Interview with Bose Krishnamachari

AAA: Not long ago, your name was primarily associated with a particular kind of abstract painting. When and how did you decide to broaden your scope of practice to include multi-media interactive installation work? What are some of the challenges you face with the new medium?

Bose Krishnamachari (BK): I hate categorization! Yes, of course, categorization is an art historical tool that can help to understand the oeuvre of an artist. In that sense my post-J. J. School and post-Goldsmiths works, up until the early years of this decade, was predominantly abstract and conceptual in style. But there is a phase in my formative years in Kerala and in Mumbai in which I used to do highly figurative (life painting) works. I was interested in portraiture and developed my skills doing a lot of portrait painting, which I still make use of in my work.

Abstract style or abstraction in my art is more theoretical and philosophical than a visual technique. I remember Mondrian once said that by over drawing on a line one can stretch a line to infinity, so my abstractions are the extension of a line, a stroke and a thought process. Development of this idea into the notion of artistic freedom resulted in the making of the ‘Stretched Bodies’ series, which is currently known as one of my hallmark styles. Each time I approach a canvas with an intention to make a ‘stretched body’ I am actually extending the possibilities of artistic freedom and the freedom of artistic skills.

I have always been interested in design and construction. In my childhood I saw my father creating designs for interiors and architecture. I used to help him in his work and it gave me a sense of, and hands on experience in, design. When I travelled to Europe and the US during my education in London I looked at this aspect of design in post-modern and contemporary art. Form and design is the stuff that gives internal strength to a work of art. Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso and the like realized this ‘reality’ of design in their work and, when we get to the post-'70s conceptual art, design (the Memphis group and Ettore Sotssass) becomes very important.

I observed the impermanency in everything; I was also interested in books, not only as knowledge repositories but also as ‘objects’ with different forms lying on the streets of Mumbai, and its absurdity. In my early solo shows I made conscious attempts to bring other visual art experiences and practices as seen in the exhibition ‘Amuseum’.

For an intelligent artist, any new medium opens up many challenges and possibilities. Handling them directly, using one’s own aesthetic intelligence is very important. I would say that I am intelligent enough to handle these new mediums and spaces. Today, I would like to present my identity more as a fluid one – as an artist, a designer, a curator, an organizer, a fashion aficionado, a gallerist and so on. I don’t want to be categorized. 

AAA: Since your student days you have always travelled far and wide to attend art events. Can you tell me about your experience of seeing exhibitions in different cities and meeting artists from across the country, and how you think it might have added breadth to your understanding of art as a profession.

BK: We understand art through two different channels; firstly through sources and secondly through direct encounter. During my student days in Kerala my understanding of world art was gained through books and journals. In this I would say there is always a sense of distorted understanding. You look at a Picasso or Van Gogh and think about them in terms of the history developed around them. So, in your imagination, a 2’x2’ painting would look as gigantic as a mural. When you encounter the real work of art you get a sense of size and medium, which is totally unromantic, as opposed to the understanding that you gain from the mediated history.

I have benefited from both. I developed my romantic notion of art history through the mediated history and I developed my sense of reality through direct encounters with world art (museums, studios, galleries and art fairs etc.), which was facilitated by my never-ending journeys. Seeing a work of art in a particular milieu is very important. For example, seeing a Jeff Koons or an Andy Warhol in the US is as great a feeling as seeing a Ravi Varma painting in Trivandrum. The location gives you a different understanding. At the same time, the museums are the places where the actuality of works of arts are shorn off and positioned in isolation, although they are surrounded by other works. We understand these works through a written history in the side panels.

In contemporary gallery displays there is an urgency, an immediacy, a reduction of time. At the same time you know that there is a time gap between the origin and presentation of a work of art. You also realize there is a location difference between its display in one space and in another.

When I travel within my country, my aim is always to spot a new talent, to see what he or she is doing and to understand why he or she is doing so. Some critics say that I am a ‘talent scout’. Yes, I am a talent scout, I am a military drill-master and a scheming commander because what I am looking for is a result.

AAA: Despite so much travelling, you chose to be an artist based in Mumbai. Can you tell us a little bit about what was behind this decision and about your affiliation with the 'Bombay Boys' group?

BK: I did not choose Mumbai. There are always chances in life. I was undergoing a sort of art training in Kerala and was very active in literary and theatre circles – I used to act in experimental plays. Then an older friend suggested that I should migrate to Bombay and study at the Sir J. J. School of Arts. It was in early 1980s. I applied but the authorities rejected my first application. It was a sort of challenge thrown at me. I stayed in a place called Sakinka (a rundown neighbourhood in North Mumbai), worked in an exotic restaurant called Mela as a portrait artist, learned languages and then re-applied again the following year. This time I was accepted and went on to graduate successfully.

I was top of the class throughout my education. I had a beautiful portfolio, which I lost from the college locker – I attach a sense of loss with that missing portfolio. Bombay was a reservoir of energy. After my graduation I continued to go to the college everyday, meeting the young students of Applied Art, Architecture and Fine Art in the canteen; they used to call it ‘canteen activism’. I expanded my circle of friends; Ranjit Hoskote, then a budding poet and art critic, became my friend. I used to assist several senior artists in the setting up of their shows. Financially I was struggling but the city of Bombay gave me new experiences everyday and it was impossible to leave. Renowned artist, Akbar Padamsee, suggested that I should curate a show with young artists. I took action but somehow the project did not take off; maybe the artists did not believe in me then!

These experiences gave me the confidence to live in Bombay – it is a city of people not of ‘djinns’; it is a city of life, not of tombs; it is a city of ‘chawls’, not of historic ruins. The life here always inspires me. Even if I had the opportunity to live in any other city, I don’t think I would give up Mumbai.

AAA: In some of your works, particularly Ghost/Transmemoir (2007) and Mumbaikar (2008), you deal with Mumbai and its people. How do you feel about the recent and ongoing regionalist assertion by certain political factions in polarizing regional identities (the Maharashtrian Manoos)? This question is particularly important considering that you yourself moved to Mumbai from Kerela. Do you feel the need to address such concerns in your work?

BK: Any work of art by any artist, whether successful or not, cannot be seen as separate from the main body of its milieu. Even when it does not define itself as a part of the socio-political body of its origin, it carries the traits of the body, the thoughts of its existence. In that sense, whatever happens to Mumbai finds repercussions in my work, although this is not a deliberate attempt on my part.
As I said before, my works are directly connected to the people of Mumbai because I am a Mumbaikar. This city, historical, successful, cosmopolitan etc, has different layers of socio-cultural and political dynamics that make Mumbai what it is. Every layer is not a visible layer. The obvious cannot be called the essential or core and, at the same time, the hidden is not always necessary or indispensable. What I am trying to understand through my art is this invisible exchange.

In Ghost/transmemoir and the dabba installation, I capture the voices and images of the people who speak of their city; there is a sort of selected cacophony in this work. Adjacent to the image of a successful film star you see the image and voice of a peddler at the Church Gate railway station. What is it that they have in common? It is Mumbai. In the Mumbaikar series, which has iconic portraits of my household attendants (without whom I believe I wouldn’t survive in this city), and also 108 photographic portraits of my friends in Mumbai, I portray a Mumbai which is of people. These people are political and cultural; they are the results of the political make up of this city; their portraits encapsulate Mumbai in their miniature worlds; they are the microcosm of Mumbai.

Bombay’s shift in status from a British Presidency to the capital of the post-independence Maharashtra state is ridden with political issues. In the ’70s there was a strong movement against the ‘outsiders’. Today, Maharashtra Nav Nirman Sena, a broken away faction of Shiv Sena, continues the legacy of xenophobia by attacking North Indians. International terrorist outfits target Mumbai, but Mumbai survives because this is a city of survivals and no fascist agenda can erase this city’s multi-cultural legacy; migrants make cultures in cities like Mumbai.

AAA: In the past few years you have participated in different international exhibitions. How was the response different from that of the local audience? How do you regard the past decade’s massive attention towards Indian art from the West?

BK: Audience participation is very important in my works. When I present my works for a local audience, for example in Mumbai, Delhi or Kolkata, in a way I am assuming a familiarity with their responses. This might lead to a sort of complacency. I want to be challenged and questioned; I like the friendly debates that surround a work of art and I like friendly criticism that looks beyond personal taste.

When I present to a foreign audience I expect the same challenge. While the home audience is familiar with my background, the foreign audience looks for clues so that they can connect with my work. There was a time when the foreign audience demanded ‘Indian’ clues in an Indian work. Today, they don’t look for the ‘ethnic’ Indian-ness in the works. They see how challenging, how impressive and how contemporary these works are. In a foreign location exhibition curators, critics, museum personalities and gallerists talk with you more than the regular art lover. In my hometown, any visitor likes to talk with you. Perhaps I like it when a viewer with no professional arts connection questions me about what I have done.

Thanks to the free global exchange of ideas, goods, commodities, culture, politics, concerns, ideologies, war and so on, art too has become visible across borders. It is not just that Indian contemporary art is moving all over the world, world art is also coming to India. And it is not because the world has suddenly fallen in love with Indian art and culture that there is this global attention. No, it is because of economics and global political participation. Art is one way of understanding the world and increasing the quality of global co-operation. In addition, art has an investment value; with investment in art, people across borders trust each other on an economic level too. So we have a challenging scenario where global players come to India and look at our art, buy our art and exhibit our art elsewhere. We reciprocate this warmth by doing the same. BMB Gallery, Mumbai, where I am one of the founding directors, works towards building up this global exchange of human understanding through art.

AAA: As well as being an artist you are also a curator and you have questioned the idea of the formation of the canon in art, for example in your exhibitions 'Amuseum' and 'De-Curating', as well as in some of your works. How did this idea come about and why was there an urge for you to put forward the exhibitions? Will you still continue to explore this issue?

BK: Formation of any canon is the result of an attempt to thwart an existing canon. It is an irony but a reality. Hence, whenever I take on a curatorial project I am attempting to thwart an existing curatorial position. I have different strategies for employing curatorial ideas, for example some of my solo shows are attempts at self-curation, but I don’t follow a set pattern in my solo curatorial projects. Also, I like starting with fundamental ideas and expanding them, using works by different artists. This gives me an added freedom to move away from canons.

Curatorial efforts were already present in my student days. Akbar Padamsee recognized this and encouraged me to put on shows, but ‘De-curating’ happened as a response to a canonical curatorial project which refused to include several works, including mine. I found it quite offensive and going against the grain of history and facts. The idea behind ‘De-curating’ was a sort of de-construction of a curatorial monolith in India. Later I developed this concept in various forms and always took care that it shouldn’t become another canon. Now, if a canon exists in my curatorial practice at all, it is a sort of ‘Bose Brand’. A musician friend, Randolf Correa (Shair n’ Funk), said at his openings and parties ‘Bose connects elite with Dalit’. After all, in Mumbai hedonism co-exists with law-life!  

AAA: We have heard about your 3C theory: Cricket, Cinema, and Curry. Can you tell us how they are important for you, both as an artist and as a person?

BK: As an artist interested in contemporary culture, I am keen on the developments happening in the field of sports/cricket, cinema and curry/culture. The famous ‘C’s – Cinema (Bollywood), Cricket and Curry (food) – contain the breath of and every thing that is Mumbai. I am interested in the excitement these things create in our daily lives. The three Cs should be interpreted more as a metaphor than a conclusive statement.

AAA: At the moment you are in the process of conceiving a museum in Kerala. How do you envisage this taking shape? And what is your next art project?

BK: During the past few years I have been collecting the works of my contemporaries, established modernists and historically important artists from all groups. It has taken a lot of effort to develop my collection, at times exchanging hard earned money and at times with the aid of huge loans. But art collecting has always been a passion for me and the idea of a museum is a natural outcome for this collection. When you have a collection there is a need to validate it by showing it to people. The private nature of a collection should, at times, be authenticated by sharing it with the public. Also there is the need to bring in new museum experiences for the people around you. The idea of a museum in Kerala took shape during the market boom and I acquired land in Kerala for this purpose.

I envisage it as an international residency containing books, DVD’s etc. It should be a place for new media art, documentation and proliferation of knowledge about art. At the same time it will have a devoted section for my personal collection of works; a museum of contemporary culture.

My next project is to curate a show by Indian contemporary women artists – there are so many women artists working in India now. My idea is not to see through the feminist canon; instead, I want to do a sort of survey of their art. I want to see how they function within and without a system. It is a multi-pronged project and I am looking forward to it.




Fri, 1 Jan 2010

In light of the current COVID-19 situation, AAA Library will remain temporarily closed till 5 February.