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Embroidery, India

Creativity and improvisation in Tamil Nadu art worlds, India

Amit Desai and Maruska Svasek

The research conducted in Tamil Nadu, South India, explores various understandings of how newness emerges in the world. It looks in particular at how contemporary artists and others in and around the city of Chennai (formerly Madras) articulate notions of creativity and innovation in a Tamil milieu where the politics and aesthetics of nostalgia are powerful.  

The art world in Chennai currently operates at the margins of the contemporary Indian art scene, which is largely centred on Mumbai and Delhi. For about twenty years from the 1940s onwards however, a group of Madras artists came to be known as the Madras Movement. Their students established the Cholamandal Artists’ Village, a cooperative located in the Chennai suburbs and still active today as a site of artistic production and promotion. In common with Mumbai and Delhi (though on a much smaller scale), since the late 1990s there has been a boom in contemporary art in Chennai. There are many more galleries in the city and a small but sustained interest in buying and collecting. Since 2011, the key players in the Chennai art world have hosted an annual fair, Art Chennai, which has brought together artists, galleries, critics and collectors from India and abroad.  

One of our key achievements through this research (and presented in the paper ‘Images of society among Chennai artists’) is the development of the notion of ‘art society’. In part it was suggested by Alfred Gell’s (1998) influential anthropological theory of art and agency. The way in which that theory characterises the abductions of agency that take place from art objects, thus making art social, seemed to me to offer an image of society – as one of networks of agency. It became clear to us that Chennai artists had different and differing understandings of the location and nature of agency and creativity in society, which raised questions about the model that Gell provides.

For instance, we explored the ways in which a Chennai artist conceived of creativity as a process in which he was involved, as consisting of lines that move from the environment to the canvas and among those creative persons who have cultivated a relation of kinship, ones that even stretch back to ancient anonymous Indian artists. In that understanding of society, the artist did not appear as an individuated person with a discrete inner consciousness or capacity for creation.

Yet, the development of a contemporary art market in South India over the last thirty years has made the location of creativity in one individual artist an imperative, not least because art society has to be able to identify work by a given artist in order to ascribe value to that work. The monetisation of that value through the increased interest in Indian contemporary art as a form of investment has also driven the need to see art as the product of one mind alone. For that to occur, however, the artist has to declare himself as a distinctively creative person, effecting a rupture and existing in a different image of society than the one suggested by the society of flowing lines in which the artist also locates himself.

Other artists in Chennai who are heavily critical of the operation of the art market and conflate the market with society more generally, deny the idea that art society can contain any proper creativity or agency; it must come from persons fully outside society.

We show therefore how artists engage in multiple configurations and understandings of creativity, agency, and personhood at any one time, which in turn produce different images of society, including even the necessity of society’s absence for proper creativity to emerge.

This work was also intimately linked to two associated explorations. It demonstrated the ways in which contemporary artists in Tamil Nadu build varied relations with the past in the present and in doing so began a reflection on the operation of tradition-innovation dialectic in Tamil artistic circles. Pursuing this aspect further, we examined how a Tamil artist positioned himself and was positioned by others as a peculiar combination of contemporary and traditional. Hailing from a long line of ‘traditional’ sculptors and architects (called sthapathy) who design and make Hindu temples and statues of deities, this artist trained as a contemporary artist at the Madras College of Arts and Crafts. We analysed how he imaginatively distanced himself from and connected himself to past and present sthapathys in attempting to recover a lost and original creativity. Emerging from these ethnographic findings was the analytical perspective of transvision, defined as a process of multiple perspective-taking in which distant realities are made real in the present through enskilled visual production.

The work on art society was also a critical reflection on the place of creativity in artistic endeavour. It showed how copying became a central site of contestation for Chennai artists as different forms of artistic personhood offered different positions on the desirability or otherwise of drawing on the past in the present. This led us to consider the role of copying and imitation in Tamil art education. We discuss how art students in the Tamil Nadu town of Kumbakonam are encouraged to visit local temples and to access the creativity of the unknown temple sculptors by sketching and copying the wall reliefs. These exercises promote a particularly interesting form of looking that is far removed from a rational disinterested gaze and through which kinship with past artists is produced and maintained. Here again the notion of transvision is useful, as it draws out the process of perspective-taking and identification through visual production. However, the high value placed on these connections further marginalises Kumbakonam and Tamil-trained contemporary artists within the arena of Indian contemporary art.

Another strand of the Tamil Nadu research was to consider the kinds of creativity enacted by collectors of art in their relationship to objects in the home. Rather than consider them merely passive receptors of already formed things, we explored the ways in which art collectors improvise with the objects that they possess, transforming the objects themselves. This is especially apparent in art work which reflects both religious and artistic sensibilities. For instance, we discuss the ways in which objects initially bought for secular aesthetic purposes come to be incorporated into everyday forms of Hindu devotion.

By focusing on the emerging art world in southern India, we have been able to illuminate how creativity is understood under conditions of radical economic and social transformation. The development of an art market and the associated boom in artistic production and consumption challenges artists and others to engage with the idea of rupture: as one senior Chennai artist put it, “the boom eliminated time”. This is especially problematic for South Indian artists who struggle to articulate creative forms that are also true to the aesthetically and politically powerful histories of artistic endeavour in the region.


Gell, A. 1997. Art and agency: an anthropological theory. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 


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