Why are we here?” a 15-year-old boy asked his mother, contemplating the general existence of mankind. The mother was perplexed and had no satisfying answer for his son. The boy was Jitish Kallat, now an established artist. “She seemed concerned about my future plans,” says Kallat, referring to his mother.

Kallat is now 42 years old, and his mid-career retrospective Here After Here is currently on at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), Delhi, where a range of his works, exploring various themes, is on display. One such theme is self-inquiry. “The queries, despite philosophical, never weighed down the works,” says Kallat. “The works, such as Terra Incognita (Lands of the Hand), are extremely playful. There is a mix between the digital influences and the decaying public wall on which information is erased by the continual arrival of monsoon.”

The exhibition spreads across two galleries in the NGMA. Visitors can look at a number of paintings, photographic works, installations and sculptures created by Kallat. His influences are derived from miniature art, pop art, large billboards, narrative history paintings and television. “I would often say that there is as much television in my art as these existential questions. Despite these two divergent interests I thought that may be applied arts are right for me to pursue, but when I walked through the corridors of the Fine Arts Department at the J.J. School of Art, I thought ‘I am at the right spot of the planet’,” says Kallat.  Maybe this is why some of the works by the artist draw on these varied interests, namely ideas related to time, birth, death, sustenance, the circadian rhythm of moon.

Epilogue, a photo series by Kallat, consists of photographs of progressively eaten rotis represented as the moon. The installation displayed at the very start of the gallery represents 22,889 moons Kallat’s father saw during his lifetime. The lone moon at the end of the display represents the celestial body on the night of 1 December 1998. It was the last moon his father saw.

Cry of the Gland is a photo work where the artist has displayed images of bulging shirt pockets. The colourful pockets build a narrative of their own and sometimes look like an extension of the body of the people wearing those shirts. The viewer is able to see pens, wallets, notepads, spectacles and the like sticking out of the pockets. These possessions characterise the daily struggle of the mundane city life. Similarly, the installation piece titled Syzgy represents sleeping figures pointing at the weariness of commuters at different bus and train stations.

Kallat resides in Mumbai and it is not easy to escape the hustle of city life in the metro. To achieve this, he works at his two studios in Byculla and Bandra. “I often decide where I am going in the morning. One is more contemplative space which I use for writing, reading, drawing and thinking and the other one is a larger space which allows huge space for larger scale of work,” he says.

“It can be very edgy space when an artwork is not happening; one needs to befriend that space. The best work comes when you take a space between comfort and silence. One has to continuously retreat between action and silence .”

The artist, despite having had his debut show at Chemould Prescott Gallery just after graduation and the second show at India Habitat Centre at age 24, is never disturbed when he is not able to make any creative headway. He says: “It can be very edgy space when an artwork is not happening; one needs to befriend that space. The best work comes when you take a space between comfort and silence. One has to continuously retreat between action and silence and be comfortable with the space where ideas have not yet formed. As per experience, I can say that the best work comes when one is in that space and the work becomes really meaningful to the world.”

Cry of the Gland (2009).

It is important for the artist to understand what viewers bring to a particular artwork. He says, “Artworks have their own birthright to articulate themselves away from your intent and connect to what the viewer brings to the work. Most of us seek this interpretative open-endedness in the works. Different things bring different meaning to people which can also vary from what your original intent was in your time. It should change when you change. When the work is out there it is no longer yours, it has its own autonomy.”

He shares an anecdote to elaborate his point: “Aquasaurus, which is a full-scale water tanker made up of resin and steel, was not created with the thought of water shortage initially. It was in a show in Australia where looking at the piece people identified it with the water crisis in the country. It was also picked up by non-art writers and was talked about. The presence of the artwork in 2008 at Sydney transformed the meaning of the piece.”

The visitors will find certain themes, ideas, materials and even methods recurring in works spanning a time frame of about 25 years.

The exhibition is on till 14 March at NGMA, New Delhi


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