When the children of Mahadanapuram asked to be taken to a festival in the impossibly distant city of Madurai, the saint Sadasiva Brahmendra simply asked them to close their eyes. There, on the banks of the river Cauvery, lids shut and minds eager, they were immediately transported to the celebration. Opening their eyes at sundown, they were in the same spot on the riverside, though their tales of feasts and rituals, thorough descriptions of the far away destination, were of unquestionable veracity. No one could explain how it was done, being in two places at once, but alas, this can happen in India.
Jitish Kallat is on the phone. I'm asking him about storytelling and he's explaining that Mumbai/Bombay isn't necessarily his muse: it's "an artistic responsibility to the regional environment, to work the city into my practice" he says. I think he means he's keepin' it real, which in his clipped university-perfect accent would sound, well...foreign. Weirdly his version of reality looks exactly like my own, half a world away. His paintings have got that particular ubiquitous brand of 70s pop aesthetic, a caducous optimism of failed social ideals and subtle ambience of imperial decay, a forced sense of surveillance, like you're experiencing things in re-run; the global urban condition, hallmarked by the obligatory logos of a faceless government-corporate-whatever power, so omnipresent it's barely noticed. One city fading into another, geography collapsing, continents colliding in a modernity mosh-up, the garbed fallout made fluently comprehensible by the universal translator of mass media.
I really thought we were speaking the same language (we were on the phone), but it soon became evident, that for Jitish Kallat, keepin' it real means something else entirely. There's prescience about a town with two names; painting, like place, is a most duplicitous thing.
From the other side of the globe India is a fiction: a fabled land lavishing kaleidoscopic associations of ancient mysticism, titanic empire, futuristic superpower; abundant with wonders (both natural and supra), rich multi-culturalism, and richer aromatic foods; diametric in its hyper-capitalist industry, elite intellectualism, and abject poverty; popularised by Rudyard Kipling adventure and Bollywood escapism. It's the swarthy underworld of rickshaws and urchins, the dazzling glamour of Sachin Tendulkar and Shilpa Shetty, and the more likely sight of dreamy boys with trendy coifs listening to Hindi Pop on i-pods. A jumble bound by the heavy perfume of exotica, its very essence vagrant and full of illusive promise. Not a place but a receptacle for distant desires, whose satisfaction Kallat serves up so well.
Spanning with the calamitous weight of civilization, Kallat's Sweatopia is both a portrait of a city and its doppelganger. A vast terrain forged of people, their heads flourishing - quite literally - with the bustle of daily life. Haircuts, composed of bicycles and livestock, dump-trucks and schoolhouses, pedestrians and merchants, sprout like cornucopias of ambition and imagination, binding all together, sustaining the skyline of a great metropolis. It's a celebration of community, a kind of hippie mural or album cover design, tripping on the vibe of grass roots righteousness and psychedelic utopia.
Kallat constructs this vision with a homeboy's pride, the minutiae of detail sharing his own clannish camaraderie. Each and every figure a real person, faithfully rendered from photos taken outside a train station, their transient existence validated and monumentalised, nameless heroes of a cyclical (r)evolution. Kallat's social realism encapsulates the very spirit of locality, its history and aspirations, with unnerving accuracy; for this is a painting of a city out of place.
The thing with folklore is it exists out of synch; not in a time, but many. It offers a sense of magic, a generational collapse, where copy after copy, retold and diluted, distils from 'once upon a time' an enduring and resolute truth. There's no coincidence that Kallat approaches painting as erasure. His colours bleed and dapple, assert ghostly form, play tricks of light; concocted from watery elixirs, applied and scraped off, misted with corrosive liquids, each layer melting seamlessly into the next in biological and alchemical continuity. Their physicality isn't in their substance, but rather the complete lack of it - a conception of place as indelible stain, palimpsests of uncountable intimate gestures. His canvases are less surfaces than screens: image receptors and transmitters, broadcasting fact and fiction in indistinguishable correlation.
Kallat coincidently began painting at the same time Indian television was expanded - from one dreary government station to a consumerist free-for-all, a consequence and parallel of the new warp-drive economy. Like being born under a sign, liberation, with its triumphs and anxieties, fatefully permeates every aspect of Kallat's practice.
In Sweatopia it's the high contrast graphics, less Warhol glam than cheap repro shop prints, traced over a mottled ground as sumptuous as batik fabric. The sheer scale simultaneously conjuring corporate billboards and political propaganda, rendered in the quaint hand painted fashion of traditional film posters and shop signs; the subtle infringing of globalisation on neighbourhood custom. Cresting the city's horizon like a sizzling disco halo, flames bounce and plummet in exaggerated finance graph distortion; on closer inspection these are made up of fluctuating bands in the tonal codes of the US terror alert chart. The title of the painting, top left in alt-rock serif logo, enforces all as Pavlovic condition; framing tradition and progress, rebirth and decay, with the fleeting slight-of-hand efficiency of transaction.
When Kallat paints Mumbai, it isn't as an epicentre of globalised displacement, but an intrinsic understanding of the absolute unfixedness of being. The metropolis he records is both familial and traumatic, a discomforting conciliation of lived experience and its (im)perfectly mirrored simulation. Hyperrealism in its strictest sense is a generation for which there is no original, though in the country which spawned reincarnation this might have little to do with a contemporary syndrome; the inexplicable is unquestioned and commonplace, and miracles are an expected part of life. Last year an incident occurred in the heart of Mumbai where rumours were spread about the foul water of a creek turning sweet, causing thousands of people to bath and drink in toxic sludge and raw sewage, bearing witness to the marvel.
On the phone, Jitish recites this with the charm of a quirky story - not an everyday experience, but no more rousing that a nightly news bulletin - like an animal escaping from a zoo, or snow fall in June. Was anyone hurt? He laughs at my naivete: of course not.
Kallat's drawings based onthisevent- his Friendy Fire (Clouds in the water) series -- tell of a multiple phenomenology. Journalistic photos collected from newspapers and magazines, photoshopped, photocopied, then mapped out freehand in thinned acrylic, overlap in varying degrees of documentary suggestion. The effect is simultaneously sun-bleached and drowned, the washes coagulating in puddles, evaporating faint traces, spills seeping in contaminating veins. Vestiges of muddy images leaching through paper, grounds battered, warped and stained, polluted with mephitic looking goo. In their recitation, the precise narratives are lost, made distant and alien like disintegrating archive film, flickering and faded beyond comprehension, eroded from inception with enshrining flashbulb glare. Some are adorned with religious bijoux, cheap ceremonial trinkets of foil, facilitating mass produced enlightenment. Others bear stickers from milk cartons, heavenly drops of calcium-enriched purity embossed with the image of Lord Ganesha, the elephant-headed deity of art and wisdom: answerer of prayers, endorser of dairy products.
Emblazoned across each is Kallat's trademark script: work title as insignia, a vacant brand. Monopolising the scenes with militaristic-red over black-and-white image (preferred colour combo of revolutionaries everywhere), these hallmarks incite corrupted and compliant fervour.
The symbols themselves are nonsensical emblems, wingding fonts exploiting the yearning for meaning: mystical runes, ancient hieroglyphs, hazard warnings, imperial crests, emergency instruction pictograms. Wholeheartedly appropriating one belief for another, the faith in divinity is channelled through the sanctification of capitalism. Nirvana: brought to you by Kallat.
Through these stream of consciousness associations, Kallat transforms Mumbai from place to politicised position. His thriving mega-municipality - polarised with its rhythmic histories and instant future -- is a metaphoric cross-current of proposition. The notion of city stands in for the artist: an infinite blank canvas for the construction of illusion, ever rising to the challenge of expansion. In this sense, Kallat is more author than historian, negotiating his environment with a highly personal lexicon, transposing fact with the subjective haze of magical realism. Painting is a means to find a place for himself, an intellectual's search for grounding in this turbulent race for ideological real estate; his subjects weave fantastically intricate meta-narratives, but his making is of the most genuine authenticity.
Kallat engages with painting as a subversively radical activity. His approach has little to do with representation, abstraction, or formalism, but rather a total mimesis of concept. The polished super-pop finish of his work speaks of a now that is already history (and the unresolved history of now). His plastic-sheen acrylic conveys not a newness but an indexical archive of visual cues: faulty goods, expertly repackaged.
The rough canvas texture supporting seamless craftsmanship is a tell tale sign of a counterfeit virtuality: digitisation in slow time, wi-fi streaming painstakingly reconstructed by hand, contemplated, studied, meditated, possessed. These aren't contemporary history paintings intended for pomp and posterity, but a convenient adaptation of the genre, hijacked for its timeless and authoritative quality: art history and its guilty secrets linger beneath the surface with unspoken anxiety, tingeing everything with a hint of deja vu.
In Universal Recipient, Kallat presents five small canvases mounted on bronze fittings, each a portrait of a security guard, the modern-fable sentries of Bombay, the all-seeing all-knowing silent brigade, forever observing from neither the inside nor out; their responsibilities crowning their heads in community visions. The backgrounds, striped in marquee colours, give a nostalgic air of romance to the reverberating suggestions of iron bars, TV test patterns, Edwardian decor, and chintzy photo studio backcloths. Their grainy passport ID semblance suggests both migrancy and threat; rendered in the exact tone - impoverished black - and texture - Photostat greasy-dusty - as mug shots, the insinuating shadow of itinerant workers. Kallat renders this underclass with the import of kings: regaled in uniform, beatified atop ornate cast fixtures, replicas of architectural details from the Victoria Terminus train station: grotesque palace of Raj decadence, point of entry and departure for all.
Each delectably rich canvas punctuated by an abject distortion: little flowering blobs of roiled pigment, smeared and dripping: small acts of transgression, hints of degeneration, revealing the picture plane as subterfuge, melting effigy away like celluloid in a jammed projection.
Kallat's paintings, like his place, are highly duplicitous. They're not a localised images constrained within borders, complications of space and perception, or even platitudes of self-defined invention. They're conceived as liminal gaps: peripheral mediations, metaphysical platforms of interconnection. His Bombay towers on an eclipse frontier, straddled between gritty actuality and veneered mythologies, individual plight and global sublimation, the perpetual conflict of existing and becoming; the sheer impossibility of its genuine sentiment and representation. Jitish's "responsibility to the regional environment" is immense, his narratives resound because they're inexplicable and veracious, their one-size-fits-all truths hang uncomfortably on everyone. When Jitish Kallat speaks of keepin' it real, it's not about a city or place, a culture or people, authenticity or authorship, or any of the grand eloquent constructs that define art from life from media. His paintings are an exacting account and record of the Mumbai in which he lives and makes his home - the reality of what it is and what it means. That ever shrinking, yet unsurpassable, invisible space between us.
First published by Haunch of Venison, Zurich (2008).