The Arts scene in India, though undergoing rapid transformation, has always had a reputation for being Abstract and Esoteric.

But all thats about to change, thanks to professionals like our next path breaker, Bhooma Padmanabhan, Independent Art Curator. As an Art Curator, Bhooma works with Art houses and Artistes helping develop their ideas into Artworks and themes that are interesting, relatable and contemporary for the general public .

Bhooma talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy  from The Interview Portal about her introduction to Fine Arts in her early years and transition into Arts Curation. A great career for students who appreciate Art!

Bhooma, tell us about your background

I grew up in a pretty much regular Chennai household, went to a rather academically oriented school (CBSE) and had an active extracurricular life outside school, at least until my 10th std. While my school was quite open to students with various talents (we had at least a few students who have become professional classical musicians after), I don’t remember having art classes after 8th std. The visual arts were never anything more than a primary school activity. It was over the weekends at my painting teacher’s house that most of my early learning happened. She didn’t just teach us the techniques but had a great library of art books from which I got my first introduction to – everything from the Renaissance, Baroque and Modernism, to Indian artists. I remember doing a lot of copy work other than actual still-life, landscape/architecture and portraits, and both these approaches to learning worked very well together and helped me in many ways later. My weekends used to be almost full with my painting classes, homework and my tennis lessons. I cannot say my school directly impacted my career in anyway, but it was a great environment that gave me the freedom to grow the way I wanted. My parents were great at supporting me in my early interest in the arts, without the usual pressure to excel academically. They came from quite traditional central government jobs, and their commitment to work, their honesty in standing up for the right causes, and their liberal attitudes in life are ideals that I still try to keep in mind. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I completed my BA in Fine Arts from Stella Maris College, Chennai.

I then did my Masters in Visual Arts with a specialisation in Art History and Aesthetics, from the Faculty of Fine Arts, MS University of Baroda. 

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?

It was my two years at MSU Baroda when I got a real introduction to the art world as it exists in India – with a great list of visiting scholars coming to the college to teach and give talks. The environment at our college was as such that everyone was fully immersed in the life of being an artist or a scholar – there was really no distinction between academic life and your life outside. My professors like Shivaji Panikkar, Parul Dave Mukherjee and Jayaram were integral to my early integration to the professional sphere of arts in India. Our seniors who used to visit often for conferences and seminars also gave us the direction we needed to focus on.  

There are too many people who have had an impact on my career and that too at various stages in my career. I didn’t start out as a Curator – as there were no such jobs open to young scholars then. If you wanted to curate as a young graduate you had to self-fund it. So, my early years in the field were as a researcher. But soon I realised a pure researcher’s job is very hard to find in India as there are very few specialised institutions who employ art historians. So, then I moved to working with a private gallery in Delhi where my job included a great deal of administrative work and programming other than research. It is from here that I got the opportunity to curate exhibitions, and it still exists only as a project-based work alongside projects on arts programming and art education.

In my professional life my senior colleague Vidya Shivadas, also a curator, has been a very big influence and mentored me when I needed it the most. I learnt the importance of a good work ethic from my ex-bosses at Vadehra Art Gallery; and I learnt a great deal about visual thinking and ideation from various artists who I have worked with in the past. The photographer Prashant Panjiar was integral to my introduction to working with photography and been a fantastic mentor who has taught me the importance of being bold and standing up for my ideas. 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path.

I didn’t set out to be a curator – I didn’t know such a job existed when I was in school. My career path has involved a lot of exploration and an attitude towards learning to listen to people who are doing important, interesting and different things. So I meandered into painting, then into design, and art historical research (on temple architecture in India) before moving entirely into working in the contemporary space. My early dreams of wanting to be an artist was a rather romantic thought if I look back now, as I had no clue what it meant to be an artist beyond just making the work of art. It involves a great deal of being updated on everything happening around you, to experiment a lot, to fail, to speak up and to have a strong subjectivity. While I was skilled as a painter I soon realized I didn’t want to make it my profession – for me it was a bit like meditation and I wasn’t keen on having an exhibition or really sharing my works. In my 3rd year of BA we all had to submit a dissertation – either a practical project or a theory-based one – and here I was encouraged by my professor to do a research on Neo-Platonism during the Renaissance times due to me interest in history. This was my first full theory project in the arts and it allowed me to think about the world through art in a way practice never allowed, and thus my interest in art history took shape.

Upon graduation I realised I wanted to move out of Chennai, and thus chose Delhi or Baroda for my masters. Since I had a BA degree as opposed to a BFA I wasn’t qualified to apply to many programs (this was a loophole no one advised me on, and I wish I had a mentor who had done it then). So, I applied to two important programs in India – one at MSU Baroda and another at the National Museum in Delhi. I got through to MSU first and chose it, however convincing my family wasn’t so easy as this was right after the Surat plague and the Gujarat riots! But I did finally join the Art History and Aesthetics program at MSU. This school was really the turning point in my life, as it offered a free space to think and be an adult in a way my previous college didn’t – and it was a space for a really liberal education. Art history, I came to understand now was not the History of Art, but a discipline in its own right dating back to the 17th century and involved knowledge that came from psychology, archeology, history, linguistics, sociology, anthropology, science and of course art! I knew this but never studied it like this before. Until now I was given information, and now I was made to think for myself, form opinions, express them, and defend my views. This I think was the greatest learning, for most Indian schools and college discourage independent thought, which is so essential for any creative person (even a scientific researcher for that matter, how else do you innovate?)

How did you get your first break?

I came back to Chennai upon graduation and worked as a freelancer at a gallery first and then joined a heritage museum called Dakshinachitra as a curator. This was in the most traditional sense a curatorial job – i.e. I was taking care of objects of a museum collection, researching it, displaying it and archiving the collection as it was growing. The role of the curator today is far more complex, but this was a good start. 

I soon got word of a new arts foundation starting in Delhi – FICA or the Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art- who were looking for a program manager. All my friends from the arts were by now in Delhi and at 23yrs of age that was where I wanted to be. I applied and got this job and moved to Delhi in 2007. My work in FICA for the next 10 years is what really shaped my career today. Set up by a private gallery, FICA started with the vision of building up a cutting-edge museum space. However with the financial downturn in 2008 the focus of FICA shifted and my colleagues and I set about re-positioning the role of the foundation with a renewed focus on arts programing (artists talks, lectures by scholars, film screenings, seminars), art education (working with school groups, teachers, publishing), giving grants and fellowships (these are still some of the best grant programmes for artists in India), and setting up a library specially for the arts. The combined focus of working directly with artists and arts institutions allowed me to hone my skills in reading art – I used to review almost 500 applications by artists a year, work with senior artists on the jury for selecting grantees, develop proposals for funding and collaboration, and of course curate exhibitions. While these skills sound like things an event manager would do, it involved a certain insight and knowledge about the arts to work with artists, and it was also about learning the etiquettes of the industry which was positioning itself on the global field in this decade.  

My first curatorial exercise was in putting together a jury show with eleven young/emerging artists and I titled this show “Urgent! 10ml of Contemporary Needed”. This show was installed in a heritage structure called Travancore House and involved logistics in the scale I had never worked on before – installing a 100kg work on a wall or imagining a two-channel video work as a 3D installation. With a great team at FICA for support I put together this show which brought together some of the best young artists of that decade. This also set the platform for a series of cutting edge shows of emerging artists works that I curated for FICA over the next 8 years. The exhibition went from being a showing of artworks to a platform for performances, experimental videos and exciting talks. I worked on everything from developing the text for the catalogue, designing the exhibition space, developing content for social media, and creating outreach programs around the shows for students and the general audience. Simultaneously I was working with artists to also develop public art projects, research and exhibitions, and this is still one of the best parts of curating to me – to work with a creative person, imagine how they want to convert an idea into an artwork, what research it involves, how to fabricate the works, how to share the works with various audience etc. It is here you realize how important and yet how challenging it is to talk to various audiences (especially in India where an art exhibition is still a matter of curiosity and not really seen as a space of learning).

Today we have fully developed courses to study curation in India, and many students are choosing to go abroad for a masters in curation from premium institutions like Christies, Sothebys, Bards, DeAppel and Goldsmiths. The practice of curation is evolving fast in India and curators are coming from non-art backgrounds like anthropology, social sciences and literature. But institutions have not caught up – we do not have many big museums like in the west which employs curators, nor do we have the government supporting major art projects. Until then we curators will produce our own exhibition in collaboration with artists. 

What were the challenges? how did u address them?

  • Challenge 1: The lack of a proper arts education. I think this is the most important and urgently lacking in our context here. While art is an important part of school education in many countries internationally -with schools teaching contemporary art and doing study trips to museums – in India we lack even the most basic art education. With the excess of focus on what is called ‘academics’ – which for some reason is only math, science, accounts and perhaps language – there is a complete late of education focused on the arts. Art education – be it in music, dance or visual arts – is something most students in India get only if they are privileged to go to classes outside of school hours. Even within the larger field of art the visual arts gets relegated to the bottom, understood as just a hobby for the talented student and all about developing new skills. I think this requires a systemic change by schools realising the potential they are missing by not engaging in the arts as a way of thinking and seeing the world. We also need to make arts an integral part of academic learning, and not look at it as an extra-curricular. I think some international boards are doing this in India now, but it is still accessible only to the privileged few. In my own capacity I have been a part of several art education focused projects, and actively seek to develop art educational resources for teachers to use in their classrooms. 
  • Challenge 2: I think that any work in the cultural industry requires a certain amount of sensitivity. In the arts we do not have quantifiable markers for what makes a “good work of art”. The way a work of art is understood is not clear and definable always, and requires the curators and the audience to constantly update their knowledge of the world. We need to be aware of contexts within which artists are producing works, histories that define the present, challenges students face, and real-life hurdles that individuals need to face on a daily basis to practice as artists today. This is a real challenge in a world where knowledge is becoming an easy template that can be circulated widely, and people want to quickly understand what something means or how much something is worth. I think the sensitivity that the art seeks is something we as a society should strive for instead of just seeking set knowledge as education.  It requires us to be aware of what is happening around us (in our homes, neighbourhoods, our cities, our country and the world), to learn to ‘listen’ with an open mind, and understand the necessity for a healthy debate without rushing to judge the situation or reject any idea that seems opposed to your own views. I have worked with artists, students and scholars who come from various different background – many unable to speak in English or even read/write. The thing to remember here is never to look at them as lacking something, but to learn to listen to them the best you can – really listen, to their stories and perspective, and acknowledge their achievements. It requires us to be humble, learn to respect and really appreciate those who have made it despite a lack of support in their lives. It is the kind of knowledge that schools cannot teach. 
  • Challenge 3 – Collaboration – we use this term quite often in the arts – we call a group working together a ‘Collective’, we call a partnership a ‘Collaboration’. But this is a skill that I am still learning to hone. What does it mean to work in collaboration with others? It is again an exercise in listening, and cooperation. It is about learning to negotiate, learning to clearly think about your opinions and ideas and articulating them well. It is about inter-personal skills that requires us to share our knowledge, it is about dialogue. It is never a one-way street here. The artist or the curator is never right – these are always open to debate. It is also a skill that I think requires us to let go of our egos for a while which is harder in today’s highly individualistic culture. 

Where do you work now? 

I am currently working on a large curatorial project called the Chennai Photo Biennale. A biennale is basically an event that happens once in two years, and this is an international photography exhibition or festival that happens in Chennai once in two years. I am one of the 4 curators working on this project.

We work on everything from which artists should be in our show, how we can fund this work, what permissions to get and where to show it in Chennai. It is a team of us working on this so it is distributed amongst us, but still all of us are working on all these questions.   

I think I have answered this already, but if I have to list a set of skills I would say – art historical knowledge, general knowledge of social and political happenings around the world, to keep up with artists and important art exhibitions from around the world, the skill of writing proposals and concept notes, a lot of interpersonal skills for the many meetings, a great deal of logistics, spatial thinking to imagine the artworks in various spaces, design skills, and mostly a great deal of reading and ideation with my team of curators to select the right artists and themes for the exhibition. 

I am a freelancer so I make my typical day. My work starts at about 9am from my home-office and I work on emails and writing until noon. I break for lunch until 1.30, and start work again until 4 or 5pm. Most of the reading work happens after 9pm at night. The lack of office hours is a normal part of working in the arts. There are many days when I go for meetings or exhibition visits in the mornings. During the period of exhibition installation, the routine ends and work happens on the go. My work also requires a degree of travel – for studio visits, exhibitions, meetings with artists and patrons. Being a mother also impacts how my work day is planned (and this is something the world is very slowly catching up with – how to acknowledge the hidden labour of working women).

I get to meet a variety of people who are from all walks of life. It is perhaps the only job where you can remain a student all your life, learning from the lives and stories of others. 

 How does your work benefit the society? 

Curation is a type of knowledge circulation that functions outside schools and colleges. It engages directly with cultural artifacts and allows the public to see it, read it and recognize its significance in their lives. It has also become an important space for us to find a language to understand out past, present and future. It gives us the tools to imagine how objects, communities and individual acts can change our societies, speak of the environment and imagine our futures. 

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

I worked on an art education project called ‘For the Love of Art’ with a fellow artist named Nilanjana Nandi, and we developed a series of workshops for kids of the ages 7-12yrs where we introduce them to forms of seeing in Indian contemporary art. It started with the question – what defines contemporary art in India today? …the influences and currents that have shaped it since modern times. We developed this as a series of workshops over a year, which included site visits, studio visits and artists interactions (in Delhi). It came together as a small publication of teaching resources for primary school teachers, and also as an exhibition of the students’ works. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Read, read a lot, and read on a variety of subjects. School texts only give you a set knowledge that is defined by a governing body, but knowledge is much larger than that. Get a library membership (best investment ever) and read all genres of books. Form a group of readers to share your readings and opinions – this is very very important. Travel and form your own opinions (taking my kid to the museum and cultural events I think is the best form of social learning). And finally, learn to listen to people who are very different from you. Once you finish school or when you have your holiday try to intern with any cultural organization of your choice for a month in summer. 

Future Plans?

Well the Biennale is in the end of 2020 so that is a whole year now. I hope to focus more on travelling and networking in the coming year, and hopefully starting something of my own research or project.