Sharmistha Ray is a 31-year old artist, curator and art advisor who grew up across four continents before arriving in Mumbai in October 2006.
When I moved from to India from New York in January 2006 to uncover for myself, the rich tapestry of modern and contemporary Indian art, everyone thought I had lost my mind. But I had, what seemed to me, a rock solid plan: I was going to rent out (at a subsidised rate) one floor of my paternal grandmother’s four storey old South Calcutta home and set up an artist’s studio.
My 80-something-year-old grandmother was happy to have a young person floating about and I was only too happy to get time away from the frenzy of New York to immerse myself completely in painting, reading Indian novels and making new friends in the local artistic community.
Kolkata had, after all, been the dynamic epicentre of art and culture in the early part of the last century with the influence of Rabindranath Tagore and the subsequent birth of the Bengal School. I was eager to explore what it could do for me in terms of personal and artistic growth in the present tense.
But, as I discovered, all too harshly, I was more than half a century too late. In 2006, the excitement that was creeping into the Indian contemporary art scene hadn’t come knocking in Bengal. I urgently needed the pace back in my life. So I packed a suitcase and moved to Mumbai within 10 months of my arrival in India.
The Mumbai art scene has an entirely different pulse altogether. Opportunities came raining down from the sky the day I set foot on Mumbai’s soil. In the span of a week, I was offered group and solo exhibitions at good galleries, freelance writing projects and speaking engagements.
I started working at an art gallery that was opening its third global branch, in Mumbai. At the time, I was just filling a slot for the gallery manager whose banker husband was being posted to Dubai. It was just an administrative job, I told myself – I would have plenty of time to paint.
As it turns out, the art market boom was just around the corner and what started as a sedentary desk job to run a local gallery program became every jetsetter’s dream. In two years, I probably racked up enough flyer miles to fly around the world several times. However, no matter how many exotic places my work took me to, be it Shanghai, Beijing, Paris, Milan, Florence or Venice, I always missed home, which for me, had become this conundrum of a city, Bombay. Even when I travel now, etched in my mind, is the expansive outline of Marine Drive, its vastness into the Indian Ocean evoking the sentiments of a city, where any dream is within one’s reach.
Now, more than three years later, ingrained in me is a sense of what Bombay is, even though on some days it occurs to me that no matter how long I stay, I may always be a foreigner here. But then I have a strange notion that perhaps everyone’s a foreigner in Bombay.
In some unforeseen way, my art has also been informed by the ripples, echoes, crevices and devices of this layered city; as an artist, one seeks the unknown, the unfamiliar, the unpredictable: Mumbai is all those things and much more. It’s transformed me into a stalwart abstract painter. It’s only the language of abstraction that can possibly allow me to express adequately the experience of living in this city that always churns, of having a life that is never linear, of being part of the local, but inevitably, always, foreign too.
Sharmistha Ray’s paintings and writings can be seen at www.sharmistharay.net