Perspectives on Survival
A look at the struggles of two Bangalore-based printmakers and the issues they face
by Nalini S Malaviya
Meeting VG Venugopal and Urmila VG, the husband and wife duo based in Bangalore, the conversation inevitably veers towards challenges in continuing with printmaking in the current scenario. Both these artists studied painting at the bachelors' level before doing their masters in printmaking; where Urmila passed out from Santiniketan in 2006 and Venugopal from Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath in the year 2000. Since then, Venugopal and Urmila have dabbled in printmaking on a regular basis, but have not limited themselves to the medium. Venugopal has established himself as an upcoming painter who explores issues related to loss of identity, migration and urbanization. He has been exhibiting his paintings as part of solo and group projects, while Urmila has also been a part of a few 'regular' group shows plus a solo which involved an installation comprising various mediums including prints. Her work highlights her concern for nature and the complexities involved in the inter-relationships between human beings and the environment.
The young couple has been experimenting with other mediums not only to satisfy their creativity. Their quest has also been driven by market requirements, as a response to encouragement to use other mediums by galleries and clients. It is not a viable option for them to pursue printmaking exclusively for many reasons. Lack of printmaking studio facilities and the high costs involved in establishing one for private use has been one of the major deterrents, while minimal gallery support for prints has been another roadblock in both Bangalore and the rest of the country. As Venugopal points out, there are very few galleries who are willing to promote prints or market them appropriately, especially prints by new and upcoming artists. In comparison, senior printmakers, and also established artists who occasionally venture into printmaking, have it easier. Gallery support is definitely more forthcoming in such cases and buyers are more willing to loosen their purse strings.
One wonders if all this causes any bitterness amongst the younger artists who are struggling to find a foothold. Fortunately, most youngsters today are quite determined and resourceful, and Venugopal and Urmila are no exception. They, along with a group of other printmakers, have been trying to creatively circumvent this problem in order to sustain their practice. In 2006 the couple joined hands with a few other artists, Suchender P, Champa Sharath and Harisha V, and they came together at Champa's studio to produce a portfolio of limited edition woodcut prints. These prints were exhibited at a design studio and received a fairly good response both in viewer appreciation and in terms of sales. Encouraged by its success the group decided to induct more members and form a larger formal set-up of young printmakers. As a result Trellis Artists' Circle (T.A.C.) was born in 2010 with ten members, "as a collective for the enjoyment of the diverse forms of printmaking and it seeks to create a platform for the members, and others, to practice, disseminate information on, and market the medium as part of the larger mosaic of contemporary art".
Forming the group and coming out with a portfolio of prints was perhaps the easiest part of the exercise. Exhibiting these works turned out to be a greater challenge. Galleries who were willing to give them an audience were keen on exhibiting only a few select prints from the portfolio. As this was not acceptable, TAC had to look for an exhibition space that allowed them to maintain the sanctity of the group. Finally, they found support in a newly established gallery situated on the outskirts of Bangalore. While this may not have been an ideal situation, Venugopal views it philosophically, “Fortunately most of our friends and senior artists turned up for the exhibition preview, which really encouraged us to continue with printmaking. In fact, we are also very happy that thanks to Waswo the show could travel to Udaipur and was exhibited at Gallery One.” Sharing images of the exhibits, both Venugopal and Urmila proclaim how happy they were with the innovative display. This obviously has motivated and enthused all the TAC members enormously.
One of the strategies that appears to be working well for Venugopal and Urmila has been their willingness to explore opportunities through informal or semi-formal collectives, which allows them access to requisite infrastructure and greater marketing avenues. Venugopal explains, “It is easier to work with a group and share studio facilities. Marketing is also somewhat easier, but selling a portfolio as a whole to gallerists and clients can have its drawbacks. For instance, there were a couple of galleries who wanted to select only a part of the portfolio and then organize an exhibition around it.” However, the group was clear that they would not split up the works and would sell the portfolio only if somebody was willing to buy the entire set of prints.
Recently Urmila was invited to conduct a woodcut prints residency workshop for young artists in Colombo. She reveals, “This was a first of its kind effort involving printmaking in Colombo and was initiated with the idea of benefiting the Sri Lankan art scene.” The collaborative effort involved Theertha International Artists Collective based out of Sri Lanka, Fireflies Art Net a women artists' collective from Sri Lanka, Nepal, India, USA, Malaysia and Ireland, and No. 1 Shanthi Road, Bangalore. During the three-week workshop twelve participants from Sri Lanka learnt about woodcut printmaking from Urmila, and worked around the theme of everyday objects. The workshop culminated in an exhibition of woodcuts, titled 'Stories of small things', where each artist put up a black and white print as well as a colour print.
Earlier this year Venugopal and Urmila participated in a workshop titled Diagonal Lines in Guwahati, an initiative by like-minded artists. “A 'friendly' workshop which was completely self funded with five artists from Bangalore and eight from Guwahati,” as they put it. Moving diagonally from the southern to the northeastern part of the country, the workshop provided a great opportunity for artists across regions to collaborate and share ideas and where every artist had the opportunity to produce an etching.
Both Venugopal and Urmila (along with Satish Shivarudraiah, another TAC member) have had their works recently selected for the 2011 exhibition organized by Kyoto International Woodprint Association. In this context Venugopal points out that in many countries printmaking is supported by corporate houses and organizations, making it a profitable venture as well as a sustainable one for artists. Conversely he feels that in India there are hardly any exhibitions of prints happening in the country.
A recipient of a printmaking fellowship from Karnataka Lalit Kala Akademi, Venugopal has been working on a set of prints which he will be submitting at the end of the duration, however he feels that the entire process could have been more fruitful and provided more opportunities for learning. Since the Lalit Kala studio in Bangalore is ill equipped for printmaking it offers little option for working there. According to Venugopal, “It is sad that printmaking seems to be completely sidelined when compared to painting or sculpture. If only the studio set up was at par with what is available in New Delhi or Chennai it would make a huge difference to young printmakers in the city. There are so many students passing out in printmaking from local art institutions, but then have zero access to printmaking facilities.”
JMS Mani, a senior artist based in Bangalore, has set up a studio with extensive equipment with the objective of popularizing printmaking and conducting workshops for interested artists and students. One such workshop was held earlier in the year and was attended by Venugopal and Urmila, which again provided valuable space, facilities and the opportunity to interact with peers. However, there are limitations to working in private studios and highly structured environments. This is probably another reason why both Venugopal and Urmila have been working mainly with woodcut prints which require minimal interventions and at the same time provide them the freedom for creative expression.
What is also interesting is that when artists trained in other media take to printmaking they add an altogether new dimension to it, and galleries are also more accommodating in some of these cases. Venugopal explains this by saying that artists who have primarily studied printmaking as part of their fine arts education are well versed in the technical essentials but may lose out on other creative aspects. Therefore it is quite possible that artists from other disciplines might be able to bring in fresher elements and thereby create exciting works.
An issue which stands out is the lack of experimentation within the genre of printmaking. And, as Venugopal and Urmila reiterate, there is more emphasis on the technicalities of execution in art schools. Deviations from given instructions and clearly defined norms are frowned upon. Perhaps this sets the tone for future art practice and one continues to conform to existing patterns. In the last few years, Venugopal has been experimenting with the production of chine-colle prints, where he has used multiples of earlier drawings and digital photographs and combined them with etching and woodcuts. Currently, he is also working on a series of digital prints. In the formative stages are multiple projects which involve working with the Trellis Artists' Circle as well as other fluid groups by networking with artists from various regions and organizing exhibitions at several venues. With these young artists drawing widespread attention to printmaking it is not surprising that there are now other groups and collectives who are equally keen on collaborating with them in printmaking.
A sore point, passionately raised both by Venugopal and Urmila, is the need for establishing public studios which are well equipped, “For instance at the Lalit Kala in Bangalore which can be made accessible to artists and would go a long way in encouraging young artists to continue with their practice.” Another aspect which needs to be addressed is to create wider awareness about the medium to encourage more people to come out and support it. It is also necessary to educate buyers regarding differentiations between various kinds of prints and reproductions as the idea of multiples creates confusion. Hopefully a re-invention of printmaking techniques along with renewed interest and action from all quarters will generate sufficient momentum to make it a practice which can be sustained in the long term.