My friend Myna Mukherjee has set up an arts’ residency/gallery in Delhi. It’s called Engendered and it opened with a group show titled Can You See Me? in January. Myna asked me if I would write something about the show for her, so I did (and not only because I want to be in her good books so that she lets me stay in one of the rooms at the residency despite the fact that I don’t fit any Engendered criteria whatsoever). You can read it here.
I love this opening image. It’s a detail from Amina Ahmed’s “Prayer – I” and on the wall is a poem written for (if I remember correctly) Tyler Clementi.
Anyone who remembers handwriting class in school will stare with envy at the neatly-printed handwriting on the paintings in Atul Dodiya’s new show, Bako Exists. Imagine. Dodiya wrote those unwavering straight lines of text by hand, without the help of lines or grids, and with his left hand. In case you were wondering, Dodiya is right-handed. “I wanted to give the impression of great care going into each letter that was written, like we did when we wrote in exercise books in school,” said Dodiya. “So I decided I’d write with my left hand because that way, I would be more careful.” He paused for a moment and then tossed out some trivia, “You know, Gandhi could write with both hands.”
Gandhi is among the artists and thinkers who have long fascinated Dodiya. The eclectic list includes Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, Indian mystic Ramakrishna, American painter Jasper Johns, French filmmaker Jean Luc Godard and Gujarati poet Labhshanker Thaker. Thaker’s 2004 work, Bako Chhe Kalpo, is the inspiration for Bako Exists. Imagine.
Among Gujaratis. Bako is a common nickname. There’s a certain anonymity to it because any kid in shorts could be called Bako since it is also a term of endearment for a boy. In Bako Chhe Kalpo, Bako is like any other little boy. He’s mischievous, curious and he hates school. Unlike most schoolchildren, however, Thacker’s Bako hangs out with Mahatma Gandhi in his dreams. The father of the nation and the little boy have surreal conversations in which they discuss a curious variety of subjects, ranging from shadowplay to bird poop on statues.
Atul Dodiya first read Bako Chhe Kalpo in 2005 and was fascinated. The simplicity and mischief of the little boy’s mind as depicted by Thacker appealed to Dodiya and he began conceiving a set of text-based paintings that used the text of Bako Chhe Kalpo. So began a remarkable artistic collaboration. Dodiya asked his friend, writer and director Naushil Mehta to translate Bako Chhe Kalpo into English so that the works would be accessible to a wider audience. Mehta turned to poet Arundhati Subramaniam to add lyrical polish to the translation. Their words are what you read on the paintings that make up Dodiya’s Bako Exists. Imagine.
With Bako Exists. Imagine, Dodiya transforms the gallery into the classroom of Bako’s dreams, the one in which Bako’s teacher and classmate is Bapu. On one wall, nine cabinets are lined up. They are filled with photographs, paintings, sculptures, toys and other objects. All over the gallery are blackboards on which painstakingly printed letters spell out splintered bits of Bako’s dream conversations with Gandhi. Fossilized under the words are delicate images. Some look fragile, like ancient pressed leaves. Others are strongly solid, like slabs of stone. There’s a remarkable balance to the show. The almost minimalist and neutral blackboards are placed alongside the colourful clutter of the cabinets. Staring at the ghostly figures in the paintings are portraits of real people who are nonetheless unreal because not only are they in photographs, but most are also dead.
Dodiya is as playful as Bako, if not more. Bako Exists. Imagine is an enchanting and intriguing set of illusions and allusions. Dodiya never loses sight of the fact that art is primarily a visual medium, which means that a viewer must connect to a work at first sight and instinctively. One of the ways Dodiya attracts his viewer is with humour. For starters, the writing on the paintings are often funny. In addition, the blackboards are actually canvases that have been painted to look like smooth slate with chalk writing.
The exhibition is as much an exploration of idealism (symbolised by Gandhi) and innocence (exemplified by Bako) as it is a legend into the mind and life of Atul Dodiya. The usually neat categories of figurative, abstract and conceptual art are blurred with Dodiya taking real figures and objects but using them to create a curiously abstract narrative. Not only is the story of Bako Chhe Kalpo fragmented so that there isn’t any specific order to the paintings, but Dodiya’s own life is presented in the cabinets as an jigsaw puzzle of awkward pieces that fit perfectly.
The bric-a-brac in the cabinets may look artfully random but each item is precisely chosen and placed. Every object has a personal resonance for Dodiya. Most of them, including the Mondrian paintings and the sculpture of a man pissing on a skull, have been made by the artist. Photographs of Dodiya’s heroes, like Godard, Francois Truffaut and Rabindranath Tagore, adorn the cabinets. One cabinet shows a stack of books hanging like meat in a butcher’s shop. Another has a sheet with photographs of the Ramakrishna’s first disciples. Many of the photographs in the cabinets have been taken by Dodiya. It doesn’t bother Dodiya that a viewer may make assumptions about him on the basis of what they see in the cabinets. In fact, there’s a twinkle in his eye as he tells me that he’s looking forward to people looking at the objects and making sense of them.
In one of the faux blackboard paintings, there is a vignette of a conversation that takes place when Bako and Bapu’s shadows are leaning against each other one night. Its last few lines are, “Bapu’s shadow was wound-up as if by invisible hands,/And mine.” Dodiya’s waiting to see what our invisible hands do with the shadows of his own self that flit through Bako Exists, Imagine.
Jehangir Sabavala was 29 years old when he had his first solo exhibition. It was in the Taj Mahal Hotel and was organised by M.F. Husain. Husain, Sabavala and two carpenters hung the paintings. The paintings, that would later sell for hundreds of thousands of rupees, were priced modestly. It was a simple but elegant start to an artistic career that would span more than half a century.
Amidst flamboyant contemporaries like F. N. Souza and other artists of 1950s, Sabavala, who passed away yesterday at the age of 89, was distinct and unusual. An alumnus of the Sir J. J. School of Art, he went on to hone his painterly skills at prestigious institutions like the Heatherly School of Art in London and the Academie Andre Lhote and the Academie Julian in Paris. Sabavala was one of the most expertly-trained, well-travelled and accomplished painters of his generation. He had seen more of European art than most of his artist friends in India and this was obvious in his paintings. Although he is today not as famous as some of his artist friends—intriguingly, there is no Wikipedia page for Sabavala so far, even though his biographer Ranjit Hoskote has one—Sabavala’s rise was meteoric. He won Monaco’s Grand Prix de la Peinture in 1949. In 1954, his paintings were seen in the Venice Biennale, which was an outstanding achievement given few in the West acknowledged there was such a thing as modern Indian art at the time. Having shown at places like the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D. C. and the Fukuoka Museum in Tokyo, Sabavala was one of the best known names of Indian art in the 1970s and 1980s. The Indian government awarded him the Padma Shri in 1977 and he won the Lalit Kala Ratna award in 2004.
Looking at his work is often like seeing the world through a kaleidoscope. Shards of colour would make up scenes in which every line and every geometric plane was in perfect balance. His paintings were marked by quietude and stillness—a pristine landscape, a flock of birds, a group of women. Figures and forms angled their way out of wedges of colour that were used with expert precision.
Sabavala is perhaps best known for his paintings of nature and his Cubism-influenced works. Few of these had the electric energy and scandalous boldness that we associate with the modern painters of India in the 1950s and 1960s. Sabavala’s style was unique but its obvious European influences made him less exciting to many. He didn’t grab headlines or court controversies. Enamoured of the clean geometry of modernist art, the clever illusions of Cubism and the mystique of Impressionism, Sabavala didn’t stray from the role of being a figurative painter. This would make his work less interesting to many as Indian contemporary art tried to be increasingly experimental.
Whether it was among his contemporaries or later generations of Indian artists, Sabavala stood apart, both as a man and as a painter. Impeccably dressed in three-piece suits, sporting cravats and a twirly moustache that a musketeer would envy, Sabavala always looked like the perfect gentleman and also behaved like one. Suave, witty and impossibly charming even in his mid-eighties, Sabavala was like a character out of an Oscar Wilde play but with oodles more heart and warmth. When he passed away yesterday morning, we’re certain that every single person who had ever known him, however briefly, said a prayer for India’s most elegant gentleman artist.
I wrote a short piece on Pakistani artist Rashid Rana for the February issue of Vogue India. Rashid, being the articulate sort, gave me a solid and lengthy interview of which about 1% was used in the final piece. So here’s the interview in its entirety. It’s long, but it’s a good read.
DP: What are the works that you will be showing in Mumbai? Have they been shown anywhere earlier?
RR: Majority of the works in the show will be new works (with a few earlier works). These works will be both 2-dimensional and 3-dimensional but almost all of them will be photo based.
DP: In recent works, you seem to be moving towards three-dimensionality. Do you find two-dimensionality less interesting now? You’ve spoken about how the history of photography played an important part in spurring your interest in using photography in your works. Is there something that turned your attention to three-dimensionality?
RR: After receiving my initial training as a painter, I still find myself working from the premise of one. I find the history of two-dimensional image making really fascinating; in fact it provides the basic fuel for my practice in general. My interest in the formal concerns to do with two-dimensional space, which manifests in my work first as a grid and then later as matrix of pixels, is central to my practice. In the last 8 to 10 years, my painting evolved into works involving photography as a medium/tool. Some of these photo based works started becoming somewhat 3-dimensional in the recent years. For example “Offshore Accounts – 1, 2006”, “Copyright Violation of a Stock Photo, 2007” and “News-Archive Video-Still of Dead Birds Flying, 2007” tend to be 3-dimensional whereas “Desperately seeking Paradise” and photo sculptures produced from 2007 t0 2010 are completely 3-dimesnional in nature but conceptually are an extension of explorations into two-dimensional space. In these works, photography is no longer just a tool but a subject also.
I am using photography as a theme in my photo-sculptures. Today, I feel Photo-realism is much underrated. Artists such as Cindy Sherman have used photography to liberate it from the purpose of merely documenting; equipping it with the kind of complexity we associate with painting. We can’t deny the fact that digital technology has opened up an entire frontier in the same way photography catalysed change over 150 years ago. I feel there’s still unexplored potential in photography as a subject. It is still used to document light and colour – which started by early Renaissance painters – to create the illusion of space on a flat surface, but I want to explore how two-dimensional documentation, taken from various viewpoints, can be assembled and reassembled. I do not intend to expand the possibilities of photography per se, but to actually expose its limitations. For example, the light recorded in photographing an object from various angles is always going to contradict the actual light in the space where a photo-sculpture will be displayed, no matter how carefully you coordinate the light and dark values on the object itself. David Hockney gave his translation of this Cubist agenda using photo media. Photo sculptures add a third dimension to this exploration. To date I have chosen objects that are both familiar and impartial, at least at first glance.
DP: The idea of perspective is something that has surfaced in many of your works. In three-dimensional works, the artist has far less control about the perspective from which a work is seen. In a sense, the artist has to give up some control whereas in two-dimensional works, the artist decides what a viewer sees and how they see it. How important is the idea of control to you as an artist?
RR: Yes, two-dimensionality and three-dimensionality separates the control but even within the two-dimensional practices there is a divide of control or less control if we compare the occidental and oriental history of painting especially from 16th century onwards. European painting since renaissance and until late 19th century relies heavily on the use of illusionistic space mainly achieved through mechanical perspective. Whereas, other non- European cultures during the same time deliberately did not want to create the illusionistic space, instead they wanted to create a flat or suggestive space on a two dimensional surface. This is a major divide between historical comparison of painting between ‘East and West’ (terms which are no longer applicable the way the used to be). With this understanding in the beginning of my career, I was intentionally trying to create paintings with depth within the very two-dimensionality (used only/literally horizontal and vertical lines to form grid painting from early 1990s).
But later on, realizing that world was becoming smaller day by day and the usual divide of east and west was no longer their in the same fashion, I became more relaxed about the use of space in my two-dimensional works. In one sense the photo images that I use in my work do have a definite illusionistic space captured through the use of camera (whether it’s the macro image or the micro images) but when the viewer is standing at a distance where you can neither comprehend the macro image and nor micro images, the image tends to be a flat pixelated surface without any illusionistic depth. Therefore, I can say that space in my photo-mosaic works is somewhere in between the post-Renaissance artist and Oriental artist. So, I acknowledge both — an illusionist (controlled) space and flat (not so controlled space).
DP: Is the challenge of a new medium important to you?
RR: No. Only if the medium has to play an active role in translating ideas/concerns I am dealing with. My practice has gradually become idea-led in the last few years. It’s the idea or concerns, which directs the way to the kind of execution but once a choice of medium and way of execution becomes clearer then medium acquires central role. But it’s not similar to how a solitary space artist would approach the medium. I do not mind outsourcing certain aspects of making my work. In other words it’s not my main objective to take the challenge of mastering a new medium. Translating my ideas in the best possible to producing them visually through whatever means is my objective. Having said that, I do not mind acquiring new skills wherever necessary, in order to start thinking in that medium, but I do not necessarily go for mastering them as there are so many mediums and tools out there to be mastered. And for an artist who is open to changing medium every now and then to suit his/her concerns it would be almost impossible to master techniques every time. Although at times it’s important to learn a medium just enough so that you can think and visualize the work in it, even if the work has to go through an artist supervised outsourcing. In short, I am some where between a solitary space artist and an artist who relies on an assembly-line-art-making process.
DP: Do you feel painting is losing in popularity to newer media like video and photography?
RR: I don’t think it’s a popularity factor — it’s to do with the boundaries of Art. Newer media overlap and give artist the leeway to create interdisciplinary works. Although, theoretically for the masses both video and photography are more relatable then conventional media as they experience still and moving images in their lives on daily basis but (from my experience) I think its photo-based works that majority of the audience tend to engage with more than video art. Long duration videos are often not watched for the full duration by most of the audience. But these are all generalizations, at the end of the day each individual works sets its on criteria (with all its ingredients and details) how it should be judged and what it offers to a viewer, regardless whether its painting or video. Just using newer tools and mediums does not ensure that the work will be good.
DP: Can you see yourself returning to painting?
RR: Although I enjoy the broad label of ‘visual artist’ and float between different media, but at the same time I like to believe that I am still painting (with photo based techniques). But if you are specifically asking whether I would make use of paints in my work ever again, in that case I would like to say that the day I find a reason for paint to be used as active player in the content of my work, rather than a passive tool to be manipulated for representational image making alone, then I would use it again for sure.
DP: You’ve been a curator and a teacher, alongside being an artist. Do you find it easy to play all these roles? How does the curator and teacher in you judge the artist Rashid Rana?
RR: Ha! The teacher in me makes life for the artist very difficult. But it helps as I push myself to the maximum. Having said that I would like to add that we cannot just imitate a model from other parts of the world- Specific reasons are there for artists from south Asia (Pakistan in particular) to get into multiple roles. Yes, I have been a full time artist and teacher but I won’t really call myself a curator as I have only done a couple of projects and that too relied heavily on my experience as an artist and teachers in the way I approached those curatorial projects.
DP: What do you think the role of art is in society, if any? Does it need to have a role?
RR: The role of art in society is what it was since the beginning — we reflect ourselves, our time through art. Yes, society keeps changing so what art has to say changes but it’s role, I don’t think so.
DP: What made you want to be an artist and convinced you to persevere with art before you became successful?
RR: It’s a slightly long story. The abridged version is that I ended up at an art school though by choice, but incidentally (like many other things in life). While studying there I gradually discovered that ‘art’ is what I can do better than other things such as cricket or acting.
DP: Would you say your personal life is reflected in any way in your art?
RR: Yes, but not always in a very direct or obvious way.
DP: A lot of your work has a strong base in liberal ideology. Would you describe your work as political? Personally, I’m wary of using that word because the ideas in a political rarely seem to connect with the notion of ideology.
RR: I am interested in political issues and they do play some part or the other in recent works of mine but I would definitively not call my work political or ‘political art’. I’d like to hope that my work not be seen through pigeonholes. there is a sense of fluidity that I try to achieve through my concepts. Trying to break these boundaries of categorizing art which helps people understand it more —where as for me it’s not about the politics, the gender or history — (I hope) it’s beyond that.
DP: Have the recent events in Pakistan and changes in attitudes towards Islam had any impact, direct or indirect, upon your works? Is it possible to remain unaffected by them?
RR: It’s not possible to remain unaffected whether one chooses to avoid them from reflecting in their work or not. They also affect my work in an indirect manner.
Subjects and issues in regions, which have gone through colonization, are more complex than other places. Therefore, I agree that it is complicated to deal with or balance certain phenomenon. But my work is about addressing some representations-related aspects of this complexity.
DP: The theme of identity is something that you’ve explored both directly and indirectly in many works.
RR: The theme of identity ……I tried many a times but I could not escape it. So I have realised that the broader identity is worth exploring, as we get to question all sorts of notions around us and within us. We should look at the artist as a creative practitioner, who are from certain regions yes, but essentially are individuals. In the ’90s being an artist in Pakistan, I faced this question in a big way but now I don’t think it’s such a burden.
In 2000, I made a work titled: “What is so Pakistani about this painting?”. The title itself is inscribed in the work, and is perhaps the most ‘Pakistani’ thing about this work. The idea of dealing with the issue of identity has become the new identity. Identity — if it’s not national it’s regional or gender related or religious —even when we deny it, it is acceptance in one way. Then we have another type of identity altogether, the self or visual personas. I have dealt with this kind too in a work titled “Identical Views” where I merely am changing clothes to alter my physical identity.
DP: How important do you think it is for South Asian artists to be innovative by Western art historical standards? Do you think it’s fair to say that there is now a tradition of modern art in South Asia?
RR: In one sense we live in small world. Therefore I am against unnecessary boundaries. I believe in universality that does not dismiss individual specificities. I do not agree with the notion that there is a tradition of modern art now in South Asia. On the contrary, I would like to believe that historically South Asian art has never been modern in the Western sense of the word. What is often referred to as ‘modern art in south Asia’ has characteristics of post-modern. it does not believe in absolute originality. It refers to past and uses cultural specificities (though often in a contrived and superficial manner) that makes it dissimilar to ‘modern art’ produced in the same era, in west.
DP: Does the category South Asian art make sense to you or do you feel that it forcibly yokes together artistic traditions that don’t actually have much in common beyond geography?
RR: Yes, when we talk about South Asian art we keep in mind the elements of the Occident inherently. Then we accept that our past is connected beyond South Asia through various influences and so is our present due to globalization. I feel it’s alright to embrace the term South Asian art but I do also believe that one should not use this term loosely and force redundant stylistic concerns into their work. So, perhaps “Art from South Asia” is a better premise than “South Asian Art”.
DP: As someone who has been both an artist and an art educator, what would you say is of critical importance for this region’s art to develop?
RR: Get over superfluous stylistic concerns (which as of the past 5 years has occurred) and embrace the time we are from and push the boundaries for ourselves to create work that is not about using old techniques for the sake of branding ourselves to sell to the western viewer. A long term interest in art produced from this region can be sustained only through ensuring that all disciplines and institutions of present day infrastructure of an art scene are flourishing simultaneously. It means that besides patronage, (in the form of money flowing into the art scene from various sources that can temporarily result in success of individual artists in a given time) a growth in disciplines and institutions such as such as ‘art criticism’ and ‘art academia’ is equally important.
Nilofer Suleman’s first show in October 2009 was like a breath of fresh air. Her paintings didn’t take themselves too seriously but most refreshingly, Sulmena presented a distinctive style that blended the simple, broad lines and wide, expressionless eyes often seen in Indian folk art with a very modern sensibility. It was kitsch that didn’t make you cringe and didn’t rely upon the usual tropes.
In her second show, Suleman does venture towards a more conventional kitsch (like poster art) but she incorporates it into her work in an effort to explore the visual references that make up popular culture in India. The people in “We Two, Ours One” are distinctly more modern than those seen in Suleman’s earlier work. Cellphones peek out of many a cleavage. Rather than just coyly eyeing one another, men and women hold each other close while surrounded by an intricate patchwork of photos, prints, signs, wall paintings and film posters. Through her paintings, Suleman suggests Indian graphic culture – religious kitsch, signage, movie stills – is not simply adornment but also the model upon which reality is fashioned. Aside from showing a set of curious and often humorous scenes, this allows Suleman to show off her ability to draw in a variety of styles in addition to her own mix of folk and kitsch.
In “Iyengar Family,” people pose for their family pictures the way they’ve seen it done in movies even though they belong to and retain traces of traditional conservatism and upper-caste life in their appearance. In a number of the paintings, including “Body of Influence” and “Gulbahar Studeeos,” men and women eye one another as they’ve seen heroes and heroines do in film sequences. More interesting is Suleman’s thesis that notions of masculinity, gender and romance are inherited from religious imagery. In “Nagmani,” the man snoozes while his wife sits with a basket of flowers in front of her. Behind the flower-seller couple is a painting of the passive, reclining Vishnu with his consort Lakshmi sitting at his feet. Both Lakshmi and the flower-seller wife hold a lotus in their hands. “Purity Milk” shows a shop that is adorned with images of Krishna, one of Hinduism’s most popular gods. He’s well-known for being a mischievous boy who stole milk and sweets, and for being one of the top Casanovas in Hinduism (legend has it that he had 108 milk maidens as girlfriends in his youth and 16,108 wives as an adult). At the Purity Milk shop are two couples: one boy who is trying to steal some sweets and a slightly-petrified girl; the other is a young romantic duo whose pose curiously mirrors that of Krishna and Radha (the chief girlfriend in Krishna’s days of youth).
There’s a lot of clever imagery in many of Suleman’s larger paintings, which is unfortunately missing from the smaller works on display. These small works seem to be in the show only to meet the demand for Suleman’s unusual brand of kitsch. So far, by exploring different aspects of the world she’s created out of snatched bits and pieces of reality, Suleman has been able to keep to her style without becoming too repetitive. Her challenge will be to find further depths in this alternative plane and not succumb to the superficiality that is evident in the small paintings of “We Two, Ours One.” So far, however, Suleman’s done well and her second show mostly matches up to her first by being equally fun, accessible, inventive and interesting.