Abir Pothi in conversation with Rekha Rodwittiya, the contemporary Indian artist known for the fascinating magical realism in her art. A maven of metaphor, she also co-runs the The Collective Studio, Baroda. This is part one of the interview.
You have an amazing faculty with languages. We find with artists sometimes that they paint because they cannot express it in those apt words. So let me start with a basic question — about your process, from an idea to a form, where you come up with a work of art or painting. How do you go about it? Can you tell us how the work configures and forms?
I think one would have to accept and understand that as artists we are people who have territories of interest and engagement. Therefore, it is not just that we go from one work to another in separation and isolation. What we do is a kind of an interlocution with the outside world, filtering and absorbing, and perhaps in some ways chronicling without actually making direct narratives of the time and reality that we may exist in. This may sound rather abstract and oblique, but it is fact. I say this often and I can’t say it enough — in some ways, we artists are like gardeners or farmers, where we have tracts of land that are the mental landscapes we exist within, and we continuously find the most fertile spaces that accommodate the need-based crop or idea of the time.
As an artist, it has always been of relevance and importance for me to contextualize who I am. It comes from a sort of not just the here and the now of our existence, but also the ancestry that you place yourself within, both from the reality of what may be your actual spaces of belonging, like your parents and the genealogy of your family, but also the other genealogies — which are cultural, philosophical and ideological contexts as well. So you position yourself within these areas and find where your pulse resonates the most, and how you then articulate the sense of who you are by understanding the placement of yourself within the real world. For me, I am Indian artist, an Indian woman, and an Asian-Indian woman and so those facts obviously pin the tail on the donkey for me very precisely as to the framework of my identity. I also come from a privileged background and have had the privilege of education, and so all of these things offer the realm of probability and possibility to define what you do with your life and create the purposefulness from it. Art becomes one of those many things. I think too often we do not comprehend the magnitude of what being an artist means. it encompasses and takes in the entire world of your existence — everything that makes you who you are — whether one is a mother, daughter, teacher… all of this plays a role in how your perception gets fashioned.
Making a work of art is a process of excavating — like going to your fridge and figuring out what you will make for a meal, or going to your purse and thinking about what you will buy for your meal. My art is my meal. It is the sustenance of who I am, and what I would want to offer as sustenance to others.
I believe making a work of art is a process where you sit to discourse with yourself in the reality you find yourself in — in the age your find yourself in, in the politics you find yourself in; and this then becomes the notations from which you attempt to create a sense of meaning from as an artist, which you then put out to share with others. Meaning is, again, not something I wish to define as being merely something that describes. I happen to be a figurative artist and I use that framework of language. But there may be others who use differing language devices — and I presume that they, too, have methodologies that allow them to frame their creative articulation and offer it as a platform of discourse that goes beyond mere description alone.
You speak of the metaphors of a garden and farm, but there is also the forest inside! What happens in our surroundings interacts with us and influences us, and we respond to it in our own ways — which also makes it special and exclusive, making you what you are. How do you harness that forest of the mind, which helps you in configuring yourself in continuity? As you have had a long, interesting, meandering journey as an artist and an individual.
Again, I think it is really to do with what you do with your resources. For me, my resources have been very much by education and my life — the birth of being who I am. I think we all hold our political consciousness, and I am one such individual who holds it as a membrane, through which the osmosis of meaning is filtered. But this membrane that I possess is one that has been decided and selected by me. It is not just any membrane that filters. Therefore, what I choose to put on it or allow through it would always be via a selective process that comes from the space of who I am — what my birth has been, what my education has been, and what I have decided that my education will offer to me.
I know that perhaps I disappoint many people by not talking more in the framework of my imagery. I find that to be a little superficial, and not something that will really define my intentions to another. So in most discourses, I always try to suggest to the wider audience that it is not necessarily only the contours of what you are seeing, as in a figure or a motif, but what this evokes. For an artist, over a period of time, you amalgamate and put together a kind of lexicon of meanings, create personal dictionaries, sometimes to do with interpretations, or how you are decoding and archiving meaning. All of this becomes the vocabulary that you then have at your command, so to speak, or that you have with you.
And it is that which you sift through, and which you “arrange” to assemble new sentences of meaning. So just like the writer, author, teacher or orator may use in what we know as spoken and written language, we as artists use these other forms of language, but in the same way arrange them into semblances of delivery, which allow you through your own personal experience and journey as individuals to be able to walk into the territory of meaning.
Now what do I mean by that? Take for example war, or ostracisation within society, subjugation, love, or the ideas of family — there are many areas of collective empathy and collective meaning or experience that we share as human beings. If I mention to you in a conversation like this “the horror of the Nazi regime”, then I don’t have to say anything more, as we have already accumulated enough information, if we have been privileged to even basic education, on what implication of meaning that sentence holds. We don’t look at for example, a photograph of human skeletal remains of the Nazi regime from Auschwitz, or a photo documenting the horrors from the Pol Pot regime, or the images of tragedies from the bombing in Hiroshima, and find them jubilantly celebratory. You would have to have a very strange bent of mind to do that. Automatically, you are taken into that space of understanding where you place your sorrow and empathy. That is what I am talking about as an artist. That is what I seek through my imagery, and through my desire of creating a personal language. We must also believe that people, when viewing art bring their own cumulative experiences to discourse with what we are delivering to them, and are therefore able to understand, via these collective areas of commonly shared human emotions, the nuance of suggested meanings and the resonance of intention.
What influenced you to become a feminist?
I was born into the DNA of a feminist womb, which came from another feminist womb that then delivered me.
I will come to feminism in India in the next question, but for now, the larger question of feminism — I read that you were born into a cosmopolitan upbringing. Lots of people get those privileges in India, but not all people get into particular a stream of thought. What influenced you to get into this form of belief or conviction?
I have said it very often and I will say it again — I was brought up in a wonderful space of conversations from a very young age, where I knew what it was to be heard, to be listened to, and to listen as well. I think that in many ways it offers you a kind of backbone and spine to recognize that to really embrace the truth of what life is, is to accept that you have to hold accountability and responsibility beyond just self-survival. I was brushed with that just like how you put seasoning on a nice dish, and from such a young age. It became logical to what would make up my life-scape. I also feel art teaches you something that you can’t really describe, especially if you have amazing teachers. And that is what I had — a wonderful spectrum of teachers, who understood that teaching art is not about teaching skills alone. Skills can be picked up very easily with determination or with being earnest. But to be introduced into becoming a thinking individual who holds the framework of your own thought process to be internalized, and not merely where it is to be waved under the noses of others for effect! That is what people like K.G. Subramanyam, Nasreen Mohamedi, Jyoti Bhatt, Peter de Francia — these luminaries gave to me, a person of very average intellect who had come with basic education from a school. But what I gathered into my basket of discoveries was that I had to be accountable to myself, and art gave me those wonderful openings, to see the chronicling of lives and history and stories told, which brought out the real understanding of what humanism is all about. Because basically that is what life is really!
We spoke on the telephone that day, which was a wonderful interlude, given that we hadn’t met physically or conversed before, and as I said then, life is something to be embraced. When someone gives you the keys to open up your own world through education, you can’t throw those keys away. You just can’t! You are obliged to find the correct lock, and take off the rust of the key, see that you keep it well oiled and then see how one key can perhaps open up many locks. Art does that — because within art, you have philosophy, within which you have so many things that allow you to understand cultural differences — to find compassion and empathy to things that you may never actually encounter but which come to your doorstep through the curiosities you can garner, if you garner them, into these worlds that others have already gifted to you. This could be through wonderful literature or cinema. This is what my teachers taught me — to hold curiosity, and not to just attempt to be this “finished product” of an art school, because in truth learning is an everyday process by which we attempt to live and experience life.
At some point of time, we get taught: ‘This is what you are’. Or it is a discovery of self and elements. Was there such a decisive point or phase for you, where you said ‘This is me’ and ‘this is what I always intended to be’? And then what happened?
It was nothing as exciting as that. I lived on an isolated Air Force base and didn’t go to school till I was seven due to ill health. I had amazing parents who understood that the imaginative territory of a young growing child was really going to be the kind of wealth you could give to her, and so I was a child who did a lot of drawing, as something that would hold my attention and focus. At a very young age, that is five, I sort of recognized that it was more than an occupational space. That is also the age I stated that I would be a painter, and my parents said, “Wonderful!” They would have even if I had said I wanted to be a bus driver!
I had wonderful, encouraging parents, who said my dream or proclamation is to be believed. So, I believed it, and became a painter. And that was it.
In my own journey — it may not be necessarily important for others to know, but — at the age of 13, I became someone who understood what life was going to be. My father, a fighter pilot had served in three wars — and in some ways, the reality of your own childhood can oblige you to find your maturity, which is not necessarily to do with the enactment of being grown up, but the maturity to understand that which you know you can’t comprehend, but you hold it with care. And I see that as a touchstone within my understanding of myself — that I would always take life very seriously. My family teases me that I don’t have much of a sense of humour, which is true, I don’t. I am this rather boring, serious fuddy-duddy old lady. But that is what holds my focus.
Well, some of your work has a lot of humour, or one can at least sense that the painter is amused, in small things. It also indicates that you are conscious and sensitive. Which leads me to another question — we keep seeing things around our focus, in the penumbra as it were. You pick up things from there. It is a gift that doesn’t happen to many of us. How do you process that? Being an observer rather than a participant… things happen around you and you are conscious of them, and then they get play in your work.
You’re right and it is interesting that you make that observation about me, since we have never met! I am a little hyper-observant. I absorb things in ways that I don’t even realize is happening. But, I am a very visual individual. I think that is one of the things threaded onto what one would imagine you are pointing out. But for me, I think that every day is one day less in your life and so I think that I have cultivated a sense of intensity in relation to holding on to the idea that I need to make every day worthwhile, in terms of what I do with it. Questioning why I am placing myself in that time-space. One of the things we take so much for granted, but that is omnipresent, is sight. You are seeing things within that flicker within the peripheral space of the glance, and you store it like a recording. I have the habit of taking things out of my memory and examining it in strange ways. I don’t sit and say I am going to remember anything in particular. For example, for years when I would travel by rickshaw — which were beautiful, democratized spaces of travel — I would see the same space I was travelling in every day, but find myself looking at it with the same intensity as the first time.
I understood that maybe this is part of what I learnt from being a photographer. You can look at the world in ways that you can pick and select the frame to freeze. And in doing so, you don’t necessarily make it more special than others — you are just archiving it because it came into your purview, and you then examine it later. In some ways, photography — because I did a lot of it, and I love the idea of looking through into “the other” — is something that maybe brought this about.
In relation to my work, it is recently something I am doing, wherein I place multiple images that I have associations with, directly or obliquely and this becomes a personalized museum of sorts, so to speak. I am using the word ‘museum’ loosely to be a space where I arrange everything taken out of my head, but place it within a connectivity of how it will exist within the “architectured” space of thought that is my construct — and where I place my intention to evoke its meaning.
Can we touch upon your mentoring? You have spoken about being mentored by good art teachers in Baroda and London.
I went to England because I wanted some distance away from India at the time, for me to perceive India better. I don’t mean in a political way, or that I was doing some research. But all that I am is from the ethos of being from this cultural territory. Secondly and more importantly, I had exhausted what the college could give to me. In no way do I want to sound arrogant and state that I was such a great student that I had nothing left to learn, but I am talking about the ethos of the time. It was a very interesting and fecund time of art practices, with wonderful contemporary artists who were also teaching at Baroda. But some of the prevailing preoccupations were not necessarily those I was engaged with. Gender and gender politics was something so absent in the interest of others. There was a prevailing Socialist-Marxist view of investigation, which often became the premise by which political spaces of discourse within the arts were engaged with. We were also in an exciting time of finding and structuring discourses within contemporary art about new languages — narrative traditions were being examined, and we were looking at the importance of indigenous and tribal and folk practices and vernacular factors as significant to be engaged with. We were also addressing the problems of being part of a colonial history. All of that was very exciting, but I felt there was something I needed to step away from — in order for me to know I was going to engage with something from a position and premise that made more sense to me, rather than just being part of a certain set of enquiries, which exciting as they were, were not necessarily the right fit for me. Maybe I was the child of that era, so in many ways I just absorbed it all as my entitlement, which is what children do. You are gifted these things by those older to you. These territories of enquiry then became something I could take for granted. In some ways, that is a wonderful thing that education allows you to have.
Going to London for me meant being economically well taken care of on a very well-paid scholarship which allowed me to take that sense of time, where I could examine and engage with myself with a distance from myself. I have always been a bit feisty. It is part of who I am and a choice I make. I am also not someone who lays myself at the altar of submission and so I entered the Royal College of Art, London, (RCA) and though I engaged with some wonderful teachers, I obliged them to engage with me on my terms. Why I say this is that very often, I have witnessed with my contemporaries who were studying there at the same time and before me as well, the tendency to be overwhelmed by the views held about India — especially in those days coming from what was termed as the “third world”! So often I used to flaunt it as a kind of abuse, in a semi jocular ways. So for example when I was given a space I that didn’t feel was appropriate to my requirement I asked them if I was being given the “third world space” — which of course got me shifted out immediately!
I had chosen to study under Peter de Francia because he was well versed with the contemporaneity of India and not the classical traditions alone. And so I wanted to have discourses with somebody in this space that was very precious for me, because time was very important for me —and to be able to do it where I did not have to explain everything. Therefore what I always say to people who ask me about London is that I went like a good traveler — I took some luggage with me, and did not go waiting to be given the charity of ‘new clothes’ to wear. I took my luggage with me because I was already a mature student. I understood that I had learnt something that I had wanted to learn, and I wanted to now expand it, even if it was to throw it away — the choice would be mine and I would have something to throw away.
It was a very important time in my life for me. I have always been very disciplined in terms of time. At the RCA, I did a three-year course in two years (something that scholarship students were offered); I did 200 paintings, many of which are now with people who care for them. Let’s not go beyond that — I am not interested in naming collections and all that. That is not the point of this conversation. But I think if your work is “received” by someone — then that means it holds something that is to be taken seriously. I also wrote a thesis and really used every minute of my time… I travelled for four months out of those two years… and yes it was a very exciting time to issue to myself my own identity card. I could issue to myself the formulation of an identity that had all this time been gestating and readying itself, to then be held with more clarity.
What was your experience with Nasreen Mohamedi? She had gone there some years before you and made her own space…
She was my teacher in Baroda. She was actually hired to be faculty by Subramanyan — which is an interesting fact because as we know them, they are like chalk and cheese. But how amazing… because they both held the spectrum of the most wondrous, avant-garde, new, well-understood ideas about what contemporary Indian art was all about. They came from different trajectories of learning, but held such a lot of similar wisdom. So yes, Nasreen was my teacher in India and very strict. She has been a teacher to many. I was no “favourite” of anybody’s — but she has impacted me. I carry her legacy as precious, because she gifted me a teaching that I should never ever squander.
And what teaching is that?
She taught me that if you could do X then do Y, if you can do Y then do Z. There are many such instances with her that I remember. I remember going to college with stitches in my stomach, which burst when I was working and my dress got soaked with blood. But to me it didn’t matter —I took such things on my chin because of the kind of rigour of learning that I could see was being offered, and the kind of expectations that people like Jyoti Bhatt and Nasreen Mohamedi held for me. This allowed me to understand that you have to push yourself — sometimes even physically — in order to be able to transcend these spaces of your vulnerabilities, and really maximize how you use your time. I have often in my early years as a student and even as a young artist, lived by a timer. I would put it for 60 minutes, be reading something, and when it went off after an hour, go and complete something else.
I am also a mother, and I have a 42-year-old son, who is not a child born by accident. I decided to have a child early in my life because I had some health issues and made the decision to therefore conceive early. I am a hands-on everything. I believe you have to grapple with life and come up not just a survivor, but really standing tall. This is what I actually learnt from people like Nasreen. I don’t want to descriptively talk about the time she passed away but she had a very difficult ending to her life. However, she never compromised and worked in the most difficult of situations. And her work was such, where the smallest of mistakes could not get rectified.
So what are we next to these kinds of examples — nothing! We learnt a lot. Therefore the only way you really carry forth anyone’s legacy, if you believe in it, is to live those principles that they so generously allowed you to see.