Indulge one-on-one: Sharan Apparao & Dr Chithra Madhavan take the art to the people

Art historian Dr Chithra Madhavan and curator, gallerist Sharan Apparao — two of the most prominent figures in Chennai’s art circles, speak about taking art to the people.

Jaideep Sen Published :  29th October 2018 01:15 PM   |   Published :   |  29th October 2018 01:15 PM
Queens of the temples

Queens of the temples

Dr Chithra Madhavan and Sharan Apparao share a relationship that goes back many generations and ages — especially, if you’re speaking in terms of art history, and temple architecture in South India. Sharan is one of the most well-known curators and promoters of art in India, and with a chain of presences around the country — the Apparao Galleries network, which she runs — she has been instrumental in establishing Chennai as a destination for discerning art collectors.

Dr Chithra, on the other hand, is one of the most prominent academics in the field, for her area of specialisation — temple architecture, iconography and epigraphy. The author of seven books, primarily on subjects related to temples, and the history and culture of Tamil Nadu, she is a leading figure in circles of art appreciation, and a pioneering force, for getting people interested in heritage-related affairs, and especially, the sculptural styles and aesthetics of temples in South India.

Together, Sharan and Dr Chithra form a formidable duo — with much of the concern about preserving art appreciation, and knowledge about the arts, resting squarely between them. To get everyone on the same page, you can meet up with both of them, and other art enthusiasts, at one of the numerous art walks, lectures and seminars that they frequently host in the city.

Meanwhile, we get a sense of the motivations driving their efforts, some of the ideas in their minds about traditional and contemporary art today, and their concerns over the ever-growing need to inform and inculcate an understanding of the arts.

How did you get to know each other? What was your common ground of interest?
Dr Chithra Madhavan:
I had heard about Sharan even when I was in school, through a few mutual friends, and of the good work she was doing in the sphere of arts. I didn’t know at that time, I’d get to meet her many, many years later. We share a common interest in history, and particularly, architecture and sculpture.

Sharan Apparao: I had been hearing about ‘the historian Dr Chitra’, and arranged for a talk by her in our gallery, for our outreach activity. And little did I realise that this was the Chitra I had been hearing about from my Sishya School (Chennai) friends, who were all her classmates. So, it was easy to bond. We had common friends, and a shared interest in art history and temple architecture.

How closely related are your individual practices? Are there any lessons you have learned off each other?
I believe that our ancient arts are the basis of the arts today. It’s important to understand history and your roots when you create, and Chithra is very knowledgeable and was able to inspire listeners. She has a great following. I get to learn and re-learn so much of my art history lessons from college — through Chithra. 

I also get to realise some hard realities, which make me sad. Especially, that much of our younger generations, and even many artists who I thought we should be able to inspire, were oblivious to our heritage. We were preaching to the choir, so to speak. But so what? There were many people interested, and that’s what matters.

Sharan Apparao at a recent heritage walk

DrCM: I’m a historian, focusing on temple architecture, sculpture and inscriptions. And, Sharan, who is keenly interested in all of this, has this wonderful space called Apparao Galleries, where she hosts numerous talks all year around. She also conducts tours to various sites of historical and archaeological interest. 

I’ve been asked by her to lecture at her venue often, and have also been the lecturer on one of her tours. I’m amazed by, and totally admire Sharan’s ability to think out of the box. She’s always coming up with new ideas, and I have benefitted much by some of these. 

She asked me to talk on ‘Navarasas in Indian Sculpture’, a topic I would never, ever have thought of myself! She also thought of ‘Animals and Birds in Indian Art’! I totally enjoyed myself preparing for these talks. Thanks again, Sharan!

Give us your shared overview, of how you have witnessed the cultural scene grow and evolve over the years, in Chennai.
Inspite of the fact that the vision I had of inspiring the next generation was bleak, I encountered a whole new world of people who care, and who are completely taken up by heritage, and go to great lengths to learn, see, visit sites and discuss them in detail. 

It’s these people who will finally become tomorrow’s historians and keepers of all this knowledge, and package and present this rich culture in different ways for generations to come. 

I am sure Dr Chithra has seen this revival in the attendance of her lectures too. We do a ‘Bronze Tour of the Madras Museum’, a few times each year, and she is always surprised to meet yet another group, of new people looking to learn. For me, that gives me great pleasure, when I hear that someone has enjoyed it, not only for the sake of the bronzes, but because of the way Dr Chithra presented it to them.

DrCM: As far as the cultural scene in Chennai is concerned, I would like to talk only about lectures and tours, since the music and dance scene is well entrenched in this city. Talks and heritage walks have multiplied over the recent years, and what is wonderful is that there are people, young and old, very eager to attend these events.

I’ve led several tours to the Museum, some arranged by Sharan’s Apparao Galleries, and it’s heartwarming to see the number of people who sign up for these tours, even on a hot Sunday morning!

Dr Chithra Madhavan

How would you like to foster collaborations, among other artists too, and to encourage people to share their creations?
SA: This is very hard, as artists live in some sort of cocoon, and they can be hard to inspire on something very specific. It’s important to intellectualise history beyond painting and sculpture, and here is where I think these shared ideas can inspire people to collaborate with history and art. That said, I think I see a movement taking shape, where people are deeply interested in the arts.

Even while there is little or no support, however, where there is a will there is a way... and this we see more in South India, where the music, dance and visual arts have a lot from the common people, for the common people. So we need not despair — though, I can’t help it sometimes! In terms of conservation and aesthetics, and the lack of qualified people to maintain our heritage monuments, we have a long way to go. Perhaps, the media can take this up as another idea to be explored.

DrCM: The cultural scene is now changing, with the idea of musicians and dancers using resource persons who give them ideas and information about historical sites, especially temples. I have worked with a few musicians and dancers too on such themes.

How would you differentiate the idea of patronage historically for the arts, versus the current trend of corporate sponsorship?
SA: In the past, patronage was about giving, and giving away to society, like any ruler who built monuments of immense beauty. Today, corporate sponsorship is about gaining visibility for their brand, rather than giving something back to society. 

I see very few corporates giving back to the arts in a constructive way. No one is building conservation centres or training centres or craft education institutions. I wish I had the resources to do so...

DrCM: Earlier, royalty used to extend patronage to artistes – painters, musicians, dancers, sculptors, et al. There is now a certain amount of corporate sponsorship — but nothing to match what royalty did in the past. Corporate sponsorship needs to be channelised to encourage youngsters to appreciate, and to take to the arts.


Sharan Apparao

How is art — traditional or contemporary — going to make more of a difference in our everyday, urban lives? How do you see this as an inherent part of the future?
It’s all about living with the arts. Don’t you want to look at things that are beautiful or meaningful? Don’t you want to eat from a beautiful plate, or look out of your window and see a beautiful monument, or go to a restaurant and look at an artwork that has a story to tell, or to wear a sari that is beautiful?

Good art, good craft and good stories have a place in our lives every day, and in every place — from our wardrobes to our tables to our offices, monuments and cities. It’s up to us to make it happen in our environments.

DrCM: Art makes a huge difference in our lives. Look at what our ancestors in India have left behind for us — sculptures, paintings and so much more. Aren’t these inspiring? Contemporary art too is 
important for us. We need this creativity to help us unwind: going to an art gallery or to a museum is a unique, relaxing experience. School students should be taught to appreciate art — it will take them a long way, irrespective of the professions they are going to follow.

Could you share a few insights into innovative techniques, and methods, that you might be experimenting with?
SA: Our outreach programme has been very encouraging. It has created an awareness, and many others have taken a page out of this experience. 

Give us your thoughts about the need for further education about cultural history. How do you see Indian historical learnings having more of an impact?
India has a rich past, and a living culture that can be as rich, if kept alive. Our challenge is to continue and adapt to include the new and innovative. It’s this constant translation and assimilation that will keep things going.

DrCM: There is much need for further education about cultural history. It is absolutely necessary. In a country like India, with so much history around us, especially in the cultural sphere, there is very little being done to promote an interest in this subject among school and college students.

While the focus is always on engineering, medicine, law, etc, cultural history has been given a back seat. I understand that students may not want to take up this subject as a profession, but to know more about, and to appreciate this subject is mandatory, and imperative.

Dr Chithra Madhavan

How is the arts and culture scene in India being perceived overseas, and what manner of difference are Indian artists making?
A very small part of contemporary India is being appreciated overseas. There is still a larger audience for ancient India.

DrCM: As far as music and dance is concerned, I think it is good. However, heritage-related activities have a long way to go.

Give us your thoughts about direct efforts to enhance visibility, and possibly, for increased monetary returns, especially for artisans and artists?
Better monetary returns have to be thought of, for artisans and for artists, so that many more take to these professions. Otherwise, the future will be bleak.

SA: Yes, I think, setting up technical craft education centres and design centres will take care of reviving many crafts. There are problems with old artisans unwilling to continue, and yet, there are may new practitioners who can be welcomed to the fold. I thing there is a need for the government to offer tax breaks for the development of the arts. 

At this point, the policies are not encouraging of the arts, and this is a deterrent for many. With regards to contemporary art, I think one has to marry the aesthetics of the past and present in public institutions, and do away with an older style of management.

For a country so rich in aesthetics, it’s difficult to understand how the bleak boring style of the PWD buildings came to be! This in itself will allow culture to be reborn, and of course, financially, will be remunerative.

— Jaideep Sen