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Art and the Artist: A Walk through the Contemporary Art Gallery

Despite having lived in Chennai for a decade, last year marked the first time I was exposed to the art galleries in Chennai. I visited the Lalit Kala Akademi in Thousand Lights for the exhibit ‘The Moving Arc’, Kiran Nadar Museum of Art’s (KNMA) first exhibition in Chennai. As much as I enjoyed the exhibit, I also found myself slightly unnerved by how little I knew about art and Indian artists. The Real Van Gogh Immersive Experience was hosted at Express Avenue in February and March of this year and I found myself visiting the exhibit several times. Each time, I invited a friend or two along. Almost everyone I asked to accompany me refused with the same refrain, “I am not an artsy person. I don’t know anything about art and I don’t know how to enjoy art!”


That made me think quite a bit. Art can feel intimidating and the art world can feel exclusionary, especially if you have had limited exposure to the world of art. I don’t know much about art myself. In fact, when a friend asked me about the KNMA exhibit, all I had to say about it was that it was “fun”. Art movements like modernism, cubism, and impressionism are a mystery to me but I don’t want that to stop me from enjoying art exhibits. I could spend time reading up about art movements but that would make it feel like a chore, so I choose not to. That brought me to an important question – Does knowledge of art need to be a prerequisite for enjoying art? I don’t think so. Enjoyment in itself is quite a subjective experience. However, understanding a bit about the artist and the work of art you are viewing does elevate the experience. “How do you learn about art without making it feel like a chore?” you ask.


Enter Madras Inherited!


They conduct guided art walks across the city as part of their work in preserving the heritage of the city.


I attended the art walk at the National Art Gallery and the Contemporary Art Gallery in Egmore. The walk was led by Ankita Merwin, who explained details about the various works of art as we passed them. She explained the differences between Tanjore, Mysore, and Mughal art.


Having a guide who had done a considerable amount of research was a godsend. I would have whizzed through the National Art Gallery within 20 minutes if I had gone on my own because of the lack of detail about the artwork on display. I wouldn’t have appreciated the fine details in the Tanjore and Mysore paintings and wouldn’t have insight into the effort that went into creating such intricate works of art had it not been for Ankita’s insight into the process that both types of painting involve.


Ankita had a folder with information relevant to the art we were viewing including an old newspaper clipping about the donation of an artwork done by Raja Ravi Varma. Her knowledge about various art forms, suffused with anecdotes about her own experiences with the art forms, and details about her education in art, provided a very interesting background to the artists’ works. Ankita delved into details of the artist’s lives, the implications of the socio-political context they were operating in and how that impacted their artistic styles. It was fascinating to hear about how their country of tutelage was evident in the style they employed in their paintings and prints. Amongst other interesting tidbits of information, Ankita also mentioned Raja Ravi Varma’s brother, Raja Raja Varma, and his habit of maintaining a journal detailing their activities, which is purported to be one of the most authentic sources about the artist’s life. She also explained commonalities in Ravi Varma’s paintings and details about his life, including his decision to establish a printing press to create prints of his paintings. Insight like this added an immeasurable amount of depth to the experience of viewing the paintings and prints on display.


Throughout the walk, several visitors to the galleries tried joining the walk, listening in on the guide’s details about the paintings on display, with some wanting to register on the spot.

At the end of the guided walk, the team at Madras Inherited presented lovely souvenirs including a postcard designed by the guide, Ankita Merwin, with her depiction of Hamsa Damayanti and prints sourced from Apparao Galleries.


The walk was a wonderful experience, with a well-prepared guide and a responsive team who were open to answering questions and had detailed notes on hand about the various works of art on display.


About the Author:

Asma is a writer with an interest in public policy, intersectional feminism, and mental health.


Cover Photo:

Sujith Kumar

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