I AM AT a loss. Not for words. In fact, I find I’m being overly, even unnecessarily, effusive. I’ve always believed that the trick to a good interview is to let your subject unfold over a predetermined span of time; to ask a simple question and have him or her unravel through their stream of consciousness so they are forced to rummage through words as if jumping into an impending wave, uncertainly, not knowing whether the water will lure them forward or backward or have them buoying within its expanse, moving to and fro so that they begin to conduct, aloud, a dialogue with themselves. The ensuing episode of language often constitutes the meat of the discourse, providing evidence of a successful conversation.
At first, it seems as though Sudarshan Shetty doesn’t want to cooperate with my narrative strategy. I have to navigate through my visit by overcompensating for his initial reluctance to talk. Later, mid-way, I realise I was mistaking his reticence for a wilful silence, when I should actually have been reading it as a manifestation of his eagerness to listen to everything I had to say. I was thrown off by a large measure because it should have been so much easier, effortless even, since this was by no means our first attempt at conversation. My archive has at least four recordings of past exchanges; the earliest dating to September 20th, 2015, soon after Shetty had been declared curator of the 2016 edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. I had met him over lunch when he was visiting Delhi, at the home of our mutual artist friends, GR and Pooja Iranna. Shetty had spoken then about the discipline of curating as facilitating or ‘viewing’ a narrative. “How do you kind of choose what is going to be there, what is next to what, how do you weave that narrative or non- narrative,” was what he claimed to be asking himself.
It’s a question I was compelled to ask too, in retrospect, as I perused the transcripts from my most recent encounter with Shetty one afternoon a few weeks ago, at his studio in Chembur, first over lunch at a local thali joint where Shetty is clearly a regular customer, given his familiarity with the staff. “I wish I could wear what you’re wearing,” I hear the owner say to him as we waltz in. He is referring to the crisp white shirt he has on, paired with shorts that end a little below his knees. He looks casual and comfortable, as if breezing through the moisture- laden intensity that is the Mumbai summer. This is possibly the most relaxed I’ve seen him in the last two years. We soon immerse ourselves in our thalis, both of us choosing puris over rotis, tearing through them with our fingers. Over carefully calibrated morsels, Shetty tells me how he came to live in Chembur after having been all over the place for many years, at first relocating multiple times in Delhi. He speaks of the loneliness he felt living in New Friends Colony, and of his ancestral home in Mangalore, and then of growing up in Thane, the death of his father—a Yakshagana performer—years ago, followed eventually by his mother’s passing. He speaks of the transformation afforded to him by the fact of fatherhood, an identity he assumed in his early fifties when his daughter, Devi Nirantara, was born.
I am still at a loss when we return to his studio after lunch to continue chatting. I am still unnaturally unnerved by his meditated, measured interjections, as if he were apprehensive of spontaneity, of revealing more than he should. He lights a cigarette, and I tell him about how I recently chanced upon a photograph from the 1997 catalogue published by Khoj, documenting one of its earliest workshops. He is one of 22 artists in the group and is seated on the floor. Jutting into the foreground is a velvet- dressed object, one wing of what the then critic-in-residence, Anita Dube (incidentally, the next curator of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale) described as a ‘large-phallic airplane’. Unlike the other 21 artists who are either smiling or looking introspectively into the camera’s lens, Shetty’s gaze is averted, as if he were either deliberately refusing to make eye contact with the photographer, or was momentarily distracted. Unlike his current short- cropped coiffure, his side-parted hair is longish and flows over both sides of his forehead. His beard seems intact since then, as if he has never taken a razor to his face, preferring the buzz of a trimmer. “Feels like it was just two years ago,” he says. Considering I had just returned from the most recent workshop, Khoj’s 14th, where I was the critic-in-residence, compelled to continue the legacy of writers like Dube and Bharti Kher, I could fathom his meaning. But I am amazed by the purported shift in his way of looking. It was discombobulating, to say the least; not an affectation as much as an attribute of his. Piercing. As if he knew that everything about me was a composition, and he wanted, almost, to go beyond the visual I was presenting. I fought hard to allow myself to be framed within his gaze. It wasn’t that he was exerting power over me. He seemed, quite simply, to be exercising the same emotional intensity he must otherwise use to perceive the world outside of him; the world of oppositions he will eventually wrestle with through his work. You could say I submitted to his very obvious manner of reading me. His eyes followed my every slight movement, every slight modification of my fingers, when they would descend to flick the ash off my hand-rolled cigarette. Did it not exhaust him, I wondered, to have me constantly forming in the pupil of his eye?
“THE EYE IS the only reflecting surface in the body,” I recorded Shetty saying in December 2016, when he was guiding us through the manifestation of his vision at the opening of the third edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. Shetty was supplementing the brief he had eventually composed, having gone through many revisions over the course of his curatorial research, about the meditative powers of seeing, based on a story of a young traveller who had voyaged extensively to meet a sage, who he finally finds meditating in a dark room. ‘Then, gathering the world into the pupil of her eye, the Sage looks up at the boy who notices her eyes glowing through the darkness of the room,’ Shetty had written. ‘Not only perceiving what is immediately around her—the room and all in shadows—the Sage assimilates the entire universe. In that one moment and one vision, she grasps its enormous multiplicity—internal and external—and reflects those multiple images back onto the boy and back into the space between them both. Through the generation and layering of visions, the Sage creates multiple understandings of the world, speaking those to the traveller in front of her.’
“What does it mean to be an artist or a producer of objects?” For Shetty this is the defining question from which stem all other questions
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Shetty was inadvertently proposing a semantic perversion to the gesture of seeing as way of evidencing the world; a prophetic readjustment of the crux of St Thomas’ evangelism. Thomas, who is credited with bringing the gospel of Christ to coastal Kerala soon after the crucifixion, had gained a reputation for his doubting of the resurrection, an incident that led the risen Christ to appear to him in the flesh, as it were, to chastise him for needing to see in order to believe. ‘Happy are they who have not seen and who yet believe,’ is the moral of St Thomas’ story. Shetty had inverted this paradigm years ago, through one of his works in this too shall pass, the inaugural exhibition under Tasneem Mehta’s Engaging Traditions programme, where she, as director of the Dr Bhau Daji Lad City Museum, Mumbai, invites artists to respond to the museum’s collection. ‘Believing is seeing’ read Shetty’s aphorism, which was rendered backwards so it could really only be seen in a mirror, and, according to Vyjayanthi Rao, by the ontological puzzle of forgetting who we are. ‘Text displaces image as we ascend, but the image’s struggle against the fullness of the word’s presence haunts the whole space,’ wrote Rao in 2010/11. In her introduction to the exhibition catalogue, Mehta spoke of Shetty’s engagement with the museum dating back to his childhood, and his many visits during the museum’s five-year long restoration, to take stock of its progress. ‘Born into a working class family that was on ‘the edge of poverty’, his father was a Yakshagana artiste, a performer who danced and sang stories from the Hindu scriptures and epics. Fascinated by the Museum and the objects, Shetty would seek refuge here as a student,’ she wrote, speaking also of Shetty’s frequent trips to the nearby Chor Bazaar to look for objects that had been excerpted from here and there and could be made to fit into a larger collective. ‘Transformed by the hand of the artist and invested with new meaning by their presence in the Museum, the objects juggle their dual identities, replaying contested narratives of the city’s history and commenting on its present contradictions,’ wrote Mehta.
In many ways, the inverted dictum, ‘Believing is seeing’ could be regarded as Shetty’s primary artistic approach to the act of artmaking. During our conversation which, when not interjected by Shetty’s own deep silences, my nervous chattering, and the intermittent sonic booms of aeroplanes landing, he spoke of the idea of mortality as a necessary condition for regeneration. His preoccupation with cenotaphs, an architectural element that he uses almost as a structural motif within his sculptural oeuvre, stems from this premise: the human need for monuments that memorialise, as well as the very central question of the need for the monumental structure itself. “What is the purpose of building and exhibiting the structure?” I had asked Shetty in January 2016, when he was installing his show, Shoonya Ghar, which included a mammoth installation made with found wood, a physical extension of his hour-long film based on the eponymously titled poem by Gorakhnath, the 12th century saint with whom Shetty remains fascinated. The dismantlable structure at the NGMA was originally set up at a quarry site Shetty discovered near Lonavala and formed the film’s set. Upon its interiors, Shetty had actors enact various conventions of representing birth, death, dance, play, music and violence, in local traditions of storytelling. Shetty had responded to my question by emphasising the question itself as the basis for creation. “What does it mean to be an artist or a producer of objects?” he said.
For Shetty this is the defining question from which stem all other questions and decisions. The relationship between building and consciousness is one that he wants to intuit. How this self-consciousness can be incorporated into the objects he creates is what he continues to want to explore, which explains his use of the trope of artifice that is particularly obvious in his more recent work where he literally breaks ceramic pots to emphasise how they cannot be fixed without the cracks showing. Nonetheless, Shetty ‘fixes’ them using wood, thereby contrasting the differing materials and creating an almost hybrid being that embodies his concern with the questions of continuity and contemporaneity.
Despite the diversity in his use of narrative devices and material, both of which stem from his intuition, Shetty is fixated by the notion of conjoining seeming opposites, be they tradition versus modernity or truth versus imagination. His latest work, A song and a story, commissioned by the Rolls-Royce Art Programme, which I happened to catch during its week-long run at Maker Maxity in Bandra, Mumbai, in November 2016, further expanded on the relationship between construction and consciousness and revealed a greater immersion in the possibilities of storytelling through music. For this work, Shetty revisited the popular Kannada folk tale he had referenced during his show at the Dr Bhau Daji Lad City Museum: about a married woman who had, without realising it, repressed a song and a story. Seeking revenge, both these submerged ideals escape through her breath and assume the body of two objects, an umbrella and a pair of shoes that sit outside her door as she sleeps, both potential signifiers of a male presence, thus an alleged adulterous liaison. Her confused husband returns home and accuses her of infidelity as he stomps off into the village, ending up at a structure where all the lamps in the village conglomerate after hours to gossip. He overhears them talking about the tale of the song and the story, which puts things into perspective and leads him to rush back to reconcile with his wife. Multiple stories of the same incident unfold through music. Shetty had had the folk tale translated into a song written in Brijbasha, while the subtitles were translated back into English. “I was looking at appropriating conventions of dramatics, whether it be Hindi cinema or folk theatre, as well as elements of music, except, I’ve told the story three times, once through the song, and twice through enactment to accentuate the fact that the retelling is also very important in the oral tradition,” he had said.
Shetty softly hums as he shows me photographs on his phone of his actual production space in Vikhroli; I recognise the factory-like set-up and inquire about its location. I want to know its proximity to the Everest factory I used to smell whenever I passed that route. I learn his studio is, in fact, the erstwhile masala factory. Shetty refers to the site we are currently at in Chembur, close to his home, as more of an office space than a studio. The walls bear traces of the logistics that were involved in curating the biennale and past works. Otherwise there is a fertile emptiness that is reflective of the void he claims to feel within him after having expended all his energy building the biennale in order to question its structure. He has just about begun to work on his upcoming solo, slated for September 2017 at Gallery Krinzinger in Vienna, and is somewhat in the dark about what he might create. He seems to exemplify his own explanation of the first doha of Gorakhnath’s poem, Shunya Gadh: “If the city is empty, the fort is empty, then where is the question of someone being awake or sleep.”