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How Jitish Kallat created art out of sunlight and shadows during the lockdown

The artist’s latest body of work is inspired by the rhythm of the natural cycle and the passage of slow time

Artist Jitish Kallat at his studio in Mumbai.
Artist Jitish Kallat at his studio in Mumbai.

Jitish Kallat was fortunate, unlike some of the artists we recently spoke with, to have access to his studio even at the peak of the lockdown. The Mumbai-based artist was travelling in March when the pandemic hit India with its full force. After he returned, Kallat decided to isolate himself in his studio, a stone’s throw away from his home. It was during those two weeks that he created a new body of work, Circadian Studies, which is currently on display on Nature Morte gallery’s online viewing room.

As the name implies, Circadian Studies draws on the idea of periodicity—in this case, on the changing contours of shadows cast by twigs and branches as the sun moves across the sky through the day. Each day, after watering his plants on the terrace of his studio, Kallat would pick up a twig or a branch and trace the outline cast by its shadow on paper. With red and green water-colour pencils, he drew these shapes, as the shadows shifted over time. As he puts it eloquently, he “hydrated" these drawings, creating them out of an alchemy of solidity and transience, colour and sunlight, nature and paper.

Some of Kallat’s earlier work had shown affinity with natural processes—especially in his chronicles of wind patterns and rain—but in this body of work, he reminds the viewer of metamorphosis and the passage of slow time. Patient observation, close attention, and absorption in the moment—these are some of the moods and memories of the lockdown that we all carry in our minds and bodies. With his fine sensibility and searching glance, Kallat has articulated these feelings through embodied forms. Mint spoke to Kallat about Circadian Studies. Edited excerpts:

Would you say that the pandemic and lockdown led you to this body of work? Or were you thinking about it already?

I could definitely ascribe the two weeks of isolation at the studio after the overseas trip in March as the point in time when the works originated. It began with a simple accidental activity of outlining fallen stems on my studio terrace in the mornings when I would water the plants.

However, in the weeks that followed there were a sequence of intuitions and impulses that made me return to this process in a far more deliberate and considered manner. The drawings began to take the form of these red and green lines that register two moments in time and two distinct locations of the shadow in relationship to the position of the sun and the stem vis-a-vis the paper. I hadn't been thinking about any of this prior to this moment. That said, I do feel that the works are in line with some of my preceding works like the Wind Studies or the Rain Studies, where a natural phenomenon and a moment in time dictate the course of the work.

'Circadian Studies' by Jitish Kallat.
'Circadian Studies' by Jitish Kallat.

Looking at the process of this work, especially the shifting shadows, I felt you were playing with ideas of permanence and evanescence. Would you tell us more about the intellectual universe around these drawings?

The work does reflect on the idea of time and transience… and, as you say, with a certain kind of evanescence. I have been very interested in the way in which one has a subtle experience of night while looking at the shadow and trying to outline it. One’s vision begins to slowly discount the backscatter of the sun and in that moment, one experiences a glimpse of the nocturnal in the day.

For want of a better word, the chiaroscuro of shade-and-light on the stem in relation to the sun seems like a miniature maquette of the same phenomenon occurring on the planet. As I hydrate these drawings, the watercolour pencil lines begin to secrete colour and exchange energies. The paper doesn't feel like a surface anymore. It feels like a field of impulses: haemoglobin and chlorophyll, night and day, oxygen and carbon and the fallen twig itself as a repository of carbon and breath exchanged with other species. These questions preoccupy me in my daily life, and they percolate the works I make.

'Untitled' by Jitish Kallat.
'Untitled' by Jitish Kallat.

Has this period brought about any specific changes to your style and sensibility?

It is very hard to make sense of the transitions that may have occurred in all of us during this period, as we reflect on what has unfolded before us. During this time, I have had continuous access to one of my studios which is across the street from my home. This has meant that I've had an undisrupted, creative flow at work. Besides the Circadian Studies, some other ideas that have been in my mind for a while have gestated and begun to take some tangible form.

As for artistic style, my work is not wedded to any single medium, style or language, and stays open and responsive to the inquiries that trigger the work in the first place. Besides, it is very hard to talk about artistic transitions as they are very nebulous and unclear until some period of time has passed. The shifts are only visible in retrospect.

Circadian Studies is on view here.

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