Indian Artist Sudarshan Shetty on “Shoonya Ghar” at the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Mumbai – interview

The multimedia solo show draws from the multiplicity of Shetty’s art practice using sculpture, found objects and film, and explores the artist’s own cultural history through his memories of personal and public space.

After showing at the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi and the 20th Biennale of Sydney in 2016, the exhibition “Shoonya Ghar” by Indian artist and curator Sudarshan Shetty is on display in the Outdoor Plaza at the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai until 26 December 2017.

Sudarshan Shetty, 2010, “This Too Shall Pass”, carved wood, electromagnetic mechanism, steel sword and mild steel, 354 x 278 x 106 cm, Image courtesy the artist and Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum

Sudarshan Shetty, This Too Shall Pass’, 2010, carved wood, electromagnetic mechanism, steel sword and mild steel, 354 x 278 x 106 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum.

The emptiness of a cityscape

Who is asleep and who is awake in this city, this home, this settlement, and this fortress of nothingness? 

These are the poetic lines that greet visitors at the threshold of Sudarshan Shetty’s monumental multimedia installation “Shoonya Ghar” in the sylvan environs of the Outdoor Plaza at the 160-year old Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai. The show owes allegiance for its title to an 11th century poem, Shunya Gadh Shahar by Gorakhnath, the founder of the Nath Hindu monastic movement in India and a renowned teacher, poet, philosopher and maha yogi (a great practitioneer of Yoga), whose poetry was an inspiration to many spiritual thinkers, writers and musicians that followed centuries later, including Kabir, Guru Nanak and more recently Kumar Gandharva.

Sudarshan Shetty, 2010, “This Too Shall Pass”, gold leaf on fibre glass, mild steel, coin box and etched brass, various dimensions, Image courtesy the artist and Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum

Sudarshan Shetty, ‘This Too Shall Pass’, 2010, gold leaf on fibreglass, mild steel, coin box and etched brass, dimensions variable. Image courtesy the artist and Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum.

Shetty, who is acclaimed for his innovativeness and versatility, has been deeply inspired by traditional poetry, drama and theatre, with the dichotomy of the past and the present always seeping into his practice. “Shoonya Ghar” is Shetty’s tribute to a poet (Gorakhnath) and a singer (Gandharva), both of whom followed an unusual style of rendition of Nirgun Bhajans (devotional songs). Nirgun means ‘without attributes’ and is an abstract, formless kind of musical practice that creates dissonance in a melody, giving importance to momentary bits of silence that can be quite mesmerising for the listener. It is this mystic, dramatic effect and spirituality that Shetty seeks to weave into “Shoonya Ghar”.

Sudarshan Shetty, 2010, “This Too Shall Pass”, teak wood and motor mechanical device, 258 x 146 x 141 cm, Image courtesy the artist and Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum

Sudarshan Shetty, ‘This Too Shall Pass’, 2010, teak wood and motor mechanical device, 258 x 146 x 141 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum.

The exhibition includes a large-scale sculptural piece in the outdoor plaza of the museum, which is constructed like an architectural set, with an entrance portico, a long covered passageway that leads to a room that has been designed and decorated to resemble Shetty’s childhood home in Mumbai. The visitor walks through this set and is privy to various elements drawn out of the artist’s memory that include traditional brass vessels in the kitchen, a bed draped with a mosquito net, an old fashioned sewing machine, a dressing table strewn with personal memorabilia, children’s toys and clothes hanging on pegs from the wall – all objects that are both familiar to the viewer and representative of urban life.

Sudarshan Shetty, “Shoonya Ghar”, 6 November – 19 December 2017, installation view at Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Image courtesy the artist and Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum

Sudarshan Shetty, “Shoonya Ghar”, 6 November – 19 December 2017, installation view at Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum. Image courtesy the artist and Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum.

It is with the imagery of this set imprinted in our minds that the visitor reaches a darkened room, which is screening a full-length feature film directed by Shetty, showing the building of the same set in an outdoor location, in a quarry. As the mundane and mechanical job of constructing the set is gradually completed by the workmen, Shetty demonstrates that the circle of life goes on, with several parallel narratives being enacted – scenes that would be familiar to the spectator, from music, play and dance to birth, violence and death. In this way Shetty successfully includes onlookers in both his film narrative as well as in the process of artwork creation. We join the artist and the workmen to bring together the modular elements of the installation while delving into our own experiences, memories and imagination.

Sudarshan Shetty, “Shoonya Ghar”, 6 November – 19 December 2017, feature film - installation view at Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Image courtesy the artist and Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum

Sudarshan Shetty, “Shoonya Ghar”, 6 November – 19 December 2017, feature film – installation view at Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum. Image courtesy the artist and Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum.

One of India’s leading contemporary artists, Shetty switched to installation art from painting very early on in his career, and his work is characterised by an integration of both sculptural and multimedia components. He was curator and artistic director of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2016, an international exhibition of contemporary art held in Kochi, Kerala and an initiative of the Kochi Biennale Foundation with support from the State Government. Shetty completed his BFA in Painting from Sir J.J. School of Art, Mumbai in 1985. His move to installation art was prompted by his fascination with humankind’s preoccupation with a world of objects, and his work incorporates everyday objects, mechanical components and readymades, along with custom designed elements that result in hybrid constructions that are both arresting and provoke the viewer into an interaction.

Sudarshan Shetty, “Shoonya Ghar”, 6 November – 19 December 2017, installation view at Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Image courtesy the artist and Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum

Sudarshan Shetty, “Shoonya Ghar”, 6 November – 19 December 2017, installation view at Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum. Image courtesy the artist and Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum.

Shetty’s recent shows include A Song A Story” for the Rolls-Royce Art Programme (2016), “Mimic Momento”, Galerie Daniel Templon, Brussels (2015), “Constructs Constructions”, Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi (2015), “A Passage”, Staatliche Museum, Schwerin, Germany (2015) and “every broken moment, piece by piece”, GALLERYSKE, New Delhi (2014). He has exhibited widely in India and around the world including in Vienna, Tel Aviv, Beijing, Tokyo, New York, San Francisco, Paris, Brussels, Davos and London. His last solo show in Mumbai, This Too Shall Pass” in 2010 was also at the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum and part of a series of curated exhibitions titled “Engaging Traditions”, which invited distinguished contemporary artists to respond to the Museum’s collection, history and archives. Shetty’s work during this show questioned the premise of the museum, its existence and the aura of authority it exudes by subtlely critiquing the relevance of the ‘museum object’ in a time when its meaning and use is no longer of significance.

Art Radar spoke to the artist about his practice and the ideation behind “Shoonya Ghar”.

Sudarshan Shetty, “Shoonya Ghar”, 6 November – 19 December 2017, installation view at Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Image courtesy the artist and Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum

Sudarshan Shetty, “Shoonya Ghar”, 6 November – 19 December 2017, installation view at Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum. Image courtesy the artist and Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum.

As an inheritor of many different traditions from your father who was trained in folk theatre and from your own interests in classical music and medieval poetry, do you find that to be the biggest influencer in your practice of late?  

I would imagine that it is essential for most artists to constantly question our place in time. For me, looking back is a very important part of making sense of where I am today and where I will be, going forward. It is this compulsion that has made look at the history of poetry and music. Recently I have been interested in the Nirgun (formless) poetry of the 12th-15th centuries. It has enabled me to look at the world with its multiplicities and not with its differences. There are so many things that are seemingly opposite in nature but have a pattern to them. I work in a world that is dictated entirely by the western canon, so I like to bring about a mediation and introduce aspects of who I am and where I come from.

Sudarshan Shetty, “Shoonya Ghar”, 6 November – 19 December 2017, installation view at Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Image courtesy the artist and Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum

Sudarshan Shetty, “Shoonya Ghar”, 6 November – 19 December 2017, installation view at Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum. Image courtesy the artist and Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum.

What was the genesis of “Shoonya Ghar”? You have been inspired by an 11th century work, which is full of opposites and extremes. Do you identify personally with such a multiplicity of meaning?

This was a poem that I heard when I was in Art School when I was first introduced to Hindustani classical music. It remained with me for years. The lines are very architectural in nature – not only the images but also the way that it is constructed. It talks about a Gadh (fortress), a Shahar (city), a Basti (Locality) amongst other elements. The first lines are:

Shunya Gadh Shahar (In the empty fort, a city)

Shahar Ghar Basti (In the city, a settlement)

Kon Suta Kon Jage Hai (Who sleeps? Who wakes?)

Lal Hamare Hum Lalan Ke (My love is mine, I am my love’s)

Tan Sota Brahma Jage Re (The body sleeps, the spirit wakes)

The poem creates an architectural cityscape with some intense imagery including a city with ten gates around which a yogi (a mystical person) makes his rounds, a pit of fire in which a tapasvi (ascetic) meditates and lotuses blooming in lakes. My first response therefore was to create such a space.

Nirguna poetry is replete with diverse images and I examined the aesthetic strategies that have been used in its construction very closely. Poets like Gorakhnath were able to conjure up images with multiplicity of meanings in the mind of the listener. I tried to bring this sense of connection between disparate elements into ‘Shoonya Ghar’ by building an idiosyncratic architectural piece. Even in the making of the film I have used similar strategies by not connecting the relationships within the various characters and leaving an ambiguity in the various scenarios.

Sudarshan Shetty, “Shoonya Ghar”, 6 November – 19 December 2017, installation view at Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Image courtesy the artist and Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum

Sudarshan Shetty, “Shoonya Ghar”, 6 November – 19 December 2017, installation view at Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum. Image courtesy the artist and Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum.

In the contemporary art space in India we often fall prey to globalisation and imitation to be relevant on a world stage. What would your vision be for the future of art in India?

I believe that we are just about gaining confidence in the world of contemporary art in India. We use to be fairly imitative. We should not reject western tradition completely as we do have a lot to learn from that canon, but I would like us to be able to introduce something into our art that shows that we look at things differently in India. We should find a system of mediation between the two worlds. I would like to be able to bring life from outside a gallery into the museum space and take what is inside, out. I don’t mean that we should reject the institution of the museum but in India we have inherited an informal system of artistic education and practice. In music also it was the Gurukul system that imparted knowledge – with students spending years, living and studying with their guru (teacher). That was the Indian way of imparting knowledge. It is this informality that makes us unique.

Sudarshan Shetty, “Shoonya Ghar”, 6 November – 19 December 2017, installation view at Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Image courtesy the artist and Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum

Sudarshan Shetty, “Shoonya Ghar”, 6 November – 19 December 2017, installation view at Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum. Image courtesy the artist and Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum.

As curator and artistic director of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, how do you think that it has achieved public engagement with art? Can its impact be similar in bigger urban metropolises like Mumbai?

The Biennale has been able to mobilize people to be more engaged in art in a way that no other event has in India so far. This is also due to its geographical location as Kerala as a state has always shown a great deal of openness to culture and art. Keralahas a history of people travelling to and from the state and bringing in cross cultural influences for thousands of years. It couldn’t have been a better location in that sense. The people have been wonderfully receptive and even if you were to ask a local rickshaw driver in the city during the Biennale, he would have been able to guide you on the day to day happenings. Unfortunately the lack of physical space in larger cities like Mumbai makes it difficult for newer artists to come to the city. But I feel that’s fine. I don’t think that metropolitan cities need to be the centers of art. In fact the sense of responsibility, family values and traditions with which people grow up in smaller towns and communities in India, can often be the right environment for art to flourish.

Sudarshan Shetty, “Shoonya Ghar”, 6 November – 19 December 2017, installation view at Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Image courtesy the artist and Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum

Sudarshan Shetty, “Shoonya Ghar”, 6 November – 19 December 2017, installation view at Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum. Image courtesy the artist and Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum.

There is always an element of familiarity for the viewer in your work that then transcends to a higher space with a different, enhanced meaning. Is it your way of connecting with the audience or are you playing a multiple set of roles here – as artist, artisan, architect, director and facilitator? Has it become second nature to you?

I look for inspiration in the simplest of things. My work always starts with something very familiar, a part of everyday life – which I then work upon and try to take further. I hope it hasn’t become second nature to me! I am constantly looking for situations that may make me uncomfortable to begin with. My foray into film-making this time,for example. I have no experience of the field and the fact that there is a new area to explore excites me. The feeling of being on the edge worrying whether it will succeed on not – all artists should experience such uncertainty. It is such risk that is needed for there to be a greater reward. You should always be out of your comfort zone to be able to explore something that takes you to the next level of your artistic practice.

Sudarshan Shetty, “Shoonya Ghar”, 6 November – 19 December 2017, installation view at Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Image courtesy the artist and Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum

Sudarshan Shetty, “Shoonya Ghar”, 6 November – 19 December 2017, installation view at Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum. Image courtesy the artist and Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum.

You have exhibited “Shoonya Ghar” at various venues and diverse spaces. How did each location contribute to the installation and what was different this time around at the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum?

The set itself took me 18 months to build. Not just the actual building but the evolution – between my writing of the script and the changes that it would make to the construction. This enabled me to make the set a little idiosyncratic. For instance, I wanted a shot in the film of a corridor that wasn’t straight– so that had to be changed in the set. It was a process, and as the exhibition travelled, it changed as per the layout of each location. This is the fourth showing. The first was at the NGMA in New Delhi, inside the gallery. A building inside another one was thought provoking and interesting.At the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum, it works very differently. I have used wood from secondhand wood markets and even the design itself has an aged look to it, which makes the entire set fit seamlessly into the 160-year old premises, as though it has been a part of the Museum forever.

Amita Kini-Singh

1992

“Shoonya Ghar” by Sudarshan Shetty is on view from 7 November to 26 December 2017 at the Outdoor Plaza, Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum, 91 A Rani Baug, Veer Mata Jijabai Bhonsle Udyan, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Marg,
Byculla East, Mumbai 400027.

Related topics: Indian, museum shows, sculpture, film, installation, Mumbai

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