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Mumbai-based artist Sudarshan Shetty talks about his past, present and future

In an interview with STIR, the contemporary Indian artist discusses his artistic practice, his love-hate relationship with Mumbai, and exploring different mediums as an artist.

by Shraddha NairPublished on : Jun 24, 2020

If there is any difference between an artist and a poet, Sudarshan Shetty is the bridge in between. The first time I met him was at Reclaiming the House, an exhibition at Gallery Ske in Bengaluru, India. A light-based installation by the artist was part of the exhibition. The artwork read ‘Sometimes When We Travel We Forget Who We Are’ in LED lights encased in acrylic. It had my heart in a second. Shetty might be called a conceptual artist and while that is not incorrect, the title is slightly reductionist to me in that it entirely leaves out the magic present within his work. He weaves together visual objects which are, in fact, keepers of memories in an illusion that plays with the threads of time itself. His artworks are inviting and immersive, engaging the viewer with questions that have universal relevance. The lexicon of his practice explores the deep valleys between life and death, attached values and subsequent futility and plays to notes of the innocence in childhood when put in stark contrast with the darkness of reality. Shetty’s works are culturally grounded and contextually rooted and yet of wondrous appeal to anyone who encounters it. His seemingly simple juxtaposition invokes a visceral reaction in a way that sticks to the crevices of your mind forever. In an interview with STIR, Sudarshan Shetty takes us through pieces of his past, present and future.

An image of A Story A Song, an installation by Sudarshan Shetty | A Story A Song | Sudarshan Shetty | STIRworld
An image of A Story A Song, an installation by Sudarshan Shetty Image Credit: Courtesy of Leila Heller Gallery

Shraddha Nair (SN): Starting from the very beginning, could you share a bit about how the city of Mumbai influenced you as a child, and some vivid memories of your earlier years here, which remain with you still?

Sudarshan Shetty (SS): I grew up in a modest household in Mumbai. I went to a Kannada medium school as our father was very insistent that we had to have an access to the language. Although we hated it then, as most of the kids in the neighbourhood went to English medium schools, I thank my father today as I have an access to another world of language and literature. My mother-tongue is Tulu, which is spoken in a part of southern Karnataka. We still speak Tulu at home. My father was a Yakshagana Talamaddale artist. I would very often be taken to his performances. They would last all night. I loved sleeping to the sounds and spoken words at the performances. Through those nights, I often saw my father transform himself into the larger-than-life characters he played. There was a lot of music, songs and storytelling in the house too, my father’s friends would gather at home almost every evening, they would chat, argue, fight and sing and play music. My mother was also a great storyteller. She had a lot of stories in her. We would often ask her to repeat the same story she may have narrated earlier. Every time she would tell them differently.

These early influences have been a deep significance in my work. I saw the power of art to transform oneself or simply provide oneself the possibility of taking on another persona, very early in life, which I now often invoke and work upon consciously and naturally without a sense of duality within. At school, we had some very good teachers. BS Kurkal, who taught us Kannada poetry, was also a very good singer. He would very often compose the poetry and sing it to us in the class. I was very fortunate to have MN Prabhu as my art teacher, who encouragingly gave me free art material to paint as much as I wanted. I loved sports too.

I grew up in a very different Mumbai as you can imagine. It was a more nurturing city then, especially for the arts. When I was still in high school, I developed a fair amount of skills in painting portraits from photographs. I made a lot of portraits of neighbours’ dead relatives, which would end up on walls in the chawl houses with garlands made of sandalwood shavings. I had a local reputation of being an artist much before I went to the art school. 

The installation draws from a South Indian folk tale | A Story A Song | Sudarshan Shetty | STIRworld
The installation draws from a South Indian folk tale Image Credit: Courtesy of Leila Heller Gallery

SN: Your practice examines the value of 'art' itself in many ways. How would you define art and what about the surrounding economy do you find most frustrating or unnecessary?

SS: The underlying artifice of putting on a show of art is at the root of most of my work. It is like performing a role; work is produced and displayed. A role is being assumed in order to act out various invented rituals and ceremonies, either literally or at a poetic distance as an exploration into the efficacy and futility of objects as signifiers for an imagined life or even an imagined death. The value of the work, even if it's worthless from a certain standpoint, lies in the exploration of the emptiness inside all constructs that one may engage with.  

To answer the second part of your question - I think the social need for 'art', as we see it now, is on the wane. There was a time when art produced information. Today, most art that you may see is secondary or dependent on the information that is out there. For someone to decode an art object, one may have to access certain information that the experience of the said object is reliant upon. This can be very conformist - so as to conform to a generally accepted notion or images of the dystopic times we live in. I think more than ever, it’s an artist’s responsibility to bring art back, if at all, to the idea of 'avant garde'. To not only to produce information that has transformative power for the society at large, but also to find possible different ways in which we can perceive the world outside or inside of ourselves. The art industry, in the way it operates now, is not conducive to this approach, as it’s tied inextricably to the market forces and is controlled by a very small group of people in the West. To begin with, we must stop playing 'catch up' with them. I hope this lockdown may help in restructuring some of the ways in which the industry and the art market conduct themselves.

A Story And A Song, on display at Leila Heller Gallery, Dubai | A Story A Song | Sudarshan Shetty | STIRworld
A Story A Song, on display at Leila Heller Gallery, Dubai Image Credit: Courtesy of Leila Heller Gallery

SN: I know that part of your process involves going to Chor Bazaar in Bombay and buying materials from there. Could you share a bit more about your relationship with the Bazaar and how, if at all, that experience directs your practice?

SS: I am fascinated by the way in which the second-hand market presents with an image of the world or a time gone by and that it determines a personal value for it - perhaps for each one of us. It offers a representative image of the cyclicity of a biological life - of demise and regeneration and the inevitability of it. Not all my works are sourced from the Chor Bazaar. I do collect a lot of material for my work, which may have belonged to dismantled structures or homes in and around Mumbai. I want to be the part of an economy that is possibly underground, that depends on recycling of these material that is salvaged from various forms of collapse and restructuring of urban topologies. 

Shoonya Ghar is an architectural installation by Sudarshan Shetty | Shoonya Ghar | Sudarshan Shetty | STIRworld
Shoonya Ghar is an architectural installation, performance and film all tied into one Image Credit: Courtesy of Sudarshan Shetty

SN: How has your relationship with the city of Mumbai evolved over the past thirty plus years? When you observe the city today, in its state of lockdown, has this perception been pushed further? Does anything surprise you anymore about this place you call home?

SS: A lot has been said about the city by various people. I don't have much different to say. Much like any longer relationship, I too have a love-hate relationship with it. I have spent most of my life here. I belong here. I have seen it change over the decades. But one thing remains the same. It never fails to throw up surprises, both pleasant and unpleasant. Like I said earlier somewhere that… it can be like driving behind a tanker with the highly combustible liquid while being stuck in a traffic jam. There is a possibility for an explosion every minute. It can be a tough city to negotiate with on a daily basis. While at times it can be like being in a non-stop party. One can feel both like an insider and an outsider to this city at the same time.

The lockdown, and the silence outside our windows is remarkably surreal, and at times, unnerving. Besides the virus scare, to hear of the mass exodus of part of the population out of the city and the stories of pain and suffering is hard to swallow. 

A look at Shoonya Ghar, an installation inspired by a couplet by poet Gorakhnath | Shoonya Ghar | Sudarshan Shetty | STIRworld
A look at Shoonya Ghar, an installation inspired by a couplet by poet Gorakhnath Image Credit: Courtesy of Sudarshan Shetty

SN: You have long since been a sculptural and installation artist but you have also explored various other media. How has this experimentation informed your practice? What projects are you currently working on, and are there other forms of media which you might be interested in exploring?

SS: I have been interested in coming into my practice from the outside. To begin with a piece of text or a poem or a song or a story. This allows me the freedom to work with various mediums and scale that may appear to be appropriate at the time for the subject at hand. This also allows an opportunity to escape the mannerisms that one may acquire while remaining within the convention of a practice. This can come with enormous challenge of understanding various mediums that one may be not entirely familiar with, but most importantly it allows for the 'vulnerability' to play itself out. That vulnerability within the work makes it human and allows for someone to enter the work.

Before the lockdown I was working on two solo shows with two diverse ideas, now scheduled to open later in 2021 in France and in Germany respectively. I am also working on a collaborative video with a friend who works with sound that will be produced as soon as we can after the lockdown ends.

Sudarshan Shetty studied formally as a painter at JJ School of Art in Mumbai, India, but his practice has branched into sculpture, video and installation art ever since. His work has been exhibited at Tate Modern (United Kingdom), Fukoaka Asian Art Museum (Japan), Kwangju Biennale (Korea), Galerie Daniel Templon (Belgium), Akbank Sanat (Turkey) National Gallery of Modern Art (India), Gallery Ske (India), Bhau Daji Lad Museum (India), The Guggenheim Museum (USA), Jack Tilton Gallery (USA), Galerie Krinzinger (Austria) and many more. Shetty has also curated the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in 2016 and the Visual Art section of Serendipity Arts Festival in 2019.

Shoonya Ghar is an installation which is performative in its creation | Shoonya Ghar | Sudarshan Shetty | STIRworld
Shoonya Ghar is an installation which is performative in its creation Image Credit: Courtesy of Sudarshan Shetty

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