Why is the exhibition named ‘Spectres’?
I’m someone who can’t think of titles. ‘Reflections’ was one of the things that I thought of, but then Girish Shahane (art critic and curator) suggested ‘Spectres’. It meant so much more and captured the sense of at least some of the works. He came up with the name for the essay in the catalogue, as well as the exhibition, particularly when he saw these two works (Erase and In a Room). There’s something spectral about them, some presences in them that are not quite concrete.
Are the portraits featured in this show all based on real people?
Half of them have come from the photographs that I take around the streets. They’re not photos of people, they’re street photos, but then I look at every detail of the people captured in those photos. I may not notice them when I’m actually photographing them, but when I’m searching for something that speaks to me in the final photograph, I find them. The remaining half of the photographs are imagined. A couple of them are from found photos, such as the press photos which showed a Kashmiri youth with pellet wounds, and an image of Sai Baba which comes from an old photo we have.
Why are these important to you?
Usually, I paint large panoramic views. What drives me when making portraits is my own attraction to a particular face, actual or imagined, and whether I want to hold it in my hands and trace its outline. On the other hand, there’s also this need to give that figure its own autonomous presence, as if this is someone who has his own life and history. So there’s the need to try and engulf the figure, but also the need to give that figure its own presence.
With ‘Family Fiction’ (2011), you began depicting the inner space of the house and the studio more. These works seem to go even deeper into personal space.
That was because after I retired (in 2005), I had come to the space of the family and family relations. Now it’s more a question of the self in that space of home and studio, and, to some extent, the tension between those spaces. The studio is where you want to let yourself go and allow all your repressed feelings to come out. Home is a space that is shared, which means you are constantly in need of working out some understanding between two or more people. That is one of the themes here — how both spaces may invade and enrich each other.
And the self-portraits seem to be a way of going even deeper inwards.
Self-portraiture is one of the most difficult things for any artist to do, and one always goes back to artists like Rembrandt and (Pierre) Bonnard. As an artist, one is always dealing with representation, whether of the outside world or of the self.
Would you say a work like Compass, in which the figures occupy the same space but are also separate, is about how we age, and how we are all ultimately on our own?
Yes, I think so. With age comes the need to withdraw into oneself. It’s as natural as young people seeking the world. In old age, you withdraw to some extent.
Your work is often spoken of as a documentation of the city. Don’t you want to do that any more?
I do. For example, after ‘Family Fiction’, there was a great need to get out again and face the city. So I made Mumbai Proverbs. I guess it’s part of that pendulum movement — to get close to something, then go far, and then come back close again.
You once wrote, ‘One can no longer encompass it (the city) as a whole in a panoramic image, and one lacks guts to embrace it at street level.’ Does that still hold true for you?
It does, and it is to do with age on one level, and on another level, with how the city itself has changed. For example, a simple thing like travelling by a local train becomes difficult because of age, but it is also more difficult now generally for everyone.
When you first moved to Mumbai in 1974, you lived in Parel, in the heart of the city. You saw how it changed. Then you moved to Thane in 1978 and Thane has been changing very rapidly.
Though my work has been read as a documentation of change, to me it has always been about the particular experience that I’m painting. We moved to Thane in ’78 and till the ’80s, I was painting it like I saw it. Then, in the late ’80s, it started changing and I was still painting what I saw before me, and that then became a documentation of the change in Thane. There was no intention of documenting, except with Mumbai Proverbs, where I was going back to my memories of the city — of what Girangaon was like and what the working class and travelling by train meant.
Do you believe it’s harder to depict one’s own life, than it is to document a city?
I think documenting the city is also very much like painting one’s own experience. Every document is from a certain point of view, so even if you play it down, it’s always one’s reading of the city or a certain experience of the city.
The recent stampede at Elphinstone Road station in Mumbai reminds one of your painting Accident on May Day, which showed a body being carried away on a stretcher at a railway station. Do you ever look back at your work and wonder how things have changed?
People don’t really change. One has always felt that about violence. There are peaceful times, but violence is always there below the surface.
So what changes as one ages?
One just gets a broader perspective. For example, in one’s 20s and 30s, you have very strong feelings about political ideologies. With age, you look back and you understand that things are not so clear. When one is young, there’s this need to oppose what one doesn’t accept, a need to confront injustice. It’s something to hold on to, but you also need to have perspective. For example, the right ideology that has grown today was bound to come up since 1947. One needs to continuously work at making people conscious, but without closing doors or categorising people. There’s always a danger of that happening. What we need is a space where ideas can confront each other and where they can be discussed.
Since the stampede, people have been talking about how unlivable Mumbai is now. Do you agree?
Every generation will say that, but we’ll never leave because we can’t be anywhere else. What the city can give you, no other place can.
Except peace of mind?
I don’t think so. You just need to find a space where you can be yourself.
There’s a lot more money in art now. How much would you say the position of the artist has changed?
Till the ’60s and ’70s, artists saw themselves as being outside society. They didn’t expect society to understand them much but were happy to do their work. After the ’70s, things changed. Artists wanted people to understand their work. After the ’90s, it was taken for granted that this is what the artist needs to do — to engage socially. Now that is the norm. Everyone wants to be socially involved which is fine, but is it still art? These questions are coming up again and again.