Back in 1995, Sudarshan Shetty did 16 large installations for his first solo in India, “Paper Moon”. Several of them found no buyers and were destroyed over a period of time.
He does not regret that phase though. He is rather used to the act of rebuilding, breathing life into found objects and questioning
notions – from depicting love through a dinosaur humping a vintage car in Love (2006) to adding wings to the now defunct Mumbai icon, the double-decker bus, in Flying Bus (2012). In his ongoing solo, “who must write these lines”, at Gallery SKE, Bangalore, the artist depicts Sufi mystic Amir Khusro’s poems on wood relief and created an untitled carpet made with reclaimed wood. The 52-year-old will
continue his engagement with life, death, absence and emptiness in his solo in Brussels in May.
The wooden panels in your work, Path to Water, feature many translations in English of a line from Amir Khusro’s poem Bahut kathin hai dagar panghat ki.
Does this reflect how each word is open to interpretation?
I started looking at Khusrow’s work some years ago, but realised that I can only understand it through translations. That made me look at the idea of “translations” in a larger context. As an artist, I am expected to source from my own background and history, and show it in a gallery or museum, which adds yet another dimension. I’ve taken this verse that talks about the difficulty of getting to the water, not literally, but with regard to the difficulties we go through in life. I have five translations, but each falls short of what it could mean, it’s open-ended. The words are hand-carved on wood reliefs, shown alongside terracotta objects acquired from a street market, but their aesthetic seemed similar to the carvings. So it’s also about the value system a display creates or the myth it gathers.
Could you talk about your engagement with fragility? The current exhibition has objects in terracotta. Last year, you had sculptures made of broken China. If we go back to 2005, the much celebrated Party is Elsewhere had mechanised hammers smashing a table full of wine glasses.
I’m interested in playing with opposite notions. These installations are monumental, but fragile and could collapse under their own weight. The objects that we surround ourselves with come to represent our own sense of mortality. We are sold soaps with the promise that they will make us younger, but we know that can’t happen. There is a gap between that promise and the function. I like to explore that gap.
But your work has also questioned the notion of the monumental. You had a video of the Taj melting; in another work, you rested it on four penis-like structures, projecting it as “Shah Jahan’s greatest erection”.
The Taj Mahal was a mere analogy. The first time I looked at the Taj Mahal, when I was in my early 20s, it appeared like a postcard to me. Only later do you go in and notice the details. The video depicted how the monumental too changes in meaning over a period of time, the monument here melted and appeared again.
You trained in painting at the JJ School of Art in Mumbai, but from early on you were working with objects. This too, in the 1980s, when the market was partial to paintings.
When I went to art school, I had no idea about contemporary art. We lived in the suburbs in Mumbai, all I had seen was a KK Hebbar exhibition. At one time, I thought being an artist meant painting posters and signage. I was good at drawing in school, and won competitions, but going to art school seemed out of reach. I apprenticed with hoarding painters, and was completely fascinated by the scale of their work, the larger-than-life images. It had a lasting impression on me. I always wanted to do things big. I joined JJ School after my graduation in commerce. It opened up a completely new world. There were no expectations from the market. We knew what was selling in galleries was work by 60-plus artists. But there was a camaraderie among artists. I spent time with Atul Dodiya, Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu. We had a fantastic time.
How important are collaborations for contemporary artists? Your work involves coordinating with wood carvers in Bengal, carpenters in Mumbai and designers from Bangalore, among others.
Even paintings are collaborative, there was a time painters made their own paints. Everything is a collaboration. What I make, the ideas are not mine, there is a precedence. For instance, if I borrow from a doha, there is a tradition behind it. That brings us to the idea of propriety. These collaborations mean taking stuff from various sources. We are taking a chance, things could turn anyway. It could be another alternate, not synonymous with the original idea. With the Flying Bus (a replica of a 1970s double-decker bus), the day before opening, all calculations were done, but we were waiting for the bus to arrive from Belgaum, and for its steel wings to come from Baroda.
You are also an art collector.
There are works gifted by Dayanita Singh and Manjit Bawa. I have bought works by Avinash Veeraraghavan, Nilesh Kumavat and Chitra Ganesh. These are artists whose work I like, who work in a language entirely different from mine.
I believe you are a Hindustani classical music buff , and have a huge collection of movies too.
I first heard Kumar Gandharva’s rendering of Kabir in the 1980s, there was so much faith. He spoke about the idea of the cosmos. I’m into all kind of cinema, from world cinema to all kinds of rubbish. The first Mumbai International Movie international Film Festival took place when I was in college. I was totally blown away. I’ve learnt a lot from cinema, it helps you learn about different cultures, see the world without travelling.