“Before I came to India, I didn’t know anything about Indian art,” said artist Kanha Sikounnavong who is originally from Laos in Southeast Asia. “I think it was appropriate for me to be a part of the ASEAN-India Artists Camp. As a creative person, it is imperative for me to be exposed to newer ideas and fresher perspectives often. Through this camp, I have met a number of Indian and International artists and regular interaction with them has given me a greater sense of enrichment which unpremeditatedly, in the course of time, would appear in my paintings.”
Sikounnavong was part of the 10-day art camp that was organised from 21-29 September at the Ananta Hotel, Udaipur, Rajasthan to mark the 25th anniversary of the ASEAN-India Dialogue Relations. The event was planned by the Ministry of External Affairs, India, with Seher, which is a performing and visual-arts company. Artworks resulting from this camp will be displayed at a special exhibition in New Delhi, which will be inaugurated at the ASEAN-India Summit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in January 2018.
The participating artists were from 10 ASEAN countries, including Chan Sophorn (from Cambodia), Iqro’ Akhmad Ibrahim Laily Subkhi (Indonesia), Kanha Sikounnavong (Laos), Mohd. Shahrul Hisham B. Ahmad Tarmizi (Malaysia), Thet Naing (Myanmar), Naphaphong Kurae (Thailand) and Nguyen Nghia Phuong (Vietnam), Loi Cai Ziang (Singapore) and Dennis Mallares Gonzales (Phillipines). Indian artists such as Binoy Varghese, Farhad Hussain, Kalam Patua, Kiyomi, Laishram Meena Devi, Mahaveer Swami, Samindranath Majumdar and Tanmoy Samanta also took part in the camp.
Sanjeev Bhargava, founder, Seher, spoke to Guardian 20 about this programme. “Our aim was to foster an exchange of ideas between artists belonging to different nationalities. The artists from ASEAN countries are lesser known but they are creating incredible works. It is essential that these artists get the right kind of exposure. We have put an eclectic group together so that the artists also get the right kind of opportunities through further networking. The international artists were recommended by ASEAN Secretariat and artists from within India were selected through an open call on social media.”
He added: “By promoting awareness and a deeper understanding of the values and traditions of both ASEAN countries and India, the camp aimed at making participants the cultural ambassadors for ASEAN and India when they return to their respective cities and countries.”
The theme of the camp was “Ocean of Opportunity” as India, through ocean routes, have had the privilege of maintaining close civilisational and cultural links with ASEAN countries.
In the camp, artists from different nations were asked to stay together so that they could exchange their ideas in a better way. Kalam Patua, an Indian artist who has revived the Kalighat style of painting to a considerable extent, stayed with the aforementioned Kanha Sikounnavong at the resort in Udaipur. Kalam said, “Looking at a foreign artist engaged in his work opens up novel avenues. You are introduced to their culture and style which would otherwise be out of my range in my routine.”
Soumik Nandy Majumdar who is an assistant professor at the Viswa Bharti, Santiniketan was also present at the camp. He thinks that this camp will bring the art from these countries at the forefront and artists will get their respective due. He said, “Let us hope that we focus more and more on the Southeast region because I have brilliant students coming from these areas in my university. In this country, our knowledge of art is Eurocentric. We know what an artist from, say, Italy or France created last night but we don’t know the oeuvre of a Cambodian artist who is also creating equal and important artworks! This kind of camp certainly breaks the ice among different countries as there will be a free-flow of information from various countries in terms of diverse styles and concepts.”
Kolkata-based artist Samindranath Majumdar became close friends with Malaysian artist Shahrul Hisham during the workshop. Majumdar said, “I have started understanding Malaysian society and have become a bit familiar with how a Malaysian artist engages with his society. This has led me to compare the art practices of Malaysia and India. And I thought of what we, in India, can integrate from another country in our art.”
Hisham has put Devanagari script in his painting which he learnt at Udaipur. He said, “I want to understand how people of India respond to my art. This would provide an interesting point of conversation. Also, with Majumdar and other Indian artists, as we are connecting and working together, there is a huge inspiration to be gathered from each other. There is a constant flow of energy which is infectious.”
Be it religion or culture, due to the many points of contacts between India and Indonesia, artist Iqro’ Ahmad Ibrahim from Indonesia is familiar with various Indian subjects. He said, “An artist is a time machine. He is able to explore, to take and arrange, bits of history and incorporate those in his creativity. I, for instance, was grown up in a part of the world where various cultures come together, and I have been exposed to a broad range of subjects which in turn has let me grow as
The painters at the camp were also provided with an interdisciplinary exchange with performing artists. Dr Anwesa Mahanta conducted a lecture and demonstration on the Indian classical dance Sattriya, where she interacted with the participants. Eshani Agarwal and Ujwal Nagar presented a collaboration of Kathak dance and khayal singing which was followed by a discussion with the participating painters.
The artists also interacted with students of the Maharana Mewar Public School, Udaipur, and discussed the approach to art education in schools. The participants were also taken to a one-day tour of Udaipur in order to familiarise them with the architectural heritage of the city. Seher, for people in Udaipur, arranged a live demonstration with artists at bus stops where laymen could also appreciate the various practices of different countries.