Jitish Kallat’s works amaze the senses, challenge the mind

Jitish Kallat’s works amaze the senses, challenge the mind
Jitish Kallat in his studio. Photo courtesy Nature Morte Gallery, New Delhi

Jitish Kallat is at the forefront of India’s contemporary art movement. His oeuvre inquires into some of the essential ideas of life. 

Mumbai-based artist Jitish Kallat, 43, is at the forefront of India’s contemporary art movement and his works constantly amaze the senses and challenge the mind. He was the artistic director of the second edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, 2014. The recent mid-career retrospective of Kallat, ‘Here After Here’ at the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi (curated by Catherine David), endorses the significance of this young artist in the Indian contemporary art world. 

The mid-career retrospective is not only a show of art, but it is also a remarkable expression of an artist’s complex engagement with his creativity. The struggle to make art that speaks beyond self to an international audience is evident in several of his 100 works. They encompass a time frame of over 25 years, exploring his artistic vision sans a chronological exhibition design. By juxtaposing his works from different periods, Kallat allows them to pursue a dialogue with each other.

Jitish Kallat was born in Mumbai in 1974, the city where he continues to live and work. Kallat’s vast oeuvre — spanning painting, photography, drawing, video and sculptural installations — reveals a mind that constantly inquires into some of the essential ideas of our life. His works move from social issues to the cosmic world. While some works tackle the present situations, the others bring alive the past and show their implication in today’s world through their famous words. Kallat joined Sir JJ School of Art and later created his own visual language: one that was his own yet universal, representing contemporary life and his own consciousness. 

He was first spotted at Jehangir Art Gallery’s ‘Monsoon Show’ when he was just 21. At 23, Kallat delivered his first solo, titled “P.T.O.” at Chemould Prescott Road Gallery in Mumbai. Even at that young age he had the confidence to create a large, bold painting with a figure of himself, with a watch in his mouth. His unique journey had only just begun...

Kallat’s creativity knows no bounds and he is comfortable in using a range of mediums. With great ease Kallat’s concepts and ideas are fashioned into paintings, digital photography, sculpture, videos and installations. He deals with the common and celestial with the same panache. Kallat has a thoroughly intelligent and perspicacious look at what is happening in the society. The mayhem of the Gujarat riots greatly impacted the artist. The outcome was one of his better-known works Autosaurus Tripous: skeletal remains of a vehicle burnt during the 2002 Gujarat riots. The life-size replicas, rendered as prehistoric vertebrates, are based on Kallat’s drawings of the riots and the depiction is symbolic of the chaos. 

In contrast to this violence in the streets, Kallat shows the peace that India’s founding fathers sought for the nation, through yet another well-known trilogy: Public Notice. The first installation was created in 2003. With burnt text on mirror and rubber adhesive, the artist rewrote Jawaharlal Nehru’s emotional speech “Tryst with Destiny”.This was the famous speech made by India’s first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru before the stroke of midnight on August 14, 1947, to celebrate India’s Independence against the British. This historic address reflected the emotions of the entire nation. It referred to India’s awakening into freedom after centuries of colonialism. But Kallat feels we did not live up to the promises we made to ourselves when we acquired our Independence. Kallat rewrote the iconic text using rubber adhesive on five large acrylic mirrors before setting them aflame, thereby burning the words and producing confused reflections. The viewers see distorted reflections of themselves as they look into the mirror, endorsing their chaotic state of affairs politically and otherwise. 

In Public Notice 2 (2007), he re-invoked the momentous speech delivered by Mahatma Gandhi on the eve of Dandi March. Constructed from over 4,500 bone-shaped alphabets, each letter appeared as a lost relic. This vast piece of work displays important show of letters formed out of 4,479 pieces of fibreglass bones installed on shelves against a background of drenched turmeric yellow. The artist has reproduced the 1,000-word speech given by Mahatma Gandhi on March 11, 1930 at the Sabarmati Ashram by the banks of the River Sabarmati in Ahmedabad. The next day, Gandhi, along with 78 of his followers, began the historic Dandi March to protest against the British-imposed tax on salt during which the virtues of non-violence were repeatedly asserted by Gandhi. This act of non-violence is relevant and needed in today’s violent world. Kallat ingeniously places the historical text in the present context.

In The Public Notice 3 (2010), the artist draws direct parallels between the past and the present at the Art Institute of Chicago. Deftly the artist links two entirely opposite events in history that fell on the same date, although 108 years apart. They are the First World Parliament of Religions held on September 11, 1893, and the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. Kallat uses the staircase of the art institute to project Vivekananda’s speech in the Parliament. This is done on LED displays in colours used by the colour-coded threat alert system of the Department of Homeland Security; this was his first major exhibition in an American museum. In 2010, the artist installed his large-scale site-specific LED installation, Public Notice 3, at the Art Institute of Chicago. The artwork draws on Swami Vivekananda’s haunting words calling for universal toleration and the end of bigotry and religious fanaticism.

The most inspired piece is the installation and video, titled Covering Letter. Here is a letter written in 1939 by Mahatma Gandhi to Adolf Hitler weeks before the start of World War II, making a plea for peace. The artist projects the letter in a very unusual manner. The viewer enters a dark room, smoke is cascading down, creating a smoke screen in the horizon and unexpectedly he sees this letter superimposed on the smoke screen. He is allowed to walk through the smoke screen, go to the other side and come back. This interactive piece allows the viewer to absorb the essence of the letter that was never mailed, as the British government held it back. It now hangs in Gandhi museum in Mumbai. Kallat uses light sound and a video to skillfully draw the viewer into his creation. It is like an illusion that instills excitement when viewing: A letter from a great believer of peace to possibly one of the most violent individuals that ever lived. Even today, this message from the past holds a great meaning. It is one that lives disconcertingly in the mind’s eye.  

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