‘The Pain is there but life goes on’

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Is artist Nayanaa Kanodia’s apolitical vision an appropriate response to 26/11, asks Gaurav Jain

Anthills‘Back to work’, gouache on paper
Anthills ‘Back to work’, gouache on paper

One of the pioneers of L’art Naïf (Naïve Art) in India, Nayanaa Kanodia, 59, began as an economist. Kanodia is completely self-taught, except for a year apprenticing with Anjolie Ela Menon. Her first solo show was held in 1986 in Mumbai and she’s subsequently participated in many international shows. The Victoria and Albert Museum, London, invited her in 2001 to show her work and demonstrate her technique. Based in Mumbai, she spoke on the phone about her new 26/11- inspired series called A City Wakes Up Inside Me. Excerpts:

Peeping city‘Life goes On’, gouache on paper
Peeping city ‘Life goes On’, gouache on paper

Mumbaikars declared a renewed citizenship in response to 26/11 only to see it fizzle out soon. Do you think artists can claim a more sustained response to such events?
The celebrities were only hogging the media and doing it for their own purpose. Artists were quite responsible, putting their feelings on paper and on canvas. We can only direct others’ reactions to our work, since the role of an artist is minimal compared to the government and police in fortifying the city. As artists, we see people’s suffering. The turnaround for me was to see how callous we’d been. According to television, we’d been informed this might happen but the government didn’t take any action. If more strict action had been taken we might not have landed in this situation.

Ruddy Sundays‘Morning News’, gouache on paper
Ruddy Sundays ‘Morning News’, gouache on paper

Did the city change for you afterwards?
Oh yes, that one week we were all glued to the television and the phone. It was totally nerve-racking. When something similar happened in the US, they acted and have never had it repeated. But in our case, the world was just watching. Within a month I began asking the “Why’s” – why don’t we pay more attention to our city since it makes us a people? In St Petersburg, public buildings are painted every four years. Cities are maintained well across the world. Why can’t we do the same? Some of the buildings in my paintings are more like dreams. I’ve shown the Flora Fountain area but with all the haphazard structures taken out. It’s possible to have such a city. People are now fed up but thankfully they’re now starting to look after their own locality, which is enough to expect. The awareness has continued, it hasn’t gone away.

Dusk to dusk‘What Next?’, gouache on paper
Dusk to dusk ‘What Next?’, gouache on paper

How do your cheerful depictions of city life reflect the people’s pain?
Life goes on and you have to move on. The pain is of course there, but by making the city a more desirable place we can improve our lives. In my works people are enjoying lazy Sunday afternoons, the joy of the city is back.

Is such middle-class optimism — as were the calls for increased citizenship — the only possible response?
This is the philosophy in the Bhagavad Gita too! This is the only way to face life, to face any tragedy. One has to rise above one’s emotions. The government won’t pay attention even if you’re very political. I don’t have much faith in the political types. The police and firemen and the armed forces did an excellent job, but the politicians were callous, sitting in their posh offices. Ordinary people were really affected.

Were you alert to any risk of exploiting the tragedy?
My work has a lot of mirth and satire. It’s easy to evoke tragedy, but satire is harder. I wanted to show that even after such a calamity, we’re still back on a happy note, we’ve risen. We also had artists painting the Taj [hotel] burning, but I don’t think along those lines. So I don’t feel that risk much.

Artists have painted the burning Taj. I don’t think along those lines

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