‘I am the judge of my own work’

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EDITED EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW

Everything is Inside is your first major museum show here. What efforts went in to putting it together?

For this exhibition, I have selected my most important works in the past 25 years. However, I could not exhibit some pieces that I consider important because it just wasn’t feasible. Very Hungry God is one such work, but transporting it to India alone would’ve cost me €1,05,000. Neither my gallery nor I could afford spending that kind of money on one piece of art. I was apprehensive about the show because although the deadline was nearing, I was caught up in another show until two months ago. And there’s always a chance of something going wrong at the last minute. In 2004, I had a show in London, but until the day of the opening, not one artwork had arrived. For the first time in life, I was in tears.

In a career spanning 25 years, what has been your biggest challenge as an artist?

Creating art itself is a challenge. The journey begins with a good idea and that brings in a sense of relief. But there are times when you strongly believe in an idea but doubt it at the same time. That is not a good place to be in, but it is also crucial to face this stage. So, even though I have doubts about executing my ideas, I go ahead because I believe in them. It is only when the creation is ready that one can tell what doesn’t fit. People might love that work of art, but it needn’t necessarily be good art. My biggest fear is to make bad art. Who defines good art for me? An art lover and an artist are the only ones who can make that distinction. As an artist, I define my work; I am the judge of my own work. And at the end of the day, good art speaks for itself.

How did this conviction come about?

Oh, it’s taken a long, long time. When I went to art college in Patna, I didn’t know about art. Knowing how to do a portrait or a landscape doesn’t help you understand art. These are skills of craftsmanship. Understanding art is a totally different ballgame. Art ki paribhasha samajhna bahut zaroori hai. For example, a writer may know how to write, but might not know how to write a story. I was always driven by the motivation to make good art. I’d often tell myself, “I have to be the best. How am I going to do it?” But even at that time, I’d do what I could. Like splash colour on a canvas. At that time, I used to believe that a good artist is one who knows how to make a stroke. So at that time, I used to make long strokes in vivid colours, put in long patches in red, yellow, green. I even mixed in mauve with a green and was very proud of the way I did it. But then suddenly you travel, you see something else and these experiences shape your journey. When I came to Delhi, I started seeing art in a completely different form. I saw textures, form, layering and started wondering what went into creating such aesthetics. The Khoj workshop was one such turning point in my life where I met several artists from abroad and also met my partner, Bharti. She told me about art in England and how it was changing. She told me that they were not interested in painting anymore and that the medium had changed. I was taken aback one day when she looked at my painting and said, “Hey, this is not a good painting.” I asked her why and she told me that my painting needed to have something to say. That was when I realised that art demanded something else. Something that looks good and attracts attention needs to have some kind of meaning. There needs to be some kind of dialogue.

Then, there was a phase from 1993-95, when I made terrible art. I left all that I was good at. So what was good now? Asking that question made me a student again. In those two years, I made a lot of bad art. The galleries stopped selling my work and everybody around was wondering what I was up to. But it was a period of transition.

In 1996, I got a scholarship residency from Sanskriti Kendra. I left my house, my wife and stayed there for two months. That is when I started talking to myself. Who am I? Where do I come from? When I started looking at my past I remember the patia. Growing up, I have eaten all my meals on a patia. Then, I put in all my memories of the patia and made my first installation 29 Mornings. This was a major turning point in my life. This piece of art is responsible for where I am today because it got me accepted into any residency or scholarship that I applied for. So I would say that it is only when I started looking inward that my art started changing. The biggest challenge for any artist is find his own language. And I believe that the day an artist finds that, whether he is successful or not, he has already contributed to the art world.

How has the ‘language’ of your art evolved over the years?

See, earlier I’d eat this (points to a painting of Indian food) and now I also eat this (points to a painting of a lobster). This is my journey. I put in all my experiences along the way into my art. Some of my recent works that are exhibited at the National Gallery of Modern Art — The Banyan Tree, Thosā Pani — all came from a very recent thought.

What is the story behind Thosā Pani?

At times, visuals shock me. When I was watching the visuals of the tsunami in Japan, I was stunned. I had never seen such powerful imagery in my life. It seemed like a visual straight out of a Hollywood thriller. Sometimes, aesthetics lie in danger. The visuals of the water during a tsunami are fierce but there is immense beauty in it and that is what I have tried to capture by putting together utensils to symbolise cascading water.

Apart from your wife Bharti Kher, who have been your biggest critics?

I believe that an artist is the biggest critic of his works. It is very important to be able to do that. So when I am my first critic and have a talented wife to critique my work, I don’t think I need more critics. In India, we don’t have art critics. All the other critique that comes in, I respect it because I respect their thought. But artists are very stubborn. If I believe that a piece of art is good, then there is nothing that can change that.

In one of your self-portraits, you draw attention to the word ‘Bihari’ written in devanagri script. What were you trying to convey?

There is satire in that self-portrait. Biharis often hate being called Bihari. They get offended and that amuses me. The French are so proud when they speak in French. Why are we so ashamed of who we are and the language we speak? I am proud of where I come from. This work makes a statement to all the people who look down upon Biharis and those who are ashamed of being called Bihari.

The exhibition is on till 16 March at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi

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