The India Art Fair has traversed remarkably since 2008, when it first began. It has created commendable synergy among artists’ groups from the region and beyond. As a key function, the fair connects artists, market, consumers, collectors and an inchoate mass of art lovers. But most importantly, it plays a subtle pedagogical role in exposing art-lovers to the works, which would otherwise not be accessible at one place.

In its 2017 edition, the fair claimed to be “South Asia’s leading platform for modern and contemporary art and portal to the region’s cultural landscape”. Making a taller claim, the fair promised to “reflect South Asia’s immense diversity in the visual arts”. It was enough to make an art lover curious about that loosely employed term, South Asia: what does South Asia mean in the context of India Art Fair 2017? Was it simply a strategic use of language, without much meaning?

Searching for South Asia

There were three main groups from neighbouring countries, in the midst of a teeming number of Indian galleries and groups at the fair this year. They were the Britto Arts Trust from Dhaka, Theertha International Artists’ Collective from Colombo, and the Nepal Art Council from Kathmandu. A booth was dedicated to an art project titled A Tale of Two Cities, which consisted of the works of artists from India and Sri Lanka. However, it was only a reflection without the presence of artworks from this interesting project – which left an onlooker either confused or hungry.

Besides this, a motley of artists from Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh featured in a couple of Indian galleries such as Sri Lanka’s Koralegedara Pushpukumara and Bangladesh’s Yasmin Jahan Nupur in Exhibit 320. Similarly, one got to see Sri Lanka’s Anoli Perera and Bangladesh’s Tayeba Begum Lipi in Shrine Empire. At the booth of Blueprint 12, there were works by Pala Pothupitye from Sri Lanka with Bangladesh’s Mahbubur Rahman and Pakistan’s Madiha Sikandar. As if she were making a cameo, Bani Abidi from Pakistan was in the fair without much to exhibit except her book.

A glimpse of the Nepal Art Council. Credit: Dev Pathak

The graph of representation began to dip when it came to artworks from Pakistan. Anila Quayyum Agha, an artist born in Pakistan but trained and based in US, showed her series, All the Flowers Are For Me, at the India Art Fair. Wandering at the fair, one wondered whether Afghanistan, Bhutan and Maldives are in fact part of the map of South Asia at all, and in the same breath – does putting together artworks from a few countries enable the claim to be representing the diversity of South Asia? The works of these artists scattered in a narrow space gave a sense of the delta of artworks, surrounded by illustrious shores. There seemed to be more space occupied by the promotional commercial booths, including the one for a private university. In the wake of contemporary geopolitics, the notion of an entity like South Asia is a debatable one, in which the failure of SAARC members to shake hand with one another, upsets bonhomie.

In short, the South Asian component at the fair seemed to be a desperate attempt to put together a few works from some parts of the region. Seemingly, trade and the commerce of art couldn’t surpass the regimes in power – or did the organisers simply fail to negotiate with the whimsical powers that be?

Dhaka-based artist Tayeba Begum Lipi’s Swing, a magnificent work in stainless steel blades, was not exhibited on the day the Art Fair opened. Swing, with other works, arrived late due to delayed clearance from the customs. Instead of an artwork by Mahbubur Rahman, a pedestal informed visitors of the works’ status: “Awaiting Delhi Customs”. It added a possible interpretation to what South Asia could mean. Anoli Perera from Sri Lanka had faced similar difficulties in bringing her artworks to exhibitions in the past. After all, the rules of Customs cannot be subverted for art’s sake. But this also betrayed a general lack of understanding about the regional framework, which impedes the smooth participation of artists, academics and cultural activists of the region at various events. However, this alone couldn’t have been the reason for the relative thinness of South Asia at the Art Fair. Perhaps, this pertained to a fogginess in the imagination about the region.

Rhetoric without reference

Theertha, from Sri Lanka. Credit: Dev Pathak

The first event at the speakers’ forum appended to the Art Fair was titled global contemporaries, with Bani Abidi from Pakistan, Asim Waqif from India and others, with Abhay Sardesai as the moderator. The concept note of the panel informed visitors that South Asian artists are globally networked while “also rooted in South Asian consciousness”. However, this idea of a South Asian consciousness seldom acquired recognisable corporeal existence in the conversation: the discourse, which the meagre artworks from the region could engender at the Fair, received no attention at the speakers’ forum. It might have been more creative and useful to have a public discourse about the themes emerging from the works of various artists from the region. The artworks by Anoli Perera at the Theertha booth, Tayeba Begum Lipi at Britto and their Indian counterparts such as Vibha Galhotra and Sumakshi Singh at Exhibit 320 gave visitors a glimpse of what a South Asia imagined by female artists could mean. Similarly, Pala Pothupitiye’s maps and Mahbubur Rahman’s Lonely King at Blueprint I2, Bandu Manaperi’s Firecracker Man at Theertha, Sunil Sigdel’s My Expired God at the Nepal Art Council booth could have engendered a regional framework of male artists’ anguish.

The phrase “South Asian consciousness” deserved various scales of discourse about these artworks, among many others. Such phrases are perhaps easier uttered than shown through tangible instances. This need not be the case with the works of artists, but when it comes to giving tangible clarity to such crucial phrases, artists and critics tend to grope in the dark. Celebrities who readily line up to oblige Fair administrators with a favourable statement, seemed to be articulating in such haste that it was beyond them to think or interrogate along the complicated lines of what a phrase might really mean. Many such celebrities, from Suhel Seth to Sonam Kapur, mouthed off on the rhetorical idea of South Asia, in relation to the Art Fair, in the backdrop of stunning artworks. None bothered to think about the complex political undercurrents – that it is much easier to be global or local, than South Asian in our times.

With the accumulation of experience since 2008, it is imperative for the Art Fair’s administrators to get serious about the usage of terms like South Asia. There is no harm in spending a little more time while undertaking ideational preparation, especially if this means that a more tangible notion of South Asia may emerge, through artworks, artists’ networks, and the overall process of consuming and collecting artworks. Else, South Asia at the Art Fair will be no different from the foggy notion of the region, referred to by bureaucratic humbugs.

Tayeba Beghum Lipi's artworks. Credit: Dev Pathak