Interview: Uta Ruhkamp with Reena Saini Kallat

Uta Ruhkamp: First of all, thank you very much for this interview opportunity. I would like to start with a very basic question, if I may. How did you grow up?
Reena Saini Kallat: I was born in Delhi, because my maternal grandparents were based there, but I grew up in suburban Bombay and went to a regular convent school. Many of my teachers thought that I should pursue art and represent the school at various art exhibitions, but I was quite keen on pursuing medicine. I lost my mother to cancer when I was very young, so in those years I had the idea that I wanted to find a cure for cancer once I grew up. I had many interests as a young girl. I learned classical Indian dance (Bharatanatyam) for about eight years and considered taking it up seriously as a career, besides being interested in child psychology and journalism. Seeing my sustained passion for art and architecture, my father further motivated and encouraged me to enroll in art school. I used to collect magazine clippings and old books on art, which became a way of getting introduced to the lives of artists and to the way they think. While there was a vibrant group of students at the Sir J.J Institute of Art in Bombay, from which I graduated, the teaching approach was very insular. Whereas it was possible to learn drawing or acquire printmaking skills in the first couple of years, beyond that it was a lot of self-learning, spending time in various libraries, such as the American Library, the library operated by the British Council, the Goethe-Institut Max Mueller Bhavan, and places like the Mohile Parikh Centre for the Arts, where we had access to more recent art books and magazines.

UR: Since you mention the clippings, did you have any role models? 
RK: Yes, during my college years in the nineties I enjoyed following works by a range of artists young and old, such as Rachel Whiteread, Jenny Saville, Louise Bourgeois, Christian Boltanski, Anish Kapoor, Susan Hiller, Jenny Holzer, and later Mona Hatoum. In the Indian context, it was artists like Nalini Malani, Vivan Sundaram, Arpita Singh, Nasreen Mohamedi, and Mrinalini Mukherjee’s work with hemp that I really responded to. Without consciously being aware of it, I was instinctively more drawn toward work by women artists. 

UR: Did you ever feel limited in your choices? Do you think becoming a successful artist is more difficult for a woman? 
RK: I actually never wanted to see it that way. I believed that since my father had provided me with the same kind of education that my brother received, I was privileged enough to not make excuses for myself, that I had to have faith in my own competence before anyone else. I didn’t want to see being a woman as being disadvantaged in any way, no matter how close or distant this may be from reality. However, in retrospect—and I’m speaking here in more general terms—I would say it was certainly more difficult for a female artist to prove herself and be taken seriously than it was for a male artist. This is despite the fact that we’ve had fine examples of very successful women artists, writers, gallerists, and other leading cultural figures in India. 

UR: As far as I know, you began dealing with political and social issues in your work very early on. Did your decision to become an artist also come from a sense of social responsibility?
RK: I enjoyed a secular upbringing nurtured by liberal ideas. My father doesn’t practice a particular religion, but he respects most of them. I was raised with the belief that we live in an environment that is inclusive, that includes every possible religion in the world. Growing up in an apartment block in the suburbs of Bombay you had access to rich and diverse cultural experiences, running in and out of neighbors’ homes, which were always open. I think for me personally, as well as for a lot of other artists, the turning point was experiencing the 1992 riots in Mumbai, because in our lifetime we had never seen that kind of large-scale unrest, bombings, and riots throughout the city. We were still at art school when we began seeing the rise of right-wing fundamentalist thought and electoral politics dividing people by engendering hate and fear. I wouldn’t say that my decision to become an artist came out of a sense of social responsibility, but the nature of the work I was making certainly did change. 

UR: When we met last year during our first talk in your studio, you told me that your grandmother was from Pakistan. Is your concentration on border issues, especially the border between Pakistan and India, rooted in your family history?
RK: As a child during walks with my father on our building terrace, he told me intriguing stories about his home in Lahore, Pakistan. Although he moved to Punjab in pre-partition India after the premature death of my grandfather, after partition his eldest brother had to leave everything behind and start his life from scratch. Whereas my uncle shared a lot with me about our family history, having lost all of the old family photographs, objects, friends, and so on, both he and his wife always maintained silence around the events that took place during partition. A few years ago, I tried interviewing him when he was 91. He gave me a family tree he had made along with detailed handwritten notes that I typed out and sent back to him and the family. He recently passed away at the age of 97.
While flying across the border between India and Pakistan one night in 2001, I saw the “Line of Control” [L.O.C.] lit up like an incision on the ground. This was a chilling experience, and the feeling stayed with me for years. I made several visits to the Wagah Atari border, through which the highly controversial Radcliff Line was drawn during partition to the no-man’s land that was simply split one day. Yet it is more the social barriers between communities rather than the physical border itself that I constantly think about.

UR: Crease/Crevice/Contour from 2008 is one of your early works. It deals with the “Line of Control” between Pakistan and India in the region of Kashmir that was changed numerous times during the violent period after partition. You stamped the shifting line on the back of a woman’s body. The reference to the psychological consequences of partition is obvious. How did the work take shape?
RK: Crease/Crevice/Contour is a collection of ten photographs that traces the changing L.O.C. between India and Pakistan from October 1947 to December 1948, when the ceasefire line was frozen as the Line of Control. It refers to the first of the four wars fought between the two newly independent nations over the region of Kashmir, a dispute that continues to affect the geopolitics of both countries to this day and has left behind a deep sense of mistrust and many psychological scars.

UR: You used red ink for this particular work, causing the stamped form, which is made up of names, to look like a wound or a mark. What names did you chose, and why did you stamp them on a woman’s back? 
RK: The photo piece consists of the names of those who signed the peace petition drafted in 2004 by General Pervez Musharraf and Manmohan Singh, the Prime Minister of India of at the time. Within my work, the recurrent motif of the L.O.C. metaphorically points to various ideas beyond the notion of political demarcation. The photographs are close details of the back of a body featuring names applied with rubber-stamps; the collective cluster of names form the shifting territory between the two countries, manifesting as a residual scar of the ending dispute. I treat the body like a document, where the stamped names form what almost appears to be a wound, as you pointed out. Much of the anguish of partition was borne by women and children. Claiming ownership to the body was very much part of the history of partition, with women being raped and then their bodies marked.

UR: I’ve read outrageous numbers—men from another religion have raped 75,000 women. Is this something that is part of Indian history that people are aware of? 
RK: We don’t really study about this in much detail as part of our standard education system. Besides, there are different interpretations of the same events, with history being distorted on both sides to their own advantage. People forget these incidents, and sometimes it’s important to remind ourselves of the errors of the past so as to not succumb to the political agendas of those in power. 

UR: Would you agree that the commemorating function is essential to your work?
RK: While the act of acknowledging is in itself commemorative, I work quite intuitively, moving organically between ideas. In around 2002 we were witnessing the same prejudiced, narrow-minded approach to north Indian migrants, who were seen as outsiders in Mumbai taking over job opportunities from local Maharashtrians, not unlike what we’re seeing happening today to refugees on a global scale. I started using the rubber stamp in 2003 in a sculptural piece that accompanied a mock MOU (memorandum of understanding) I had drafted between the Republic of India and its citizens. This was to include names of the people from various regions in India represented within this document. It bore the preamble of the Constitution of India as a reminder of the promise of democracy, the values it stood for, and how these rights are often infringed upon. The stamp was seen as a metaphor for the bureaucratic apparatus that endorses, legitimizes, or makes illegal that which does not get sanctioned by the state. I was working from official archives and felt the medium had the potential that would allow me to combine image and text. I made a series of works called Synonym, portraits of migrants produced using hundreds of rubber stamps bearing names of those who had gone missing in various regions that I sourced from official police records. 

UR: So, your work naturally found its way into a culture of commemoration. You have missing people reappear in your works, giving them names, sometimes even faces. I think that this is an important feature of your work. 
RK: Yes, I think of the namelessness of individuals in this vast ocean of humanity, where they are often reduced to anonymous statistics. 

UR: Germany was divided as well. We reunited, however we are still reflecting on the differences between East and West, and prejudices continue to exist. I remember travelling in Rajasthan and going to Jaisalmer, which is near the border to Pakistan. I sensed a great deal of prejudice against people from Pakistan. Do you think that the violent chapter of partition still occupies the mind of Indian society? 
RK: Seventy years after partition, there are those who attempt to incite and keep alive fear and hatred not just between both countries, but also between Hindu and Muslim communities within India. Vote bank politics has deepened prejudices and divided the country along caste and communal lines. Having said that, it is equally true that there are those who visit Pakistan and come back speaking highly about the incredible warmth and generosity with which they were welcomed as guests from India. I think it’s important for us to vocalize our shared affinities, because all that gets reported on news channels is false propaganda, increasingly polarizing views, and constant updates on firings at the border across the L.O.C. Even a simple cricket match between India and Pakistan exhibits the intense sporting rivalry between the two nations that once shared a common cricketing heritage. 

UR: India is a secular country, a multicultural country with numerous religions, a caste system, and a lot of migration, such as, for example, refugees from Bangladesh, where climate change has worsened living conditions. Europe has also been dealing with an enormous influx of refugees. Did these developments lead you to produce Woven Chronicle? 
RK: Even in works I made in the nineties, such as Joint Family, I would think of the dichotomies between our deepening links and relationships globally and yet at the level of a family unit, families breaking down into more nuclear family set-ups. Between 2007 and 2010 I created the Synonym series we spoke of earlier, portraits of migrants who often live in the city and lack legal status and the associated rights. Ironically, even as cultures blend as the result of the greater mobility of people and dissemination of information than any other moment in human history, borders have become more and more controlled and monitored than ever before. Woven Chronicle traces the movement of migrants historically, beginning with the earliest migratory movement out of Africa, later indentured labor migrations, and more recently within industrial and postindustrial societies. The work was conceived as a wall drawing with electric wires, but I decided to treat them like yarn, weaving and knotting them to form the continents. The audio component resonates with high-voltage electric current sounds drowned within deep-sea ambient sounds, the hum of engaged tones from telecommunications, a mechanical-sounding drone, factory sirens, and ship horns that intermingle with sounds made by migratory birds.

UR: The whole process of knotting the world map is in principle a unifying, peaceful gesture. In contrast, the barbed-wire aesthetic relates to migration and separation. With the notion of cables as transmitters of communication you are adding a third factor, which is highlighted by the sound of the installation. Is this correct?
RK: Yes. I was thinking about the fiber optical cables that traverse the ocean floors, connecting us, and the way technology is really trying to unify, flatten the world with access to information. Wires essentially transmit energy and information from one place to another. Whereas technology and commerce are blurring geographic boundaries, there are inherent contradictions that the electric wires here seem to suggest both as conduit and barrier, serving on the one hand as channels of transmission, while on the other their linear formations evoke barbed wires or different kinds of fencing. 

UR: If you look at Woven Chronicle and all the migration routes, it’s striking that the whole concept of identity in terms of nationality can be questioned. There has been an enormous amount of migration from one continent to another, from one country to another. What does nationality say about us? Do you believe that the concept of national identity is an anachronism?  
RK: We thought we were transcending national boundaries, moving beyond borders. Seen globally, this kind of rise of narrow-minded nationalism is clearly regressive today. We live in a world that is highly connected through communication, and yet it seems as though the failure of communication is leading us to a kind of chaos and disharmony.

UR: I see two distinct characteristics in your work, disruptive and connective elements. This takes us as to the series Hyphenated Lives …
RK: The Hyphenated Lives series of drawings is a reimagining of fantastical mutations within the natural world. New hybridized species of birds and animals, trees and flowers otherwise foregrounded as national symbols from countries politically partitioned and proclaimed by nations as their own are combined, symbolically unifying the nations they represent. I felt the need to turn to species other than the human race to tell us how to share the planet, where the existence of one depends on the other, or the extinction of one species has an adverse effect on the other. The genesis of the series Hyphenated Lives lies in an earlier work I did in 2010 called 2 Degrees. This was part of the River Project at the Campbelltown Art Centre in Sydney where my longstanding interest in the relationship between countries politically partitioned but historically related was supplemented with attention on natural resources, which are often the root cause of conflict between divided countries. I think of land disputes that have remained the nucleus of the problems between India and Pakistan. We’re seeing the politicization of nature with wars being waged for control over water.

UR: And then you began conducting global research? You also reflected on the resources that Texas and Mexico share, for example.
RK: I’ve been reading about and researching countries that have been partitioned but continue to share their natural world and thus various natural resources. Beginning with India and Pakistan, Ireland and the United Kingdom, Israel and Palestine, North and South Korea, Austria and Hungary, the United States and Mexico, or the United States and Cuba. What usually begins with sharing the common waters of rivers that run between borders finally leads to the partitioning of the rivers. Whether it is the case with the River Indus between India and Pakistan, the Rio Grande that flows between the United States and Mexico, the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna River basin between Bangladesh and India, or the River Jordan between Palestine and Israel. In the series you’ll find images of two conjoined trees, with one half growing into the Banyan and the other into the Deodar tree, the national trees of India and Pakistan. The hybrids have been given hyphenated names signaling their origins: Ti-khor is the fusion of tiger and markhor, the national animals of India and Pakistan. Similarly, Sun-poe is the hybrid formed from the Palestine sunbird and the hoopoe, the Israeli national bird. I encountered reports where Palestinians allege that the Israelis had launched an international campaign to have the name of their national bird changed because they found the word “Palestine” objectionable, since the bird is on Israeli postage stamps. This got me thinking about how natural forms don’t belong to any of us, are not native to a particular land; about the porosity of borders and the kind of tensions that lie between them. 

UR: The series deals with geopolitics. I perceive Hyphenated Lives as an idea for a peaceful country union that you have take place in nature and that you present in the guise and with the seriousness of natural history museum aesthetics. 
RK: Absolutely. I felt that it was almost like nature trying to take over in defiance of the man-made divisions on the ground, demonstrating how we might cohabit this planet. These mutations can be seen as poetic provocations of a species that perhaps existed in the past, or a proposition for the future.

UR: You draw these hybrid trees and animals by hand, right? 
RK: Yes. First they’re sketched, then worked over with gouache washes, and finally rendered in charcoal. I later add the text notes and paste on the electric cables.

UR: Do you think this hybrid world is a utopian vision? 
RK: There’s always a sense of hope, and that lies in how we imagine our future and participate in creating it. It would be naïve of us to not recognize our interconnectedness and dependence on each other for our existence. Our actions impact not just the human race but millions of species with which we share this planet, with climate change influencing entire ecosystems and disruptions in the food web resulting in the risk of extinction. Both visions, dystopian and utopian, originate at the same point in our mind’s eye and are equally difficult or easy to realize. 

UR: I read that what intrigues you most are the ironies you observe. What ironies do you mean? 
RK: I think we need to recognize that while we may be free to make certain choices, we are perhaps entrapped by our own set of prejudices and partial truths based on our limited understanding of the world. The process of working is often a self-reflective critical journey rather than a moralizing one, trying to enunciate what is right or wrong. It often involves questioning some of our own beliefs formed by years of conditioning. We are a complex set of imperfections and dualities. 

UR: Another medium of reflection you use is language. In your photographic series Saline Notations, text written with salt manifests temporarily before being washed away by the rising tide. Where did they idea of combining text and salt come from?
RK: Salt comes from the sea, and in these works it goes through a kind of return to the sea. It is an essential ingredient of sustenance and of life itself, intimately linked with its capacity to preserve. Hence I often think of re-evoking existing texts in an attempt to resist forgetting them. Saline Notations have an element of surrender; their submission to the variables of nature incorporates time as a crucial element in their making. On the beach, I work with tidal calendars, sunset timings that become my collaborators. I often think of our relationship to the sea and the salinity levels of the body, having evolved from the Precambrian seas. The conditions under which these works are made are constantly changing. Like you pointed out, an idea is made momentarily manifest, shared, after which it is lost, the photograph being evidence and a record of these salt texts before they dissipate or dissolve back into the sea. It perhaps serves as a reminder of our fragile relationship with the natural environment.

UR: The Saline Notations are close to the work Echoes. We already talked about communication and your interest in it. Was it the motivation to work with language?
RK: The role of memory is something we understand to be a complex set of interactions between seeing, remembering, imagining; some shaped by language, some by imagery. While memory is the ability to recall the past, I’ve always been interested in its relationship with language, in how you understand and interpret the past. There is a fictional element in what we bring to memory through our unique version; usually all renditions are different accounts of what happened. While language is a tool, I’m interested in its limitations and when language becomes form and loses meaning. There is an overemphasis on articulating through the intellect, but we are able to communicate through many other channels, such as intuition; the body is also a communicator. 

UR: You occasionally work with existing texts, such as by Rabindranath Tagore or Amrita Pritam, and sometimes you write yourself. You raised a lot of questions in Echoes.
RK: Echoes literally came to me. It was like free-flowing writing that I envisioned in the form of a crossing between two sides. The text inscribed using salt on the beach unfolds a soliloquy. It is a series of reflections on our differing worldviews, their co-existence, and the gaps in between, spaces left for interpretation. These could be read as internal conflicts within the self, between two people, two neighbors, or perhaps even two countries. 

UR: You did a work with Rabindranath Tagore’s poem Where the Mind Is without Fear. I think it fits very well into the current state of a world having to deal with the increase of nationalism and terrorism. Is this something you had in mind? How do you see India after seventy years of partition? 
RK: Rabindranath Tagore’s words, written over a century ago, continue to resonate in today’s world, as he embraced humanism and universalism as opposed to the kind of narrow-minded nationalism we’re experiencing today. In the poem Where the Mind Is without Fear, Tagore articulates his ideas on freedom as being able to break free from close-minded thinking, and if you consider what’s happening both at a national and global level, it’s quite the other way around. We’ve had some of the best minds in this country, such as Mahatma Gandhi and Tagore, contribute through their transformative ideas, leaving behind examples for the rest of the world to follow. Despite that, seventy years post-partition we still seem to be grappling with some of the same problems we did on the past, and that’s why I believe that these words continue to remain relevant for us to this day.