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On the art trail

Kochi is fast turning into a centre where artists are everywhere. But how well are they actually doing? VIJAY GEORGE and SUNIL NALIYATH take a close look around and come up with the view that though art is not selling as well as it sho uld, optimism abounds

Some things never change. For instance, the Malayali's passion for art. The art galleries in the city display the creativity of different schools of artists. Even though the earlier ones may not be doing as well as they hoped to, new galleries are coming up.

Reminiscent of the Raj days, the Durbar Hall Art Centre is unmistakably the cynosure of all art lovers in Kochi. It's also the hub of Kerala Lalit Kala Academy's activities at Kochi.

Witnessing a battery of historic events from the Maharaja's council meetings to court proceedings, NCC operational base unit to archaic exhibits, the Durbar Hall has seen it all. Today it is the most prestigious gallery in this part of the world.

The collection of invaluable paintings exhibited in the double storeyed building include those of Manu Parekh, Souza and perhaps the greatest of them all, Raja Ravi Varma. The beautiful paintings of Padmini finds a special place in the gallery. S.Rajan, manager of the Art Centre remembers that the exhibitions of paintings from the collection of Ms. Sarah Abraham, conducted last year, was one of the best held ever. The exhibition displayed works of the great names in Indian art history.

The Central Lalit Kala Academy Regional Exhibition, also held last year, was a remarkable one.

``Nobody runs art galleries aiming at profits alone,'' says one of the prominent painters in Kerala, C.N.Karunakaran. He should know. His Chitrakootam, started in 1972, is the oldest art outfit in the State. ''A good painting is an excellent investment,'' adds Mr.Karunakaran, whose art gallery, called Ochre, on Rajaji Road, is one of the latest art galleries to come up in the city.

His distinctive style easily makes him the most saleable painter in the State. Mr.Karunakaran's exquisite use of colours and themes have an ethereal quality and the presentation is contemporary and elegant. The copies of his paintings, beautifully framed, have also been displayed at Ochre Art Gallery, along with the originals.

Like most of the art galleries in the city, the birth of Chitram - one of the most successful galleries of contemporary art _ was due to the personal interest that the founders had in art and artefacts. According to Nandakumar, the manager of Chitram, most of the new artists are extremely talented.

Rolling up some fresh works of artists which are yet to be framed, he points out that their works are ample testimony to their potential talent. ''We display the works of those who approach us after selecting the best and charge 30-35 per cent commission on works sold,'' says Mr.Kumar.

A few years back, an exhibition of Kolkata artists is an event which Chitram folks like to recall with contentment. The 24 eminent artists included stalwarts like Jogen Chowdhary, Chitra Vanu Mazumdar and Ashok Bhaumik and the exhibition was a total sell-out.

Artists from neighbouring States also contribute their works to the gallery besides local artists like Sunil Vallarpadam and Francis. A Madurai-based artist, K.C.Murugesan, is one of the painters whose works are constantly displayed and sold by the gallery. Chitram also has a framing section catering to general public.

Sales is seasonal, says Mr.Nandakumar. Being located at the arterial M.G.Road, there is no dearth of visitors to Chitram. ''We were surprised to see some policemen who had good knowledge of the art-scene at the gallery last week.''

Fort Kochi. The narrow streets which still bear the English names, the elegance of the beautiful buildings, the gentle breeze that whispers a million stories in your ears and the tourists who flock in to enjoy this slice of history is also a happening place where the art scene is hectic.

Kashi Art Cafe is set in a restored Dutch Heritage house on Burgher Street near the picturesque Fort Kochi beach. Kashi is known for two reasons. The first one of course, is the quality paintings which are on display and the other, well, the exotic coffee served there. Established in 1997, Kashi exhibits paintings by Indian and international artists.

``The idea behind this venture was to put Kochi in the art map,'' says Anoop Skaria, the younger of the two brothers who own the cafe. Ananda Surya, the poet-activist's elder brother wants to get `art to the public'. They have been doing things in that respect too. The recently organised `Everybody's space' programme was aimed at generating awareness among people to keep the surroundings clean.

Kashi has also been actively involved in promoting programmes like the `Tree festival' and the annual art exhibition titled `Encounter'.

The paintings of renowned artists including Mexican Arthurio Solari, Gayatri Gamuz, Abul Kalam Azad, T.R. Upendran and Jose Manual Val are displayed at Kashi.

Draavidia, located at Kalvatty near Fort Kochi, is perhaps the biggest private art gallery, area-wise, in the city. Started in 1997 Draavidia aims at `promoting an art culture,' according to Shihab, the gallery's co-ordinator. ''We believe that good space and height for the display halls and proper lighting increase the painting's appeal.''

Draavidia has hosted more than twenty exhibitions. The gallery gives good encouragement to young talents and artists like Zakir Hussain and Madhu, who are the most talented among the lot, declares Mr Shihab. The gallery is also a venue for promoting performing arts. Leather puppetry, Koodiyattam and Nangiar koothu have been performed here of late.

The late Capt. Ludvic's paintings are the major highlights of Cochin Art Gallery, Princess Street, in Fort Kochi, which boasts of at least three more small art studios. One of them is run by Mr. Desmond Rebeiro, a former foreman with the Cochin Port Trust.He has sold a few paintings in the opening months of his new gallery and naturally, he is elated. `Palette People', the art gallery located in Panampilly Nagar, recently held an exhibition of paintings and relief (wood) by artist P.M.Antony. ''We have been in the scene for the last ten years,'' says Cyril P. Jacob, the man behind the venture. ''Our exhibitions of the paintings of Kaladharan, C.N.Karunakaran and Kamala Suraiyya were huge successes.''

The `Cafe Palette', the art-cafe inside the Raymond Shop in M.G.Road is a little world of colour and taste. Blond wood, ceramic tiled tabletops and the classy tableware make this place, in its second year of functioning, a truly classy one. Deepak L. Aswani, the man behind the venture, is a happy man today and has more brighter and colourful plans in the pipeline both business wise and art wise. Cafe Palette is also one of the galleries which keeps equal room for sculptures. Though primarily aimed at the clients, the Raymond Shop has its doors open for art lovers too.

Steve, the floor manager, says that the gallery has visitors other than their usual customers of garments.

In Cafe Palette, the hosts also take the initiative in printing the brochures and in giving the required publicity. Though the gallery space is extended freely to the artists 30 per cent of the total proceeds are realised from the sold works, which is the prevailing rate in most of the galleries.

Yet it is not as easy as one might imagine it. ''Even the curriculum in schools ignore art and music,'' reminds Anoop Skaria of Kashi Art Cafe. In such an ambience, only love for art sustains these galleries. But how long can love last, without adequate financial support?

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