Your work is highly political yet poetic and touches on a critique of India’s postcolonial constellation. Can you tell me how your art relates the inscription of memory and identity in this context?
Memory in a strange way rearranges our thoughts and ideas without necessarily paying respect to hierarchies. It can either be a leveler or play a dangerous role by triggering and inciting responses to particular hurtful episodes from the past.
There’s been a long history to the subcontinent and India has an enormous sense of self-gratifying pride embedded in the collective consciousness about being the most religiously diverse country. A national belief in a pluralist, assimilative culture is handed down to every child through the education system but this history is now tarnished with ever increasing sectarianism that is often based on old wounds being re-opened. Even if my work puts a mirror to these failings, the disillusionment is paired with optimism and hope for renewal. What often occupies my mind is the fate of an individual and how s/he is susceptible to being reduced to an anonymous and forgotten statistic, in the vast ocean of humanity.
In your new work created specifically for the Göteborg International Biennial of Contemporary Art, you are tracing the flows and movements of migrants across the world. Can you tell me about the significance of electrical wire, that you have chosen as your material for this work?
The flows and movements of labour migrants across the world have resulted in cultural exchanges not to mention the social and economic implications. It has not only allowed to free cultural identities from a physical place but see us all as entwined in a symbolic web as it were. When I was asked to conceive of a wall work for the Konsthall during the biennale, keeping the curatorial premise in mind I decided to work with electric wires to form the drawing that will trace patterns of movement of migrants globally, where multitude of actors interact without knowledge of the overall situation. I think of this work as a drawing project made with wires that essentially transmit energy and information from one place to another. It is said that the electricity is the same in all electrical equipment, but the expression of electricity differs from one appliance to the next. By changing the instrument of this quasi-cartographic drawing from say a pencil line to a wire, I’m interested in the notion of the map as dynamic, ever changing, streaming and transferring data with the global flows of energies and people, as the courses of these travelers intersect.
Maps are recurring in your work, can you tell me about the symbolic significance of maps and borders for your work?
Ironically, even as cultures blend with a greater movement of people and information than any moment in human history, borders have become more controlled and monitored than ever before.
While maps are meant to represent, classify or characterize territories, giving definition to places based on either their geographic or political separations, I often think of the psychological barriers that hold people and places apart more than the physical borders themselves. Hence you might find reference to barriers that evoke obstacles in the movement of people or the inclusions and exclusions within the democratic apparatus in some of my works such as ‘Colour Curtain’, ‘Synonym’ or ‘Light leaks, winds meet where the waters spill defeat’ modeled on the gates at the Wagah border, between India and Pakistan. By the repeated use of the map form of the disputed territory that lies between India and Pakistan, I find it has gained almost a third meaning within my work, as if a piece of land has come to symbolise human folly.
In your work ‘White Heat (The Ironing Board)’ you refer to the highly fortified relationship that India shares with its neighbour Pakistan and the uncertain nature of the peace process between the countries. Can you develop your thoughts on this subject in relationship to this work?
The relationship between India and Pakistan is not only fragile but fraught with tensions and the chasm of deep rooted prejudices continues to grow between Hindus and Muslims. Pakistan Occupied Kashmir has been the nucleus of conflict between India and Pakistan since 1947. Its territorial form like I said earlier has begun to function as a metaphor of this strained relationship between the two countries, within my work.
Both sculptures ‘White Heat (The Ironing Board)’ and ‘White Yarn (The Silt of Reason)’ are modeled after simple domestic objects. In case of ‘White Heat (the Ironing board)’ the oversized iron seems dysfunctional due to the surface being densely loaded with numerous weapon-like projections. On close observation one would find, amongst other weapons, truncated rooftops of religious monuments. The fabric that lies draped waiting to be ironed is embroidered with names of those who’ve signed the petition for peace between India and Pakistan along with multiple maps of the disputed territory between the two countries. One was in some ways engaging with the frustrations of the never-ending dialogue, where any attempts at ironing out creases in the peace process are sabotaged by conflicting interests and with the misuse of religion as a divisive tool by both countries.
Can you describe to me your artistic process? Most of your work is deeply research based, speaking directly to the historical and contemporary conditions of labourers and migrants in India. What is your strategy in choosing the subjects of your work? Are there any parameters you follow?
I think to develop an idea one needs to try and deepen one’s understanding of it, whether it is researching from books, sharing and learning through exchange with other people or gaining an experiential understanding by visiting places. At other times research can be just a silent search trying to understand something through the act of making. It is pretty much a combination of these that I employ but it is often the work directing me rather than the other way around. I began working with the rubberstamp as a medium since 2003, using it both as an object and an imprint, signifying the bureaucratic apparatus which at once confirms and obscures identities. I think of each name on the rubberstamp as being representative of an individual amidst hundreds of faceless people. The sources of reference for the names often provide meaning or give context to the different bodies of works made.
In case of the series of works titled ‘Synonyms’ I chanced upon the list of names, out of official police records of those who’ve gone missing in India, through a friend who was looking for someone missing. Although the names are of those officially registered as having disappeared without a trace, only to be listed as forgotten statistics, they form portraits of migrants, people who live within the neighbourhood. I wanted the works to resonate the same sense of loss without literally being depictions of those missing. The work stands like a screen forming a portrait with several hundred rubberstamps carrying names of people rendered in scripts of over 14 Indian languages. From a distance they come together as portraits, but up-close they almost seem like a circuit-board of rubberstamps. Making these works is a slow process but one that throws up sometimes unexpected and startling results. I first draw out the silhouette of the portrait on plywood and arrange the wooden pieces that comprise the rubberstamps. After painting the portrait on the uneven surface of the rubberstamps, the names are pasted and inked. These pieces are then transferred onto the Plexiglas where some additions and omissions lend the portrait its final character.
In regard to the formal characteristics of your sculpture and painting, what are your references and inspirations?
A lot of my work is modeled on the familiar, a pre-existing object, site or person that sparks off other associations and ideas. One alters or shifts meaning while trying to unlock and explore its potential possibilities. So there could be an inherent element of deception between what meets the eye and what underlies it. Process plays a key role in the work I enjoy making and I would like the formal and visual aspect of my work to engage the viewer in a way that it can be experienced both sensually and intellectually, provoking deeper psychological and emotional responses. Even though there are a large number of artists whose works have impacted my sensibilities towards art making at different stages, inspirations I think usually come from a wide range of sources from local crafts, film, print and television media, literature, poetry, architecture and history, including real life experiences that go well beyond the art historical context.