When Modern meets Contemporary: Venkatappa Art Gallery and Informal Art Education in Bangalore


  • Sumithra Sunder National Institute of Advanced Studies




Modern, Contemporary, Venkatappa Art Gallery, Informal Art Education


Public spaces and institutions have often been linked when it comes to art practice in Bangalore. Whether it was the large-scale earthworks or the appropriation of heritage spaces taken on by artists, the spaces occupied by the public and the public art institutions have had a strong impact on the ways art gets produced in the city. There is also an additional element of reclaiming public spaces that is the struggle of most cities today.

Since February this year, the artist community of Bangalore has protested against the move made by the government to 'hand over' the Venkatappa Art Gallery to a private entity. This has spurred a lot of conversations about public spaces and public resources in the city, specifically, in relation to art. Art history and the 'teaching of art' have often been celebrated as an achievement of European scholarship. It is true that a number of institutions set up to teach art in India are a colonial legacy, but what emerged post-independence is a culture of rejecting European aesthetics and trying to form a national one if it were. And in our era of post-modern/post-colonial awareness, there is a fluidity in the conduct of the institutions and in the understanding of public spaces that have contributed to the aesthetic of the contemporary artist. In the light of the recent events, this paper will examine the ways in which the art gallery and later the freeform collectives serve as educational spaces for students and subsequently, explore the implications of the lack of such spaces in the practice of art in contemporary times.

Art Education in post-independence India reflected the uniquely Indianized, modern art-making. However, this modernist or 'formal' concept of art teaching and learning, prevalent during the prior era, still prevails in the majority of art schools in the country. Here, Modernist and formal are terms used with reference to the way art is made. A formal approach to painting would be in pure painting techniques that used oil/watercolour/acrylic paint on Canvas/paper. It also refers to form in the painting where there may be an abstract or figurative subject painted but it remains in the form of a painting, unlike contemporary art where the work of art is no longer restricted to a medium. It is important for us to note at this juncture that while the city that is now known as a font of conceptual and performance-based work, still retains institutions, such as the art schools that teach a modernist aesthetic. Therefore, one could safely assume that the spaces that exist outside of the art school feed into the art teaching-learning for students. That is to say, the culture that developed since the establishment of the early art schools, fostered an environment of experimentation. This kind of art practice led to the dematerialized artworks and research-led initiatives that have become a part of contemporary art in Bangalore.

The art school, the way we know it is a product of a colonial legacy and a nationalist need to 'encourage' all forms of education. But is there a school that can exist without an idea, or an inheritance? An ethics of knowledge is the foundation of any school in its essential definition as a gathering place but the complexity of what that knowledge should be, how its production is configured and unfolds, who translates it across the bridges of generations and time, whether its structure is rigid or limpid in its willingness to change, whether it is resistant to external mandates or longs for the imprimatur of an outside authority, and what status and success signify for its teachers and graduates—all of these define the place of gathering, its ethical complexion, its reasons for being, and what learning means there (Madoff, 2009). It would also be good to note here that the 20th century saw significant changes in terms of artistic practice. One significant change in the these years is a 'flattening' of genres/styles/discipline. Keeping this in mind, then one can ask, how do the art schools qualify teaching the traditional practices of painting, sculpture, print-making and such as 'visual art' and nothing else? How has it become, that the residencies and collectives that spring out of art school or exist outside of the art school have become incubators of what is contemporary?

In Bangalore, there has been no dearth of alternative institutional and art making spaces. Of these, the contemporary art galleries set up in the 50's and 60's were important to the construction of the contemporary aesthetic that is a signature of Bangalore-based artists and students. This aesthetic is seen in the large number of performance works as well as the collaborations and collective formations that produce art. The Venkatappa Art Gallery, due to its eminence as an art space for young artists as well as a museum commemorating a modern Master, becomes a nodal point in the construction of contemporary art history of Bangalore.

The Gallery, as seen by the artist community, is an inclusive and democratic space which can be hired at low costs by young artists and those from the provinces, and also excellent for non-commercial and experimental art projects, festivals, workshops, seminars, talks and meetings. Most of the artists who are part of the Venkatappa Art Gallery forum have had their first solo shows in the gallery. Through the years, there have been group shows, collective projects, eight state Kala Melas, retrospective of RM Hadpad, The Khoj International Artists Residency, The International Live Art Festival, Co-Lab and Ananya Drishya artist talks, and in more recent times, the IFA Public Art presentations, to name a few activities. These events have been open to the public and have been well attended. Students from local art schools, as well as those from other cities in the State, have been known to present/display here following the completion of their studies. Presenting one‘s artwork in the gallery is almost like a rite of passage and therefore has evidenced work of a number of prominent artists.

Author Biography

Sumithra Sunder, National Institute of Advanced Studies

Research Scholar, Department of Humanities, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru, Karnataka, India.


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