How To Bring Together The World's Art: Sudarshan Shetty On The Kochi Biennale

The well-known contemporary artist on his practice and the upcoming Biennale.

03/10/2016 8:33 AM IST | Updated 10/10/2016 9:27 AM IST
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Dusky monsoon light fills the drawing room of Sudarshan Shetty's eighteenth-floor apartment in a high-rise in Chembur, Mumbai. It's ten o' clock on a humid morning in the middle of August and we are seated with the artist, facing an elaborate breakfast laid out by his wife, Seema.

The rich aroma of filter coffee is complimented by the subtle flavour of semai, a home-made Mangalorean delicacy (a savoury snack, a kind of upma made of vermicelli). Our conversation is brightened by the presence of Devi Nirantara, Shetty's three-year-old daughter, talking to us, and to herself, in a medley of Tulu, English and Marathi.

Little Devi's multilingual skills remind me of Shetty's own origins, as well as the ease with which his work switches between different idioms and genres of the visual arts.

Born in Mangaluru in 1961, brought up in Mumbai, and now an internationally acclaimed name in the art world, Shetty is the inheritor of several traditions and not just of the visual arts. Poetry, music, theatre, an entire ecosystem of culture, in the widest sense of the term, surrounds his work. And for this reason alone, he seems eminently suited to be the curator and artistic director of the Kochi Muziris Biennale 2016. His task, however, is made that much more complicated by the cerebral and bafflingly multi-directional nature of his practice.

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"Since I accepted the role, I've been having conversations with people who are, strictly speaking, outside the space of a biennale," Shetty says. "There are so many practices in India—music, theatre, dance—which are all eminently contemporary in their resonances. How does one bring all these into the world of art?"

The answer to that question can be fully gauged only after the spectacle of the biennale opens in Kochi in the middle of December. But given Shetty's reputation of venturing into areas few Indian artists have dared to, it is likely to be riveting.

Shetty's work, over the past two decades, has often assumed the form of difficult, even dissonant, installations. From a double-decker bus, the kind that is commonly seen on the streets of Mumbai, but with wings attached to it (The Flying Bus, 2002), to an oversized dinosaur mating with a car (Love, 2006), his creations startle the viewer with an initial jolt of familiarity, before a sense of wonder begins to sink in. The viewer's enchantment, which usually begins at the surface, gradually deepens into an enduring self-awareness.

We didn't have any expectations of success. In fact, we could scarcely believe we'd be able to own a house one day.

You may think that for an artist like Shetty, who grapples with concepts and ideas, the responsibility of curating a biennale perhaps feels somewhat like piecing together a gigantic artwork. For Shetty, though, the deal is not all that straightforward.

"I'm constantly trying to avoid thinking this is all my work," he says. "I keep telling myself I'm not the author of all this, that I'm only a facilitator."

In contemporary India, the term 'curator' has become a dime a dozen in the sphere of culture. Usually, a curator acts like a gatekeeper, sometimes just a keeper, of objects in museums and art galleries. Their job is to ensure the representation of the widest varieties of artefacts. This, at least, is supposed to be the popular understanding of this term.

"A curator, to my mind, is meant to be the creator of a body of knowledge," Shetty says. "A person who builds a system of culture united under a thematic umbrella." A curator, he explains, is expected to act as the mediator between different worlds.

Ironic as it may be, globally, the urge in contemporary art is to forge a language that is universal, yet not divorced from its local nuances. "That's the space of mediation I'm talking about," Shetty says, "to be able to understand the expectations and find the means of bridging the distance between disparate cultures."

Watch Sudarshan Shetty speaking about a special meal.

Sudarshan Shetty On BWH

From a cursory preview of his programming for Kochi, it would seem that Shetty has complicated his challenges manifold. One of the first names to be announced for the biennale was the Chilean poet, Raul Zurita, who would be performing his work at the venue. Shetty now reveals some of the other participants: Carnatic classical vocalist TM Krishna, folk singer, painter and storyteller Parvathy Baul, Bharatnatyam dancer Alarmel Valli, Odissi dancer Sujata Mohapatra, Kutiyattam performer Kapila Venu.

"How do you bring someone like TM Krishna into the biennale space?" asks Shetty. "Asking him to simply perform would be to fall into the trap of making it all look like a festival of India." The idea, he goes on to explain, would be to throw these people into a conversation of sorts, which would move between dialogue, demonstration, exposition and performance, all of it held together by one mediator.

Shetty's description of the protean nature of this interaction reminds me of the style of a singer we both admire immensely: the late Pandit Kumar Gandharva, an inspired genius, if there ever was one, in modern Hindustani classical vocal music.

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Each of Gandharva's performances, whether you listened to him live or in a recording, held several worlds within them. In the space of a single khayal, he would display his erudition, mesmerize the listener with the depth of his knowledge, entertain them with his virtuosity and capture their imagination with his innate sense of drama.

"When I first listened to him perform nirgun bhajans, I thought why does this man sing like a bhikari (beggar)?" Shetty says. "But it was Kumar Gandharva who showed me how melody can contain dissonance, that there was space for silence even in the midst of song."

Nirgun, which refers to one that is abstract, formless and without attributes, was a genre of bhajan, or devotional song, composed by the 11th century sage, Gorakhnath. One of his lyrics, "Shoonya ghar" ("Empty house"), immortalized by Gandharva, lends its name to Shetty's most recent work, which also happens to be his first feature-length film.

It was Kumar Gandharva who showed me how melody can contain dissonance, that there was space for silence even in the midst of song

Shoonya Ghar, which was shown in Delhi earlier this year and later travelled to Sydney, is a meditation on mortality, a philosophical treatise, a documentary on abstraction. But, most of all, it feels like a tribute to the twin geniuses of Gorakhnath and Kumar Gandharva.

The poem, to which Gandharva added a mystical spell through his rendition, speaks in riddles. Its opening imagery describes an empty house, an empty city, an empty settlement. It wonders who is awake and who is asleep. If, at one moment, it appears to describe a city, the next moment it reduces it into a metaphor for the human body. It moves between the realm of the physical and the metaphysical, it speaks of a void, but also claims that the void is never empty.

"The crux comes in the doha, or the couplet, where the first line gives you an image, only to be countered by another one in the following line," says Shetty. "It throws open a vast, speculative arena, leaving it eminently open to multiple interpretations."

Shoonya Ghar, the movie, took three years to make. A large part of it is set in a stone quarry, with a cast of characters who enact an endless cycle of love, loss and longing, building up a truth that can only be felt intuitively and experientially.

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"I gathered found material to put it together," Shetty says, "but after rebuilding the set, I had to ensure that it looked sufficiently old again." One part of this exercise was mnemonic. "I wanted to remember the room I'd grown up in, so I tried to reconstruct it," Shetty says. "As I developed the script, I worked into it drama, which plays out in the relationship between the characters, without making evident what these exactly are." There's a synergy between the men and the women, the dead and the living, who appear in Shoonya Ghar, but it is left to the viewer to decode the meaning of their bonds.

Theatricality has been a part of Shetty's life since his early years. His father, Vasu, was trained in Yakshagana, a traditional folk theatre from Karnataka. When he was a baby, his parents left Mangaluru and moved to Mumbai, where Vasu dabbled in several professions, though it was his art that persisted. Since it was financially never viable, he insisted his son should choose a profession that was more solvent.

To appease his father, Shetty enrolled in a commerce course in college, but he secretly started attending J.J. School of Arts in Mumbai. "Those were crazy times, but also remarkably free," he says. "We didn't have any expectations of success. In fact, we could scarcely believe we'd be able to own a house one day."

In the 1980s, when Shetty was at art school, Mumbai was a vibrant hub of culture. Artist Atul Dodiya was his contemporary at JJ, Marathi theatre was hugely popular. "So many of my friends could sing and act in those days," Shetty says. "One of my seniors, Laxmikant Berde, wrote a play called Tour Tour, which went on to become a real hit and ran for several years."

To me, it seems more useful to look for a system that can allow for constant change.

But at JJ, Shetty had to study an old-fashioned syllabus, which had been designed in the colonial era. "It was heavily invested in British portraiture as well as the Bauhaus philosophy. The teaching was quite schizophrenic, as you can imagine," he says.

In spite of his early promise as a painter—Shetty also taught painting at the National Institute of Design for a couple of years—he was increasingly attracted to sculptural and installation art. One of his early work in this mould, Paper Moon (1995), was made almost a decade after he had left JJ. An oversized horse, with a house on its back, is balanced on a boat: the assemblage, though poetic, did not sell at the time. Shetty had to wait till 2003 for a breakthrough, when, at a show called Consanguinity, he made his first sale. Before the end of that decade, he was a name to reckon with, commissioned to create Flying Bus, for the Bandra-Kurla Complex, by the real-estate tycoon and art collector, Manish Maker.

"It's best not to speak in rigid categories, such as realism versus abstraction, or in terms of binaries," Shetty says about his artistic affinities. "To me, it seems more useful to look for a system that can allow for constant change."

If conceptual art seems to offer endless scope for innovation, it also often, mistakenly, comes across as easy to pull off. Any Tom, Dick or Harry with a smattering of art education can throw together a few 'found objects', come up with a fashionable spiel about these ingredients, and lo and behold, they can flaunt their very own conceptual art.

"You cannot create art, of any kind whatsoever, without rigour and poetry," Shetty says. "Just as the ability to click photographs doesn't make you an artist, by the same logic, the ability to paint doesn't turn you into a painter."

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Young people, he feels, have become far more complacent now. Since most things they need to see or know is easily available on the Internet, they no longer feel the need to talk to established artists or engage with their opinion.

Art education the world over, is in a crisis. As Shetty sees it, art has now gone out of the studio and reached everywhere, which has created new challenges for teachers and students. "About ten years ago, I wanted to start an alternative art school," he says. "But how does one formulate a curriculum for students of art? Do we teach them architecture, engineering, photography, poetry, or all of these things? An engineer, for example, can be as much of an artist as, say, a painter."

Urged by Devi Nirantara, we finally get up and stroll over to the terrace, which offers a spectacular view of Mumbai. As we sip our second cups of coffee, Shetty tells me an amazing story from his last visit to Kochi.

"Seema and I were sitting in a small café there one day, when a man walked up to us and said if we wanted to meet any artists, he could help arrange that," he says. "I discovered he was a rickshaw-wallah, with an interest in the arts, so much so, that he had made friends with some of the European artists who were part of the previous biennale and had even travelled to their countries."

On that note of endearing craziness, our languorous morning of conversation draws to an end.

This is part of HuffPost India's exclusive interview series, Breakfast With HuffPost, presented by Lufthansa. The other interviews in the series are here.

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