On the occasion of our Special Issue dedicated to the India Art Fair in New Delhi, we interviewed one the most prominent artists of the contemporary Indian art scene, Jitish Kallat. Born in 1974 in Mumbai where he currently lives, the artist works with a variety of media including painting, sculpture, photography and installation. In his art and practice he develops his deep engagement with the city of Mumbai. Among his main topics the artist investigates globalization, urbanization, social and economic.
Appointed as curator of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in 2014, Jitish has participated in many art exhibitions and his artworks can be appreciated in the collections of several art institutions and museums.
Among his recent projects, the artist is currently on show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art with his installation “Covering Letter” and soon at the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi with a major survey on his career titled “Here After Here”.
Mara Sartore: As an artist you are mainly based in Mumbai but have had a chance to explore several other realities, also thanks to your participation as curator of the 2014 edition of the Kochi – Muziris Biennale. Could you tell us about that experience?
Jitish Kallat: I’ve always lived in Mumbai, it is the city where I went to art school and my studios are located here.
As the curator of the 2014 edition of the Kochi – Muziris Biennale, I had to shift my toolbox. The move from making art to curating is primarily a shift in ambience from the solitary reflections in one’s studio, to a space of dialogue with numerous artist colleagues. Drawing up two key episodes from the 13th-17th Century (the Age of Discovery and the work of the Kerala School of Astronomy and Mathematics), Whorled Explorations tried to bring together art-works that picture versions of the world referencing history, geography, astronomy, time, and myth… interlacing the terrestrial with the celestial.
M.S.: Your practice often includes the assemblage of different techniques: painting, photography, collage. I’m thinking of artworks like “Baggage Claim” (2010) which we selected as the featured image of our website. Could you tell us something more about this artwork and about your practice in general?
J.K.: My works often traverse various focal lengths and time frames. A progressively eaten roti might appear like a moon or x-ray scans of food might invoke celestial bodies. In other instances, a single figure becomes a carrier of numerous narratives, a head of a commuter could bear the weight of an entire city.
In “Baggage Claim”, stains and drips descend from beneath the mouths of the bronze gargoyles that are recreations from those that line the facade of the C.S. Terminus building in the centre of Mumbai, a railway station that sees daily traffic of a few million people. Each seated figure is a composite of many stories. Everyday imagery, traffic, people and animals pile up like a crumbling cascade of narratives, interlaced with the hair of the people. The black drips that also form a shadowy speech bubble have edges that form an urban horizon line comprised of factories, houses and water towers.
M.S.: Among your current projects, there is your solo show running at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. On this occasion you are presenting “Covering Letter”, an immersive installation you first presented in 2012. Could you tell us about the creation process of this artwork?
J.K.: “Covering Letter“, much like my three “Public Notice” works, reflects on an utterance from history that might be repurposed to re-think the present. The work is a piece of historical correspondence beamed onto a curtain of traversable dry-fog; a brief letter written by M. K. Gandhi to Adolf Hitler in 1939 urging him to reconsider his violent means. The short letter reads like a seven-line haiku. There is a sense of perplexity in the way that Gandhi words his address; as the principal proponent of peace from a historical moment, he greets Hitler, one of the most violent individuals of that era, as a friend. Like many of Gandhi’s gestures and his life experiments, this piece of correspondence seems like an open letter destined to travel beyond its delivery date and intended recipient – a letter written to anyone, anytime, anywhere.
M.S.: Another important exhibition, of course, is “Here After Here”, a major survey hosted by the National Gallery of Modern Art, in New Delhi which presents over 100 of your artworks. This would be a very precious occasion for people coming to New Delhi during India Art Fair to see the work of your 20-year career. How do you feel about it ? How did you arrange the path of the exhibition? What about your collaboration with curator Catherine David?
J.K.: When the National Gallery of Modern Art invited me to have this large, expansive exhibition, it felt like one would need to shift the direction of one’s gaze. As an artist, one travels from work to work, navigating between varied stimuli, ideas and inspirations. One doesn’t spend as much time looking back. However the last several months were spent going through old archives, art-works, etc. as two monographs were also being published. I’ve really enjoyed working with Catherine David; we met at various points during the year, whenever our travel itineraries overlapped. She spent a week at NGMA in Delhi and in my studio when we arrived at the broad structure of the exhibition which is non-chronological and connections are drawn across works from various phases.
M.S.: With the upcoming India Art Fair, New Delhi is becoming the centre of the contemporary Indian and international art scene, with the participation of collectors, art lovers and professionals. MCH Group has recently taken a co-ownership stake in India Art Fair. Do you think this may have an impact on the fair or attract a different kind of audience? For all those who are visiting New Delhi from abroad, apart from your show, could you suggest the not-to-be-missed art events/spaces in the city?
J.K.: There is always an increased density of exhibitions, talks and symposiums across Delhi during the India Art Fair, and collaterally, the entire art scene in Delhi sees a surge in activity at this time. There are always great exhibitions at Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, at 24 Jor Bagh programmed by Gujral Foundation, Khoj Residency, pop-up projects by Devi Foundation, etc. All of the private galleries have really good exhibitions at this time.
- Jitish Kallat, Baggage Claim, 2010. Courtesy of the artist
- Jitish Kallat, Covering Letter, Philadelphia Art Museum
- Jitish Kallat