From 2005 to 2012, publishers Popular Prakashan were on a mission to invigorate India’s art scene by sponsoring “art camps”. Through their visual arts initiative, Foundation B&G, the publishers flew artists to locations across India and the world — Goa and Kashmir in India, Jordon, Egypt, Morocco, and Mexico. They concluded the series of art camps with a staggering 350-plus collection. Anju Dodiya, Rekha Rodwittiya, Laxma Goud, Bose Krishnamachari and Brinda Miller were among those who were part of these camps. A selection of 52 works from the collection are now on display at Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai, in an exhibition curated by academic, queer rights activist and Rhodes Scholar Anish Gawande, 23.
“This is a unique art collection by a publishing house, and a Marathi publishing house at that. Some of these artists were travelling abroad for the first time. Art theorists like Ranjit Hoskote and Nancy Adajania were travelling with them. This wasn’t just a free trip abroad, but a reflective space,” says Gawande.
Veer Munshi. (Photo courtsey: Sakshi Gallery)
In the last 95 years, Popular Prakashan has brought out notable titles in Marathi and English by authors such as Romila Thapar, Bhalchandra Nemade, Vijay Tendulkar, Jayprakash Narayan and Amol Palekar. It has been associated with other companies, such as Encyclopedia Britannica and children’s magazine Chandamama.
Set up as Popular Book Depot in 1924 by Ganesh R Bhatkal in Mumbai, the company became Popular Prakashan Pvt Ltd after Ganesh’s sons Sadanand and Ramdas took over the reins in 1962. The publishing house is currently run by Harsha Bhatkal, Ramdas’ son, who initiated the art camps.
Gawande has titled the exhibition “Katarvel: Journeys Into the Foundation B&G Collection”. Loosely translated, katarvel means dusk, when the day cuts into night, a time for nostalgia. Most people who have visited the exhibition have found it hard to pronounce the Marathi word, laughs Gawande. He says, “It’s an invitation and a challenge to engage. This is a white cube space but the first thing you see is this huge Marathi word. It establishes that you are in a multilingual space.”
True to this nature, the exhibition brings together artists with a variety of visual vocabularies. It also points out how art and publishing influenced each other, such as Sudhir Patwardhan’s painting Homage to Marathi Theatre that became the cover art for a Popular Prakashan book on Marathi theatre by Makarand Sathe titled Marathi Rangbhoomichya Tees Ratri. Gawande has also added a reading space, with Popular Prakashan titles on poetry, politics, theatre, criticism, and, of course, art. Many of these books are last editions and out of print now.
Works by Manu Parekh. (Photo courtsey: Sakshi Gallery)
One of the biggest successes of the camps, says Gawande, was to provide artists with the space to think of possibilities beyond their commercial successes. A work by Atul Dodiya, not the largest in the exhibition, has a white bull made in the Tyeb Mehta’s style. Dodiya was at camp in Turkey in 2009 when the news of Mehta’s passing away reached him. Once he was back home, he made Dancing Dervish & Trussed Bull. He set three twirling dervishes in marble dust, wrote the names of the 14 artists who attended the camp in Arabic and thus paid homage to his late friend. Dodiya could have given any work to Foundation B&G, but he chose to give this particular one, Gawande says. “It shows how intimate it all was.”
The first-time curator was drawn to the Foundation B&G collection in a personal capacity. Not only does he live in the same lane as the Bhatkal family in Prabhadevi, but the Foundation B&G’s collection came as an affirmation for the work Gawande does with the Dara Shikoh Fellowship, a cross-disciplinary residency programme he founded five years ago. “We have separated art, literature, theatre, film, academia. But this exhibition was an attempt to break that. The collection had its faults — the representation of women and the marginalised is not here — but it still creates the conversation between art, literature and theory. And, as I have seen with the works in this collection, art is not just about the market,” he says.
Katarvel: Journeys Into the Foundation B&G Collection is at Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai, till March 31