Why do artist duo Thukral and Tagra have the reputation of being just cool, kitschy people, asks Nisha Susan
IT IS unfortunate that the Gurgaon- based artist duo Thukral and Tagra are at this moment best known for their copyright intervention with the Delhi Belly song Bhaag DK Bose. Returning from a long trip abroad, the pair were outraged to see the song popping up in search engines instead of their Bosedk, a phrase they’d trademarked in 2005. DK Bose. Bosedk. Similar enough and both based on the childish anglicisation of a Hindi invective. The Delhi High Court dismissed the lawsuit but a few days later, in a joint press conference with the artists, Delhi Belly producer Aamir Khan pronounced a light-hearted mea culpa and the artists returned to Gurgaon comforted.
What is truly unfortunate is that even those who follow Indian art a bit only know the duo as those pop art/kitsch boys who scored Rs 1.5 crore in 2007 when Christie’s auctioned their triptych Somnium Genero-Turbo. Never mind that they weren’t the ones who took home the money. Suddenly everyone was talking about them in terms of ‘zany’ — like Thunder Thighs glasses and autorickshaw- shaped cushions and T&T’s bright, retro suits. The two-dimensional, slim space of everyday art reporting has reduced their work to pretty, vacant images and their earnest claiming of Bosedk is not going to help. It makes you suspicious at their studio when a warm Jiten Thukral offers you Rooh Afza singing praises of its rosy delights. Are we going to be assaulted with hipster irony and reclaiming of all things retro?
It is unfortunate because Thukral, 35, and Sumir Tagra, 32, have successfully created an idiom, which is original, playful and, most importantly, invested in contemporary India. Their work — installation, video, graphic and product design, painting and sculpture — plumbs much deeper than the occasional pun or strained attempt at irony of kitsch. Their curiosity and engagement with the world around them makes Rooh Afza assumptions embarrassing.
Years later, Jiten Thukral realised the uncle in the borrowed jacket had an illegal visa and was afraid he would never see home again
IN THEIR STUDIO, between calls from their miniature-manga drawing, fashion-designing wives, accountants and fond relatives, they are both superb raconteurs. Those who call them rootless cosmopolitans have not encountered T&T’s river of local anecdote and song. Over years of working and living together their memories, sentences and sensibilities have fused into a which-is-which twinhood. Sumir tells the story of how they began painting Gurgaon architecture and recording the experiences of young Punjabis. Soon after they moved to alien Gurgaon in 2006, they went to a mall. As they entered, Sumir was convinced: “I could smell blood.” He laughs at this moment of superstitious dread but their worry about the tragedies hitting farming communities in transition (as in Gurgaon) is real. It is a worry that feeds their art and nonprofit work in HIV prevention.
Jiten’s father Mahinder Thukral is a wrestler and bodybuilder in Jalandhar. (In his day-job, he is an artist who has trekked to Delhi several times to hand-deliver painstakingly drawn portraits of prime ministers on rice-grains.) Jiten grew up a small, underweight child eyeing with comic alarm the massive bodies rolling about nearby in the pit. He watched every boy he knew in the akhada turn listless with what India offered. Everyone had their eye on their West. School. College. Art. Love. None of these mattered so much as going abroad. Jiten saw uncles leave in borrowed jackets after feasts and inexplicable bouts of tears. Years later, he realised the uncle in the borrowed jacket had an illegal visa and was afraid he’d never see home again.
Last year, Jiten and Sumir were hanging around in Delhi’s Khirkee village. They were about to go live with a Put It On installation (an ongoing safe sex project which is travelling to Berlin, Tokyo, and Rome in 2011) and a 13-ft beast made of Bosedk bottles. There arrived one of Jiten’s father’s akhada pals. A man with seven sons each of whom had successfully achieved immigration. For Sumir, who had grown up in Delhi with a businessman father and gentle artistic mother, here was the personification of all that animated their work: the loud, warm, brave, fearless Punjabi. A man from a state whose young people are ready to do any work as long as it is not in India. A man from a state whose drug addiction and HIV epidemic is spinning out of control. A state that is transplanting in Ludhiana and Gurgaon, its visions of English mansions just a teensy bit wilder. This is the landscape that pushes T&T to their effervescent representations of popular culture.
T&T’s work is an excellent starting point to debate the blurring lines of kitsch, art and design. Jiten and Sumir studied design and worked as designers in Delhi’s ad agencies. They are still interested in the visual world of advertising but with their fake brand Bosedk. It is difficult not to feel deflated when you see the half-cocky, half-desolate faces of Punjabi boys on fake Hershey’s bottles. Though T&T uses nostalgic elements, they don’t stop there or dwindle into the self-cannibalising, hollowing pop art tendencies of their favourite, the Japanese phenom, Takashi Murakami. Like Jasper Johns advised, they take an object, do something to it and then do something else to it.
So kitsch or not? Peter Nagy of Delhi’s Nature Morte gallery who was the first to exhibit their work in 2005, says, “One man’s sublime is another man’s kitsch. It depends on how much the artist does with it, to create a philosophical or critical paradigm that is worth examining.” T&T’s work seen live speaks to you on multiple registers in a way kitsch is never going to. The airiness of their work is misleading. Take Match Fixed, their elaborate 2009 installation in Beijing. First, a kabbadi maidan in a faux Punjabi living room where NRI boys are the goldplated trophies. It is a 360 degree installation planned to the last detail over seven months: lush upholstery, airplane windows through which you see faces of departing NRIs and looped video interviews of grieving women left behind by NRI grooms. Pathos for a community that’s almost always a comic stereotype.
This is the direction in which T&T’s work is headed — large-scale, obsessively planned, installations about social themes. Perhaps this was the direction in which it was headed from the beginning. Nagy talks of meeting T&T in 2005. He suggested they exhibit their Bosedk shirts during a group show. They asked if they could create an installation for the T-shirts. Nagy says, “They went nuts, creating a very complicated installation, with the T-shirts being the least of it.”
The installations T&T favours are still rare in India and almost impossible to sell. When foreign museums invite them to create such large-scale installations, they embed individual objects and elements, which can be sold separately. For instance, their 2009 work Escape for a Dream Land explores the world of the Punjabi diaspora. In a plush room, a dining table is see-sawed towards the sorrow of parents living without their children. There is something a bit PC Sorcar about the levitating table legs — a lightness of touch, an exuberance that is characteristic of all T&T work. The carpet is silken phulkari. Curator Ranjit Hoskote adds, “One of the basic gestures in T&T’s oeuvre is that of embellishment, which connects their work with tapestry and embroidery. Through this, they signal their engagement with the world of the domestic interior, the mingled comforts and disquietudes of homeas- enclosure. And since this forms one of the basic assumptions of their installations, it destabilises the default whitecube expectations of many viewers.”
Hanging on the wall of this installation room is another statement — Dominus Aeris — The Great Grand Mirage.This painting is what is sold to raise revenue for the artists and the gallery. Dominus Aeris seems simple. A Gurgaon home floating dreamily on clouds. Floral decorations. It’s not parody or a lecture about consumerism but you’ll never see Gurgaon the same way again.
Nisha Susan is Features Editor, Tehelka.