Gayatri Sinha: This is the first time that a private museum is collaborating with an international institution like the MET. What implications does this have for the trajectory of Indian art exhibitions at an international level and for your own practice?
Roobina Karode: I’ve worked as an independent curator for some time, and then within an institution, a gallery and now a private museum, the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art. I am realising that the exhibitions that we do at KNMA take such a long time, starting from the artists that inspire you, the kind of journeys or works you want to look at, the research, thought, the required scholarship, how to work on that, sourcing works, seeing them together and then trying to understand how this work was done. In all the retrospectives that I have done, I’ve been involved deeply at a personal level with these artists, whether it is Himmat Shah, Rameshwar Broota, Nasreen Mohamedi or Nalini Malani. I visited Nalini many times in the course of her retrospective at KNMA, and have been seeing and familiarising with her work for a very long time. To think that all or any of this is not required when you put up an exhibition is to completely reduce or dilute the historical space that can be created. And in some sense with Nasreen, perhaps I have something to contribute in terms of bringing her back to life through that exhibition I did at KNMA. The integrity of her life, her practice, her work, because I knew her so closely, for me it was like: If I don’t bring the person alive, several aspects in her work would be lost as her art and life were completely inseparable - it is significant to connect with how she lived, how she died, and the enduring struggle in her life between courage and despair…
GS: I read a very interesting interview between Hans Ulrich Obrist and the famous American curator, Walter Hopps. Hopps said that when you are curating you spend so much time with the artist and what the artist has produced that you enter into a different psychological space. Would you like to comment on this with regards to Nasreen, and her significance for you?
RK: That is true. In fact it has been very difficult at times. I feel like the movement of the pendulum, this play between proximity and distance is important, because I was too involved and immersed with Nasreen when I started working on that exhibition-there was a need to step back everytime before moving ahead. And it was like going back to many years as a student and how I knew her and what I had written then about her. This was 1977 onwards, I had joined the faculty of fine arts at MS University, Baroda and she was my first teacher. The first day I met her, I knew nobody there because I had just come from a small Tata Town Mithapur to Baroda, a new city. I walked in and she was right there in a white saree walking and I said, “excuse me, can you tell me where will the foundation drawing class take place?” And she said, “Are you a new student? I said, yes and she smiled , “Well, I am going to be your teacher in the foundation courses in drawing. And that was my first introduction to Nasreen. The same day, we students were waiting with our sketch books and pencils and she met us outside the studio and we walked the pathways with her and she said, “let us all pick up the litter today, and clear the paths,” and we all began picking up some scrap from here and there. After many years I thought that clearing the path was always important for Nasreen, as a metaphor for her processes. Since then, with Nasreen and her teaching, we students I believed entered an unexplored mental space.
GS: You lived in Mithapur, in Gujarat?
RK: Yes, I came from this very small town and I had this hang up and didn’t like Baroda, which I perceived then as this big city. My father was the main architect for the Tatas. It was a secular Tata town with no temple, mosque, gurudwara, nothing. When anyone died they would have to go some miles outside the town to be buried or cremated. I grew up in a very secular environment. I used to go with my dad to his building sites and I really responded to the idea of ‘space making’. The whole idea of how spaces can be shaped and how you make connections between passages, the interior and exterior interested me. In fact I was also contemplating being an architect but my elder brother became an architect and I entered fine arts.
Then Nasreen one day told me ‘I’ve heard you’ve scored very good marks in Hindi and I’m supposed to clear a Hindi exam to get permanent lectureship’. She said let’s do something, you teach me Hindi for one hour at my house and I will give you an extra hour for your drawings.
So, I used to go to her house and we had this thing about three doorbell rings, if it rang thrice she would know it is me. She did this because she was hounded by students and she never ever said no to any student who came to her door. She had only late evening and night hours after college. And she worked in solitude, so she said let’s make this our secret code. I would go late in the evening and then I would teach her Hindi. She was very bad at that..
GS: Did she have any interest in script?
RK: She did…she did
And suddenly she would say okay then, let’s move to drawing, show me your drawings, she would be very involved and also express her appreciation at times.. Her exercises would be like, ‘pick up anything on the road and try to draw it in your way’.
Sometimes, I would pick up stones with tar and different textures and she would get interested in seeing those. Next what I would observe is that she would be absolutely still, as if in a trance or some other mental space with her eyes fixed on something, and back to her drawing board. Then she would tell me to be around and read or do my work.
GS: How did you think about your presence in this non-communicative state, when you are present but you are not communicating? What is your feeling about that, in retrospect?
RK: I was very restless at first, because I didn’t know what I was doing there, it was a very quiet space, with only one lamp from above, lighting her drafting board and a very sparse room with a little gaddi on the ground to sit on. And I’ll be sitting there for two hours or more, without any exchange of words. It took me time to realize that silence does not mean absence of communication. The vibration of the space and the solitude with Pandit Bhimsen Joshi singing was a calming experience. Amidst her quiet working, she would look up and take a break for a smoke; I would tell her that it is 10 o’clock at night. And she would invariably walk me to my house and then in that little distance she would stop eight to ten times to show me either a shadow of something or a ray of light somewhere and those kinds of pointers that she was actually looking for in the environment or in the concrete reality around.
GS: This was every day, for howmany years?
RK: Every day for many years. In fact in the first few years I went there till my father passed away in 1982. I realised this later that she used to give a few other art students’ time, but never give two students time together.
GS: Why is that?
RK: Perhaps to make each one of us feel special. She used to look after, nurse students who were unwell, so she used to play that role as well. But she would keep it really quiet. I came to know only later why or what happened. My time was the last, because I was the closest, just a few houses away from her. I think perhaps she found in me someone whom she could trust, maybe because I was very quiet and could understand her situation and she opened up more.
GS: Were you introverted like she was?
RK: Yes, I was. That was something that brought us closer because she could let go of her composure and become vulnerbale, even cry in front of me or share something that bothered her with me.
I gradually found out during the course of this time that she was suffering from Huntington’s Chorea, a neuromuscular degerative disorder. I didn’t know because she never shared that in college, we as students used to see her twitch or her limbs shake when she would be looking at our drawings. With great respect she looked at our drawings, she would never scribble on our drawing or scratch out anything. She would only say, I like this part, it is very sensitively drawn. And then her physical make up changed because when she started twitching, gradually her involuntary muscles became weak, she was losing control over them.
GS: Did this closeness with a teacher put you in a difficult situation with the other students?
RK: It is very interesting; my closeness with her in college was not visible because that was the way we were. Nasreen was a private person, loved by all her students and peers. Nobody knew that I was visiting her every day or anything but yes when she had problems she would call for me. People knew that we would share the same autorickshaw to go home or that we came together in the morning to college. It was known that we lived close by, so we come together.
GS: Did she meet your parents?
RK: Yes, yes. Nasreen knew my parents. She had great regard for my father who was an architect and was very fond of my youngest brother. She would give her half made drawings to him; the papers she had discarded, so that they do not go waste. She would come home on Eid. My elder brother thought I was going a little crazy because I got into this habit of going every day to her house and after a while I started enjoying and seeking that silence, because in my house, there were too many people and it was an open house to all - extended family and friends.
During this time she lost many of her family members. I got to see this side of her, Nasreen was somebody who believed in restraint but there were these moments where she would not be in control of herself, when her brother died, worst was when her nephew, who was very young died, whom she was very close to. She would just hug me, cry and express how it is in life. Her father was ailing. I witnessed this and could feel her sense of loss and emptiness as I too lost my father, who was only 47 when he succumbed to a massive heart attack, all of a sudden. But what I learnt from her was the need to draw inner strength from all of this.
As for Nasreen, I came to understand the person much later but I was absorbing so many things that she was doing, for instance in the morning she was doing her yoga and her meditation and she would often talk about why is it necessary to do this or sit in a particular way. She would always sit on the ground with her legs folded. Before starting her work she would be like a tapasvi and she would draw these lines with such intensity and attention.
GS: She would do this even after the twitching had started?
RK: Yes, she would.
GS: There is a comparison between Nasreen and Agnes Martin which may or may not be a valid one. Agnes Martin had schizophrenia, she had a disobedient mind and Nasreen had a disobedient body. Is it that the work was a site of complete control, which could cut away from or negate what was going on in Nasreen’s life otherwise?
RK: I feel that many times all that order came only in her work. Her studio cum home was a recuperative space and she transformed when she sat down to work into this still, calm self who was in complete control of her body. That was such a strong image in my mind that I recreated the studio as the entry point to the exhibition I curated at the KNMA.
Like a sacred space, she used to mop the floor many many times in a day.
GS: That sounds like an OCD….
RK: Yes, it was perhaps an OCD factor that every time you leave the house, or you enter, before you go to sleep you have to mop the floor and it would be spotless. And after many years, I’m reading it in my essay, as to why did she keep her house totally barren, the idea that she never put up her work on the walls, nobody else’s work on the walls, no family photographs, nothing. The walls were like screens, taking in every shadow that came into the house because when I sat with her, there was a balcony facing trees and as I said that everything else was less illuminated, and the walls were semi-dark and I would suddenly see her gaze fixed to something and she would point me to the moving shadow of a tree, or palm leaves on the wall, something so sensitive. Even the floor was of that kind, it was reflective. The idea of the shadow or if shadow is negative, the idea of the reflection was so important and is also immaterial. It isn’t material; it comes from a phenomenal world.
GS: How do you see this in a more philosophic or aesthetic term? Gaitonde, Nasreen, Zarina, Waqas Khan and their engagement with the abstract. The light and the shadow, what is the nature of the shadow? From the Quran or Jungian perspective or Chhaya in the Hindu perspective ?
RK: I feel in Nasreen’s case, her art could not have been what it is without the yearning for a spiritual path. it was as if everything else mattered less and less - that her work was not wriiten about, did not sell, her efforts were less acknowledged, she was not included in well curated exhibitions, or seriously considered within the mainstream discourse.. You are on your own and you are so deeply immersed in what you are doing as if, you are seeking something higher, the unknown. That path could be of liberation, that path could be going from body to spirit. It’s a gradation. She was introduced to this idea of the mortal body of how the body disappears, very young at the age of five when she lost her mother and successively there were deaths in her family. This idea of the impermanence of the body raised a larger question for her which is what is it that is eternal. In Islam, the body is nothing but what holds the eternal spirit, the ruh, is the onlytruth. In Buddhism and even Upanishads, it is seen as a medium or toll for nirvana. Even when you look at her early works in London, she is not interested in the corporeality of the body, she’s not showing figures, she is showing lines of a saree, or fragmented contours, she’s not really showing what a body means or what is its sensual volume.
GS: Was death a premonition and a fulfilment of an internal prophecy?
RK: Yes both. Gradually, because of this premonition that she had after her elder brother, that she would have certain symptoms of this kind and that she was experiencing certain symptoms. In the late 1960s she wrote in her diary “Hardly able to speak / struggling, digging inner energies-force/ strength, an emotion without a word . . . speak softly / my lines speak of troubled destinies, of death . . .” So, if you introspect that life comes with death as the provenance, and specially when you live with the consciousness of impending death, the journey most times, takes an inward turn. Even when I look at the early drawings when she was in her twenties, I find these withered palms dying on the sea shore. Even what she was looking at then was weathered, beaten, left to die. The sense of decay in her early works is very strong. But then it doesn’t stay there, the idea is, if you know that this is the end, how do you live it, how do you really gain this kind of an illuminated space within. Overcome it, and to really do something towards it. To me it is very clear that her path is extremely spiritual. It aims for transcending the mundane. And that is also the reason it reflects in her living, it reflects in her life. Nasreen as a human being was able to do away with any bitterness.
GS: Why do you think she was so neglected? I should congratulate you because whatever you’ve done with Himmat and Nasreen, and possibly you will also do with Jeram, you have set up an alternative history for Baroda. These have been figures of significance but somewhat shadowy, they have not been fleshed out, or expanded and they have certainly not been celebrated.
RK: I believe that her unique form of expression would work not as she was moving away from this outside distraction, material engagements and worldliness. That’s when the doors open to other worlds than the immediate one. The search was inward. Everything was distilled.
GS: The leading thought that I came away with after seeing your show on Nasreen was a sense of the shadow. It’s the relation or conversation taking place between two lines.
RK: When one views Nasreen’s work, the conventional interpretation is of formalism or minimalism. I want to link her work with the flow of her life. I have seen how she gradually got rid of things from her life, reduced her diet and had fewer interactions with others. She would conserve her energy. In the later years of her life, she stopped talking as much. You release the repression, you distil, you vent. If you want any kind of light (noor) to enter, you have to empty out everything. The Sufis believed in this. I quote from Nasreen’s diary, just squeeze out the dirt and create emptiness within you. The emptiness is form of highest receptivity, because otherwise there would be a number of filters in front of it. Just like the whirling dervishes, dance is about losing oneself, forgetting who you are so the ego starts to dissipate. In that state, the self and ego steps aside and you can receive the light, the light of pure knowledge.
Also, that question about the shadow is very interesting. As a student, while learning about Persian miniature paintings, I once read of how all messiahs when they walk the earth, do not cast shadows because they are eternal spirits.
I would like to mention a discussion that I had with my father while seeing the monuments in Ahmedabad. He asked me, why are there water bodies around several of the Islamic monuments, I didn’t know the answer so I asked him to elaborate and he said, this is embedded with a deeper philosophy, of the majestic man-made building seeing its reflection (aks) as in its material beauty is what we gather, but the ever changing or shifting reflection also is a reminder or signifier of the nature of its impermanence.
This idea of the shadow as being the ephemeral, the quality of life is that.
GS: To some extent, you were the shadow.
RK: I don’t know. I never thought about this.
GS : During her long period of sickness, which is when you knew her, was her work affected ?
RK: She was unwell for quite some time, I think her working was therapeutic or one could say worked like therapy. Among her siblings who had the same disorder, she was able to sustain the longest, I think because of her work. When I did her exhibition, I thought are these things important, or not? I was thinking of bringing the exhibition alive. The space in her studio was important, barren walls were in my mind and other things which I couldn’t think of….For Nasreen’s exhibition, while considering the integrity of her life, my whole idea was to start with that studio. That studio is such a strong impression in my mind because I spent so much time there and I learnt so much about her.
Nasreen’s Bombay house was full of objects and souvenirs and all, an affluent business family. But when Nasreen shifted to Delhi in a barsati her sister Rukaiya describes how it was a completely different space, barren, nothing. She used to sit to work on a small carpet that came close to the prayer mat.
GS: How do you explain her neglect in the art circles of her time? I haven’t understood.
RK: Though she was admired, her practice was never seriously written about or considered while organizing important exhibitions. I don’t know what one can call it - perhaps abstraction or abstract art did not evoke specific interest in India when the nature of Indian Modernism was being hugely discussed. Her practice was first documented when her brother Altaf and family brought out the first book on Nasreen after her death for which Geeta Kapur wrote a moving essay.
GS: It is interesting that it is abstract artists Zarina, Nasreen, Gaitonde, Waqas Khan that are attracting the attention of the western world, especially New York. How do you explain this?
RK: At the Reina Sofia, the first thing I was told that the two Indian artist shows which took place there were of Atul Dodiya and Bhupen Khakhar and both are figurative artists. We all know that the West concerns itself with sensibilities they are interested in. Nasreen’s work with no obvious trace of Indianness in its formal vocabulary resonates with minimalism and a familiar terrain. But it is a great opportunity to present her practice in a comprehensive way to the rest of the world.
GS: Malevich is an important reference; it keeps coming up in all the reviews of Nasreen. One curator Suman Gopinath has placed her in the context of Mondrian.
RK: The exhibition wouldhave brought about the energy and movement in Nasreen’s works. Nasreen was not so fond of Mondrian but she was extremely fond of Malevich’s work and it is clear because her work is not rigid, static or industrial in feel. Nasreen’s work with lines and more lines, horizontal, diagonal or crisscrossing, is never cold or static. It always had something more happening there. So connecting with Malevich was much more the idea of the floating world and with a non-objective form of abstraction.
GS: Which year she died?
RK: She died in 1990.
GS: Why do you think the West wants to link the dots of modernism? Is it because they are in a more comfortable space to talk about global art practises? But when they want to push back to the 60’s then they have started looking at the global feminism, this is a very common thing.
RK: It is time that alternate and parallel histories are looked at. Modernism was also happening elsewhere and there is a need to revitalize the discourse through inclusion and expansion of the ground.
GS: What you see in Nasreen even if you look at architecture, then you are seeing it from a particular point, that is you are so close to that wall or that structure that it’s only a section of the detail that is visible. She is looking at architecture almost through the gaze of the miniaturist
RK: The miniaturist will make the building seem small but the miniaturist will bring you very close to it and at the same open up the vastness of space for you. Which is what she did and for me this was very interesting that all these artists ___ they were inspired by miniatures or the miniaturists.
GS: You can see it in Nasreen, and Himmat you can see it in Zarina. You can even see it in Bhupen Khakhar, you can see it in Amrita Sher-Gil, all these five six names who have gone out right now somewhere in their work there is evidence of this.
RK: I think the same thing about Himmat, now that I have installed his exhibition at the museum. I have been having conversations with him for years and it has percolated or distilled in very different ways, how and what they have been drawing from the miniatures. In miniatures there is also this thing about intricate detail. And also about absenting certain details. There is on a single plane suggestion of varying depths. Now with Nasreen, many times you do not see the architectural monument, the built form but a diagonal that takes your eye with it. We often had this conversation as to what is abstract and whether anything can ever be abstract, that whatever it is, it’s from a concrete reality that you derive abstraction; it can of course transform further into an internal space.
GS: Yes from material to immaterial.
RK: From material to immaterial, this has been the way given to us. Sure enough if the two of us were standing, she would be seeing in a line, a point of infinity somewhere or where it takes you as a path, from here to beyond. Even when I look at her photographs, I have analysed the early photographs which show street poles and then those street poles have lines which slowly recede and how through that perspective if you slowly remove/abstract those structures, they become an abstract way of thinking about space, from here to beyond. So photographs of the sea have been taken like ying yang, these are sea patterns and here there is something else and then what is behind? And there is a path that suddenly ends and you don’t know what is beyond. This is a very interesting thing she would talk about nature in a very interesting way, this mystery that there is that you have in both life and in nature. There are answers also within them, but we don’t have this heightened consciousness or sensitivity through which we can find these answers in minutest of things.
GS: Yes they are like photographs in your brain, you don’t forget these things.
RK: You don’t forget these things. I believe that art is an act of faith. This is what it is and, it is true of Nasreen. It doesn’t matter then how the world looks at it or when the world looks at it. If anyone asks me about Nasreen and the belated success she has received, my response is that this is not unusual that some of the finest artists have received recognition for their work late or belated, years after they are gone. In the specific context of her time, she did not fit into the discourse then on national identity in India.
GS: With Himmat, with Nasreen in their best work it is a piece of paper, they are not even worried about the value of that, how long is its life? There is nothing archival in that…
RK: In Nasreen I am sure she never thought of how long would be the life of her drawing, but by habit, she kept her things very well, handled them carefully.