How visual artists in Mumbai are reinventing themselves for a post-COVID world

Artists in Mumbai face the same challenges as their counterparts around the world. Even so, many are quietly absorbing, visualising and recreating the imagery sparked by the pandemic.

When the lockdown was initially announced on March 24th, many in the art fraternity failed to grasp its impact. Innovative installation artist Hetal Shukla was in fact still considering his trip to Dubai and scheduling his sponsored exhibition on 150 years of Mahatma Gandhi in Germany.

As the lockdown kept on getting extended, the 150 artworks on Gandhi stayed put at Mani Bhavan, air travel got restricted and today he is wondering how he will pay his six-odd staff, who have been with him for over two decades. “I managed to pay their April salaries but slashed it thereafter since I am struggling myself,” says Shukla.

Life takes him back 24 years back when he chose to start independently as an installation artist specialising in corporate office interiors; since then, he has done pretty well for himself and his team. “With most US-based MNC’s apart from the real estate industry also in the red, the corporate interiors space doesn’t look like it’ll recover anytime soon,” says Shukla, “My commissioned art works based on corporate branding now suddenly appear like decorative pieces in a luxury segment.”

Shukla now plans to display his work online, as he has realised that “it’s a powerful platform”. He is already uploading his work on an architectural firm’s online network.

The lockdown has affected the who’s who in the art world too. Noted art collector Kiran Nadar, who owns one third of the world’s collection on Indian Art, had to postpone the inauguration of her pet project, the Kiran Nadar Museum of Arts and Cultural Centre.

The museum-cum-cultural center, envisaged as a first-of-its-kind of concept fusing visual art (art museum) with performing arts like dance and music,  was scheduled for opening later this year, but has now been delayed by another couple of years due to the inability of the architect to travel to India, Nadar told

Her group now hosts virtual shows, interactions and activities online or adults and children. Recently, they hosted a mask-a-thon competition to design masks that attracted over 12,000 participants. 

Others like Achyut Palav had barely managed to go through his exhibition of Calligraphy art works at Jehangir Art Gallery, when the lockdown was announced. As soon as the prime minister announced lockdown, the prestigious Jehangir closed down straight till June end, a closure that has now been extended till July-end.

“We were very clear that we did not want any of our artists to be affected by the coronavirus. Besides, even if we keep it open, its not as if the buyers or visitors will visit us in the current scenario,” explains Ms K.G. Menon, the secretary of the Gallery, who was been with the gallery for the past 50 years.

Pic: Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY-SA 4.0

Each of the seven exhibition halls within Jehangir Art Gallery, are booked six years in advance with entries pouring in from all over the world. “Besides, of the approximately 2000 entries received for the slots in a year, we also have bookings reserved for various consulates, retrospectives and other affiliated art institutions,” says Menon. 

Photojournalist Gajanan Dudhalkar had curated a photo exhibition of canvas-printed pictures of 12 photojournalists, showcasing the cultural and heritage aspects of Maharashtra; this was planned to be hosted at the Piramal Gallery of the National Center for Performing Arts (NCPA) on May 1st, to coincide with the state’s 60th anniversary. Dudhalkar regrets that he will now have to work hard to publicize his work all over again.

“My event was scheduled on April 30th, for which I had sent invites, got VIP chief guests confirmed, my pre-event publicity buzz had started online  and I was even expecting some purchases,” says the photojournalist, who is also on the management committee of the Photographic Society of India, “Instead, now the exhibition stands postponed and the pictures are lying rolled up at the printer’s. Now, I may get a fresh date, but I may have to work all over  again. It was a perfect opportunity lost.”

Finding new mediums

Bereft of public platforms to showcase their work, the art community has already moved on to other alternatives. “I have heard of some galleries letting go of their commissions for paintings costing up to Rs 10,000 and even help connect buyers with artists. At other places, artists who have successfully managed to sell five or more paintings worth Rs 10,000 each are asked to purchase paintings of Rs 10.000 to keep the flow in the market. Some galleries are helping promote artists online,” says Hetal Shukla.

Others artists have already moved on to the online fora. “Artists have been displaying and selling their works online for sometime now. It’s not exactly a COVID phenomenon. But, I don’t think it will pick up or sustain, as it is not a long-term solution,” says Mukesh Parpiani, head of photography and Piramal Gallery at NCPA.

Parpiani also feels that the art community has a tough challenge ahead because people will take some time to return to galleries even after lockdown is lifted. 

There is a world of difference between displaying art online and in a gallery. Unlike the short attention span a painting gets online, there is a kind of intimacy that builds up with the art in a gallery; the one-to-one conversations with the artists and curators in a gallery, are incomparable.”

Mukesh Parpiani, Piramal Gallery, NCPA, Mumbai

Contextualising art

But all is not lost for the art fraternity, that draws inspiration from happenings in society and its people. The JJ alumni group on FB came up with a series to highlight commendable work done by the Coronavirus pandemic warriors. This was in response to the increasing attacks on doctors and police.

The lockdown already prompted Achyut Palav to focus more on sharing his art via social media. Having amassed 10,000 followers on Facebook long ago, he started a small daily graphic series on the COVID pandemic on his Whatsapp group. He also started illustrating poems of well known Marathi poet Pravin Dawne and started sharing it.

“Everyday I would share a calligraphic illustration of one poem for children. It elicited such a good response that now other poets too have approached me asking to illustrate their poems. In the process, I also wrote a poem and got a child to recite it, which also went viral,” said Palav.

Palav is now hosting a competition for calligraphers to highlight the role of frontline warriors like doctors, police etc. “I have also asked entries for another series titled “Life is Beautiful” that seeks to look at life in post-Covid times. A lockdown can be beautiful, as it gives us time to think, to express, to review and renew our lives afresh,” he said. While the general scenario around may be gloomy, as an artist he feels it is his responsibility to spread cheer in society.  

Dudhalkar views the pandemic  as a historic event that needs to be captured and documented for posterity. He is now curating a coffee table book on COVID images in collaboration with the Mumbai Press Club.

“A lockdown can be beautiful, as it gives us time to think, to express, to review and renew our lives afresh”

Achyut Palav, Artist

Hetal Shukla too is working on a book on the art fraternity that he had already started long back, but hadn’t had the time to complete earlier.

So, while the world may be sitting at home, bemoaning the woes that the times have brought upon us, the artists are quietly at work, absorbing, visualising and recreating the imagery sparked by the overwhelming pandemic. The post-COVID visual art scene indeed promises to be refreshingly different from art as we had known and seen before. 

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