Jitish Makes a Local Call

Jitish Kallat
Photo: Fotocorp

The next one will come from the air
It will be an overripe pumpkin
It will be the missing shoe

The next one will climb down
From the tree 
When I’m asleep.

Arvind Krishna Mehrotra

THE HIERARCHY of the art world is consistently mysterious. In 1984, Tom Wolfe called art a statusphere. Two decades later, Sarah Thornton in her book Seven Days in the Art World invokes Wolfe’s other description of the art world — an alternative religion for atheists. You are either the multi-syllabic believer or you are the one making lame jokes. There are very few joyous entities like the young man hanging out near the gates of the recent India Art Fair selling coloured thermocol discs and shiny tiffin boxes as ‘authentic replicas’ of Anish Kapoor and Subodh Gupta.

The surprise should be that Jitish Kallat’s art is so highly valued. India is full of more accessible, prettier work. Jitish’s work is only sometimes fun to look at. It doesn’t have the shiny splendour of Subodh Gupta or the khadi-coloured, chest-swelling dreams of Atul Dodiya or the glorious bronze buttocks of a Ravinder Reddy sculpture or the Jaguar-fornicating dinosaurs of Sudarshan Shetty. But the reasons that do make Jitish important? The reasons should make those who worry that we are living in a shortened-link, lowered IQ world, feel much better.

Take 37-year-old Jitish’s last exhibition Fieldnotes: Tomorrow was here Yesterday. This exciting 2011 show was shortlisted for the Škoda award this month. First, the venue. The Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum is Mumbai’s oldest museum and was once the decrepit Victoria & Albert Museum. Through the efforts of INTACH and art historian-honorary director Tasneem Zakaria Mehta, the museum now looks as delectably pretty as a teacake and is as much of a conversation starter as a new Colaba bar. Jitish was the second in a series of artists invited to respond to the museum’s existing collections (maps, costumes, clay models, vintage Mumbai photographs) and create a new space for contemporary art in the city.

At Bhau Daji Lad Museum, one rainy morning last summer, Jitish is his usual gentle and generous self. He is a fashionable egret — tall and long-legged. The show has swiftly acquired a reputation for surprises, not in the least because, over the five-month run, Jitish adds new objects to the collection. Only a few of the exhibits are obviously art objects — such as the over-sized and slightly terrifying Annexation (dozens of fantastical and hungry beasts fusing into a 6ft-high lead sculpture of a kerosene stove). Or the wall-wide digital print called Artist Making Local Call, where in the panorama of a busy street, vehicles collide with each other virtually. Anger at the Speed of Fright is a glass cabinet filled with a pint-sized riot. It’s really easy to miss, sitting as it is next to a regular museum cabinet of Mumbai’s ‘foreign community’ figures. Once you find it, though, you could spend a whole hour staring at the astonishing violence contained in each figure, as it braces for the next wallop.

Jitish joined art school in the years India went from one television channel to a 100. Money is a conversation he can’t escape

The rest of the exhibition are easter eggs buried in the pretty green and gold clutter of the museum, waiting for you to find them. Jitish walks around taking pleasure in watching visitors — children, stragglers from Byculla zoo, romancing couples — discover art right under their nose.

“Most people walk past the first exhibit Circa,” he says smiling wide. Who would doubt that the bamboo and rope scaffolding at the entrance and around the statue of Prince Albert is not, in fact, there for the renovation of the museum? Who would imagine that it’s not bamboo at all and that Jitish spent months trying to figure how to create a resin lookalike of bamboo, down to the texture on your fingertips? This is precisely the kind of urban clutter and fight for survival that Mumbai-born and bred Jitish is delightful at making you rediscover. Look closer and see that the bamboo has animals carved on it, the same gargoyles you find at VT station — traditional portal to all Bombay Dreams — only, each one here is either eating or being eaten.

Cityscapes Artist Making Local Call
Cityscapes: Artist Making Local Call (2005)

More easter eggs. You barely notice the neon Roman numerals on an arch of the museum, mentally consigning it to an anachronistic clock — but look again, it’s Jitish. This is a funhouse for grown-ups.

Learning to find the punchlines in Jitish’s work can be a slow and satisfying education. In fact, his work is usually so fertile for the curious you might find the images ofCholorophyll Park (his upcoming show in Nature Morte, New Delhi) a bit one-dimensional. Even there, though, the ludicrous green of grass superimposed onto Mumbai roads under the feet of preoccupied pedestrians could keep you transfixed for a bit. When you learn that he carefully grew the grass in his Bandra studio and photographed it over weeks (and that it’s not computer-generated verdancy), the pleasure increases.

Does this piece of information please because of the uber-fashionable fondness for the handmade — what American novelist Kurt Anderson described scathingly as “a return to their make-believe-old-fashioned lives — brick and brownstone town houses, beer gardens, greenmarkets, local agriculture, flea markets, steampunk, lace-up boots, suspenders, beards, mustaches, artisanal everything, all the neo-19th-century signifiers of state-of-the-art Brooklyn-esque and Portlandish American hipsterism”? No, it actually pleases an even deeper hunger of contemporary life. Jitish’s work is for the information-hungry.

He considered trucking the giant faux-bone animals through Kerala into the barn of an unsuspecting Malayali uncle

Jitish’s work is sometimes eyecandy, as in Chlorophyll Park or The Cry of the Gland (108 photographs of front shirt pockets and their marvellous contents), sometimes not. What it is, almost always, is braincandy. But when you have one tiny nugget of information about the art in front of you, the processes and inside jokes that went into its making — the camera took 1.5 minutes to shoot the panorama, almost as long as a local call, or that the animals carved on the faux bamboo scaffolding are the same as those that appear on VT station. Or while checking out Jitish’s Public Notice 3, a year-long installation at the Art Institute of Chicago about the global paranoia about terrorism, you realise Swami Vivekananda’s address to the Parliament of Religions happened on 11 September 1893 — what then? That’s when Jitish’s work lights you up, as if it tripped on fibre-optic cables inside you, as if you finally found on Wikipedia the factoid you’d spent two sleepless hours trying to remember.

IN THE ART WORLD, ideas are precious and Jitish admits he doesn’t want to think about where the next one comes from, that he is afraid if he looks too closely it will go away. It is an intuitive process in which he imagines he is merely witness to “ideas cross-pollinating”. Nature Morte curator Peter Nagy talks of how hard Jitish works, how “it’s not just about flopping paint around. Jitish has a very inquisitive mind. He reads, writes, is like a social scientist. His work references biology, sociology and archaeology”.

Anger at the Speed of Fright (2010)
Looking through glass: Anger at the Speed of Fright (2010)

Jitish takes the painting and sculpting techniques that were drummed in unimaginatively but effectively at the JJ School of Art and does what the school generally discourages: have his own thoughts. All an artist needs to do, he says, is to plunge into the world of possibilities and to deploy skills to imbue the piece with autonomous power — he does actually speak like this, in full sentences and paragraphs. It shouldn’t surprise you that at any given point he’s also engaged in a semi-academic activity, such as working with critic/curator Ranjit Hoskote and architect Kaiwan Mehta on a presentation on the nature of beauty. Luckily, for a man so articulate, Jitish is streaked wide with humour. When you prod him too pompously about his process or work ethic, he says with false alarm, “I thought it was a prolonged hobby,” and that “none of us do anything, we are done unto.” And guffaws.

Conceptual art is the subject of parody sometimes because we are undereducated about its conventions. Sometimes it is the subject of parody because the ideas underpinning the artwork are as weak as kittens, expressed with less panache than an ant-and-elephant joke. Contemporary art’s fondness for conceptual art demands smart lads and ladies with wit, if not wisdom. Not everyone makes the cut.

Jitish mutates and transforms each idea till it has the simple elegance of inevitability. Rather than hurling it into the world like someone afraid of where the next one will come from. Hence, for Public Notice 2 he uses scale and material to talk of the dessicated nature of the ideology of non-violence — 4,500 bones made of resin, then shaped into alphabets to spell out all of Mahatma Gandhi’s Dandi March speech. Hence the Forensic Trail Of The Grand Banquet, a video of what looks like objects in outer space but what is actually a series of animated X-rays of samosas, kachoris, corn and other everyday food. Hence, when preparing to teach a course in Salzburg, he generates weeks of correspondence with his students and on the first day of class pastes these emails on the walls and lockers of the classroom, surrounding his students with their conversation. Hence in Epilogue, he first measures the 62 years of his late father in terms of moons. Each moon, all 22,500 of them, is represented as a photograph of a roti, some whole, some crescents and all together — a rather shattering tribute to time.

Rahul Bhattacharya, until recently the editor of Art & Deal magazine, raises an intriguing question about Jitish’s ouevre. He is a fan of Jitish’s paintings (and a few installations) and talks admiringly of the painterly process that charges his work, since his mind gets more playtime in the paintings. “His hand is not a digital printer,” he says mildly. So the hand creates as it goes along, evolving the original idea. So what happens, he asks, in the case of Jitish’s large sculptures fabricated according to his blueprints? Bhattacharya feels that they could never reach the full potential of Jitish’s intellect, they are never charged with the power of the overripe pumpkin, the missing shoe.

Chlorophyll Park (2010)
Greener pastures: Chlorophyll Park (2010)

JITISH’S FATHER was a loving family man who worked in the legal department of Voltas and passed away soon after Jitish’s hit solo show at age 23. Kallats, elder and younger, never imagined there was a life for artists in India. Jitish’s father batted off the relatives who did not understand why Jitish was being allowed to join art school. The disbelief is today transformed in the middle-class mind to another kind of incredulity — that art, so easy to do, makes money. In its finest avatars this is an emotion akin to the ones we reserve for young people who win lakhs and crores on reality shows. In a decade, Jitish has gone from being in the big league for selling for Rs 1.5 lakh to being in the big league for selling for Rs 65 lakh. As Saul Bellow once joked, we believe there is no figleaf we can turn without finding a price tag on the other side.

Money is a big factor in the life of the contemporary Indian artist. Jitish joined art school in the years India went from having one television channel to a hundred. Money has always been a factor in the life of the artist but for those whose careers were born in post-globalisation India, money is a conversation they can’t escape. Sometimes it is a gentle and masked curiosity. During a talk at the Chandigarh Lalit Kala Akademi, the host introduces Jitish as a glamorous itinerary — Chandigarh today, Mumbai tomorrow, abroad the day after. Foreign curators too ask about his travel as an opening salvo in interviews. What is this beast, the jet-setting Indian artist — what is it like? But like a compass, nine out of 10 conversations with the media whirr towards money.

Sample the excerpts of a recent TV interview:
Anchor 1: I am sure beneath all the creativity, everyone wants to put a price to it, at some level. All that auction stuff that has happened, has it been awesome for us?

Jitish: One of the things you have to remember is that there is so much else happening in the institutional set-up around the world, with the number of museum shows with contemporary Indian art, the huge impact it has had on the larger knowledge creation about Indian art in the international landscape that’s more significant than the auction prices that makes headlines. The fine print is really where the magic is. There is a huge transformation in the cultural landscape globally where India is becoming a stakeholder in changing mindsets around art.

Anchor 2: You are well-known for installation art. That’s big in the US, big in Europe, people there have large houses, they can house scooter-rickshaw [installations]. Installation art in India… is that too modern, too bold? Are Indians warming up to your skeleton-like Marutis? [chuckles]

Jitish: Often when a piece like that gets acquired it’s a bit of a surprise. The adventure in making it is in not looking at the logistics of what it takes to make it, store it or ship it. The possibilities of showing it in India has itself been in the past four or five years. So that change in which galleries look and engage with pieces like that is itself a change. The art world in India is now pretty mature…

Anchor 1: [Interrupting] Jitish, I want to go back to the money. Not to question the creativity or to suggest that is not important. But the way the market has matured has to do with the money people are willing to pay for art as well. Do you feel that after the recession, which I’m sure you felt as well, has the market come back in a big way?

Jitish: There is no internal battle between the market and the art. The fact that the market can hijack the larger discussion of the ecosystem is the only issue. The fact that there are these huge prices that get listed in the newspapers definitely excites people. The point is how can we transform that excitement into knowledge or interest…

Anchor 1: That’s what makes Jitish Kallat, Jitish Kallat, right? The reader says, “Let me Google this person and read a little more about this person. My god, his art sold for so much.”

Jitish: My personal reservation is that it hijacks the conversation. It would be interesting if we could transform that enthusiasm into an enthusiasm for the art. And the media and all of us have to work together for that.

Anchor 1: When you were growing up, becoming an artist, were you doodling on a piece of paper or did you say, “Hell, I just have to become an artist”?

Jitish: Through school, one didn’t know you could become an artist. You’d see people driving trucks so it was evident to me that you could become a truck driver. Just before joining art school…

Anchor 1: [Interrupts] We can’t let you go without asking which five painters you’d collect today?

Jitish: Well, all my friends are far too expensive for me. [Everyone laughs]. Subodh Gupta, Bharti Kher, Anita Dube, Shilpa Gupta…

Anchor 1: These are all great investments right?

Jitish: They are all great artists. [Anchor 1 laughs.]

Jitish: You know all kinds of indexes and graphs are drawn these days to value art — and all these look to me like art objects themselves. They have nothing to do with the art.

Anchor 1: The only good news to take away from that is that even Jitish keeps an eye on the graph and makes sure he is on the peak. Thank you Jitish for joining us.

HERE IS Jitish in his new, third studio. He has one to paint in and one to sculpt in. This one is part study and part library, mostly empty, clean and soothing. A young assistant trots around. It’s a flat in an expensive-looking building in Bandra (as opposed to just an expensive building in Bandra). Across the aisle is the flat of a well-known venture capitalist.

Like everyone else in Mumbai, Jitish has a space crunch. Over the years, he has had to find more and more space for his large installations. He briefly considered seeking refuge for them in some Malayali relative’s house — such as his giant faux-bone animals like Aquasaurus, Autosaurus Tripous and Collindonthus trucking through Kerala into the barn of an unsuspecting uncle — was more amusing than practical. He has had to make other complicated warehousing decisions. Unlike most people in Mumbai, most people in the world in fact, he is in the unique position of being able to buy the space he needs to do the work he loves, by doing the work he loves.

Jitish once said in an interview that the old and problematic figure of the artist-as-genius has been replaced by the new and equally problematic artist-as-star, and that he prefers star because it is often viewed with doubt, while the genius was boringly viewed with awe. And star Jitish has been forever. Ever since Sakshi Gallery sold his student work, when his student work was bought by Deutsche Bank, when at 23, he was invited to do a solo show at Gallery Chemould in Mumbai, since his work entered the permanent collections of Saatchi, Frank Cohen and the Museum of Contemporary Art, LA. It’s a career that has enjoyed great luck but also benefited from great assiduousness, always meeting deadlines, always working twice as hard as he needs to and enjoying it. Few people can hear and not enjoy the anecdote of the very young Jitish and his equally young artist wife Reena Saini spending their wedding night (and the week following) painting, writing and preparing for his first New York show.

It is a sweet story that Jitish shares easily, sincerely and in a practiced way. It is also a reminder that from the beginning of his career Jitish has had to socialise an unprepared India towards not just the reception of the art but also the figure of the artist. Artists are not yet on the tabloid watch in India, but the major points of Jitish’s life are out there in the public eye. His parents, his cross-cultural marriage, his young son, his travels, his interests, his Pali Hill home. From curator Peter Nagy to fellow artist Baiju Parthan, several people point out that a part of Jitish’s success (apart from his famed work ethic) has been an ability to be affable, charming and pragmatic in his dealings with the media and with potential collectors. The only thing that saves Jitish from being glib is that each time he explains his work to you, each time he tells the story of his life to you, he tells it sincerely, thoughtfully, at a register just higher than your capabilities so you reach up a little.

Circa (2011)
Seen but unseen: Circa (2011) Photo: DR Bhau Daji Lad Museum

Jitish the articulate, Jitish the pragmatic, Jitish the affable. Is this the charmed view — of a plant breaking through concrete, an image that currently obsesses him — we should take with us of the young, successful and quietly roaring Indian artist? What is the chink in the polished armour that dissatisfies enough to keep working in new directions? What is the chink, you can bet, he will address in his work soon?

As pragmatic as he is, it is in discussing the polished armour — celebrity — that Jitish shows the first sign of language leaving him. He grows quiet. Then the words come in labourered bursts. “Fame. It is both the best thing and the worst thing about being an artist in India. Too many. Contradictions all at once. It provokes you. And silences you at the same time. The magnitude of the experiences. No, I think what I said first is the closest to the truth. It provokes you. And silences you. The contradictory world around you.”

Nisha Susan is Features Editor, Tehelka. 


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Comment moderation is enabled. Your comment may take some time to appear.