Once a Year, Hundreds of Artists Around India Gather on One Street to Sell Work

Chitra Santhe art fair, Bengaluru, India (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

BENGALURU, India — In the metropolis of Bengaluru, southern India, the first Sunday of every new calendar year begins with an art fair. It is markedly different from art fairs typically organized for and by the art world at various international venues. Chitra Santhe, a Kannada phrase, translates to art fair/market, and is one of the largest events of its kind in the country. During the one-day event, hundreds of artists from all over Karnataka and around the country come bearing their work to exhibit and sell on one designated street in the city. Last year, the fair’s 15th edition, over 400,000 people came to the Santhe.

Keeping with the spirit of what the word santhe signifies, Chitra Santhe, held this year on January 6, was a very colorful, packed event. Over 1,500 artists registered to participate, apart from several uncounted others who spread their works out on the pavement. Like in a carnival, there were food kiosks, music, street theater, installations for selfie-seekers, and students from various art colleges doing live portraits and painting tattoos on the faces of children. Like the design of a local market, this art fair was a feast for all the senses.

Live portraits at Chitra Santhe

Chitra Santhe was started by Karnataka Chitrakala Parishat, one of the oldest art schools in Bengaluru. For the entire duration of the fair, the road — where the school, too, is situated — is cordoned off for traffic. In its 16th year, the theme for the 2019 edition was a celebration of Mahatma Gandhi’s life and work, to commemorate his sesquicentennial birth anniversary. The galleries within the school are used for curated shows, and this year about 60 artists showed work on Gandhi’s life.

Artwork at Chitra Santhe

The real action, though, was on the street. Watercolor landscapes, oils, abstracts, hyper-realistic paintings of market scenes, wildlife, and popular tourist destinations, fantastical portraits of popular local movie stars, copies of the Mona Lisa and Raja Ravi Verma, religious paintings, many, many kinds of Buddha paintings, charcoals, and others were in abundance. Also on sale were traditional art styles from different states like Ganjifa paintings, Tanjore paintings, and puppets. The prices for the works were just as spread out across the spectrum, going from a very affordable 100 rupees ($ 1.40) to as high as 600,000 rupees ($ 8,500).

Artwork at Chitra Santhe
Artwork at Chitra Santhe

Chitra Santhe is intended mainly for artists who might not have access to the art market otherwise. These are artists from districts far away from city centers, homemakers who might paint as a hobby, people in other professions who indulge a passion for art making during weekends, and art students who are still in school. This fair is one of the very few avenues they have to sell their works — several artists make works throughout the year to sell on this one day.

Predictably, the quality of the works is varied. Many artists are highly skilled in their craft, and this shows in their delicate watercolors and street scenes. Others unapologetically embrace kitsch, splashing blobs of paint across the canvas and calling it abstract. The thing to note, though, is that these are artworks intended to be sold like wares in a busy local market. The seller would like to clear stock by the end of the market day. The buyers are mostly looking to pick up something that might match their living room curtains, or for that empty nook in the hallway.

Artwork at Chitra Santhe

The fair, to borrow Susan Sontag’s description of naïve camp, is a “proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate and the naïve.” The merit of the art at Chitra Santhe might not always be something to rave about, nor might a lot of them pass muster in the haloed art world, but the fair serves as a pathway for thousands of artists to find a market for works that might never otherwise find a home outside of their studios. For most people, art is still seen as an indulgence, a luxury that they have rare and little access to. Chitra Santhe goes a long way in breaking down such perceived barriers by making art both approachable and largely affordable.

Artwork at Chitra Santhe
Pottery making at Chitra Santhe

Chitra Santhe took place on January 6 on Kumara Krupa Road, Bangalore, India.

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