Research Log

The Curatorial Imperative

Mohd Ahmad Sabih, Researcher for India

So it’s the buzzword of the season here in India: “curating”. If one were to begin to count the number of events organized in the country dedicated to this one over-arching theme, you’d be surprised: Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Baroda, Kolkata; conferences, panel discussions, residency programs, workshops, research projects, magazine issues...
Is this to be regarded as the production of a new thematic, one that can become the raison d’être of more careers, exhibitions, education courses and discussions? Or are we to see it as a reorientation of an existing thematic? Further still, must it be seen as a thematic at all, instead of a practice on which thematics can be predicated? What of the intellectual and artistic milieu can this urgency in academic, commercial, alternative and pedagogic fora to address curation, tell us?

One is well aware that as a designation, the curator has been recognized since the Colonial regime. In terms of cutting edge (con)temporary art exhibitions, the mid-20th century witnessed a number of stalwarts who set the ball rolling. In the past decade or two, amidst the warming climate of global reckoning, scholars like Paul O’Neill have taken note of a “curatorial turn”, one that is a decisive shift from art-criticism to curation as a discursive practice. 

Within India, curated exhibitions have been in discussion on and off at least since the mid-1990s. The first among these was ‘Hundred Years: From the NGMA Collection’, curated by art critic Geeta Kapur in 1994 in New Delhi, and it received a roaring response in the mainstream press either in the form of severe criticism, or emphatic appreciation. It is worth noting perhaps, that the 1982 exhibition ‘Contemporary Indian Art’, curated by Richard Bartholomew and Geeta Kapur at the ‘Festival of India Exhibition’ at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, referred to the curators as ‘commissioners’ and not curators. There were other important curated shows during the mid-1990s, such as ‘Self and the World: An Exhibition of Indian Women Artists’ curated by critic Gayatri Sinha; ‘Santiniketan: The Making of a Contextual Modernism’ by art historian R. Siva Kumar; ‘Shilpayan’ curated by sculptor Latika Katt; ‘MAJOR TRENDS in Indian Art’ curated by Rm Palaniappan; ‘Delhi Shilpi Chakra, the Early Years’ curated by Professor P.N. Mago, ‘A Gift for India’, curated by artist Vivan Sundaram, and Pooja Sood’s curatorial projects at the Eicher Gallery since 1996, followed by KHOJ. Not only were these exhibitions sought after in the press and featured in frequent discussions, some of the discussions were in fact around the figure of the curator, the responsibilities and roles it embodies. From the early 2000s, there has been no dearth of curated exhibitions, large and small, national and trans-national, from state sanctioned ‘public’ venues such as the National Gallery of Modern Art and the Lalit Kala Akademi, to the fraught ‘private’ spaces of commercial galleries and the emergence of ‘alternative’ spaces.

Aware of the historical trajectory of this still iridescent figure of the curator, one can be sure that it certainly can’t be some novelty factor for which curation is receiving so much attention this time around. Neither could it merely be a designation that the art-community is vying to create space for. Rather, there is something of the field itself that these various discussions may be trying to reckon with, and the curator seems to stand out as a figure who will be equipped to navigate here. Perhaps it is something of a reconfiguration of the field of cultural production that has brought such stress on questions of curating. It would be presumptuous for me to claim I have answers to explain how old institutional arrangements are shaken up, and new formations are yet to be named. But there are certain factors that alert us to the fact that, indeed, the field has undergone some kind of transformation, and curation may have the modes of enunciation to address it. 

So, how are we to characterize the change? Though the commodification of art has obsessed the art world (particularly in terms of the commodity fetish) since at least the Second World War, the changing notions of commodity and fetish today need certainly to be dwelt upon. Dwelt upon not so much for assessing the art-objects produced, but for the various forms of resistance that have been produced against the commodity fetish. This brings us to the aspect of the formation of communities rather than mere creation of art objects that has become a prerogative of much art-practice today. “The ethical turn in art-criticism... manifest in a heightened attention to how a given collaboration is undertaken” [1], is certainly worth noting for the above reasons, in how the art-object/project today is more often than not percolated by the question of agency of all those involved in its making, showing and viewing/receiving. This aspect obviously embeds itself into the emphasis on collaboration and research as models for art-making. The cultural relativization of genres into what Nancy Adajania has coined as ‘New Context Media’ is another factor to think about – that “the history of new (or old) media art in any local context is dependent on the technological advances and the politics of communication as they prevail in that locale”  [2] (italics mine). Further, the commotion caused by the proliferation of art fairs and biennials around the world (besides just Europe), or what Hans-Ulrich Obrist terms as ‘the polyphony of centres’, leads our attention to the fact that the making of art(works) has indeed fallen subservient to the ‘making visible of art’ in particular events and venues (read exhibitions).

Obviously, the curator inhabits a role that deals fundamentally with such issues that art poses today, and there’s little denying that those issues lie at the heart of notions pervading social imagination: i.e. how aesthetic concerns are negotiated with economic imperatives; how questions of individual autonomy and collective identity are negotiated with authorship and authority; and how ideas surrounding form and content are negotiated with identity and context in an age where the subject has internalized the spectacle.

To assess the situation through a seminar or conference with academics and specialists is one way of going about understanding the relationship of curating within this reconfigured field of art. I have attended several symposia myself just within Delhi, some of which were exceptionally well conducted. But that’s just one way of thinking about these sets of issues. My research trip to Baroda in September this year led my path to another way, to think with these sets of issues through an experiment, one that is hinged on pedagogic impulse and curatorial possibilities. 

The Association of Academics, Artists, and Citizens for University Autonomy (ACUA) had organized a workshop under the aegis of India Foundation for the Arts (IFA), titled ‘Curating Indian Visual Culture: Theory and Practice’ 
(http://www.curationtheory.com/). Conceived and conducted by Professor Shivji Panikkar and Santosh S. as a series of workshops in five cities across the country [3], the first workshop was held in Baroda from the 13th to the 18th of September 2010. Led by seven people including historian Tapati Guha Thakurta, artist and curator Raimi Gbadamosi, artist Shukla Sawant, art historian Anshuman Dasgupta and gallerist, curator and art critic Arshiya Lokhandwala, the workshop participants comprised of practitioners from diverse backgrounds ranging from a journalist to an archivist to an art critic, from a film-researcher to a student in pure science to young artists and curators. 

Unlike any of the other events surrounding curation, the workshop was geared particularly in two directions that set it apart. As already mentioned, it is hinged strongly on pedagogic ambitions, and is in fact dedicated to proposing a syllabus for a course in curating. Secondly, its focus is on recognizing that each workshop would also have to address issues particular to its location, implicitly attempting to complicate the relation between the regional and national in a time when the local-global juxtaposition has become the most frequently cited characteristic of understanding locations. That each workshop aims to be site-specific, and thereby implying that to curate will always be a site-specific activity goes without saying. Both of these aspects, of pedagogic valency and regional complication, don’t propose anything untold. But if there is something noteworthy to my mind, it is the way in which the workshop model is rooted in the idea of what Janna Graham calls ‘possible study’, “the study that is not yet constituted and emerges only through relations formed between artists and transversal constituents” [4]. As a workshop, the forum takes on the double edge of facilitating the development of conceptual frameworks of project proposals submitted by its selected participants, and also takes on developing a reorganized model for itself for the next workshop. The commitment reflects what has been referred to by Graham as ‘thinking with conditions’: testing the field by instituting a return to collective thinking.  What consequence the workshop will bear on realizing its participants’ projects and realizing a course syllabus is only one aspect of the workshop. For now, I think it is more important to note how the model of such itinerant workshops propels the idea of a radical intervention into prevalent pedagogic practices and academic customs, not to mention curatorial initiatives.


1. Claire Bishop, The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents
2. Nancy Adajania, ‘Bifocal Vision: The Near and the Far in Contemporary Indian Art’, Zoom: Art in Contemporary India, Culturgest Museum, Lisbon, 2004.
3. In Kochi/Cochin, Kerela in December 2010, Hyderabad in September 2011, Jammu in February 2012, Shillong in September 2012, Baroda again in December 2012.
4. Janna Graham, Between a Pedagogical Turn and a Hard Place: Thinking with Conditions

  • Workshop participants and resource persons during a site-study of the Baroda Museum and Picture Gallery.
  • Professor Shivji Panikkar and Santosh S. commencing the Curating Visual Culture workshop in Baroda on the 13th September 2010.
  • Artist and lecturer Shukla Sawant making a presentation, chaired by art historian Anshuman Dasgupta.
  • Subuhi Jiwani, the content coordinator for pad.ma (public access digital media archive) presenting her paper, chaired by art historian Anshuman Dasgupta.
  • Devdutt Trivedi, a teacher of film studies presenting his paper, chaired by art historian Anshuman Dasgupta.
  • Professor Shivji Panikkar raising a question during a public lecture by artist and curator Raimi Gdabamosi, chaired by artist Shukla Sawant.
  • Gallerist, curator and art-critic Arshivya Lokhandwala in conversation with art historian Tapati Guha Thakurta.
  • Art history research scholar Nandini Ghosh presenting her curatorial proposal, chaired by artist Shukla Sawant.
  • Journalist, Georgina Maddox making a combined presentation with artist/designers Aliya Pabani and Namrata Mehta.
  • V. Divakar and Koeli Mukherjee, research scholars in art history making a combined presentation, chaired by art historian Anshuman Dasgupta.
  • Rucha Kulkarni, a lecturer for art history and aesthetics, making a multi media presentation, chaired by Shukla Sawant and Raimi Gbadamosi.
  • Santosh S., art historian and workshop co-director, speaking in the discussion forum between workshop participants.
  • Art critic Sandhya Bordewekar making a presentation, chaired by artist Raimi Gbadamosi.
  • Art historian Tapati Guha Thakurta speaking during the discussion forum between workshop participants.
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