildly hoped for.

What�s creditable about the Art for Prabhat exhibition (July 15-17 at Habitat�s Visual Arts Gallery) is that the works � or a majority of them � have been made on paper that has been created by children as part of its �trash to cash� programme. Children at the Delhi-based NGO Society for Child Development convert the debris collected in its backyard into paper that is then made available to artists and art colleges. �What�s special about it is the people who�ve made the paper,� says Prabhat director Madhumita Puri.

With 113 artists having contributed to the effort, the exhibition features works by those who may not be as well known as, say, those participating in the Khushii auctions, but that doubles up as an advantage: it showcases several artists into a mainstream fold at a very public platform (a great time to invest, therefore, in new talent) and prices are contained within the Rs 25,000-4 lakh band, these even for better-established names such as Anjolie Ela Menon, Jatin Das, Laxma Goud, Manisha Gera Baswani, Thota Vaikuntam and Yusuf Arrakal.

It�s not strictly charity, of course � the artists get 60 per cent of the proceeds, so for them it�s pretty much like any other show. �And why not?� asks an agitated artist who for reasons of correctness must remain unnamed, �why is it that every time money has to be raised, artists are asked to donate their works, as if we have no requirement for money ourselves.� Ouch!

But then, frankly, �art for charity� is long dead and buried, even though Khushii�s Harveen Kapoor rises to their defence. �The artist community is very supportive,� she insists, �they are the nicest people.�

But if artists are demanding their spoils in the charity art market, to an extent rising prices in the art market have been responsible for this, though just as culpable are greedy fundraisers who want to make money without spending any. They earn the ire of artists and, often, also of collectors who do not want to spend large sums in the guise of charity that isn�t.

In this milieu, the Khushii auction (October 28 at the Turf Club in Mumbai) is at least as organised as it is, well, well-meaningly extortionist. Its winning formula is to pair India�s leading artists with celebrities, translating into great media PR on the one hand, and into a hands-down money-spinner on the other.

Reason it out for yourself: with family or senior colleagues from the company (of which the founder or CEO has �painted� a work), it�s imperative that they bid or at least increase bids in an effort to �save face�. If that seems far-fetched, it does explain why so many works sold at the Delhi auction found their way into the market soon after at rock-bottom prices!

Even so, at least the artists had reason to be happy. With the strong bidding for what were, after all, mostly mediocre works, even at 25 per cent �the artists almost reached their reserve prices�, reminds Kapoor. It has to be seen whether Khushii�s Mumbai auction will go the way of the Delhi one, or whether Mumbai�s more mature art market will have more substance and less frenzy, but till then the more modest Art for Prabhat exhibition, at least, is kicking off the season with options that are affordable. For that alone, maybe we should say Amen.

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