Art in the time of lockdown: 9 Indian artists share their covid-19 diaries
In this week's cover story we spoke to contemporary artists such as Jogen Chowdhury, Sudarshan Shetty, Rekha Rodwittiya, Arunkumar HG, Ranjani Shettar, and more, about the place of art and creativity during a pandemic
PAINTING THE FRAILTY OF THE HUMAN CONDITION
Rekha Rodwittiya, 61, Vadodara
Rekha Rodwittiya’s practice has always drawn from her experiences—it could be the way she negotiates the world, an urgent ecological concern, or something else just as pressing. No wonder then that the ongoing pandemic has had a profound impact on her. “It’s impossible that the powerfulness of such an event in our history can leave anyone untouched," says the Vadodara-based artist. “It permeates my consciousness and obliges me to view the occurrence as a part of the reality that I am living in."
Rodwittiya has always described herself as a feminist painter, having created major mixed media works over the decades that feature powerful imagery of the feminine and nature, with motifs drawn from her interest in varied cultural histories. These have informed her personal lexicon as an artist. However, she views the pandemic from beyond the feminist lens of perception. “It has brought home the frailty of being human, the apathy of the state and the distress of the general public. This sense of vulnerability has become a common factor in this unfortunate sharing of circumstances," she says.
The artist describes herself as a person who lives each day believing in the possibility of change and progress. So, the apparent loss of hope in these times has unsettled her and will continue to exist in her space of contemplation for many years to come. “Also, this has brought into question the ideas of liberty and freedom of movement that you take as a given within a democracy," she adds. Suddenly, this got curtailed overnight, thus bringing into question just how much these simple acts of choice matter.
So, is the pandemic likely to impact the themes she works with? “No," comes the answer. “That is not the kind of painter I am. The experience of living through this extremely surreal and curious passage of time has imprinted itself on me and certainly will permeate into my works. These will be coded and stitched into the larger tapestry of what I paint." Rodwittiya has already embarked on a series of works dealing with the politics of erasure—she creates an image and then paints over it as her experience evolves.
Her work has always been marked by the use of metaphor and allegory to create a conversation on complex issues. And the current series is no different. “When I look out of the window, the scenes outside haven’t really changed but there is a marked absence of humans, vehicles and activity. There is also a palpable sense of fear. My cognisance of this is seeping into my work, layer after layer," she says.
'I HAVE BEEN DEEPLY SHAKEN BY THE EVENTS OF THE LAST FEW MONTHS'
Jogen Chowdhury, 81, Kolkata
In March, Japanese collector Masanori Fukuoka was supposed to organize a solo exhibition of Jogen Chowdhury’s work in Delhi but the pandemic put a stop to the plan. Weeks later, the artist, who has just finished his term at the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of Parliament, as a Trinamool Congress representative, had planned to travel to the Capital to complete the formalities of handover. But doctors advised the 81-year-old to stay home. Since then, Chowdhury, his wife and son have been confined to their apartment in south Kolkata. “I have no access to my studio in Santiniketan," Chowdhury says, “but I am working every day still, be it on small drawings, works with dry pastel on paper, some on canvas, even designing a couple of book covers." Walking around the apartment is his only exercise at the moment. Sometimes, he looks out of a window at a water body nearby, overlooking a children’s playground. “The scene fills me with a feeling of freshness," he says.
“I wanted to create socially relevant art from the start," Chowdhury had said when I interviewed him last year at his retrospective, curated by Ranjit Hoskote, hosted by Emami Art. His commitment to that vision hasn’t dimmed. “I have been deeply shaken by recent events," he says, “especially by the plight of migrant workers ." He has attempted to express his thoughts in writing, sketched some, but it takes time to process such changes. “The ideas have to coalesce and crystallize in my mind first," he adds.
Chowdhury knows it will be a while before the art world can return to a semblance of normality but he is also convinced there’s no substitute for physical spaces. No number of virtual exhibitions can stand in for the warmth of human proximity. He is optimistic that medical science, along with a reconfiguration of public spaces, will take us back to our former way of life one day. “But for that to happen, we need kalpana (imagination) as well as parikalpana (planning)," he says.
TIME TO LOOK AT A DIFFERENT WAY OF WORKING
Sudarshan Shetty, 59, Mumbai
As we speak, Sudarshan Shetty seems to be in a contemplative mood. “We are processing so much information about the pandemic on a daily basis. There is a great deal of confusion about what is true," he says. The past four months have been a time for reflection, with the Mumbai-based artist assimilating his feelings on the events unfolding. “The pain of the migrant workers walking to their home towns has left a deep impression on me. I don’t know how it may enter my work in the future" says Shetty.
The artist, whose practice covers painting, sculpture, installation, video, sound and performance, has not actively produced work in this phase. His sculptural practice, especially the use of reclaimed teakwood to carve replicas of objects from flea markets, requires collaboration with a host of different people and small industries.
In the past, he has often said “the city is his studio". Mumbai’s sights and sounds serve as inspiration—one landmark he keeps revisiting is Chor Bazaar, simply sitting there and reflecting on objects that are residues of the past. Using these cues, he sets about translating these ideas in his studio, on the city’s outskirts. “My working studio serves as a space for finding some sanity in a disorderly world. I find a sense of things coming together there and sometimes not. But in the last few months I have just not been able to travel. Maybe it’s time to look at a different way of working," says Shetty. However, not everything he makes emerges from the studio, especially the video and sound pieces.
These days, he is refining the script for a video work. “It has multiple narratives based on the idea of transference," he explains. It was supposed to have been shot earlier, but the quietude of lockdown has helped him hone the script, and he has joined hands with a sound artist. “The video will keep going back and forth between sound and image. Then, I have been going through images from a project that I started five-six years ago. We had also shot a longer video for over 15 days. I realized that this is the time to work with it," he says.
FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD OF THE BIG CITY
Ranjani Shettar, 43, Shivamogga
When the pandemic struck, Ranjani Shettar was at her home in a village in Karnataka’s Shivamogga district, 300km away from Bengaluru. “I was not in the middle of putting up a show, not travelling, not struck in an airport, so there was no chaos around me," she says. “I had access to my studio, which is just a stone’s throw from my house, and my art continued."
The oasis of calm that Shettar lives and works in is the result of a deliberate choice she made over a decade ago. Just as her career was taking off, she decided to leave Bengaluru, the city she has grown up in, and move to rural Karnataka. “At the time, it was unheard of to do such a thing," she says. “A lot of people, including my friends and family, felt I was throwing away everything." But Shettar was determined. It would not be a sustainable way of living if everyone moved to the cities, she felt. Moreover, it was important that art and culture moved beyond the usual urban clusters.
“In any case, what’s the need for an artist like me, who has not much to do with the city, to live in one?" Shettar asks. “To me, the definition of a good city is one that has good institutes of art and culture, public transport and infrastructure." With the rapid pace of urbanization, Bengaluru had lost its pristine beauty. Shettar was pained to see overcrowding and traffic congestion take over the city’s luscious green cover. Village life, in contrast, deepened her bond with nature and her practice became immersed in the nuances of her surroundings.
In the last few years, Shettar has shown her work across the world, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where her installation, Seven Ponds And A Few Raindrops, was the centrepiece. Made with beeswax, lacquer, organic dyes, steel, cloth and other non-toxic materials, her poetic and haunting work forges a vital link between art, nature and society. In spite of their deceptively ethereal lightness, the objects need delicate manipulation, are often suspended from the ceiling, and aligned to cast shadowy patterns on the floor. “I have a studio-based practice. I have one assistant, who isn’t coming in at the moment," Shettar says. “That hasn’t changed things much for me because there’s a lot I have to do myself." While she is deeply affected by the human cost of the pandemic, it would be artificial for her to respond to it directly through her art, Shettar says. Her work doesn’t have explicit messages—its reception is contingent on the viewer’s knowledge of the world, but even without such an awareness, there are other affective channels to connect with it.
Shettar’s art is innately experiential. You have to get physically close to it to feel its potency. Virtual screens can’t convey its intensity. “Right now I am in the middle of projects, I am committed to them. My artworks are experiential in nature and I expect there will be challenges when I am ready to show. Art has always had space in societies, no matter how difficult the times were. I imagine there will always be space for good art," she says. She is hopeful, though, that having overcome many impediments and difficulties in the past, the art world will thrive again in the future—whenever that is. As of now, Shettar says, she’s appreciating the things that are still beautiful around her, trying to be one with the moment. And, of course, there’s always work to be done. “A bird won’t stop singing just because there isn’t anyone to listen to it, will it?" she says.
A CHANCE TO PRESS THE RESET BUTTON
Arunkumar H.G., 52, Shivamogga and Gurugram
For Arunkumar H.G., the uncertainty accompanying the pandemic has been deeply unsettling. But he also feels this phase has given society, which has been in the race to mindless development, some time to pause. “I engage with ecology in a direct way in my practice. And I have seen the manner in which we have been annihilating environmental balance—almost like a man-made storm. Maybe we have been given the chance to press the reset button," says the artist, who shuttles between Gurugram and his village in Shivamogga, Karnataka, where he has established the Centre for Knowledge and Environment.
While the larger picture offers some sort of silver lining in the possibility of healing, there is a sense of unease in his practice. “This feeling of knowing, not knowing—I just haven’t been able to work so far," says Arunkumar. “These days, we have got into a mechanical routine and art can’t be created mechanically." He has, for the moment, diverted all his energy to the centre, which works in the realm of art and advocacy to check the degradation of the Western Ghats. In the past two-three months, Arunkumar, community leaders and volunteers from the neighbouring villages have been trying to rejuvenate four lakes vital to the area’s ecology. This is part of a pilot project, Swagrama.
Through all this, Arunkumar has also been introspecting on the materiality in his art. The artist has always worked with material found in and around industrial scrapyards around Gurugram, Haryana. He has now returned to the city but is yet to travel to those sites. “I am not the kind of person who can sit inside a studio. But one has to structure an opportunity out of any situation," he says. “I have been thinking of ways to reduce the materiality in my work. Even used industrial material comes with a certain carbon footprint in its storage and transportation. I am hoping to bring that down."
In Part II, Nalini Malani, Shilpa Gupta, Atul Dodiya and L.N. Tallur tell us about their lockdown art.
FIRST PUBLISHED07.08.2020 | 09:46 AM IST