CC: Your work has created quite an effect visually at the India pavilion of the Venice Biennale. How did you arrive at the Paduka work and what was your inspiration behind it?
G.R: I did this work in 2010, and frankly it was not spoken of as Gandhian. It was based on the peace process, which I did specially for my shows in New York and London at Aicon gallery. I later showed the work at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Bengaluru in 2016, where it was still small in scale. The idea is something I got from my visit to Jallianwala bagh in Amritsar; where you can still hear the sounds of chaos. The moment you see the walls, the courtyard, the well, bullet marks, you keep imagining how men women and children would have tried to climb the walls to save their lives. I felt really miserable - both scared and numb. That is the idea behind the work basically - of people trying to climb up and scale the wall to survive. The moment I saw those marks, I realised I can create a work of art based on climbing - with slippers, shoes or anything - that would represent the innocent people at Jallianwala Bagh. Of course, that was also the time of the Independence movement against the British. I was brought up and have grown up with these Padukas since childhood. Today, only spiritual gurus are wearing these slippers; they are called ‘holy slippers’. They are also worn today because they symbolise non-violence - saints don’t wear leather slippers because leather is equated with killing animals. When saints die, they take samadhi. On top of the samadhi, they keep the used Padukas. I wanted to bring it to the level of representing a person who is innocent and spiritual and very balanced. Spirituality doesn’t mean religiosity; it means my personal practice, my painting or art, that is spirituality. The cobbler makes shoes, and that is form of spirituality too.
CC: You were inspired by this in 2009, so it’s been a decade-long exercise for you…
G.R: Slowly, I understood that it is a space-oriented work, and the type of space determines how I can display this work. I showed it at NGMA Bengaluru, Aicon New York, The Guild Mumbai. The curator Roobina Karode was aware of this work, that it is based on the Indian Independence movement and since it was based on Jallianwala Bagh, it was called Panic Garden. When it was considered that it is going to go to Venice, I realised that the scale would have to be changed to suit the Biennale scale. For the earlier versions, I had used two hundred Padukas, for the Venice Biennale I have used more than six hundred. I took this work to a further level. Each and every work is identified as a person, their profession, religion…
CC: Which is something I was coming to, you have used some very interesting objects to decorate each Paduka, there is a flower in one, there is a sickle in another. Do you want to talk about these different elements that you have used?
G.R: I wanted to find something to connect it with Gandhi -- Gandhi as an idea, as representative of the peace process, the non violence movement . I realised that wherever Gandhi goes, the masses follow him. Priests, imams, pandits, as well as people from other professions, like artists, barbers, ordinary labour - all types of people will follow him. Wherever he goes, whether Kolkata, Gujarat, South India, North India - people will follow him. The longest walk was the Salt March at Dandi. That’s how you know it’s a march; it’s walking, every day, a peace movement, a spiritual movement. The idea then is the mass, to bring out the energy of the mass, it has to be larger than life. It’s like the scale of a mountain; it has to be huge because the idea of it is so huge. Today India is smaller, but at the time, Bangladesh and Pakistan were also a part of India. It was a huge country.
CC: How much thought did this process take up? What went into individually picking out these elements?
GR: As the idea of Gandhi goes to Kolkata, Benaras, Gujarat, and wherever else he used to go, I have collected all these Padukas from different places - from Benaras, South India, wherever I have travelled.
CC: Are these Padukas are commissioned or you acquired them just as they were?
GR: I bought them but some are also commissioned. For the objects, I went to Nizamuddin, Jama Masjid, Connaught Place, Vrindavan, temples, and across South India to collect different objects representing professions from various places. The idea is togetherness. Togetherness is called naavu, which is a Kannada word, which means We Together. In Hindi, it is simply called hum. Naavu is a very deep word in Kannada, and the reason I use it is to show the regional identity of a small place as representative of Gandhi. The title itself creates a certain noise. We are all together, it is a collective, binding and solitary both, and then we become one. That’s the idea…
CC: How did you view this idea in terms of the installation? How challenging was it?
GR: The display was quite challenging. I started the idea as a small river which becomes an ocean. I started with four or five Padukas. As you traverse the wall, it becomes fifteen feet high which completely overpowers you. The moment you go further, it becomes sixty feet in length. You are walking beside the wall slowly, and you eventually notice it becomes a mass, which creates its own emotional impact.
You become closer to each other, because the passage becomes smaller and narrower. The work reaches the top of your head, so slowly you become part of the work. As you walk, the Padukas also walk in the same direction, and you are a part of that idea. That’s what I wanted to bring forth.
CC: You chose to represent Gandhi in a very conceptual form so many years after his death. Can you tell us a bit about how you made this choice?
GR: Gandhi is actually someone that you cannot take out from your life. Today I am fifty, I was born 25 years after Independence yet, in my village I have met so many people who were part of the Independence movement. Gandhi was not a single person, Gandhi has become like a brand, he has become like everybody. Even I have Gandhi in me. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi is a person but Gandhi is in everybody’s heart. This energy is created in the work - that everybody becomes Gandhi.
CC: The figure of the monk and the ascetic - these are seen in your earlier work. How would you situate Gandhi in that context…
G.R. Gandhi is the very same monk, if you read his writings, he is quite spiritual. What do monks try to achieve? They try to make you independent. Gandhi tried to make you independent of your greed, your anger. What Gandhi is doing is the same struggle. I think there is little difference between the figure of the monk and Gandhi, because both are healers.
CC: So you see them synonymously…
G.R: Yes, and non-violence is common to both. The monk doesn’t resort toviolence to teach you meditation, he tries to cleanse you. So it is very connected. I am not saying that I consciously made the two synonymous, but unconsciously I did, because it is the same platform.
CC: The title of your work is very interesting. How would you situate it in the current political climate, as an artist and as a viewer?
G.R: The word naavu in Kannada means ‘I am there’. I think, even today, if that was to happen; this country would be very peaceful. In India, the Independence movement was the fight against the British and no one was bothered about casteism, we were struggling to get Independence, we all fought together. There was no internal politics. And today, when we are independent, we have started playing politics. We have to make people remove religious, profession-based and casteist differences, such that they start thinking that all humankind are one. I don’t like today’s politics, because politicians always divide and rule, they always divide for vote banks.
CC: The figure of the monk and the renunciate, like Gandhi, is a very common thread in your work. Is this a difficult subject in contemporary art?
G.R: When you start thinking about it, it is difficult; but when you are a part of it, it is not. I think they are both on same platform. The only difference is that Gandhi came from a political stream and the monk may be a Buddhist, a maulvi, a Sufi… They try to make everyone equal and say we all fight unnecessarily.
CC: What is interesting here is that you are a painter and have been painting the figure of the monk, but when it came to Gandhi, you used a more conceptual treatment…
G.R: But here as well, the figure of Gandhi is small, but the idea of Gandhi is very large. In the moment that I become a Gandhi, everyone becomes Gandhi. It becomes bigger, and in the same way the monk is a small person, but the monk as a Guru is larger than life. His power is larger than the life before whom all other forms of energy shrink.