The cacophony of the industrial area of Delhi’s Okhla calms down in the quietude of artist GR Iranna’s studio. It’s been not even a week since he returned from Venice and he is already buried in work. The last few months have been hectic. Preparations for a new body of paintings were put on hold for the prestigious Biennale.
On display, till November 24, is Iranna’s Naavu, comprising over 600 padukas or wooden slippers nailed to a wall at the Arsenale, one of the primary locations of the Biennale. Symbolic of a group of people marching ahead, the installation revisits the historic Dandi March of 1930, and is one of the works that feature in the India Pavilion at the Biennale, themed around “150 years of Mahatma Gandhi”. “A lot can happen if people are united. Each paduka represents an individual and I am bringing these people together to join a movement, just as people came together to protest against the British government. There is also a spirituality in the coming together of all of us for a purpose,” says Iranna, 49. Collected from across India, the padukas are adorned with markers, such as ghungroos (dancing bells), brushes and scissors, to represent people from all walks of life.
Since it opened on May 11, the pavilion, also featuring artists Nandalal Bose, Atul Dodiya, MF Husain, Rummana Hussain, Jitish Kallat, Shakuntala Kulkarni and Ashim Purkayastha, has received wide acclaim. “The response has been overwhelming,” says Iranna. He feels the theme resonated with the world audience who are familiar with Gandhi and his emphasis on non-violence. At the Biennale, he was often approached by curious visitors who were “interested in knowing about the medium and the conceptualisation”.
As an artist, Iranna takes joy in interacting with his viewers. His experiments with unusual materials — tarpaulin, charcoal powder, ash — often generates interest. “When you are searching for something new, you also look for new material. You need new materials for new ideas,” says the artist.
As a child in Sindgi in Karnataka’s Bijapur district, Iranna would often scribble doodles and make his own toys. “Looking at trucks, cars and train was rare for us in Bijapur and we wanted to make these forms. We would use the inside of the jowar (sorghum) stick to create shapes. Wheels were often made from the rubber moulds in injections. I remember making Jantar Mantar with clay. These first-hand experiences have now become strong references for my art-making,” says Iranna, whose works are part of several prestigious collections, including the National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi, Singapore Art Museum and the David Roberts Collection in the UK and the private collection of Chester and David Hurwitz in the US.
Questioning himself and his surrounding has led to frequent changes in Iranna’s visual vocabulary. The works emerge from personal ponderings, sociopolitical issues and concerns around power politics, violence and displacement. From more figurative depictions earlier, in recent years, Iranna’s renderings have moved to abstractions. “But the work is not divorced from the human condition,” he says.
The multilayered compositions are often laced with metaphors. In the paintings Rubbed Carpet (2016) and Hold Carpet (2014), the carpet becomes a symbol for religion and the many faiths that uses it to pray. The recurring Bhikshu monks in works such as Pray for Enlightenment (2013) and From the Roots (2012), meanwhile, represent peace and an absence of desire. One of his most celebrated works, that also won him the coveted 2008 Signature Art Prize, has the donkey as a metaphor for how human beings are under constant pressure and carry with them the burden of their own mistakes. With his head stooped down, Iranna’s fiberglass donkey carries a jute bag filled with wounded and bandaged tools, from a gardener’s khurpi (spade) to a carpenter’s hammer. For a realistic depiction, Iranna hired a donkey and its handler for three days. The fiberglass installation was carefully covered with toy fur, cropped and then painted over. “He is constantly evolving as an artist. We don’t discuss our work too often, it’s only when he adapts a new imagery that I step in.
That allows for introspection,” says his wife and fellow artist Pooja Iranna. She was his junior at the Delhi College of Art, where Iranna pursued his Master of Fine Arts in 1994. The two share the Okhla studio and are “open to criticism from each other, which helps,” she says.
Eldest of five siblings born into a farming family, Iranna was enrolled in Saragamath (a gurukul in his village) at the age of eight to lead a disciplined life. The austere surroundings and holistic learning practices were to leave a lasting impact on his young mind. “It taught me how important nature is. We would do everything ourselves and were made to understand our duties. It inculcated in me the highest regard for human values and prodded me to ask questions like ‘What’s my purpose?’” says the artist. It was during his six years at the ashram that Iranna discovered his inclination towards art and his guru at the ashram convinced his father to allow him to join the College of Visual Art in Gulbarga. “My father wasn’t sure if it will offer a stable and secure career but it was what I wanted to do,” he says. During college, his vacations were often spent painting at Badami and the ruins in Hampi. His first solo in 1992 as a student at the College of Visual Art displayed landscapes and oil paintings.
When he headed to Delhi to pursue his postgraduation in 1992, little did he know that the city will go on to become home. He was still studying when his works began to be noticed by gallerists such as Rama Anand of Delhi Art Gallery and Renu Modi of Gallery Espace. “I remember, even back then, there was a freshness in his work. The works in his first exhibition at the gallery were very impressive. His last exhibition had such good work too. He has constantly evolved, changed his medium, experimented. In painting, the layering in his work is fabulous,” says Modi. In 2017, those who visited her gallery for Iranna’s solo “Ether Is All That Is” were welcomed with a fragrance of sandalwood emanating from an installation. Burning atop a table embedded with a mesh was sandalwood powder, forming the Sanskrit words Idam mahadbhutamanantamaparam vijñanaghana eva (This great being is endless and without any limit. It is a mass of consciousness only) . “I just tried to burn the line from the Upanishad because it’s like rebirth. The consciousness remains, even if you burn it, you do not burn everything. Ash is both form and formless,” says Iranna. At the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in 2016-17, his giant egg, Garbh, was also made of ash. “No one associates ash with any religion or person, it does not come with any baggage or identity,” says Iranna, who has held solo shows in the UK, New York, Munich, Egypt and Hong Kong.
Pointing at the walls of his studio, which are covered with canvasses painted with innumerable tree motifs — another recurring imagery in his work — Iranna says, “These are silent witnesses and observers of the times gone by. They embody life.”