Aashna’s heart-to-heart on Art with INA PURI

Updated: Mar 30, 2021

A writer, curator, and collector, I can rightly say Ina Puri was born into a culturally rich family endowed in the arts to bring all of us closer in wonderment and appreciation. She has achieved considerable success over the years through her work and has authored memoirs, edited several major publications on contemporary Indian artists including In Black & White, the authorised biography of Manjit Bawa and Faces of Indian Art, as well as curated celebrated exhibitions. Ina has won the National Award for Meeting Manjit, a documentary she produced on Manjit Bawa.

My interest in her journey began instantaneously and increased ever since I was introduced to her work. I found her ways resonate with my beliefs on art and the art field, which made this conversation more nourishing.

Join us in our conversation and delve into a heartfelt journey through art.

The interview, below, focuses and discusses Ina Ji’s initiation, journey, and learnings through the span of her illustrious and inspiring career path.

Ina Puri receiving the Rajat Kamal award

Image Credit: Ina Puri

AA: How did you enter the art field? How did you find your place here?

IP: In retrospect, art was a part of my environment and home, ever since I can remember. In Kolkata, our family was distinguished for its cultural & literary contributions from the early times of Independence and I grew up surrounded by creative people who taught me to appreciate art. My grandfather Manish Ghatak was a renowned litterateur, my grand uncle, Ritwik Ghatak, a filmmaker of distinction while in the next generation, my aunt, Mahasweta Devi was an author & activist who won international recognition for her brilliant work across the world. One of my earliest memories is visiting my granduncle Sankho Chowdhury’s studio in Baroda and looking at his sculptures, meeting his artist students and friends in Baroda. Years later, when I was working on my book, Faces of Indian Art, focussing on artist’s studios through the lens of Nemai Ghosh, I recollected how I had visited that magical space in Baroda, as a little girl. Even though I formally studied English, for my Masters, art remained for me, a subject of deep interest. Amongst my earliest art shows, was a solo of a young virtually unknown sculptor Pradip Mahanto, whose sculpture with found objects was quite outstanding for its time. I met him in Shantiniketan and decided to exhibit him at Birla Academy, Kolkata, in the early 90s. Our show was deemed a grand success when the renowned painter Bikash Bhattacharya walked in, quite by chance, I was informed later, to buy almost half our show! This was followed by his exhibition at Lalit Kala Akademi, Delhi, where we were equally successful. Soon after, I was invited to curate an exhibition in Singapore, this time with senior artists from across the country including Manjit Bawa,

Manu Parekh, Vaikuntam, Sunil Das etc. My personal rapport with artists grew stronger over time and I was commissioned by many to write their catalogues/books. My lifelong career in the arts had begun!

Image from Pradeep Mahanto’s Exhibition at Lalit Kala Akademi

Ina Puri with Manjit Bawa

Image Credit: Ina Puri

AA: As a curator, how do you decide the approach and direction of a curatorial show? Artist-centric or viewer-centric or its middle-ground?

IP: I was extremely privileged that I received my training in art & art management from Manjit Bawa, who encouraged me to find my own voice and curate shows with artists of my choice. We began our own organization, which was not for profit, to exhibit works of Ganesh Haloi, Nemai Ghosh, Shakila to name a few, drawing a great response from the collectors and critics. My own approach towards curating is defined in most cases by my interaction with art practitioners and their narratives. Despite the offers and opportunities I receive, I accept curatorial projects once or twice a year and work on the show during that period exclusively. Having said that, viewership is also of utmost significance to me personally, because I believe in being inclusive & inviting viewers (all viewers) to my exhibitions. Whenever possible, I invite student groups to visit, an unforgettable memory is having children from Shishu Bhavana to the older students of Kala Bhavana (Shantiniketan) to see Manjit Bawa’s exhibition in 1998.

AA: How has your approach changed from your first show until the last? What are your chief learnings from the exhibitions you have curated?

IP: Since I have established myself the one advantage that has given me great joy is the ability to do things my own way, without interference from the galleries. I continue my quest to look for new artists whose work speaks to me, knowing I will be able to show their work in a gallery of my choice. I have always enjoyed travelling exhibitions to as many places as possible & this remains a criterion, even today. I am deeply satisfied to see young artists who have started their artistic journeys with me take flight and create major art projects confidently on their own, like Narayan Sinha. I had curated a multi-art project, Debi, with this brilliant sculptor ten years ago, today he is amidst his newest venture, Firelight, in Kolkata with a stunning new body of works. For a curator, perhaps nothing can ever match up to this moment.

AA: What inspired Meeting Manjit? Personally and curatorially.

IP: Ever since we started working together, I felt that documenting his work was extremely important. We had catalogues for every exhibition we did, even the modest one at Kala Bhavana (where we had physically carried the artworks ourselves). David Davidar had commissioned me to write his memoirs for Penguin India and I had already done another minor publication on him for Roli Books. We were in London and at the screening of a documentary on artists when it struck me that we should have a biopic on him and his practice. The idea came to fruition when we met Buddhadeb Dasgupta in Kolkata after a few months. He had earlier made a documentary on Ganesh Pyne and seemed the ideal person to collaborate with on this film project. We started our film soon after, travelling to Dalhousie from Delhi by car and shooting the journey en route. Image Ina, my production company, produced the film for which we received the Rajat Kamal in 2003.

Manjit's Exhibition Opening with (L to R) Ina Puri, Manjit Bawa and Anjolie Ela Menon Image Credit: Ina Puri

Showing Vaikuntam, while Manjit Bawa & Ina Puri had started a non-profit organisation called Sa’ma

Image Credit: Ina Puri

AA: Speak with us about your collaboration with Nemai Ghosh for the aforementioned book? Him, with his visuals and you, with your words; how was sync established and maintained? What inspired Paresh Maity - A portrait of the artist in the world? How was the idea conceptualised and executed? Did you achieve what you set out for?

IP: Our long association began in the late 1990s when Nemai Ghosh visited Manjit Bawa’s exhibition in Kolkata, to meet me, regarding a writing project. He was not working much in those days, deeply traumatized by the untimely loss of his older son as much as the death of Satyajit Ray, whose work he had been documenting for decades. His grief-stricken face still comes to mind as he told us of his difficult times. We invited him to lunch and asked him if he was open to a collaborative project that involved travel and the exciting prospect of meeting senior artists across the country, shooting them as they worked in the studios. That was how (rather impulsively and spontaneously) ‘Faces of Indian Art’ was commissioned, an elaborate mission that took long months to complete. The book received wonderful reviews and Nemaida was a changed person, enthusiastically contemplating newer projects to take on. During his interactions with the art fraternity, he met Paresh Maity and received an interesting proposal to shoot the artist as he worked and travelled. I had already written in the past on Paresh and when he approached me to write The Portrait of the Artist in the World (published by Westland) I was delighted to accept. We had dialogues and more dialogues over years, as the two travelled to Venice, London, Rajasthan etc. Finally, the travels ended and I was able to complete my long interview-based text on Nemai Ghosh and Paresh Maity. Sadly, even though we had sent him the first copy, his long-cherished dream to celebrate the making of this publication with us never materialized, we heard of his passing around the same time.

Book Cover of Faces of Indian Art

Image Credit:

Nemai Ghosh and ina Puri

Image Credit:

Book Cover

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AA: Are there any future projects that you are working on at the moment?

IP: I am looking forward to working on a major photography show with Shahidul Alam, there are group shows with senior contemporary artists in Delhi & KCC Kolkata as well as an exciting site-specific exhibition with Jayasri Burman in Banaras. There is a retrospective of the veteran artist Lalu Prasad Shaw & an edgy exhibition of the young photographer Avani Rai’s. There are major publications in the pipeline, including two international collaborations. If the pandemic gave us pause, it would go back to action in 2021!

Though my conversation with Ina Ji ended here, I am certain that my association with her and her work will always remain and continue to grow; a thoroughly fulfilling conversation.

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