One has seen Jitish Kallat’s growth from the bespectacled youth in Corpse Cry, a self-portrait that spoke of mortality, way back in 2001, to the Autosaurus (the humble auto) that featured in the first India Art Fair in 2008, and humorously spoke of creatures born of urban dystopia. Other creatures like the Aquas aurus (the water-tanker) are also products of this age where essentials of living are made precious by demand outstripping supply. Kallat, 42, was born in Mumbai and studied at the Sir J J School of Arts. He has always had a great empathy towards the migrant and the working-class denizens of the metropolis. He calls it his ‘shoulder level view of the world.’
With Kallat it’s not been a linear growth, since he often goes back to older works and references them, there are recurring themes that occur in his work, whether it is the street children who sell books at traffic signals embodied in his mammoth sculpture Eruda that stands at 419 x 169 x 122 cm, the shadowy figures of the Mumbai metropolis who carry their thoughts and dreams on their head as large vignettes of the city, or the half-eaten roti that morphs into the moon. It is perhaps fitting that his first monographic show at the National Gallery of Modern Art is not laid out in chronological order, rather it’s is a thematic correlation that binds them together. Titled Here after Here the mid-career survey show opened on January 14 to the city’s art lovers.
We caught up with the artist and his curator, Catherine David, a day before the exhibition, as lights were being put in place and labels were being finalized. “There is roughly about 25 years of work that goes back all the way to 1992, and the show doesn’t follow a chronological trail,” says Kallat. In this instance, as one enters, a viewer encounters a work made in 2007 called Public Notice II, which lies in the axis where the earliest Public Notice I, situated right behind in the adjoining room, consisting of burnt text. Public Notice III is also displayed at the venue in the form of a video and an image of the work, allowing viewers to piece together the journey and manifestations that this work took. “They have never come together in any form and this is the first time they are doing so, which is exciting for me,” says Kallat who planned the show with David about a year ago, using simulations of the NGMA and later working on site. These three works constitute a triad of Kallat’s most passionate engagement with India’s articulation of nationhood.
Kallat’s work is spread out in both the rooms and it’s an interplay and relationship of a theme that we encounter. “The Labyrinth of 20,400 moons are all the moons that my father saw in his lifetime,” says Kallat, who dedicated this work to his late father. Epilogue features the 20,400 sunsets that his father saw in his lifetime. “These two works have no resemblance and yet thematically they are essentially the same work. This happens a lot in the show. There is a recurrence, convergence or a divergence of theme, where one work looks at the city and the other points to the sky, so it’s a convergence of the cosmos and the cosmo-polis,” says Kallat who has a playful penchant of not only reinventing imagery but language as well. He uses puns, inventive cognate and hybrid words to enhance the reading of his work.
We walk into another room that is taken up by a large print mounted on the wall. Titled, Artist Making a Local Call, it is shot at the crossroads at the Bandra Talab in Mumbai, the city that has been the artist’s muse for over 25-years. The image refers to an era that pre-dates mobile phones, for it captures the artist at a local STD booth, making a call. Around him the city unfolds on either side, where buildings merge from old Art Deco to the new high-rise. The streets are filled with people and traffic who all appear in a hurry to get somewhere. “In this work time is condensed, since the photograph is a panorama and it has taken time for the camera to move from one point to another…it would be roughly about a minute and so, the time it takes to make a phone call,” explains Kallat. It almost feels like the crossroads capture different time frames that emerge in the same picture. People appear more than once in the work and it shows them moving from one side of the frame to the other.
The passage of time has always been one of Kallat’s fascinations, whether measuring it through sunrise and sunset, the cycles of the moon, wind study and rain studies that emulate the works of a weatherman or an astronomer. Looking at the world through this prism Kallat brings a new artistic vision and understanding to diurnal charts. In an earlier work titled Modus Vivendi, he has portrayed himself balancing brain, heart and a medallion of time. The crowds thronging the metro station appear in the left side of these three portraits interspersing private and public worlds. “My beginnings have been through all class spectrums. All my works address my journey through life. It is really out of a lived experience that these figures emerge,” says Kallat introspecting about his proclivity to create art around the working class.
“My works frequently shift focus, which is quite natural. To me the different distances from which we view objects or the world, reconstitutes it. The angle that you view the world dictates how you see it. These paintings, even though they are large works, are painted at eye level, so you could say it’s a shoulder level view of the world. In other instances, it is vertical view with which you view the world. Like a plate of food that in turn reflects to the sky. So, a roti becomes a celestial body or a fruit becomes an intergalactic vista. A single figure becomes the bearer of many stories. Every head became a carrier of a thousand stories. We are multiple narratives because we carry many stories in our heads,” says Kallat whose paintings often make visible to the naked eye, things that remain hidden from plain sight.
Catherine David, the curator of this mammoth show is not a stranger to India. She first came to Delhi in 1997 and met the critic-curator Geeta Kapur. Later she was exposed to Jistish’s work and the two decided to work together on the show. “I wanted to work with Jitish because in each generation there are artists who create important work. Jitish has a strong balance and tension between elements, he creates a kind of ‘visuality’ of the 90s. He works with his own idiosyncrasy rather than addressing an Indian-ness that is quite a cliché by now,” she says.
“We wanted to have as many works as possible for all periods of his oeuvre, though I was in favour of showing more works from his earlier period, but it was difficult to source those since many works were borrowed from private collectors and some of them were abroad,” explains David. “We also had to consider the practicalaspectwhilemountingthe show. We had to work with two very different type of buildings, one classical and the other modern and so we had to keep in mind the eccentricities of each building,” she says. Given that the buildings are quite different, the curator and the artist worked together to create an atmosphere and space around the works. For instance, the Public Notice series had a better impact in the older Jaipur House, and the more personal works, were better viewed in the new wing. There are also works that form a great intermediate space and could have been placed in either building.
Works like 365 Lives, a set of pigment prints on Hahnemuhle paper feature a collection of 365 images of dented cars. On an abstract level, it is a sea of colour but on another it may be viewed as a reflection of everyday urban violence and organic contours of scars and violence on the surface of the city. Interestingly Kallat made his China debut with a show of the same name. Cry of the Gland (Sweatopia) is done in a similar vein, where a 108 photographs of bulging breast pockets speak of how the average middle-class commuter, carries his mobile phone like a bodily extension and a slice of life in his pocket.
Covering Letter, follows Kallat’s obsession with text, which one cannot help but notice, pervades all his work, even the early ones where he was one of the first artists to use the copywrite sign in a jocular way. Kallat also works with the idea of personalizing public documents and using them with a sense of irony. The 130-centimeter-high pump stove sculpture, blackened by black-led, paint and resin is another symbol of the populous metropolis. The stove is titled Annexation and talks directly to the politics of food, wealth and its flagrantly uneven distribution.
One leaves Kallat’s show with an experience of pain, hope and survival. The ambitious nature of his oeuvre that covers painting, sculpture, installation, video and photography leaves one with a sense of admiration for a prolific artist whose journey is only at the half-way mark.