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Delhi-based Artspeaks India, an arts and cultural development initiative founded by Ashwini Pai Bahadur, is a prime example of forward-thinking movements.

What would a world without art be? Unfathomable. The pandemic may have forced many creative spheres to shut down, but art proved resilient, surviving all challenges and brazenly breaking norms – with art galleries moving to virtual art exhibits, the art fraternity adopting the medium of NFT en masse, and creating wildly popular immersive art experiences from the works of Masters. Certain organisations have been at the forefront of these forward-thinking movements. Delhi-based Artspeaks India, an arts and cultural development initiative founded by Ashwini Pai Bahadur, is a prime example.
“Artspeaks India was initiated and established in 2008 as an arts advisory platform, actively involved in the promotion of the arts. Collaborating closely with galleries, institutions, curators, and writers, Artspeaks India endeavors to let the arts speak for themselves while spreading knowledge of contemporary art practices and the genius of India’s heritage,” shares Bahadur.

Apart from being the Director of Artspeaks India, Bahadur is also the founder of The Glass Makers Club, which is a forum to highlight and advocate studio art glass and its myriad possibilities. She is also a team member of the CII-IWN Delhi Arts & Culture Vertical Committee and regularly contributes to their programming in the arts sector. Claiming a lifelong association with the arts since her teen years, Bahadur is equal parts professional, entrepreneur, arts advocate, and writer.
Her platform’s directive is to promote Indian visual art forms in new markets and operates as two distinct conceptual identities: Artspeaks India Contemporary and Artspeaks India Heritage. While the former focuses on the exhibition and collection of contemporary art, the latter organizes traditional art and craft activities. The recently established Artspeaks India Outreach Programme is dedicated to art education for children and supports various orphanages. Frequent fund raisers ensure that deserving artisans are continually encouraged to pursue their skills.
Artspeaks India has a strong online presence, and during the pandemic, made itself known as a state-of-the-art virtual platform.Currently, multiple shows are on display through various viewing rooms on their website. These include the Contemporary Avatars of Ancient Myths, which is a solo exhibition of Sheikh Hifzul Kabeer’s drawings and watercolours on paper. “His powerful imagery is peopled with wholesome combinations of mythological characters, contemporary figures, folklore, fables and the daunting situations of daily life,” explains Bahadur.

Next on offer is Hand Colour featuring veteran photographer Rajesh Soni’s whimsical take on the 1966 Rajdoot Bike Series. Bahadur describes it as an endearing and popular body of work which invokes a sense of nostalgia and the wistfulness of an era gone by.
The exhibit titled the Poetry of Lived Spaces, A brush with the lens has been curated by Georgina Maddox, and presents the work of eleven photographers who delve deep into their pandemic experiences. The exhibit showcases the works of leading contemporary fine art photographers like Aditya Arya, Gigi Scaria, Parul Sharma, Ravi Aggarwal, Sandeep Biswas, Sarah Kaushik, Sarah Singh, Shalini Passi, Shivani Aggarwal, Shruti Gupta Chandra and Vikram Singh.
Speaking about the Rajesh Soni exhibit, which is close to her heart, Bahadur shares, “In India, there are only a handful of artist-photographers still continuing the legacy of this genre and Rajesh Soni is one of them. His grandfather Prabhu Lal Soni (1905-1958) worked as a court photographer and painter for the late Maharana Shri Bhupal Singh of Mewar in Udaipur.He passed his hand-painting skills to his son Lalit, who then passed them to his son Rajesh. At the age of eighteen Rajesh began his foray into photographs, by first photographing and then handpainting them. He continues to be engaged in this art, continuing his family’s legacy of handpainted photographs.”
Handcoloured photographs or Indian painted photographs were first produced in the nineteenth century, a few years after the introduction of photography to India. Following the decline of the tradition of photographic studio portraiture, Indian artists came to be hired to work for some studios.Their long practiced art of miniature painting began to be combined with the newly-developed technique of photography, by adding colour to the black and white or sepia images using mediums such as watercolour, oil paint, and gouache.

Ashwini Pai Bahadur

This genre of embellishment created a hybrid form called Indian painted photographs, mainly catering to the needs of the princely and elite classes of the country. As a creative technique and tool, hand painting offered unlimited scope in adding emphasis to an image: Indian painted photographs could be partially painted or completely painted over, leaving little trace of the original image. The final result revealed the artist-photographer’s rich tradition of artistry and workmanship. Painted photographs mark a significant chapter in the history of Indian photography, yet are now slowly disappearing as a technique.
Soni’s series of hand-painted photographs known as the bike series is one of his most popular ones. For this collection, he stopped citizens on their way to work and asked them to pose on their bikes, all of which were vintage 1966 Rajdoots. The Rajdoot motorcycle also known as the RD, is a two-stroke Yamaha motorcycle made in India by the Escorts group from 1983 to 1989. The word Rajdoot when translated from Hindi into English means an ambassador – an apt moniker for a bike that represented the upward mobility of its owner. Soni sought to capture this sense of achievement. It took six years for him to create this body of work.
This particular show is on view online till December 31, and has been received very well. According to Bahadur, handpainted photography, which is Rajesh’s forte, has recently witnessed a surge in interest among collectors as well.
Bahadur claims a spontaneous instinctive affinity for deciding the subjects to be put on display at Artspeaks India. She says, “Though mostly intuitive, I generally tick a couple of boxes. I like to see the work in a larger context, whether the artwork satisfies me intellectually, historically and socially. What connections may be insinuated within a current defined context. Are there any interesting contrasts. What is relevant in today’s climate? Most of all, I look forward to testing old formats and inventing new ones.” Thus the collaboration with Rajesh Soni was the natural outcome of a long-term association and friendship.
Next on the cards is Artspeaks India Heritage’s forthcoming exhibition which will showcase the works of 17 artists. Curated by Lina Vincent, it promises to delve deeper in the context of India’s contemporary heritage narrative and its relationship with ancient philosophy.
People can view their art through their various Online Viewing Rooms on their website artspeaksindia.com as well as on collaborators websites. For Delhi-NCR an arrangement for private viewing is in place at certain locations with prior appointments.
The writer pens lifestyle articles for various publications and her blog www.nooranandchawla.com. She can be reached on nooranand@gmail.com.

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