Walter & Friends: Being students in the Early Eighties at the Fine Arts in Baroda

Sandhya Bordewekar
Baroda, April 2017

The mood at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Baroda was vibrant. The Emergency (1975-77) was over and out by the time many of us had got into college. It had come stealthily on the heels of the Navnirmaan student agitation that had begun in a small college in Saurashtra and quickly spread all over Gujarat. For the first time it introduced the fact of ‘mass promotion’ and though its continuous possibility was tested in the following couple of years by enthusiastic students only interested in a piece of paper with their names on it, the Emergency quickly put an end to such agitating thoughts. Post the elections, India reveled in the first non-Congress government at the Centre, and expectations ran high and out of the roof. Especially with the creative community. However, the motley crowd of strong individuals that had formed the government could not agree on much and the Congress soon came back, voted into power by an impatient electorate, also charmed by the reluctant young prince of the dynasty who wasn’t like the other one with thick-framed glasses and long sideburns and a penchant for dip-flying small aircraft.

During the Emergency years, the state government was in opposition to the Centre and so the local government machinery did not grind and bare its teeth with as much ferocity as it did in the other states, though the trains that plodded through Baroda station were on time, much to the delight of my father and his discipline-loving generation. Actually, in keeping with Baroda’s history of offering refuge to ‘nationalists and patriots’ since Sayajirao’s time, the Emergency years also saw several such, one of whom was George Fernandes, I believe, living in the safety of Baroda homes. Some of them even hatched what came to be known as the “Baroda Dynamite Case”, though one was never quite able to find out who or what they intended to dynamite and how. Some vocal voices from the artist community also left Delhi and Mumbai and took refuge in Baroda, designing and printing anti-Emergency posters. Though the student community was not directly involved in any of this, it did help build a strong political consciousness on the faculty campus, and this continues to get reflected in some of the most important work done by the alumni artists from this Faculty to this day.

In the exciting afterglow of the Emergency being lifted, Baroda got its first commercial gallery – the Urja Art Gallery – in 1978. It was an important shot in the arm for the Sanskar Nagari, as it set the trend for other galleries to follow. Until then, even though the Faculty of Fine Arts was extremely well known throughout the country and outside of it, the only space where art exhibitions could be held in the city was the Faculty’s exhibition hall and not much frequented by the non-fine arts public. Urja was organized by three women, two of whom were wives of a young and raring-to-go architect duo and the third was an industrialist’s wife. Urja was phenomenally well situated; though it was only a stone’s throw from the Faculty, it was within and just beyond the entrance of the city’s largest and most popular garden, the sprawling Sayaji Baug. It was also a part of the newly-built Planetarium complex, along the edge of the winding Vishwamitri river, its architecture unusual and visually striking as it raised its triangular head from amongst the tall palms and thick foliage of the garden. The Planetarium stood on stilts, a precautionary measure against the seasonal floods that the Vishwamitri was prone to. The ground floor was imaginatively divided into a covered amphitheatre space for performance/talks, a space for display of sculptures or 3-dimensional objects such as plants, and a smaller space that could be enclosed and allowed temporary use.

It was this smaller space that Urja rented from the Municipal Corporation as and when their exhibitions were planned. As against the Faculty’s exhibition hall, Urja attracted hundreds of those who came to the garden, especially the throngs that came for the Planetarium shows, a novelty in those times. All of these, hanging about to wait for the show to begin, would wander into the gallery, exposing themselves to the mindscapes of Akbar Padamsee, the Hanumana of M F Husain, the dark abstractions of Jeram Patel. I have been there on many afternoons, standing quietly behind these groups, overhearing their often truly perceptive remarks about artworks as they tried to decipher them with whoever they were with!

Veer and Walter (1981) Gargi, Sashi, Rajeet, Robin and Mayur Gupta - Painting 1992

So Urja got many renowned Indian artists to show their work in Baroda and this was beneficial especially to students in the Faculty in the late 70s-early 80s, who could see works of contemporary artists and often got the opportunity to meet them, speak with them or hear them talk about their works when they visited the campus. But more importantly, Urja offered the young artists of Baroda another venue to show their work and share it with such a vast number of people. Because on the days Urja was not renting the space, anybody could. There was also a happy confusion. Urja was not the name of the gallery space in the planetarium, but the artists, not exhibiting through Urja, also used it and sent off their invites. Many ‘collectors’ would show up on the opening evening and would get totally flummoxed when they did not see the usual Urja hosts. I once met a lady who said, with disappointment writ large on her face, “I thought this was an Urja show, etle hu aavi … aa to koi bijanuj che!” So much for gallery-goers and collectors. I am not quite sure but I think it was the final year batch of 1981 or 1982 which booked the entire sculpture display space at the Planetarium for a day, using the walls to hang paintings and prints, and the floor space and the built-in platforms to display the sculptures. More than 5000 people visited the show, I was told excitedly by the kids, who had never imagined so many people would come to see the art they had created. Ah, the days before the Art Fairs!

Then, in 1981, Place for People happened. It established Baroda’s definite incline towards the narrative on the canvas. Not that it was never there till then; but this exhibition came as a turning point in more ways than one. In the meanwhile, the Congress at the Centre decided to go all out to sell ‘cultural India’ to the world. So the humongous Festivals of India were planned and the first one opened in England in 1982. The Contemporary Indian Art section of the Festival made quite an impact (the three Baroda artists in Place for People featured prominently) and among the thousands of visitors to this section was the India-born, UK resident author, Salman Rushdie, whose novel, Midnight’s Children, had just won the Booker Prize in 1981. Rushdie, a great admirer of the narrative and of ‘magic realism’ himself, was tremendously impressed by the work of the Baroda artists, especially that of Bhupen Khakhar. So when he came to India later that year, Baroda was on his itinerary and he gave two talks, one at the Dept. of English and another at the Faculty.

Rekha Rodwittiya and V. Ramesh Faculty of FA

A few years later, when he was in hiding in London post the fatwa for Satanic Verses, and the National Portrait Gallery wanted to commission his portrait, he chose Bhupen to do it. With the global acceptance of and bouquets for Midnight’s Children, Rushdie finally put to bed ALL questions about the relevance of Indian Writing in English that had been plaguing the beleaguered writers of this genre and their works for decades now.

Why am I talking about these things here? It’s because this was the time when Walter and his Friends (except Anandajit, who had just joined the Faculty as the others were leaving) were all on the Faculty campus – young, impressionable, with stars in their eyes, and lots of work to do. They must have experienced all or most of what I describe here in some form or other during those wonder years. To some extent, it must have shaped who they are today, the work they do, and how they define their roles as artists in an India that changes all the time and is still timeless. In those days, the Triennale (the Fifth one in 1982) was the most exciting international art event in India, television meant Doordarshan and Minu on the news, though Hum Log, the first marathon saas-bahu saga was slowly making its presence felt (1984) and initiating the ‘serialization’ of India, and the Asian Games in Delhi (1982) which vaulted colour transmission on the hitherto B&W television screens. It was an exciting time to be young and an art student, at the threshold of new technologies coming into the home and work space, about to set foot in an uncertain world, pursuing a demanding, difficult career in art with little or no infrastructure to offer. But Baroda planted in the young student artist the seed of confidence, some amount of arrogance, and the spirit to go out and fight it all. To live a life of enchantment. This is seen today in the works of Walter and his Friends, and can be seen in the works of his many other artist-friends who may not be part of this exhibition.

Walter and Hans at the old building - Faculty of FA