Swasti, a gallery for healing

An unusual initiative takes art into the portal of a Bengaluru cancer hospital and leverages its therapeutic value to foster a sense of well being among its inmates.

As art becomes big business, it is not surprising to find art galleries springing up everywhere in Bangalore; but when one finds a gallery that is somewhat different, it is rather intriguing! I met young Veena Narsasetty, an artist and sculptor, who was exhibiting for a show at a gallery called ‘Swasti’. The unusual thing about the gallery is that it is funded and run by Health Care Global, an organisation that runs an oncology hospital in Bangalore.

Health Care Global (HCG) is about five years old, and has seven hospitals all over India. Dr. Bhagya Ajaikumar, wife of the Chairman of the HCG Foundation, decided to start Swasti art gallery as a different initiative in June 2007. "A traditional hospital setting is that of white, sterile walls- sterile in every sense," says Bhagya. The spaces and walls where health professionals, caregivers and patients spend a lot of time, is not an inviting setting. It would be good, Bhagya thought, to change this, and let the therapeutic value of art have its soothing and tranquilising effect.

Veena Narsasetty (L) and Soumya Chavan (R) at Swasti Art Gallery

Veena Narsasetty (L) and Soumya Chavan (R) at Swasti Art Gallery (Pic: Deepa Mohan)

The idea further morphed into the notion of having an art gallery, rather than just hanging art works on the walls as some hospitals do. This was why Bhagya named the gallery ‘Swasti’, which loosely translates to ‘well-being’. "There are many young and talented artists in Bangalore, looking for an outlet to showcase their work," says Sushmitha, the curator of HCG-Swasti.

Adds Bhagya, "I thought it would be a win-win situation if helping the artists helped cancer patients, too." The art gallery is located opposite the visitors’ waiting area, and has a well-lit space.

Swasti started with a showing of 8 artists and sculptors in June 2007. Of these, one was actually an end-stage cancer patient; Jerome Francis exhibited his paintings, among them a sensitive portrayal titled ‘Waiting for Spouse’s Return’ (surely an universal phenomenon!) "Jerome is no longer with us," says Sushmitha, "but his work was very popular."

Two more shows were curated; the second one was called ‘Spectrum’, and actor Naseeruddin Shah inaugurated it. The third show was inaugurated by Jasu Rawal and G Subramanian, two of the artists who are also exhibiting at the present (4th) show, ‘Pink Spirit’.  

‘Pink Spirit’ was inaugurated by actor Shabana Azmi. Apart from Rawal and Subramanian, other artists exhibiting are: Pushpa Dravid, Rani Rekha, Ramdas Adyanthaya, Shan Re, Soumya Chavan, S G Vasudev, Bhagya Ajaikumar herself, and one sculptor, Veena Narasasetty. All the artists have offered their work to support the treatment and care of breast cancer, which is symbolised by a pink ribbon. The exhibition has been on since October 4th, and will go on until the end of November.

I asked Soumya Chavan if, on hearing of this gallery, she did not have any negative feelings about showing here. "Absolutely not," she says emphatically. "On the contrary, I felt it was something out of the ordinary, something which would brighten up the hospital atmosphere and bring some cheer to a dreary environment. So I agreed at once." Veena Narasasetty also says that she had no misgivings about participating in the show.

Swasti Contemporary Art Gallery
Healthcare Global Enterprises (HCG)
8,Kalinga Rao Road, Sampangi Ram Nagar
Bangalore 560027
Tel 91 80 4020 6000/ 4020 6400
email: swastigallery@gmail.com

For more:
Timings 11 AM to 7 PM

Sushma, as Sushmitha is known, pipes in at this point to say, indeed, she did have a few qualms! Sushma, who did her Bachelor’s in Fine Art from Karnataka Chitra Kala Parishath and her Master’s from Bangalore University, had been teaching at the M S Ramiah College at the Product Design Centre; this was, she says, just what she wanted. "The first curator, Chaitra, was leaving, so I joined," she says happily.

"I wondered how many people would enter a hospital to visit an art gallery, but contrary to my expectations, at least 10 to 15 people who are not connected to the hospital walk in every day!" This, of course, apart from the visitors, doctors, and patients in the hospital. "I love this job," she smiles; "it’s a real challenge to put together a show and carry it successfully."

"Doctors are actually great connoisseurs and collectors of art," offers Soumya. "They show great taste and discretion in their collection." So Bhagya and Sushmitha have to be very careful about the art displayed at the gallery. What parameters do they use for this? "Our focus is definitely on the young upcoming artists," says Sushmitha.

The first showing was put together by calling upon the artists that Bhagya thought were promising; the second one sort of fell into place, with both established and upcoming artists showing their work.

What is the business model for these showings? The running of the gallery is taken care of by the HCG foundation, explains Sushmita. "We do not charge the artists anything for exhibiting here." Whenever an artwork is sold, half the proceeds go towards the HCG foundation, for the care of the breast cancer patients. This is a win-win situation, with both the professional artist and the sick patient benefiting.

"We hope that the gallery will soon be self-sustaining," adds Sushmitha. "As of now, we are building up a list of artists, but do not turn away anyone who hears of us and approaches us to show their work." The artists have to take back their unsold works, as right now, there is no space for storage. "But we hope to make some space, and then, perhaps, we can buy the artists’ works as well, and be invested in art, too," says she.

Veena is very happy to be associated with this show. Two of her brass sculptures, ‘Breeze’ and ‘Relaxing’, both depicting female figures, are on display, and she is content to have them seen by many different kinds of people who walk into the gallery, and hopes that both of them will be sold before the exhibition ends.

Are there any other such initiatives in Bangalore? "Not to my knowledge," says Veena, "Gallery Sumukha in Wilson Garden is located within a hospital compound, but is not part of the hospital as Swasti is."

Bhagya Ajaikumar has successfully turned the hospital, associated with sickness, to one of healing, where art is given space to play a therapeutic role, and result in a viable business model as well."Our intention is to have a permanent show here, that patients and visitors can both visit and benefit from," she says. "Our focus will continue to be on upcoming artists, and to select works that will act in a therapeutic way upon the viewer."

Let’s wish this unusual gallery every success; it has turned the idea of a hospital from a place of illness to a place of healing! Such a positive turnaround deserves every encouragement.

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