When a poor Indian girl took her life because her mother did not have a rupee (15 cents) to buy her food, Jitish Kallat, one of India’s most important contemporary artists, could not but be stirred to produce art to reflect the tragedy of human life.
When anti-Muslim riots erupted in Gujarat state in 2002 after a train fire killed 60 Hindu pilgrims, Kallat responded with an installation of a “skeleton auto-rickshaw”, evoking the haunting images of burning vehicles during the violence.
A recent show in Delhi by the 42-year-old artist has similarly mirrored India’s current political and social anxieties.
With collections in many prestigious museums across the world and as curator of India’s Kochi-Muziris Biennale in 2014, Kallat is an significant artist with something sharp to say. His latest show has rightfully generated much conversation.
Curated by art historian and curator Catherine David, the show, Here After Here, includes over 100 significant drawings and paintings, photography, video and sculptural installations produced by Kallat from 1992 to the present.
“I’ve drawn the title from an earlier video work of mine titled ‘Infinitum (here after here). I think it conflates space and time in a way that some of my work does,” Kallat told the BBC.
Kallat’s exhibits span global and national historical events and concerns, and also deal with tropes like the vastness of the universe and the minutiae of urban life and family links.
“Besides sharing 25 years of my work with a wide audience, at a personal level it is an opportunity to look back at what I’ve done, to understand what I might do in the future”, he says.
“Kallat is an original artist whose works are powerful statements that are intellectually stimulating and socially engaging,” says documentarian and arts writer Ina Puri.
Hailing from a middle class southern Indian family from Kerala, Kallat took to art as a student at Mumbai’s JJ School of Arts.
Not surprisingly, ruminations on urban landscapes, of which Mumbai, the city Kallat was born and lives and works, form a recurring backdrop to his work.
Take Cry of the Gland (2009) which reflects Kallat’s fish eye view of the city’s people.
It’s a collection of enlarged photographs of shirt pockets of men bulging with the weight of ballpoint pens, leaking pens, mobile phones, spectacle cases and beedi, the traditional hand-rolled Indian cigarettes. The images evoke the untold stories of the working class and their jobs in a cramped city.
In Kallat’s world the quotidian demands introspection. His choice of materials may seem unusual but only help to highlight the ideas and emotions he is trying to evoke in the viewer with his artworks.
Cenotaph (A Deed of Transfer) is a series of photographs that shift planes offering differing dimensions to the images of old Mumbai streets, broken pavements, shacks, and objects, including stickers in bubble gum wrappers or the ubiquitous Hindu gods and goddesses.
Also poignant are his installations called Death of Distance (2007). The installation of large metallic Indian coin is a sharp commentary on the contradictions in a country where poverty and technology coexist.
The installation includes two news reports that explain this glaring divide.
One is on a new telephone scheme that promises mobile calls to bridge distances between people for the price of one rupee. The other news report is about the suicide of a 12-year-old girl whose mother is unable to give her one rupee to buy food.
“Kallat’s body of work shows that he’s an extraordinary artist whose works are comments on the state, the society and their lapses”, says Puri.
The most personal of all the works is dedicated to his father.
Titled The Epilogue, it is a photographic installation of 22,500 moons made of rotis or Indian flatbread that imitate the phases of the moon. No two phases are same. The last is a full moon, a representation of his father’s death.
The exhibits do not follow a chronological order. Instead it takes the viewer through related strands that show up across Kallat’s works and ideas that have reappeared or have been revisited as the past and present become sobering companion pieces.
Public Notice trilogy, a three-part installation series that was produced from 2003 to 2010, is one such example.
Public Notice 1 is a series of five acrylic mirrors in which the artist has inscribed in burnt letters, Nehru’s iconic ‘Tryst with destiny’ midnight speech in 1947, on the eve of India’s Independence.
Public Notice 2 is a turmeric-coloured installation of Gandhi’s speech on civil disobedience. The installation uses more than 4,000 fibre glass sculptures of letters of Gandhi’s speech which exhorted people to use non-violence as a means of revolt.
Gujarat’s sobering present also shows up in Kallat’s iconic bone sculpture named Autosaurus Tripous.
It is a gigantic resin skeleton of a vehicle burnt during the Gujarat riots as a chilling reminder of the violence that wracked Gandhi’s home state in 2002.
The third, Public Notice 3, was a site specific work at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2010.
The terrorist attacks at the World Trade Centre, New York had taken place in September, which ironically, was the same month, where 100 years ago in Chicago, the Hindu monk Swami Vivekananda delivered his speech of brotherhood at the First World Parliament of Religions.
Kallat’s installation had Vivekananda’s speech lit up in the Department of Homeland Security’s threat alert colour-code LED displays.
An installation on guards and travellers undergoing security checking at airports also draws a nod from the guard at the Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art, where the show is held.
“I guess all this is about people like me and you,” he tells me.