Jitish Kallat has cultured a sophisticated body of works that merit his being regarded as one of the leading protagonist of contemporary art in India. Recently appointed artistic director and curator for the 2014 Kochi-Muziris Biennale; a regular panelist and ambassador for the arts. Kallat has single handed spurred the contemporary art scene on. Originally studying at the renowned Sir JJ School of Art in central Mumbai, where previous alumni have included Bose Krishnamachari, Tyeb Mehta, Akbar Padamsee, Atul Dodiya, S. H. Raza and M. F. Husain. Kallat would also meet his future wife Reena Saini Kallat, (who has herself gained an international reputation) there; and it was where he was exposed to a new generation of artists and designers whose subsequent success would resemble something of the YBA’s who were coming out of Goldsmiths College in the late 1980’s. His accomplished ability as a billboard sized painter is equally matched by his proficiency as an urban photographer. And Kallat’s intention has always been about how to integrate his multi-disciplinary approaches into one successful practice. Given the majesty of his position, much of the allure of Jitish Kallat and his contemporary Subodh Gupta lies in their ability to translate many of India’s beautiful complexities so willingly, and with gusto.
Likened to a contemporary ethnographer scrutinizing his backyard, Jitish Kallat’s work deals with Mumbai’s dislocated and downtrodden inhabitants. As the artist openly confesses to borrowing from the detritus of everyday life in an effort to facilitate many of his ideas. Looking afresh at the sub-continent’s fabric; its ‘history’, ‘politics’, ‘religious and social structures’, ‘class and caste systems’, and the underlying ‘cancerous poverty’ that infects everything. Kallat’s works draw on the complicated sub-structures that balances all things. And there is as a consequence an engaging set of cultural absurdities attached like parasites to his works, which are reflective of the ills of modern India. Kallat then is dealing with the histrionics of a country at a cross-roads, as it looks to secure its place among the most significant emerging markets, ‘economic’ and ‘artistic’, whilst turning over its societal traditions. It is still a county shaped by religious fervour, tainted by corruption, and positively energised by its sycophantic adulation for film and television. And as it successfully attempts to muddle with all of those interests and aliments, Kallat and his contemporaries are able to profit from the idiosyncrasies of a country unable to explain itself. Delivering artworks that are as problematic as they appear decoratively pleasing.
Rajesh Punj: Initially I wanted to ask about your art school? Were you originally drawn to painting or sculpture? And who your originally influences were?
Jitish Kallat: I attended art school at the Sir J.J. School of Art, and was drawn as much to the exemplars within the visual arts realm as I was to mass media, advertising-etc. I did my B.F.A. in painting and even today hold the painted image as a very potent vehicle to carry ideas. My early art influences were rather wide, covering a vast number of artists, across generations and continents. But I’d say it was also the stuff on TV, the billboards, and the mess and grime of one’s neighbourhood that hugely stimulated my practice.
RP: Where was your first major solo show? Were you positively received by audiences and your critics immediately, and did that matter to you?
JK: My first major solo show titled ‘P.T.O.’ opened at Gallery Chemould (now Chemould Prescott Road) in 1997 when I was all of twenty-three years old. Showing with Gallery Chemould was a huge privilege as it is one of India’s oldest galleries, and has been instrumental in shaping the course of contemporary Indian art, and up until then they had only worked with artists who were in their late thirties or older. The feedback to the show was fantastic.
RP: When you start making works with a greater global audience in mind, do you make works that are of a greater global significance, or are you still concerned with local issues and your own geography first and foremost?
JK: First of all you don’t begin making work with a specific audience whether local or global. Besides terms such as ‘local’ and ‘global’ are not absolute binaries anymore. They can be used in an academic discourse but they hold little value, except perhaps as mere tools of description, while you are actually making work in the studio.
RP: Do you feel like you are consciously creating a style and a language for your works in India, in a context in which there wasn’t one in place already? And are you truly original in that sense?
JK: In today’s world the notion of the ‘entirely original’ is not just an impossible position but also an uninteresting one. At a time when both knowledge and experience goes through intense interbreeding with the virtual, culture will reproduce itself in exciting hybrid ways. My work would probably be unique only by virtue of the fact that it doesn’t remain rigid in pursuit of absolute originality, and instead becomes a flexible processing field to engage with and disentangle the million signals that enter my system every day.
RP: What motivates your work? When looking at the epic scale and ambition of paintings like the Untitled (Eclipse) series and then the haunting homage to Mahatma Gandhi with Public Notice 2 one enjoys the incredible confidence of such works. What leads you to such ideas and such works? And do you think scale amplifies your massage?
JK: I often say that the city street is my university. One finds all the themes of life and art- pain, happiness, anger, violence and compassion- played out here in full volume. Scale is merely one of the many tools one can deploy in the creation of meaning, and decisions such as big, small, life-size-etc. are as much acts of meaning creation as they may be retinal or aesthetic considerations.
RP: How are you received in India by the art audiences and the critics alike, and is there a clear difference in how a European, even an American audience interprets your works from an Indian one? And as a consequence does your work translate well across continents?
JK: The notion of translation across continents is one of the adventures and pleasures of contemporary art today. I enjoy the way art-works gain and shed meaning across varying demography and geography; as an artist one provides the works with some vital ingredients with which it continues to engage and dialogue with the world across time and space.
RP: More generally is art receiving the attention it deserves in India now? We are all aware of the scale of cinema and television in the sub-continent, but not of where art fits along such cultural giants. Are the audiences ready to understand the very different messages of contemporary art without as much reward?
JK: Contemporary art in India continues to be viewed by a small but fast growing community of people who form the art world. It would be a fair assessment to say that the circumference of the art-world is growing at a rate which was hard to imagine a decade ago. We have to note that the contemporary art movement gained its momentum only in the last few decades, so people are yet to acquire the tools to understand art. One key dampener is the visible absence of an enlightened, readable review culture in the mainstream media; as a result the public at large remains detached and somewhat art illiterate. In the last few years the focus of this media has been on some sort of a vacuous celebrity citing so most shows are written about in the party pages of the newspapers. These are some of the dangerous symptoms of a community fed on a diet of reality TV and song-n-dance cinema whereby even the key newspaper and news channels on TV begin to reflect a skewed, unreal version of reality.
Anyway to answer your question, contemporary art remains a niche discipline when compared to the impact of mainstream cinema or television on the general public. Besides the population at large remain preoccupied with pressing challenges of survival, for whom mass cinema and television act as ventilators to momentarily escape from the harsh reality of daily life.
RP: Returning to the work Public Notice, what do you make of Gandhi now? Do you think he failed in his ambitions for India or did India fail him? And subsequently with this entire move toward a technology rich culture allowing for a booming economy; is India failing him again, or were his dreams always impossible and regressive?
JK: Gandhi is a massive figure whose speeches and writing form some of the foundational texts of the nation state. He used symbols, words, actions like an artist at precise moments to reawaken an entire subcontinent to stand up against an oppressive invader using the most imaginative tool of non-violent disobedience. In today’s terror-infected world, where wars against terror are fought as prime television time, voices such as Gandhi’s stare back at us like discarded relics. India is not failing Gandhi with its booming economy. Gandhi was not anti-prosperity but the growing inequities between rich and poor does call for a radical moral and social transformation.
RP: Where do you go from here? What matters now that might not have mattered before? And finally do you feel like you have succeeded with what you wanted to do, or are you seeking more from your practice?
JK: If Warhol spoke about the fifteen minutes of fame, I’d say the occupational hazard of being an artist is that you only enjoy fifteen minutes of satisfaction. The completion of a piece or a project is mere stop-over, a pause in a very long endless expedition …