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    From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 9, Issue 07, Dated 18 Feb 2012

    How Sudarshan Learnt to Fly. And the Bus that Could

    Why does top-rung artist Sudarshan Shetty think of himself as an entertainer first? Sunaina Kumar finds out

    Sudarshan Shetty and Flying Bus

    To the bygones Sudarshan Shetty and Flying Bus

    Photo: MS Gopal

    IT WAS 1997; India’s art boom was some years away, and galleries were sacred spaces where most people feared to tread. Located in the bustling Fort area of Mumbai, Pundole Art Gallery showed an exhibition of three upcoming artists, Anandajit Ray, Ravinder Reddy and Sudarshan Shetty. Right at the entrance, visible through glass doors, was Sudarshan Shetty’s installation Tiger Lily, with a mannequin tied to a steeply tilted glass ramp that doubled as a mirror of consciousness. Every afternoon during lunch, puzzled passersby could be seen queuing up, trying to get a peek at the installation, with the same sort of curiosity that is reserved for shops selling televisions during cricket matches. Nobody dared to enter the gallery, but through word of mouth, the onlookers increased day by day.

    This wasn’t the first of Shetty’s experiments to break the barrier between galleries and viewers. His first solo exhibition, Paper Moon, 1995, was mounted at Framjee Cawasjee Hall, opposite Metro Cinema, a site famous for its sari and luggage sales. Dedicated bargain hunters had no choice but to confront the works that lay there, like the life-size pink horse, straight out of a psychedelic dream, with a tiny house on its back, tipping over a black canoe.

    His latest public installation, Flying Bus, located in Mumbai’s corporate hub, the Bandra Kurla Complex, is drawing crowds from everywhere. Not accidental viewers but those who recognise him as a superstar name from the roster of contemporary artists in India. Flying Bus, a 9,000 kg sculpture that doubles as an exhibition space, was created at an estimated cost of Rs 1 crore. The wings give new life to a now defunct Mumbai icon, the double-decker bus. But, in a twist uniquely Shetty, the wings are of steel, the bus will never fly and the melancholy of loss is made greater.

    The 50-year-old Mumbaikar is at his most fecund phase, consistently creating works that challenge, amuse and fascinate. His most recognised sculpture sits proudly in collector Anupam Poddar’s living room; a metallic dinosaur mounting a yellow Jaguar, from the ironically titled 2006 exhibition Love. Part of the collection was the carcasses of two water buffaloes making love and a Braille machine that types a love letter. In each of these, balanced against the playfulness and morbid humour are the themes that have underlined his art practice — futility, mortality and meaninglessness.

    Ranjit Hoskote has described his works as “giant toys”. The analogy is not inappropriate, as almost every work of his is imbued with kinetic energy, a circular movement that is ultimately self-exhausting and redundant. A rotating earthenware pot balanced precariously on the edge of a table, scissors that snap in a bathtub, a trumpet that leaks blood on a pristine tablecloth. “He is never complacent and to really get his work, you need to be attentive,” says Sunitha Kumar Emmart of Galleryske, who represents him in India.

    “Sudarshan always spoke of building an amusement park, and his work is inspired by this larger idea of playfulness,” says Anupam Poddar of Devi Art Foundation. Certainly his magnificently scaled installations and sculptures have a touch of magic realism, almost hypnotic to view. Shetty talks of art as entertainment, of using spectacle to draw people in. It is the legacy of his father who was a prominent performer of Yakshagana, a form of musical theatre from Karnataka. His father would render philosophical debates on stage, within the framework of an entertaining story. “Through him I learnt that it is important to bridge the distance in art, to engage the viewer. Once that happens, you can talk about deeper themes.” These themes of mortality and precariousness became pronounced in the past decade as he came to terms with his father’s death.

    It is the rare artist who readily uses a low-brow term like entertainment in conjunction with his work. Shetty’s honesty can be traced to his roots. He grew up in a mill workers’ area in Dadar in the 1970s; the era of the angry young man. He started out by painting Amitabh Bachchan hoardings. “There was a lot of poverty and depression. Of course, we didn’t know it was poverty then. It was just our life,” he reminisces.

    He grew up in the era of the angry young man, and started by painting Amitabh Bachchan hoardings

    To study art was the purview of the privileged, so he obtained a degree in commerce, before joining JJ School of Art in Mumbai. There was a clear divide between the English and non-English speaking students. Shetty, who had studied in a Kannada school, belonged to the vernacular group. “I realised that one’s negotiation with the world is greatly affected by the English language,” and so he arduously taught himself to adapt to the world dictated by our colonial past.

    He passed out of JJ School in 1985; Atul Dodiya and his wife Anju were his contemporaries. It was a time when only people above 50 would show at art galleries. Though he specialised in painting, he realised his interest lay in making objects. In the 1990s, Shetty broke the rules of sculptural art in India, magnifying the scale, bringing in irreverence and daring, creating extended sculptures never seen before.

    A long period of anonymity followed; he made works in a vacuum with no market. “It’s good to know now that a market exists,” he says laconically. The market, in turn, doffs its hat. His recent work at the India Art Fair was pegged close to Rs 65 lakh. Two years back, Louis Vuitton commissioned House of Shades, which is housed at a gallery in Milan, an installation with 700 pairs of sunglasses, a clever subversion of the role of the viewer who becomes the viewed.

    Art curator Nancy Adajania says: “Shetty was an early beneficiary of the global artist residency and biennale circuit. He dramatised the double role forced on Indian art in the early stages of globalisation, one for the home audience and the other for the international one.” He has walked the tightrope assiduously, showing at prestigious places such as the Tate Modern in London, Fukuoka Asian Art Museum in Japan, Guggenheim Museum in New York, Pompidou in Paris and the Vancouver Biennale.

    Despite the international and homegrown success, and the brooding looks which sit well on him, Shetty eludes the celebrity-artist tag. He is not the personification of the reclusive artist, yet his eclectic interests keep him preoccupied and cross-pollinate his work. He divides his time between a warehouse in far-flung Mulund, his home in the eastern suburb of Chembur where he lives with his wife, TV actress Seema Shetty, and an office space nearby, which is his thinking pad. It is lined with bookshelves with volumes on poetry, philosophy, art theory and architecture. His taste in movies ranges from Bollywood to Fellini, and he watches one every day. His knowledge of Hindustani classical music is deep-rooted, and he can quote from the Vedas and the Upanishads.

    Lately, he’s been preoccupied with the idea of revivalism, of retaining the wisdom of our past. As if to remind himself as much as the viewer, he has planted a plaque near Flying Bus, “Sometimes when we travel, we forget who we are.”

    Sunaina Kumar is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.
    [email protected]

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    From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 9, Issue 07, Dated 18 Feb 2012



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