Name Dropping

Beset by criticism, India’s foremost contemporary art prize takes a break

01 August 2013
LN Tallur won the Skoda Prize in 2012 for his solo show, titled Quintessential, at the Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai.

ON 17 AUGUST 2010, over a rambling champagne brunch at Daniell’s Tavern at The Imperial hotel in Delhi, “India’s answer to the Turner Prize” was announced.

Envisioned and realised by Martin da Costa, CEO of the Indian luxury events company Seventy EMG, the Skoda Prize for Indian Contemporary Art was born after close to ten years in incubation. Da Costa had attended the Turner Prize exhibition in 1999, featuring the contemporary artists shortlisted for that year’s award in London, and, drawn by the euphoria generated by the event that year—with nominee Tracey Emin’s exhibit My Bed rousing people awake—he’d begun to think about a similar initiative in India. “The Skoda Prize for Indian Contemporary Art was designed and developed as our deliberate attempt to create one of the world’s great art prizes,” da Costa said in his mission statement. “It is our ambition to have ‘The Skoda’ mentioned in the same breath as ‘The Turner’ one day.”

At Rs 1 million, the Skoda Prize offered just under half of Turner’s top prize of GBP 25,000, which, given the relative age of the Indian contemporary art market, was a substantial figure. For Skoda Auto India, there was “nothing but goodwill and the joy of art” behind their sponsorship, as Thomas Kuehl, the company’s director of sales and marketing, said at the launch. After 10 years of existence in the Indian auto market, they wanted to give back to Indian society.

At the outset, it was a beautiful marriage. For the first time, Indian contemporary art had a prize which seemed to reflect its ambitions. The prize accelerated every year—the venue for the finalists’ exhibition in Delhi moved from a small gallery space at the Goethe-Institut in the inaugural year, to the Lalit Kala Akademi in the second and the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) for its third installment in January 2013—the first Indian contemporary art show to be exhibited across both its wings. In the second year, the additional ART India Breakthrough Artist Award was introduced for debut solos. Superstars such as Anish Kapoor, Marc Quinn and William Kentridge presented the award in successive years. Kuehl appeared to be personally invested in the collaboration; he was at every announcement and event related to the prize.

But last month, word began to spread that Skoda had decided not to renew its three-year contract to sponsor the award, which means that the prize, at least in the short term, will lapse altogether. This may have something to do with the state of India’s auto sector, but concurrently, the withdrawal of the three-year-old award is being linked to the artist community’s discomfort with the sponsor’s name in the prize’s title.

In a letter sent as “a sincere request” to da Costa on 9 January 2013, a few weeks before what we now know as the last Skoda Prize was announced, a group of artists invoked the Turner Prize comparison again: “We feel that there is a crucial difference in naming between the two, which limits the symbolic value and perception of the Skoda Prize. Thus our request is to consider renaming the award, either in the name of an artist (like Turner) who has been inspirational to the art community; or otherwise with a title that is suggestive of the quality and reach of contemporary art practice in this country.”

Unlike the Indian awards that came before it, such as the FICA Emerging Artist Award, the Bodhi Art Award and Art India magazine’s Promising Artist Award, the Skoda Prize wasn’t meant to be given to up-and-coming names—which would run the risk of introducing and endorsing too many artists too soon—but to mid-career artists who’d had a significant solo exhibition that year and “demonstrated  sustained vision, innovation, and a mature understanding of material and form through their careers.” In contrast with many of these other art prizes, where the winner was required to produce a show for the gallery awarding the prize, there was no contract between the sponsors, the jury and the artists or their galleries.

The prize did have its share of problems, like its age cap of 45, an odd marker which meant that in 2010, Bharti Kher, who was then 41, could participate but Subodh Gupta, 46, and Sudarshan Shetty, 49, could not—artists on a level platform, whatever subjective lens one takes. But if one of the aims of the Skoda Prize was to produce new heroes of Indian art, it did. Mithu Sen’s Black Candy, an irreverent series of playful images about the intimate lives of men, sexual intimacy and identity, set the tone as the winner in the first year. The second year’s winner, Navin Thomas, had live pigeons ambling about in a room filled with copper wires and transistor radios during the finalists’ show at Lalit Kala Akademi. With the prize’s apparent cessation, India’s Marco Evaristti moment has been cruelly truncated.

Was the Indian art world too hasty to decapitate India’s most significant art award, and the immense value it had built in a few short years—because a group of artists didn’t like the idea of a company logo on their studio shelves? Is this an aesthetic statement or a political one?  The artists’ letter was signed off by the five artists shortlisted for the 2012 award—Shaina Anand and Ashok Sukumaran of the collaborative project CAMP, LN Tallur, Srinivasa Prasad  and Shilpa Gupta—but it indicated the support of the artist community at large. The noted critic Geeta Kapur, who chaired the jury, also voiced her opinions in a public address at the Kochi Muziris Biennale in December 2012, where the discussion on the prize’s name change had started and then quickly gained credence. Knowing that Skoda’s contract with Seventy EMG was up for renewal, the artists were keen that the organisers approach a non-corporate foundation ready to sponsor the event, raise a corpus fund for the prize money and then take on additional corporate sponsors. While stray suggestions of this nature had come their way before, da Costa and the prize’s art advisor, the critic Girish Shahane, were compelled to take this feedback seriously because of the unison of voices making the demand.

The artists suggested various alternatives, from ‘Tagore’ and ‘Sher-Gil’ to ‘Husain’, or a thematic title like the Artes Mundi Prize. Given that this is Amrita Sher-Gil’s birth centenary year, the Sher-Gil Prize had the most votes, and da Costa has tentatively settled on the “Sher-Gil Prize and Awards for Contemporary Indian Art”. “We’re taking a one-year break whilst we sort out sponsorship for it,” he told me.

This unwieldy name forms a sort of middle ground—the goal is to have an awards ceremony with various art awards, including the Sher-Gil Prize as the jewel in the crown, the award that continues in the spirit of the Skoda Prize. This makes room for a possible new title sponsor, but leaves the glory of the Sher-Gil Prize untainted, as it were. But this is also not agreeable to the artists. “Part of the discussion has been about if we artists think a name like ‘X-Company Sher-Gil’ Prize would work,” Sukumaran explained. “We think it is not a good move since it takes a lot away from the symbolic gain of the name change. And it makes strange bedfellows of say IBM and Sher-Gil, who have nothing to do with each other.”

Significantly, the artists’ contention is with the name of the prize, and not corporate sponsorship itself. It is with what Sukumaran described to me as “the use of artists and their work for corporate PR”. He argued that the event, prize ceremony and website were over-the-top marketing tools for the sponsor. But it is hard to envision an alternative scenario: a founding sponsor bearing an annual cost of roughly Rs 1 crore willing to forgo all visibility. Sukumaran’s other objection—“Skoda has no relationship with the quality and breadth of contemporary art and artists in the country today”—would rule out most other corporate sponsors.

This degree of anti-corporate sentiment is imprudent in a country like India, where there is minimal government support for the arts. While Indian artists such as Gupta, Dayanita Singh and Gauri Gill have received high honours from other countries (France, the Netherlands and Canada respectively), contemporary artists are yet to be recognised for significant national honours or public grants in our own country. Corporate patronage or a public-private partnership is the way forward—illustrated most effectively in recent years by the successful restoration of Mumbai’s Bhau Daji Lad Museum, through a collaborative effort by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, INTACH and the Jamnalal Bajaj Foundation.

The Skoda Prize had ministry level support, and the good faith of NGMA’s current director Rajeev Lochan in securing their sprawling space for a show that ran for the duration of a month. The NGMA provided equipment and staff and covered establishment costs. But there are good reasons to be wary of inviting any additional government involvement in an art prize of this nature—it will change the tenor of what has been a bold, independent platform so far.

Skoda possibly had financial considerations in deciding not to continue their association with the award, which may sound a cautionary note to the art community against aligning with any single corporate destiny in this economic climate. In April, the Volkswagen Group, which owns Skoda Auto India, moved its headquarters from Maker Maxity in Bandra Kurla Complex, one of the most expensive pieces of commercial real estate in Mumbai, to less glamorous environs in the western suburb of Andheri. In May, it was reported that Skoda was to stop producing its Fabia compact car in India because the company was incurring a loss of as much as Rs 1.5 lakh per car selling the model. In this scenario, a corporate social responsibility initiative with no direct return on investment was a likely early casualty.

Thanush Joseph, the director of marketing at Seventy EMG, said that they are presently exploring a number of avenues for sponsorship, including steel companies and auction houses. Even if one of them comes on board as a principal sponsor, what is to say that this decision against a title sponsor won’t ward them off? The protesting artists argued that there should not be an atmosphere of branding or profiteering around the prize and suggest that it be run with foundation support, and ideally itself as a non-profit foundation. This should rule out Seventy EMG, a profit making company, entirely from the equation. What the artists are asking for isn’t a name change but a different art award altogether.

Internationally, numerous art awards have sponsors in their titles, such as the Absolut Art Award, the Hugo Boss Prize, and the Abraaj Group Art Prize. Several Indian artists have enjoyed the benefits of more explicit corporate patronage by way of special commissions, alcohol and champagne brands being particular benefactors: Bharti Kher and Subodh Gupta have both created work for Absolut. Most recently, the luxury brand Ermenegildo Zegna produced Reena Kallat’s mammoth site-specific installation at the Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai.

There is a chance that Skoda might have come to stand for India’s foremost art award, similar to how the Booker Group now seems permanently associated with the famous UK literary prize—so much so that when a new sponsor, the Man Group, took over, they decided to retain the earlier sponsor’s name in the freshly re-titled Man Booker Prize. Having said that, it is useful to note that the Turner Prize changed sponsors thrice, and in 1990, awarded no prize when its sponsor company, Drexel Burnham Lambert, collapsed and was forced to withdraw support. When the independent UK television company Channel 4 stepped in the following year, they doubled the prize money and supported the event with documentaries and live broadcasts of the ceremony.

But with new sponsors not yet in place for the prize formerly known as the Skoda, its future is on shaky ground. The biggest consequence of this is that, for now, contemporary Indian art has no sustainable platform for critical appreciation. If corporate tie-ups are capricious, government championship has not proven itself to be especially dependable: after launching the first India pavilion at the 116-year-old Venice Biennale last year, India is conspicuously absent from the international contemporary art exhibition this year, with no statement from the Lalit Kala Akademi, India’s national academy of art, explaining this. Even as the five-year-old India Art Fair is fast becoming a barometer for artists’ commercial saleability and the Indian art market swells with ambition and new sales records every season, Indian artists have no critical mirror—nothing to tell them what they look like.

Correction: An earlier photo caption stated that LN Tallur won the Skoda Prize 2012 for his 'Hatha Yoga' installation. In fact, the prize was awarded for his solo show Quintessential. The error has been corrected online. 

Anindita Ghose is an arts journalist and the features director of Vogue India.

Keywords: contemporary art artists corporate Indian Art Skoda Prize LN Tallur Amrita Sher-Gil