Meet this modern artist who converted Gandhi’s speech into a catacomb of bones
Jitish Kallat is a Bombay boy, born to Malayali parents who made the megalopolis their home.
At the National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi, where a mid-career retrospective of Kallat, “Here After Here”, is on, you see the charred remains of the speech. You see “tryst with destiny” as a dark shadow of its promise, a dream that has been distorted into a nightmare. The residue of that midnight hour. You see how “life and freedom” have been mangled. And then you see yourself, twisted, faceless in the mirrors that hold the speech. The mirrors are like urns holding ashes and your own macabre selves.
Kallat’s artwork Public Notice is arson unleashed on a golden hour. It mirrors the violence and vandalism of Gujarat. “By setting fire to it, I was replicating the riots,” says the artist, wearing a black jacket, black tee and black trousers, over cups of coffee at the American Diner at the India Habitat Centre in Delhi, as music belts through the café and coffee grinders moan — as unlikely a place as any to talk about riots. But at just 42, the soft-spoken Kallat shows an incredibly layered art, which often has the capacity to enthral and terrify at the same time. “I was thinking about the long history of human aggression. I was trying to read the present by recycling the past. And that speech was at an embryonic moment in our history,” says Kallat.
When Bones Come Alive
He gives old static text new contexts and forms. As you step into the NGMA, you find yourself in an ossuary — you see letters distorted into bones. As you make sense of the sepulchral text written in rows upon rows on the walls around you, you realise it is Mahatma Gandhi’s speech on the eve of the Dandi march. The great call for nonviolent resistance is violently, viciously reduced to its skeletal remains. Public Notice 2 is a gigantic work, but only a part of the 4,479 sculptural units is displayed at the ongoing show at the NGMA.
At a time when Gandhi has disappeared from the diary of the Khadi and Village Industries Commission, to be replaced by PM Narendra Modi, does the work lend itself to new readings? Kallat says he doesn’t intend his work to shout slogans. “I am not making a placard. I am trying to work through my own uncertainties.”
Curator Catherine David, who is a deputy director at the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the first woman to curate Documenta in Kassel, Germany, says Public Notice 2 in its entirety should be public art in India. But when public art means towering, nuance-less, super heroic sculptures, where is an open space for the bones of Gandhi’s speech in India?
If bones come alive in gigantic, arresting sculptures like Aquasaurus, Kallat’s great fascination with text comes to a climax in The Covering Letter — where the flickering contents of a letter appear on a screen of mist — but the projector was unfortunately not working on the two days I went to the NGMA. I leave it to Kallat to explain: “The shaft of light in that dark room is a letter. It has only seven lines. The letter that begins with ‘Dear Friend’ on July 23, 1939, you could think, is addressed to you. It asks to save the world from ‘a war which may reduce humanity to a savage state’. It is only towards the end of the letter that you realise that it was written by Gandhi to Hitler, just days before World War II. The great perpetrator of nonviolence writing to the most brutal perpetrator of violence living in the world at that time. As you walk through the mist, you occupy a space in their correspondence. You carry the letter in your body, the interplay of light and darkness, the possibility of violence and nonviolence. It is a moment for self-reflection.”
To the Extraordinary
Kallat is a Bombay boy, born to Malayali parents who made the megalopolis their home. The city hurtles through his works — the people who spill into the city as though from the mouth of the gargoyles and the menagerie of animals that grimace on the facade of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus; the street children who carry homes in their feet; the child drinking water from a kettle, the modern-day Krishna on the street, his body shining so black that it will stain your fingers if you touch him; the men and women carrying the swirling city in their heads. “The city is a vast congregation of people, the densest carrier of human story. All the spheres of life are animated in Mumbai. A single figure becomes the entire city.”
The photographs of ordinary shirt pockets become extraordinary passports to their lives in The Cry of the Gland, just as he animates dents on cars to stand for the scars and bruises of a city in 365 Lives.
While some of the mixed media on canvas can be a little underwhelming — and Kallat lays it all out, even works from his days at the JJ School of Arts — it is in the sculptures, videos and installations that Kallat’s ideas find the perfect, awe-demanding forms.
When he retreats from the city into the home, from the outside to the inside, the trope becomes the scarred and effulgent Roti Moon that waxes and wanes: the ordinary assumes celestial proportions, building linkages and transcendence that mark many of his works. Kallat’s art, as David says, is enlivened by “spirituality”. It resonates in Breath and Forensic Trail of the Grand Banquet to the moving Epilogue, where he retracks each of the 22,889 moons that his father must have seen in his lifetime — from April 1936 to the lone moon in December 1998. It is also the leitmotif of Sightings D9M4Y2015, his lenticular prints of seven fruits that he bought from the Pali Naka market on April 9, 2015: the colours of the fruits flip as you move closer, “peeling off the hallucinations”, even as the rinds seem to echo starburst galaxies. “We bring a thing closer to sharpen our cognition of it. I look at things at different focal lengths,” he says about the shifting of scale in his works.
If Kallat cremated Nehru’s speech, adhesive and fire return in Wind Study not as dark, destructive forces, but as creative elements. He would step outside his studio with a paper marked with graphite lines. He would then begin a long, immersive ritual, of setting fire to inflammable adhesive that he intuitively lays across a line here and there. “It is a conversation between wind and fire. I recede and let the elements take over.”
As a young boy in Bombay, fascinated by the advertising world of his sister and her friends, Kallat was drawn to two rather dissimilar spheres: hoardings and the tradition of ancient wisdom. He has, in a sense, fused these two together in his art.