During the first semester of the course, we have visited two artists’ studios – Atul Dodiya’s and Reena Saini Kallat’s. Both studios were impressively large and awe-inspiring spaces. Ironically, in a city which seems sometimes to crowd in a dizzying claustrophobic breathlessness, these open spaces that allows the artist to breathe took our breath away. Atul Dodiya’s studio in Ghatkopar was situated high up in a multi-rise building and Reena Kallat’s was a down-to-earth warehouse in Byculla.
Of the two, my favourite was meeting Reena Kallat. Not that Atul Dodiya did not make an impression, he did, but Reena Kallat’s work seemed to me more relevant and contemporary. While Dodiya’s post-modernist pastiche and kitschy shop shutters were a very creative exploration of the ideas of visual culture in the world around us today, yet, they lacked a deeper significance that goes beyond an artist’s individualistic self-indulgence. The artist himself explained his reason for replicating works of Western artists like Mondrian or Picasso on his shutters by stating, because ‘he liked it.’ These artists have been a great influence on him and he wished to pay homage to them. I do not have anything personal against this or post-modernist play for the sake of it, indeed, many a times, such creations are so much fun. And Dodiya’s work that we saw that day is fun. But What Kallat’s purpose is to leave behind a legacy of being an artist who spoke in a mutli-layered, political voice, shaping her ideas to discuss relevant issues of the world around us.
For instance, her work called Synonym (2007), she makes portraits of common people, especially women and children, with rubber stamps that contain various names from official documents, in various scripts of languages of India, of people fallen off the radar over time. These portraits made by individually painting these rubber stamps and thereafter placing them together on plexi-glass, are an act of love. She honours those people by name who have become just a number in official documents and news reels – this many total dead from these many disasters, or war, or riots, or political dissidence. From a distance we see the bright and happy face, but moving closer we see the fractures. The transparent sheet of glass seems to cut time and space to remind us of that moment of loss, the threshold when a person existed, and then they did not.
Another aspect that I loved about Kallat’s work is her use of everyday objects in new contexts that not only create beautiful works but adds layers of meaning to that work. In Synonyms, any other everyday object would not have had as great a level of signification that the rubber stamp does. Used for the simplest official procedure, the rubber stamp is a seal of approval, a red-tapest’s tool of delightful administration with which the bureaucrat either sanctions or denies.
In another work titled Light Leaks, wind meets where the waters spill deceit (2008-10), another everyday object – the scared thread is used. Metal gates designed on the pattern of the gates of India and Pakistan at the infamous Wagah Border barely meet and the space between the gates is a terrifying bug zapping electrified field. The metaphor is straight-forward. But the the focus goes towards the frayed pieces of scared threads at the gates – a symbol of deferred hope and wish for peace between the nations delayed too long.
Perhaps one major reason why I loved Kallat’s work is because the artist is a woman. As a woman and a feminist, I root for all women who are able to challenge patriarchy and make a name for themselves. Kallat’s significance in the world of art is greater because she is a female artist in a field that is still dominated by men, even as it is delegated as being a largely feminine activity. Reena Kallat makes bold multi-layered art with great levels of signification relevant to the world of 21st century India.