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Art of Subodh Gupta in Rajasthan

How contemporary
initiatives are reviving
historic sites in Rajasthan
‘I’d had this idea for many years about
putting large-scale sculptures in that fort’,
says Peter Nagy, a Manhattan artist and
gallerist who transplanted himself to
Delhi in 1997 to be an early champion of
Indian contemporary artists. ‘That fort’ he
refers to is the great hilltop Nahargarh
Fort that overlooks Jaipur, a city more
associated with Rajput palaces and folk
arts than modern art installations. Nagy’s
first show there – works by Indian and
international artists including Jitish Kallat,
Subodh Gupta, and Thukral & Tagra
scattered through the rooms and
courtyard of the fort’s Madhavendra
Palace – landed in the city with a
welcome shock in December. ‘I wanted it
to be a bit of a treasure hunt. We’ve had
6,000 people a day, often locals who’ve
never been to an art show. Kids dashing
about, clambering on top of Sabodh’s
Ambassador car and running along it.
We specially chose robust pieces!’
That this show has such tremendous local success is perhaps its real triumph. Most of India’s
contemporary and modern art spaces draw the already-knowing rather than the local curious with few
previous art encounters. When I visited it, the palace was filled with visitors. A group of women stood in
front of Vibha Galhotra’s Flow (2015), in animated discussion over what seemed to be moulton lava
oozing out of a delicately painted palace wall, frozen in time. Courting couples strolled around and
posed for selfies with Thukral & Tagra’s Arrested Image of a Dream – Stone Wings (a) & (b) (2015), two
monumental carved wings intended to evoke ancient cultures. A young man hovered pensively in front
of Arlene Shechet’s series of Buddha figures, made between 1994 and 2000. Families with kids of all ages
dispersed upstairs and along corridors, calling out from windows to tell each other about the amusing,
strange, provocative sculptures they had discovered.
In a land of government bureaucracy, Nagy seems slightly stunned that the project was realised so quickly. The key step
was getting Vasundhara Raje, Rajasthan’s chief minister since 2013, on side. ‘She was persuaded that people travel to
India for contemporary as well as traditional Indian culture,’ says Nagy. Rajasthan has six forts designated as world
heritage sites by UNESCO; Nagy chose Narhargarh because it has ‘it had a lot of possibilities, and it is the right scale. It’s
neatly contained and has security’. Last March a 10-year-long partnership agreement to run the sculpture park was
signed by the Rajasthan government and Saat Saath Arts Foundation, a non-profit founded by Nagy’s co-director at
Nature Morte, Aparajita Jain, which provides fundraising and support for art and education initiatives in India to
promote international exchange. (Raising funds in India has become much easier since the Companies Act of 2013,
which introduced mandated corporate social responsibility – the requirement that two per cent of a national company’s
profits to be spent on philanthropy.) Nine months later, in December, the park opened.
The current exhibition is scheduled to run until November,
and Nagy already has the next show mapped out: ‘For this
exhibition, the pieces already existed. For the next, we want
to use even more of the space, have all new works. We hope
to have 50/50 Indian and non-Indian artists; ten artists doing
ten works each. We have some local artists making
site-specific pieces; we have Richard Long using local
At Nahargarh Fort, the combination of public and private
funding in support of a creative vision to revive a historic site
seems to have been a triumph. It’s not the only project
working with the state or central governments to revive
spaces in Jaipur – to varying degrees of success. The
state-funded Jawahar Kala Kendra (JKK), intended to be a
hub for Rajasthani culture, had been languishing since soon
after its colourful, lavish auditorium and galleries designed
by Charles Correa were completed in 1993. Now Pooja Sood,
director since 2015, has breathed new life into it. In January
this year, she relaunched its nine-acre site with a schedule
that ranged from films by Mani Kaul and Ranbir Singh Kaleka
to a packed all-night performance of Indian classical dance.
It’s not clear if funding is secure for the centre’s future.
The second revival is at Kishanpole Bazar, inside
Jaipur’s old walled city, where a 64-room mansion built
for a court minister in the 19th century has been
turned into the Museum of Legacies. Funding came
from the Government of India’s Smart Cities Mission, a
$15 billion cross-country programme for urban renewal
and sustainability launched in 2015. The museum’s first
five spaces opened in the same month as the
Nahargarh Fort sculpture park – on view are the very
finest examples of Indian crafts, from Mitch Crites’s
collection of marble and stone inlay-carvings to Pooja
Singhal’s collection of Pichwai paintings. More
galleries, workshops and summer programmes are
planned for when promised government funding
arrives. Apurba Roy Choudhury, its curatorial director,
wants it to be ‘an alive, vibrant place and play a pivotal
role in making Jaipur a quality cultural capital’.
Then there’s the Jal Mahal palace, which seems to float on the Man Sagar Lake – a wondrous building with a
fragile future. Having become dangerously polluted, the lake was dredged and cleaned so water-birds
returned. The palace itself, built for royal duck-shooting parties, has been restored from a state of decay using
traditional methods. Jaipur’s miniature painters have decorated the walls of its loggias and pavilions; the
rooftop garden is furnished with fountains and flowers. You would reach this idyll by boats with swan-shaped
prows – had the state government not made palace and lake a ‘protected area’ closed to visitors. What began
with government encouragement in 2000, then become a public-private partnership, now languishes in court.
conceived by Maharaja
Jai Singh II in the early
weakening of Delhi’s
Mughal rulers, to be an
ideal city, the successful
trading and cultural hub
of north India. Today,
Jaipur’s movers and
founder’s aim – albeit
with the occasional one
step back for every two
steps forward – to
benefit today’s three or
so million citizens as
much as their visitors.