Abir Pothi catches up with artist, honorary chairperson Kala Ghoda Festival and former Abir First Take eminent jury member, Brinda Miller, to discuss art in the pandemic, architecture in art, and advice for contemporary artists.
Twenty years after it first began, one of the most well-known annual celebrations of art in the country went wholly online this time round, in February 2021. The Kala Ghoda Arts Festival (KGAF) of Mumbai managed to embrace the unforgiving digital transition amid the ongoing pandemic, and took what is traditionally a vibrant ‘mela’ of attendance and translated it into a buzzing online variation. So is this how things are going to be permanently now with the famous event?
When asked, honorary chairperson of the Kala Ghoda Association and a well-known artist herself, Brinda Miller, says, “While I do prefer the real-life version, there is bound to be a digital path ahead. It will be a combination, I think. These days, everything is hybrid anyway, and it will slowly come to that, even when Covid-19 goes away. People will still be talking about some aspects online, and some on-site. It is more because you start getting used to a certain way of doing things and can’t let go of it. That is one reason — the second is that this will let you try and take the best of both worlds. There are some plus points. Earlier, we had some people coming late to the festival saying they got stuck in traffic, now they may not be able to — but now there will be others who say they could not attend because their internet was not working! [Laughs] But yes, one can say this is better because at least someone in America or London can see our festival if they want to. That is one huge advantage of digital. And yet, the fun is in actually being with people. That is the one thing I miss, meeting people this way.”
Miller has been with Kala Ghoda as a volunteer since the festival first began over 20 years ago, and served as one of the first members of the Association. She professes that they never knew their small effort for the city would snowball into something as popular as it is today — but what they do continue to share is a wholehearted passion for making it a success.
For this reason, she feels, the name of the game is adapting. “However old you are and whatever age you reach, you have to adapt to any kind of change. This year as well, as much as I was reluctant, at the same time I acknowledged that we need to change our way of looking at how the festival should take place. The digital festival this time round, which was very exciting in some respects. It was an education for me, a learning that let me see a new side to the whole thing. Sometimes, I feel I am a bit challenged digitally. But I do think I have learnt a lot now. The younger crowd was very appreciative of the digital platform. Perhaps it is not entirely meant for older people, who find it a little difficult. But, we have developed a new audience and way of looking at how an art festival should be,” Miller admits.
But beyond her role as a director of KGAF, the pandemic has also taken its toll on Miller the artist, as with her other peers. “Like many others, I have been trying to say let us remain positive and try not to worry too much — but I have to admit that it is finally getting to me now. I am trying to work harder than ever, if not as hard as I can, at whatever I do. I have had a lot of time to create art, which is good. Initially, a lot of artists had said that they simply don’t have the inspiration to work through this crisis — but I think now we have to just work around it and be practical. We must also thank god that we may be in a better place than many others who have suffered tremendously. The point is to keep busy and not think too much. A lot of people are feeling low and depressed. They have to work around it,” she says.
So, where is her artistic instinct leading her at the moment? “I am working on an exhibition at the moment. My last show was called ‘Vanishing Point’, and it was slightly architectural and abstract — what I am doing now is still a continuation of that. I was to have a show somewhat earlier, but then the pandemic struck. Today, in the interim, I have given off some of the ready works to other people. So now, I am compiling again. There are a lot of different stages to my work. And, I have no problem with that! I do not mind that my work keeps changing. It is also changing to adapt to the times, and has become more happy and colourful perhaps. Because I think art is like that — it changes your mood if you have it hanging around you. I am trying to keep not only myself happy, but also want the other person who has my work to enjoy it — in keeping with the times.”
Miller is known for works that combine realism and abstraction in a strong amalgamation of architectural elements and abstract urbanscapes. She has experimented with various mediums, such as oils, acrylics, corrugated cardboard, cloth and metallic paper, and she is known to play with materials in a collage, creating three dimensional effects. “I usually work in acrylics, but also a lot of mixed media. I use numerous mediums, to add some texture, like thick paint, gold leaf, paper, or even wood sometimes. I find it eclectic, and my life is eclectic as well, such as in what I eat and what I wear. My art is an imitation of my life and also the other way around,” she smiles.
Asked about how architecture imbibes into her artwork, Miller explains, “I am surrounded by architects! My husband (Alfaz Miller) and both my daughters are architects. I see architectural drawings all the time and perhaps understand them a little more than the layman. And in that way, it has filtered into my art work… the lines, perspective, dimensions, depth — it is all a big influence for me. I enjoy architecture and think that it is one of the arts, after all. Architecture and art are related. Just like now, after being with Kala Ghoda for so many years, I have realized that music and art are related, as are dance and art… these are all visual and they all stimulate you in different ways.”
Circling back to KGAF, another one of Miller’s ongoing projects embraces her love for folk art, her cautious respect for the digital transition, and her beloved festival’s heft, all of which come together to help artisans overcome the stresses of the pandemic. “Art and crafts should go hand in hand. They may be going through a bleak period right now, but we must give them the opportunity to emerge from it, and must also encourage this by investing in their art. There is one such project I am working on through Kala Ghoda but by myself, a good platform to push arts and crafts in every direction possible. We plan on inviting artists and craftsmen to paint some spaces at Kala Ghoda itself, and in Mumbai, we can then hold digital workshops to train the artists to host online interactions. We also want to set up a payment gateway wherein people can come and buy their things. We will display these products on our website and put their things up, as well as train them to do the same — this is going to be their future after all, and if they want to reach out to more people, this is the only way. Our main challenge is not artists who live in the city — rather, it is those from smaller towns. There is a bit of a caste system involved here, with the former being quite savvy at what they do, in terms of PR et al. And then there are the poor ones who are equally talented but don’t have the tools or privilege to promote themselves. It is not like in the West, where people are seemingly more equal in terms of opportunities, also with so many grants being doled out.”
She rues, “The government does not support artists enough. There isn’t even a proper ministry of culture, or any promotion given to the arts. Everything is on paper, and that is where it remains. One is not able to push it forward and make it into a decent livelihood, for most artisans or artists. And, it boils down to education. Art education is pitifully poor — even other aspects of education are so mitigated that art education receives the lowest priority, as far as the government goes. And now, thanks to Covid-19, aid and attention to this sector is more or less down and out — these days, even corporate social responsibility (CSR) funding goes to Covid or health related beneficiaries. To some extent it is understandable — but always when you say art, the answer is ‘not now’.”
On a more upbeat note, Miller adds, “We really lack in art in public spaces! It is something I am very passionate about and I feel that art in public spaces is very important. Lately, in Mumbai, there has been a little bit of an awakening but… It all really depends on the government and how much they will allow. A lot of permissions need to be taken, and the authorities tend to get suspicious — why is this being put up, what is the purpose, etc. Everyone thinks too much about these things. I hope there is change. Kala Ghoda is the only time of the year when we really do see art in public spaces. We at the festival have a lot of visual art installations on the street itself. In a way, again, it is an education for the public to see these things as they immediately identify with so much of it. Like a selfie point we did, for instance — we got a lot of criticism for it, about how people just come to take selfies. But I don’t see anything wrong with that. At least they get a permanent memory to take home with them that way. It is more exciting for young people to go around a piece of art and to be part of a piece of art. We should have more such art everywhere, even on the traffic islands on streets can have murals painted around them. And if none of this happens, I feel even planting trees can constitute public art! It is all part of the aesthetics and culture of a city, and I think we need a lot more of it.”
Any advice for contemporary artists? “They need to be more patient. Right now, they really need to put their heads down and do a lot of research on art, and perhaps learn a bit more about the history of art while they are at it, as I do not think too many of them know too much about it. When things open up a little, they should visit museums more — look at them virtually and even physically go visit and revisit them, see what they are about. Also, listen more. Be patient rather than just being stuck on the computer and phone. They should go and reach out for inspiration, and look for what they like to do the most. It is all fine to say I looked it up on the internet and I know this or that, but one needs to have real life experience to be inspired to paint or sculpt or design…” she says, and sums up, “All visual media like even cinema and of course digital media are witness to the fact that art is developing in wholly new ways. There are also NFTs and other new concepts — I do get approached for it, but I think I need to understand it more and do not see myself dabbling in it at all. I have sourced art online, but very little. It just does not have the same effect for me. Also, my own work is very tactile and dimensional. The whole dynamic changes when it is put online. So, to be honest, I try to avoid it. It is not a mental block, but it honestly does not look the same. As for sourcing art, I have always been very inspired by my travel. Now that it is limited for some time, one does have to change the ways of how they access art. What I try to do is look things up digitally. Meeting people also makes a difference so right now, I am making that effort to go out and visit people, even close by, while the weather stays inviting. We recently drove down to Alibaug, and soon I plan to go to Baroda and then Ladakh. I am finally feeling good about things and surely, that means even more inspiration will come my way!”
Photos courtesy Brinda Miller