October 15, 2021 9:00:45 pm
Your exhibition ‘Germination’, currently at Delhi’s Art Konsult gallery, features graphics from your student days in the ’60s, to the ’90s. How would you define these three decades of your oeuvre?
Several of the works in the exhibition are printing proofs. These were not complete works but different stages that offered possibilities. For me, these were steps to achieve a work. When you are young, you want to try new things and my work developed further from these. All of us have different experiences and it is important for a work of art to have different thematic interpretations and that is what gives it life.
What are your thoughts on being described as a ‘feminist’ artist?
People give tags for their own convenience and I don’t like being labelled. Everyone knows what is the philosophy behind feminism, and the description is given so that they can relate the work with that. I don’t want to carry anybody’s flag. I am an individual and can think for myself. In fact, I am against some of the things done by feminists in the past. For instance, some feminists said we won’t wear bras. Why not if it gives us comfort? On other occasions, some feminists walked naked on the streets to voice their demands. I will not endorse any of these things. I never felt deprived, I fought for my rights. In my family, women handled the daily expenses. My grandfather was a lawyer and would discuss cases with my grandmother. There were distinct domains where each — men and women — were important. At some level, feminism has come to India from the West and we need not ape it — not all the issues taken up by them were absolutely relevant for our problems, we have a different society and our own concerns that need to be dealt with.
You spent a lot of your childhood with your grandfather in Shimla. Do memories of those times influence your work?
Your upbringing and culture at home is bound to influence you. When I was growing up, there was a strong nationalistic movement and even today if someone says anything against India, I can’t stand it. The mythological references (in her work), perhaps, also come from recollections of mythological stories told to us by my mother and grandmother. My mother would share with us episodes from not just Valmiki’s Ramayana, but also the one written by Tulsidas, and numerous other interpretations. Years before the play Andha Yug (1954), she told me how Gandhari covered her eyes because she felt it was unfair to have wedded her to a blind king, and she did not want to show the world to him through her eyes. Religion wasn’t mere rituals; it was a philosophy. I went to a convent school, and then a regular one, later taught in a Sikh institution, all of those experiences have also influenced my work.
You have often responded to the sociopolitical surroundings in your work, including the 2012 Delhi gang-rape case and the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. Would you make a work on what is happening in India now?
Like everyone, I get affected by what is happening and have an opinion. Some things prolong, while others fizzle out. Look at how some people were pleading for mercy for some of the boys in the gang-rape case. My reaction even when the incident happened was that not a lot will change in the coming years. I don’t know if I will make a work on what is happening now, things keep churning. At a subconscious level, various things affect you and your work. Someone once asked me if I’m a socially-committed artist, and I said, ‘no’. Though I am a part of society and get affected, my aim is not to improve society through my work. If I take that responsibility, I will give up being an artist; I will instead make an effort to improve society more directly.
As a student, you were averse to pursuing printmaking. What made you change your mind? Was it also because of your teacher Jagmohan Chopra?
It was perhaps destiny. Printmaking was a challenging medium and I would see my seniors struggle with all the equipment and chemicals. But, gradually, I began to feel that when an image is transferred from the plate to paper, it is like magic. Jagmohan Chopra was a great teacher, but it wasn’t just about meeting him, it was also about him providing us the opportunity and facility to continue working after college. The summer before graduating, I remember asking him where would we make prints now. Unlike painting, it requires machines, certain equipment and a proper setup. Soon, he set up a makeshift studio in the living room of his house, which led to the establishment of Group 8. It was the works I made there that fetched me a scholarship to go to Slade School of Fine Art (in University College of London, the UK). I would send letters to him from London, telling him about the chemicals used for printmaking. I also sent him details of the Aquatint box, and he designed one for the College of Art (Chandigarh) that so many printmakers have told me is the best in India.
Did a long teaching career at College of Art have an impact on your art practice?
It was extremely important for me to be independent and not ask my father for money, and teaching allowed that. Within the first three years, I became a compulsive teacher. I realised teaching is not an easy job. If you want to be a true teacher, it is important that students understand you and you know what their needs are. New students would often be warned (by the seniors) that I was very strict, but that was because of the nature of printmaking where so many potentially hazardous chemicals are used. Of course, students understood that later. I also learnt a lot from my students; observing them offers you different perspectives. I fell in love with teaching and neglected my own practice for years, till I began to feel I am starving. Since I thought it was unethical to study during my teaching time, I applied for permission to work after college. Unless I practised, I couldn’t do justice to teaching the subject that is still growing in India. To be able to give information to the students, I had to be 10 times better than them.
A lot of your work explores the way light falls on male and female figures.
Light creates an edge, which leads to lines and I love to draw that. To me, it does not matter whether it’s a male or female figure. I treat both in the same manner and neither, for me, is a sexual object. Vulgarity only creeps in when you objectify things. For me, what God has made is glorious, the human body is such perfect machinery, and I want to celebrate that. When you are working, if you get one good line, you experience a supreme feeling. I like sketching and drawing, which I still do.
You were also good at painting. Do you regret not pursuing that given the bias against printmaking in India?
If I ever felt like drawing or painting, I would just do that. Printmaking is definitely in a much better position than earlier and several artists are doing very good work. More people are setting up studios for themselves because they can afford it, and there are also more studios where artists can practise across the country. The medium encourages experimentation and there are limitless possibilities, printmaking is still growing.
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