Wednesday, 1 November 2000

Saffronart Art Café I Interview with Balan Nambiar I 2000

Pushpamala N. interviews sculptor and scholar Balan Nambiar.

Balan Nambiar, [born 1937, Kannapuram, Kerala] studied sculpture in the Madras College of Arts and Crafts, Chennai. In 1971 he moved to Bangalore and has been working in the city as an independent artist. Balan Nambiar has intensively researched and documented the ritual art forms of Kerala and Tulunadu in Karnataka, for which he received the Nehru Fellowship.
PN:     Balan, your recent work 'Valampiri Shankha' is a stainless steel image of a conch shell. What connection does the shankha, which is an archaic Hindu religious symbol, have with the state-of-the-art technology produced by Texas Instruments who commissioned the work?

BN:     The first conch sculpture I made was in 1978 in the Portland Cement Factory in Heidelberg in Germany, where someone pointed out to me that it was based on the golden section. The golden section or the golden mean has a proportion of width to height of 1:1.618, which is supposed to be the perfect proportion, and has been used extensively by Greek and Renaissance artists and architects.

While most conches have an anti - clockwise spiral, the Valampiri Shankha [which means 'right turning' in Malayalam] has a clockwise spiral and is considered auspicious and rare. I heard a story that a German collector offered 50,000 DM for one! A properly grown clockwise conch when blown produces a sound which is closest to the 'OM' sound. 

The sculpture is the logo of the Centre of Digital Technology, a laboratory sponsored by Texas Instruments who are the pioneers in introducing digital sound processing [DSP] to India. I was thinking of the inherent mathematical effect of the sound of 'Om' produced by the Valampiri Shankha in terms of digital power. I wanted to make it in stainless steel, using the most sophisticated processes like computer and laser technology. The software AUTOCAD was used to design the sections.
PN:      Visually, the sculpture has a light, shimmering, glassy quality- almost like a mirage. ...Balan, you have used ritual symbols and stories from myths in your work but some motifs like the flame, rice plant, cactus and bird you say are autobiographical. Tell me about your life.

BN:      I come from a land owning family from Kannoor District in Kerala- but members of the family also worked in the fields- I used to plough the fields, plant rice and grow vegetables when I was a boy. There used to be Theyyam performances in my village and I used to watch the make up- they make elaborate ritual costumes from tender coconut leaves ...In high school I was very good in both mathematics and drawing. So after high school I did the Madras Govt. Drawing Examination, got a job in the railways as a draughtsman and moved to Chennai in 1959.

I was painting all the time and sending my work to exhibitions. Fellow artist Akkitham Narayanan introduced me to KCS Paniker in 1962. As the principal of the Madras Art School, Paniker took a personal interest in my work. He gave me the courage to give up my Railways job and I joined the art school as a student at the age of 30!

PN:      When you came to Bangalore in 1971 you must have been the only contemporary sculptor working in Karnataka. What was it like?

BN:      I am like the cactus plant, which survives in the most uncongenial place! When I moved to Bangalore in the 1970s, there was no proper art institute or gallery. The only other freelance artist besides me was the painter Roomale Chennabasaviah. I formed the Bangalore Art Club as soon as I moved here, where I ran evening classes for adults and children's classes at the Max Mueller Bhavan. The Brothers of the Holy Cross had given me their big hall on St. Mark's Road to use- I organized film shows, seminars, poetry readings, dance performances. I lived in an outhouse in the compound and did painting and drawing.
In  1973, Shankar Hegde of Hegde and Golay Watches asked me to do a sculpture for them. I made an 8 ft. high welded steel sculpture symbolising time in front of his factory- he was very pleased with the work and offered me a shed and facilities to work. It was a lucky break! Most factories are not keen on artists using their space because they feel it is not profitable. In 1975 I had my first big exhibition of large welded steel sculptures on the lawns of the Hotel Ashoka [there was still no gallery!].

PN:     Your outdoor sculptures 'Monument to the Assassinated' and 'Resurrection of Janaki' which you made in the Art and Nature Workshop in Delhi in 1995 have an unusually sharp political content. Can you talk about that?

BN:     For a long time I have been disturbed by some of the characters in the Puranas. One incident from the Ramayana is the death of Bali. Sugriva is the younger half brother of the forest king Bali, who wants the kingdom of Kishkinda. He makes a treaty with Rama to eliminate Bali in return for his help in searching for Sita. I consider this the first recorded illegal treaty in the history of India! Rama hides behind a tree and kills Bali. In Northern Kerala where I come from there are hundreds of shrines for Bali who is worshipped by the artisan community- blacksmiths, goldsmiths, and carpenters. In Kerala, in the Koodiyattam and Kathakali performances, the most experienced actor always plays the role of Bali, while Rama's role is always given to a junior artist.

There are several versions of the Ramayana- in the Malayalam version; Rama was hiding behind seven sal trees. In 'Monument to the Assassinated', I used seven 2.5 metre high slabs of kota stone placed in a row- a groove was cut at the chest level of all the stones to show the path of the arrow shot from the bow of Rama. Rama was depicted by two footmarks carved on a slab of kota- and at the other end; a split boulder on a raised platform depicts Bali.
Janaki is another name for Sita - the one who was born out of the ploughing of the earth. After her marriage she goes through every kind of suffering and at the end she disappears back into the earth. She is the daughter of the earth. 

In the work 'Resurrection of Janaki' I made a 10 metre long slit in the earth, which was surrounded by a line of boulders in an oval shape to suggest the womb of the earth. A big tree in the location was part of the work. Seven stones were placed on seven slabs at the head of the slit representing the Sapta Matrikas or Seven Mother Goddesses. They are the only witnesses for a possible resurrection... 

Pushpamala N 
Bangalore  2000

Tuesday, 1 August 2000

Saffronart Art Café I Interview with C S Krishna Setty I 2000

Pushpamala N interviews Art critic/ Artist CS Krishna Setty about art criticism in Karnataka.

CS Krishna Setty [born Theerthahalli, Shimoga Dist., Karnataka], studied painting at the Davangere School of Art and then worked in the Garhi Graphics Workshop in Delhi. He is a post -graduate in Kannada literature from Mysore University. After teaching for a few years at the Davangere School of Art, he joined Clarion Advertising and he is now Manager, Public Relations in Bharat Earth Movers Ltd. He has also been the regular art critic for Kannada Prabha, and now Praja Vani, both leading Kannada Dailies.

His publications include monographs on artists, a book on expressionism and the recent publication 'Chitra Chitta' a collection of essays on art. He has edited various Kannada cultural magazines and has been editor of the 'Janapriya Pustaka Male' series of the Karnataka Lalit Kala Akademi [KLKA] to popularise art amongst the people. Krishna Setty is an inveterate organizer involved in the Karnataka Kala Melas, travelling art shows and founder of 'Dakahavisa' art organization and a member of the KLKA.

He is the founder president of the 'Drushya Kala Sahitya Parishad', an organization formed to promote art writing in Karnataka.
PN:      Krishna Setty, you have started a forum for art critics working in Karnataka called Drushya Kala Sahitya Parishad. You know, when I was teaching in the art school CAVA in Mysore, one major problem we had was that very few students knew English but there were hardly any art books in Kannada available.

KS:      Yes- there's a lot of art activity in Karnataka- even in the districts, but news about contemporary art is not reaching people there. Unlike in Western countries, there is not enough art literature in our country. And though there are a lot of art writers here there was no concerted effort to publish and reach people.
That was our first agenda. Then we had another agenda of developing art terminology and art writing itself in Kannada - so we formed this organization in May 1999. We have about 30 writers who are members, based all over Karnataka and we try to meet often, maybe once in three or four months usually in Bangalore- 
We bring out a magazine in Kannada called Chitraakshara once in 6 months. We're really concentrating on developing art literature; we're not really interested in publishing reviews or profiles of artists.

PN:      What exactly do you mean by art literature?

KS:      For instance, in each issue we review an art book- at the moment we are concentrating on books written in Kannada. Apart from that, we have an essay on an important art writer like Shivaram Karanth, or PR Thippe Swamy. And in each issue we take up one art term and discuss that in length. In one issue we took up Edward Bullough's theory of Psychical Distance, which has been extensively used in both literature and art, which is about the relationship between the work of art and the spectator. We have discussed in detail the concept of 'Chitra Turaga Nyaya', which is from Indian poetics, introduced by Shankuka in the 9th century. This term literally translates as 'Picture- Horse Law'- where Shankuka says that if we see the picture of a horse in a painting, we know it is not a real horse - but if we don't believe it, we cannot enjoy the picture. Most of the Indian theorists take examples from poetry - very rarely do they take examples from visual art - so we found this interesting.
In October 1999 we organized a two-day State conference of art writers in Udupi and 80 writers from all over Karnataka took part in it. Some of the papers have been published in Chitraakshara.
PN:      In the seminar on 20th Century Art held recently by the Karnataka Lalit Kala Akademi in Bangalore, I found that very few of the speakers had done any real research. In fact this is the problem with art critics - they do not have the scholastic rigor of a historian or social scientist.

KS:      It's true we haven't developed a good faculty for art theory and art research. I feel this is because of a lack of scope.
By scope I mean there are very few people writing full time - most of us are part time writers unlike sociologists or historians. While academics teach their own subjects and do research in their own fields - we are all working in different kinds of jobs. I work in a public sector company, KV Subramanyam teaches language in a government primary school, KS Srinivasa Murthy works in a bank, AL Narasimhan works with the State Gazetteer and Anil Kumar teaches in an engineering college. And we all write regular art reviews in various papers and also publish books!

PN:      Tell me about your new book Chitra Chitta.

KS:      Chitra Chitta translates as 'The Mind of a Painting'- it's actually a collection of seminar papers and essays that I've written in the past 15 years. There are 12 articles in the book on a variety of subjects. In one I deal with nudity in painting- it's written around the controversy about Husain's nude Saraswati painting. I've discussed how the nude has been used historically in Indian art. Another essay deals with contemporary artists using miniature-painting traditions. One discusses the relationship between literature and art, there's one about printmaking in Karnataka and one essay which talks about how to see a painting- or what is visual art...I've also discussed Picasso's 'Guernica' in detail.
PN:      I see a lot of regional art critics talking about the local directly in terms of the global or international art scene without contextualizing the work within the national art scene, and our own histories, influences and preoccupations.

KS:      Most of our art writers have not gone to Western countries or even traveled extensively in India. They basically know what's happening in Karnataka. Why we often refer to Western art is just because we get plenty of literature on Western art! Quite a few art books are being published in India now but there are no good libraries in Karnataka which stock them- not even in the KLKA or the art schools.
PN:      Many of our art writers come from a background of literary criticism; I think there are problems with that.

KS:      There's a real problem with critics coming from a literary background- they don't understand the sensitivity of the artwork. I'll give you an example- I'm basically a graphic artist- sometimes the printmaker works with such great sensitivity with the medium, I can see the struggle- but in a review the critic will just talk about the image. I know how difficult it is to get certain effects. A line etched is not the same as a line drawn in pencil- you can't see them in the same way, or enjoy the texture.

PN:      Who publishes art books in Kannada? And how are they distributed?

KS:      Compared to other states KLKA has published a lot of books. Some of them are monographs on well-known artists from the state; some of them are portfolios of pictures, for example of Karnataka murals or of contemporary artists; there are books on art history and a popular series on art for the public. This year we're bringing out a collection of art reviews of important critics from the state. Private publishers have published a few books. Some artists themselves are writing as well as publishing books.
There's a bulk purchase scheme here for the state libraries, but the KLKA is not really making a concerted effort to get all the state libraries to order their books. Each scheme has a last date and formalities to be followed- you have to make an application- But since there are a lot of artists and art institutions here [there are 150 art schools in the state!], they buy them directly. The print run is normally 1000. Many publications of the KLKA have been sold out. 

Pushpamala N 
Bangalore 2000

Thursday, 1 June 2000

Saffronart I Art Café I Interview with Clare Arni I 2000

Pushpamala N interviews photographer Clare Ari

Photographer Clare Arni is a British citizen who has chosen to live and work in India. After a childhood spent in Madurai, Tamilnadu she studied History of Art and Film and Media in Scotland and moved to Bangalore in 1984 to work as an independent architectural, travel and fashion photographer. She has traveled around India extensively photographing historical architectural sites building up a library of slides, which she directly sells to art publishers in the UK.

She is an incorrigible traveler, and with her sense of adventure and terrific sense of humour she has a fund of interesting stories and anecdotes to relate about her various projects. She talks to Pushpamala N. about her work.
PN:    Clare, about the documentation work you have been doing for the new Marg volume on Hampi- the site with its dramatic rocky outcrops and rich history must be really interesting.

CA:    I'm working with George Michell who is an authority on the Vijayanagar Empire for the Hampi project. He's been coming to Hampi for the last 21 years when it was practically an unknown site and there was only one tea stall there- the team used to just sleep under the stars! The book is concentrating on the last twenty years of archeological research that's been done by them.
The shoot involved covering till now unknown sites in Hampi, which involved a lot of trekking through fields and up hills. The whole of the Hampi site had piped water- the canals which are still in use today were built by the Vijayanagar kings. The piped water went into the palaces, you can still see the clay pipes- it was not only for agricultural use. There's going to be a whole chapter on the water system, which was an astounding engineering feat. When they made the canals they made use of the contours of the existing rocky site, so you find sometimes the canal takes a turn and there's a ten foot high menhir in the middle of it- and they also dug deep channels into the rock. It's visually very dramatic.
The book basically concentrates on the archeological facts but there are many myths and legends associated with the place- like about the Zenana enclosure. You know, all the sites have names which have been given arbitrarily by some Englishman, which are irrelevant to their original use! The Lotus Mahal is within the so- called Zenana enclosure but it's proven that it wasn't for women at all. There's a story that the last king was locked up there by his minister...
Hampi is important today as a religious centre because of all the Hanuman legends associated with it. He was supposed to have rested there on the way to Lanka on the Anjaneya Hill... I was documenting all the sites. In one place we found large stone slabs with smooth circular shapes dug out in them. No one knew what they were- they've now realized that they are huge thalis carved out in the rock- people used to directly eat off them!

PN:    You had a lot of adventures doing the earlier Marg book on the Kaveri.

CA:    The Kaveri book involved a four month trip from the source of the river in Coorg all the way to Poompuhar in Tamilnadu, where the river joins the sea. I'd get carried away a bit about taking good shots and not worry about the dangers- but I had a faithful driver who felt it was his duty to protect me. At Hogenakal in Karnataka, the river has just passed through the forests. It's supposed to be full of medicinal herbs and have curative properties so people come to bathe there. I decided to go down to the edge of the waterfall so I could get a view from the bottom where it hits the water. We were in a coracle which is a round wicker boat - and the water was gushing around us, when I heard my faithful driver yelling to the boatman -'I am my mother's only son!' But finally we just got a bit splashed.
We were floating down through a high gorge- one side was Tamilnadu which was a dry state and the other side was Karnataka which was wet. We saw a funny sight - Tamil farmers were getting into coracles and crossing the river to Karnataka, where there were arrack shops lined across the top with plastic bags of hooch hanging over the edge- and then weaving back home on their coracles singing drunken songs. The whole gorge was echoing with the music...

The Kaveri splits into a fan shaped delta where the river meets the sea. There are very interesting little known places there, like Pichavaram, which has mangrove swamps. You go in a boat through the swamp and you see naked men walking all around you, picking shrimps off the roots of the trees and putting them in plastic bags attached to their underwear. Tranquebar is the only Danish settlement ever built outside Denmark- there's a big fort there, huge important buildings, churches, falling to ruin. Then there are holy places of different religions like Velankanni. It's a very powerful place with a big 17th century Portuguese church of Our Lady of Help, where you give offerings of whatever you want, or want mended. So there are legs, organs, little houses, boats, all made of silver being sold outside in the shops. There is a museum there with a collection of all these objects given over the years, some of them specially made: like silver stethoscopes, a silver aeroplane, silver penises...
There's a Muslim Darga, also very powerful, in Nagore- it was full of people dying who had come there to be cured. I was walking through the outer corridors when I saw these cheap frames with broken pieces of glass, bits of hair, rusty nails- I was told they were objects that had been found inside peoples' bodies and removed during exorcism rituals...all carefully framed.
I wanted to document the whole river in its course, including natural sites as well as contemporary life and crafts, but Marg was interested mainly in the historical sites. I may use the rest of the material for a future book.

PN:    You've done a lot of contemporary architectural photography as well.

   I've been lucky to work for leading architects like BV Doshi, Charles Correa and Geoffrey Bawa. One of the interesting projects for Charles Correa was documenting the North Karnataka town of Bagalkot. It's a very old town with monuments, mosques and traditional houses- and because people knew it was going to be submerged by a dam, they hadn't bothered to modernize the buildings. So it was a very good example of traditional architectures of different kinds: weavers' houses, merchants' houses- they had amazing features like secret compartments and secret passages within the walls. When they were invaded they'd be able to throw jewels and money down these passages so that they'd be stored in the underground cellars!

PN:    Tell me about your photography, how do you like to work?

CA:    I use available light as much as possible. I like to shoot natural scenes and portraits rather than orchestrating the pictures- so I shoot long exposures in interiors to capture the ambience of a place, how the builder imagined it, or how it originally functioned in terms of light.
I like to use Fujichrome Provia slide film because of its fine grain and rich colours- and I basically work in colour, I'm not a black and white photographer. 

Pushpamala N 
Bangalore  2000

Wednesday, 1 March 2000

Saffronart Art Café I Interview with Suman Gopinath I 2000

Pushpamala N. interviews curator Suman Gopinath
Suman Gopinath [born1962, in Bangalore] did her masters in English Literature from Bangalore University and worked in Macmillan India for four years. In 1991 she joined Sakshi Gallery as manager and in her 9 years there organized a wide variety of art shows, slide talks, poetry readings and film screenings. In 1999, she went to London on a Charles Wallace of India Grant to do a course in Creative Curating from Goldsmith's College. She now works as an Independent Curator and Art Consultant in Bangalore.

'Drawing Space', an exhibition jointly curated by Suman Gopinath and Grant Watson, showing the works of Sheela Gowda, Nasreen Mohammadi and NS Harsha , along with the Victoria and Albert Museum collection of Indian Company paintings, opened to critical acclaim at the Beaconsfield Gallery in London, UK, in October 2000. The show will travel to different venues in the next year.
PN:     Suman, can you say something about how ' Drawing Space' was curated? Nasreen Mohammadi, Sheela Gowda and Harsha are quite different artists with different concerns.

SG:      When Grant Watson and I were studying in Goldsmith's together, this was our college project... Grant had come to India three times earlier and we both felt there was a need to take contemporary Indian art to England so we decided to collaborate. We decided on a drawing exhibition in a way because Grant publishes a magazine called 'Victorya', which is a magazine of prints of drawings- he actually curates this magazine.

When we were looking at catalogues and slides of Indian art to make a selection, we both liked Nasreen's work instinctively. Then we looked at Sheela Gowda's recent rope works which are really like sculptural drawings in space. We felt that on a formal level both seemed to work together, maybe because of the visual contrast between them- though the use of line is completely different. Nasreen is very meditative while Sheela is organic and visceral. Both deal with space but in a completely different kind of way. On the one hand these very musical notations of Nasreen's- and then the raw feel of Sheela's work...

PN:      When I first heard of the list of artists, I was surprised because I couldn't see any link between them or with Company painting, except for Harsha's work. One would think immediately of Bhupen Khakkar, Jogen Choudhury, Nalini Malani or Atul Dodiya because they directly use images from Company painting.
SG:      Company paintings came into the picture only as a form of entry to talk about the exchanges between visual languages. This wasn't meant to be an exhibition where we set up one model of Company paintings and then we set up another model where contemporary artists use it in obvious ways in their work! This was primarily meant to be an exhibition of drawing and Company paintings which were very much based on a fine, linear drawing tradition, were used as a link or a point of departure.

PN:      Don't you think framing this work in the context of Company paintings emphasizes a colonial relationship. Because it was not an equal exchange between Indian painters and British art- the traditional miniature painters were forced to change their aesthetic to the needs of the British colonizers. Indian art was looked upon as craft.

SG:      Let me talk about the way the Company paintings were themselves framed in the show. The exhibition took place in the Beaconsfield art Gallery which is a 19th century school building in Vauxhall in SE London. It's an old brick building close to the railway arches- which have also been converted to gallery spaces.
As soon as you entered the lower part of the gallery, you saw Nasreen Mohammadi's square pencil and ink drawings in this low roofed intimate kind of space with a grey slate floor. When you go upstairs it comes as a bit of a shock when you see this huge, high- ceilinged expanse of gallery space with a sloping wooden floor. The gallery is an artists run space for experimental and performative work. Sheela's work worked beautifully in this space- I think because of its theatrical, unstable quality.
PN:      In fact, when you showed me the video of the exhibition, the work looked spectacular. I particularly liked the way Sheela had installed her work next to Nasreen's framed drawings- she used the blood coloured rope to draw squarish forms on the wall, echoing the forms of the drawings. It was quite different from the way she had put up the work in Tokyo in the Japan Foundation show, where she used huge dramatic curving loops and swirls, going from ceiling to floor.
SG:      Harsha's work was also in the same space. He used one of the long 20ft windows, blocked it and made a botanical drawing like a sunburst of plants inside the space of the window. Below the drawing, he coated the space with gold leaf and used flourescent lights on either side, which gave an ethereal glow. He had the shutters of the window kept closed to create a secret space which people had to open to see the work. It seemed like a beautiful treasure house of botanical plants, almost like his experience of the Victoria and Albert Museum.
There were two exits from the galleries, which led you to the arches on which about 160 slides of company paintings from the V&A collections were projected. The use of projections and not the real works somehow made the Company paintings not so precious. They had a kind of transient quality which didn't force links. They were in a different physical space altogether. Many people who came sat for two hours just looking at these beautiful paintings.

PN:      You had organized a 5 week residency for Harsha in London to work with the V&A collection of Company paintings.

     Harsha had already seen Company paintings in reproductions here, obviously but it was the first time he saw the originals at the V&A. It's a huge collection! He worked in the Beaconsfield gallery but went often to the V&A where he would select the works that he wanted to see from their catalogues. Some of the subjects he was interested in were botanical drawings, professions like healers and doctors, iconic images of gods. His work is very witty and playful- he made a series of paintings based on them.

The work Harsha did in the window at Beaconsfield is a site-specific work, which cannot travel. So he has been commissioned to make a new wall drawing in the Nottingham Gallery 'Angel Row'. This time, he won't refer to the V& A but will go to Srirangapatna near Mysore [where he lives] to study the murals there and work from them. 

Pushpamala N 
Bangalore  2000