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‘The imaginative landscape is to think about and bring about the hope of change’

Abir Pothi in conversation with Rekha Rodwittiya, a contemporary Indian artist associated with the Baroda School, known widely for art that masterfully wields allegory and surrealism.  This is part two of the interview. You can read the first one here.


You are a mentor to young artists and have been a teacher yourself. How do you see mentoring for Young Indian artists these days?

I remember telling you on the phone that the word mentorship doesn’t apply for me. I am not anybody’s mentor. But I thank you for generously believing that I may be.

If not a mentor, then a friend, guide and philosopher maybe?

No, I have just been a teacher. And a very kickass teacher at that!

I have taught for many years and chose to teach in non-institutionalized ways, not charging any money and not making The Collective Studio Baroda a registered NGO or anything, so we don’t get any tax benefits or any such aided assistance. At the end of the day, I have this very simple philosophy that in a country like India, we don’t really have enough art institutions either in the past or even today. Recently we have just a few private art and design institutions that have come up. This is point one. Point two is that I don’t believe that the curriculum of art begins and ends from 8 am to 12 noon. I think it is something that has to be integrated into your life in a way where there are people around you who believe that it is a 24×7, 365-days till the number of years you may live pursuit.

So (when I returned from London) I began to see that there were not the same rigours of teaching being applied. It isn’t to say that we haven’t had wonderful teachers till today in colleges, yet somehow the institutions themselves have left much in question and deteriorated in standard — perhaps from the politics that exists inside educational spaces as well as the external interference from political parties — this and many other factors have all encroached into the dilution of the quality of education within fine art and design institutions. Therefore I feel there is more and more need for people to be able to find proper belief.


I love the fact that there is a good, pulsating art market. Money and art… forget about it, it is not a big issue. But what I do feel is that you can’t believe you are ready to be this high-priced, high-selling whatever when you are in a premise of learning; and that learning can extend for many, many years. And therefore there is a certain humility with which one must have a self critique. This is all combined with the fact that I found that many people desperately needed to be believed in and to be heard. That is what really started it off.

You know, there is something about the simple act of faith and belief. It is a transaction you can’t really explain. People ask me and recently I have been asked this question a number of times — have I been disappointed with some of the people I have engaged with? Of course that happens! But in the larger picture of placing ones purposefulness, what does it matter if somebody exploited you a little bit or thought they could get something from you which was not really the agenda? It is okay. We are not sitting here as judge and jury. You let things go, and it teaches you. In some ways, it allows you to realize more sharply what you need to do, so that you don’t get sidetracked.

But I am a very, very, very tough teacher.


What does it amount to? I remember strict headmasters used to make their students ‘murga bano’, when I grew up in Chhattisgarh and other small places. That is my idea of a tough teacher — exacting, punishing and provocative.

I am very exacting of my student’s time, because I am giving you my time and not taking any money for it. So let us be very clear about something — first of all, I cannot make you an artist. It is not something I can do. What I can do is — I can believe in you. I don’t care where you come from, whether you’re rich, poor, whatever. I am not interested. What I am interested in is — are you a believer in yourself? Do you really, really desire to be something?

I have had kids be with me for five and six years and then completely changed their direction to become a designer or something removed from fine arts, and I have said — that is fine! I have stood up for them with their parents and told them that an education does not have to take you to this canvas and paper and print and exhibition. What any education should do is to take you somewhere. And if this individual wants to be a designer or animator, all of this experience is going to serve them very well. Honour it. It is okay to have differing journeys. You have someone like Arundhati Roy learning architecture, becoming a filmmaker and then one of India’s most eloquent writers. It is her journey. She believed in it. You have to believe in other people.

I am not here to make someone into anything. If somebody comes to me because they want to have a place where they can find instances to be able to excavate and engage — our library is open to them — we also used to have studio spaces open for them till recently;  so you are welcome to come in if you don’t have other opportunities available to you. But then, you have to work according to what I believe is the timetable that will effectively utilize your time to imbibe. Then I am not interested in all these romance stories etc. because I have no time for all that. The question I pose is — are you ready to pledge yourself to three or four or five years of just really putting your heart and soul into the pursuit of your art practice? It is a dedication and you dedicate yourself to this involvement with yourself — and you don’t look to see whether there is a reward within all of this. Your dedicated pursuit of learning will give you something if you are honest to yourself. I don’t seek therefore that your honesty is directed at me — what I insist is that you remain honest with yourself because that is most important.


For years, I have worked strange hours. I would go and take a round of the studios at 3 am or 4 am as I am painting at the time. I have also opened my personal studio to many artists to come and work there as well. But, if I see you dozing off it simply defeats the purpose of the intention of why you are embracing that disciple of time management.

I just want to say one more thing in relation to the way we approach/approached our teaching. One thing we are very clear about is that we always want individuals to maximize how they can find information in terms of opening up their scholarship. So reading programs, watching really good films, art history, political history — these are all part of things that are obligatory if you are going to be part of any learning program. There is a rigour that we put in, and it is not anything prescriptive. We don’t have some syllabus charted. We try to tailor-make the exposure we provide to learning to every individual. We also believe that the individual must be stay healthy, so there is a certain way of living, with exercise, good food etc. that we insist on. We also open up our entire personal world. So therefore tomorrow, if you were to come and visit me, you would meet whoever was there at that time. We accord all our students and artists with the same sense of importance and respect that we hold as relevant for ourselves.

So though I often shy away from bringing attention to what we do, as I don’t really like the big haloes people want to place on their heads for what they do — however since we are talking to a larger audience, I do want to say that The Collective Studio Baroda does many things, but the most important thing has been to offer faith and belief to individuals.


Being a feminist, what do you tell young girls getting into art now and trying to make a space or find their own form or journey?

As a feminist, I don’t see feminism — and I am sure you agree as well— as the prerogative of only women. So when you ask me about teaching female students — so gender and gender politics and the correct mindset to how we deal with gender equality is something that needs to be a societal positioning of every individual. One has to be respectful to the premises of difference. I brought up a male child — he is 6 feet 4 inches tall and has huge muscles, but that does not make him a chauvinist. What you gift to everyone, and especially to the male gender is a different gaze. And the idea that misogyny and the entitlement of being male, or the idea that because you are male you are entitled, needs to be put to rest.


And here again, I would like to say — and I am sure I will get myself into a lot of trouble — that our political will is just not there to create a shift in mindset as to how we address gender issues. We are still at the stage in our country where we think having a male child is what will give us more grace and entry into family status. We still have abortions, female infanticide and dowry deaths occurring. The list is long. We have many things that degrade the dignity of a female existence.

Now in relation to how I deal with my female students, I walk a very tight rope, because I care a lot for their safety and you cannot really change the world. But what I do care most about is that they understand they are equal to all. I do not teach them any differently than how I teach my male students.

I also think today we have a far greater contemporary history of female/feminist endeavour. Once again I will say that there are lessons of feminist examples that cut cross all economic spaces. So it is not merely something you pick out of a library and read about it, but also to recognize its existence in the rural belts of India, and in the places where the anonymous women have really outdone us with their courage and conviction to live their lives with their feminist actions, with femininity as their birthright.


What is your daily routine these days, especially during the Covid pandemic? Did it change anything or has it remained, the way you work and live?

Covid has not really been different for me within my studio practice. Has it been different for us as a nation? Of course! To witness what has been happening in India and the world over… but my concern is India. I would have to say, if I talk about it from a personal perspective, that I am deeply saddened by the leadership of my country. I am deeply saddened that my elected leaders have not had the conviction to lead by example, to put out things as parliamentary mandates that curtail these strange needs we seem to have for political rallies or for all religious or cultural festival across the board. All of this should have just been packaged off. You have children who have not been able to go to school, board exams being cancelled — and then you have these huge political rallies and people jumping into holy rivers, or discourses of people on media platforms trying to convince citizens that this is not something curtailable?! I find this hugely problematic. I also find it farcical that people are putting things like curfews into place only after and when it suits their political need. I am deeply, deeply disturbed by this.

To get back to what Covid is for me as an individual — I must say that again, I am deeply privileged to be in an economic situation that allows me the knowledge that I can be safe. Hopefully. If anything does occur. In relation to how Covid has been for me as an artist, as I said, it has not really changed my studio practice. I have been working as I do. I am a bit of a mole in a hole.


What is your schedule like?

How is my day? Like any other. There were certain things I used to enjoy doing once in a while before the pandemic, like going to a cafe and having some coffee with my young artist friends, or things like that, which today I am a bit skeptical of doing. The one thing I have changed in my routine is I have stopped working till 4 am and 5 am, because I have a slightly impacted immune system, so I did not want to run the risk of falling ill. But otherwise, my workday can exist up to midnight. My partner Surendran (Nair) is also an artist, so when he comes back from his studio (my studio is within our residence), I take time off for family — we sit together for an hour or two, and have our meal together. We also have a wonderful young artist, Ankush Safaya, residing at our home with us at the moment, as part of The Collective Studio Baroda residency program. So we also try to create a space wherein he has time with us to engage in his world of ideation. We further have another Collective Studio Baroda associate, N. Divya who is a painter, who is often with us. So, we have these pockets of interaction.

And also over the period of this pandemic, except during the lockdown, we have attempted to, as artists, interact responsibly with a few other artists who are very close to us, in order to keep that balance of a new normal. We are fortunate to have a large space as our home, so we can keep that physical distance that allows safety.


However, what needs to be remembered is that for me everything revolves around my work and because I am someone who is disciplined in everything my home is well kept and all things within my life I manage with deliberated consideration. I think any sensible individual would do that, man or woman.


If Rekhaji as she is today meets 20-year-old Rekha now, over a coffee as you said earlier, for about an hour — what would that conversation be about?

I think I would see perhaps in that young individual the possibility of somebody who would be able to grapple with life without compromise, and hold her integrity to her reality. Also, if I was 20 years old today, I would be gifted with a lot more access to certain spaces, which would allow me a different journey of independence or affirmative living within my philosophical space.

The one thing I love to see these days are women and how they dress now. Forget the aesthetics — they can be quite ghastly from time to time. But I do love these ladies who wear tight T-shirts and tight tights and just own their space of believing that “this is who I want to be and this is who I will be”.

These are small examples of people understanding that they are going to be comfortable with whom they are, and the definition of their domain — that they will make decisions on their representation and identities.

One may giggle over the terrible aesthetic, but at the end of the day, I am so proud to see their insistence on the assertion of their identity as modern women. It makes me feel extremely proud.


If you have a bird’s eye view of Indian art right now, compared to what is happening globally — the way we see artists like Ai Weiwei or many from the Middle East or even Black Lives Matter art in the US — it is far more disruptive out there. How do you see it? Are we able to make or break politics and statesmanship through art, and enhance our own conversations in society?

It is a very interesting question. I am going to start slightly obliquely. It is an interesting thing that despite the problems we face in India today — and we certainly do — I think we are seeing a kind of regime and conservative pull, away from what the initial constitutional normative ideas were ever meant to be. But having said that, and within the knowledge that we don’t really have free press any more, or many of these things that we once very much took for granted, like when I was in my ’30s and ’40s with the idea of what a secular nation is – I still have to say that maybe because the country is so huge and we are always in some chaos or the other, that we somehow manage to get away with art that holds subversive content because maybe it escapes the focus of the individuals in power, or maybe they are not even that astute to understand when commentary or critique is really being presented. But has there been a clampdown over the last 10 years? Yes and I think what is frightening to see is that we have had a lessening of the kind of spirited positioning of dissent, especially through the arts or cinema, because there is a growing moral vigilantism that has taken root, and is supported by the popular voice. This in my opinion — this popular voice that “speaks for all”, has become the most dangerous thing we see today.

Most recently — forget what the truth of that story was about Rhea Chakraborty and Sushant Singh Rajput — what we did was so criminal! The manner in which we voyeuristically enjoyed devouring and assassinating an individual in ways you would not even do to an inanimate object, which you would even throw away with more respect. I am seeing this increasingly. Has it impacted the art world? I do think so. We don’t really have artists’ voices that are able to stringently address these political issues, because perhaps it may not necessarily be a part of their territory of concerns.

Having said that, I am living with an artist, Surendran Nair, whose work is always very obliquely referencing certain critiques. We both have stood to being attacked through censorship in different ways. But, today’s governments are not that interested in the cultural territory, because they have already silenced it a lot.


So, we don’t really have alternative spaces that will do things that can accommodate or encourage articulation that is related to any form of dissent — because people will immediately start off saying that this religious faction has been offended or that political party has been attacked! We will always end up finding legal ways to bring such pressure. Look at that poor girl who got arrested in Bangalore (Disha Ravi). So, when we talk about the imaginative landscape of an individual, we are not necessarily talking about imagination as a creative device that manifests only in painting or sculpture, etc., but the imaginative landscape of any individual to think and bring about the hope of change, like when it comes to issues related to areas like climate change. What will we do when we try to suppress the voice of youth and such forms of expression? You are quite right to point out that we don’t have those types of artists whose art presents this, and we also don’t have systems that would protect us. We get into these long legal wrangles and our judicial systems are such that you are left jumping from one court to another. It has been a clever device by political factions that hold power in our country to ensure that we toe the line.


It is a big challenge. We have seen it manifest in literature, art, poetry, movies — like film from Iran, art from China or the Czech Republic, all amid suppression. So, are we not suppressed enough to come up with our best forms of art and articulation?

(Laughs) There is amusement in the way we banter about perhaps waiting for further forms of oppression before we challenge more openly — but there is a serious undertone to this premise. If you look at the world over and India within this ambit, we are all taking ourselves to some sort of strange brink of disaster. I am an atheist. I am not religious, so I do not mean this from any spiritual connotation. But just look at the manner in which we treat humans, the planet, resources… the idea that things are just going to be there only for us as long as we need them, and we don’t have to bother about anything else. We are going to be obliged to face true crises much more than we are facing even now in this pandemic — which is a horrible thing to say, but true — before we recognize and understand what we need to do to stand up and be counted.


I am 62 and I have seen that this is not the India I believed I was working towards. There are many disappointments I hold towards my India. I live here by political choice, so I have the right to hold a critique about it. The moment you openly articulate your critique, you are seen as anti-national — and that is the greatest folly being fanned. Unless you show how grateful you are to everything that exists within this territory, you will be deemed as anti-national. Of course you aren’t! I will chastise my son even at the age of 42, because he is my kid. I am not going to go look for my neighbour’s child to chastise and tell my own child, “Chalta hai beta, it’s okay whatever you do.” It is within my background, within my playground in my backyard, that I need to address my issues. India is my issue. We should all realize that healthy critique and dissent should not be seen as a violation of constitutional norms. It should be upheld as being healthy for a democracy, and a constitution that should function correctly within a democracy like ours has all these spaces for it. It is the manner in which it is being interpreted today that is stitching the mouths of all of us.

You are right — we have many things in our country that allows us freedoms that many others may not have. But having said that, why is critique seen with such negativity? India, as she progresses after all these years of independence, should be able to pull up her socks and get it right.


A last question. Where do you draw your hopes from, when you talk about such times and difficulties? There is a very interesting statistic — the median age of India is 28. That means half our population is 28 and below. I draw a lot of hope from this raw bundle of energy that will deal with all this, because they will not be looking so much at the past and roots we have, but will be much more bothered about the future. Where do you get your hope from?

I would just address the idea of youth to start with, before I talk about where I take my hope from. I am a die-hard optimist. So, I oblige myself to hold hope every day. Otherwise, I would see little reason to live. Where do I draw it from? From the hope that there is realization in my country after so many years of Independence that we are still not addressing issues to do with people who have been so marginalized. I draw hope on a daily basis that better sense will prevail and hopefully contributions in the tiniest possible way will add to the pool of purposefulness and positivity.

But that apart — when we talk about the youth of any space, and certainly of our country, I am a firm believer that the future lies in their hands. On the other hand, when I look at the manner in which you see young people today so single-focused on their little mobile screens, playing these strange games… I am left wondering! I am the first person to laud what a gift technology is, in terms of what it has done for science, resource development, medicine, education etc. — it is just phenomenal. But when it comes down to the individual and how one develops oneself, it is the saddest thing to see how we abuse technology and create zombified young people, whose only concern primarily is to entertain themselves endlessly. And we are pretending that this does not exist! We pretend it is okay, and that they will become responsible people as adults over night and navigate the future correctly. But I don’t see it that way at all. When you have young people videoing rape and circulating it — and when such types of abhorrent behaviour and attitudes get perpetuated as “entertainment” — then we really need to sit back and wonder what the hell we are doing as a society.


One last thing I would say — no future is ever absent and cannot be formulated unless you have a very good comprehension of what your past has been. So history, in every sense of the word, has to be known and understood and positioned. You have to take a position to know where you align yourself, to the lineage of where you come from, and where your country is placed within those lineages as well. For example, for many years when we were young artists our contemporary art from India was looked at as derivative of the West. We have gone through these strange assumptions and taken decisive positions to create new narratives that represent our collective history more accurately.

So, it is very important for any young individual to be taught the value of recognizing the importance of knowing one’s history and what to do with it, in order to be able to imagine or envisage a future.

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