India, Aug. 2009 : Sophia Powers, ArtSlant’s India Editor, sat down to discuss artmaking with Sumedh Rajendran over a bottle of red wine around the block from his Noida studio. The following came from that conversation.
Sumedh Rajendran is a Delhi-based artist know primarily for his sculptural work. He was awarded his B.F.A. in Sculpture from the College of Arts, Thiruvanathapuram in 1994, and received his M.F.A. from Delhi College of Arts in 1999. He has been exhibited extensively across India and abroad, including shows at Sakshi Gallery and Bodhi Art in Mumbai, and Khoj, Vadhera and Anant Art Galleries in New Delhi. Rajendran is currently preparing works for the upcoming exhibition “Chalo! India” at the ESSL Museum in Austria.
Sumedh Rajendran, Some Hard Hunger, mixed media; Courtesy of the artist
Sophia Powers: I know you had a residency in Khoj International Artist’s Association in Delhi back in 2003, can you tell me a little bit about that experience?
Sumedh Rajendran: Well at that point, Khoj was the only alternative space for artists in India. The whole scene was very different then. The experience that Khoj offered, well, that was completely new for an Indian artist. But now things are different-- you have come! International attention is here, and so a new vocabulary will follow. But still there are problems; for instance, international curators are too often attracted to the “Indianism” of our art. There is also a fundamental lack of genuinely critical writing.
SP: Now, of course, you don’t have much trouble selling your work, but in the earlier years were you ever tempted to produce pieces that were identifiably “Indian,” in order to satisfy the tastes and expectations of curators or collectors from abroad?
SR: No, actually, I resisted that. But it was hard. I had to do other jobs to support my practice. I think the idea of an “Indian art” is a total misunderstanding.
SP: But at other times this idea has been very important to Indian artists, like Abanindranath Tagore and many members of the Bengal School. They were practically obsessed with developing an indigenous modern idiom.
SR: That’s true. But the Bengal school was part of a nationalist movement—it fulfilled a need of the time, and worked in a different way. India is so diverse—languages, food, clothing, habits - and still there is some idea of “India.” But, I never had any aspirations of representing that sort of unity. Rather, I wanted to see each unique thing with a spontaneous spark of life.
Sumedh Rajendran, Breakdown Survival, mixed media; Courtesy of the artist
SP: Do you think there could be a national art today? I mean, do you think there’s any need to strive for some sort of visual representation that could be understood that way?
SR: I don’t really think any artists are working with that idea today. You can’t even define the nation. Indian civilization has hundreds of cultures within what is now technically India. How can you cordon some part off and say, “This is India?”
SP: That makes sense. But so much of trying to define what is Indian comes from a desire to make a break from Western modes of art making. Do you think this is important?
SR: Well in Indian culture there has been no dialogue, really, so people identify with Western theories. We still need to develop an indigenous idiom. Our past is different from that of the west—in Europe there were the World Wars, while in India there was partition, but we need to find ways to analyze our own experiences without reference to those other events. People like Jamini Roy, Benode Behari Mukherjee, and Ramkinkar Baij, were finding ways to do that. They were grounded, you see, and that is what so many Indian artists today are lacking.
But now I have a question for you: how is Indian art perceived in the West? How much knowledge is there about it?
SP: Well, I’d say that there’s a lot of excitement about contemporary Indian art even if there isn’t very much knowledge. Most people in New York at least don’t know many Indian artists by name, but they’re very curious (I'm often asked to discuss artists that I like) since they have a general sense that the art scene here is very interesting.
I know you just spent a few months in New York. How did you find it?
SR: I loved New York. But the art, well…what I felt when I was in the MoMA was that I started getting bored, like a part of life was missing. Take video art for instance, it is such an amazing medium, but it is also very serious, and too often the technological aspects dominate.
SP: Have you ever been tempted to work in video art?
SR: No. But I did just start working with photography because I felt like doing something different—now I’m making photo collages.
SP: Do you find that more spontaneous than sculpture?
SR: No, because in photo collage there is actually much more pre-planning. With photography there are so many limitations, and I only end up realizing about 75% of my imagination.
SP: But in sculpture you have a lot of limitations imposed by your materials, don’t you?
SR: Yes, but I have gone to the limit of what one can express, what one can perform with the materials I use. I feel completely comfortable with that form of expression, but sometimes you just get bored.
SP: What’s your process for developing an idea? Does a whole image come to you in a flash, or do you develop a concept more gradually?
SR: Each time, when a new work happens, I go into a sort of hibernation. Most of the time I don’t go to any openings or parties or anything. When I find that I have materialized what I want to do, then I start feeling like going out.
Sumedh Rajendran, Dispossession, mixed media; Courtesy of the artist
SP: Have you always worked like that?
SR: Actually I have always been sort of a lonely person. Generally I’d rather spend time with myself. When I’m working I feel as if there is something stuck inside me and I want to melt it.
SP: I know your wife Masooma Syed is an artist as well. Does she work in the same way as you?
SR: Well she understands but she is actually a very open and outward person. She sometimes asks me “why are you sitting there alone?” But how can I explain? It must be that way. Sometimes it’s a hard life.
SP: Are your parents still in Kerala?
SR: Yes. Actually I’m from a family of artists. My father, mother, and grandfather were all artists. But I had to leave because of certain ideological issues. I had to move away from home. From childhood I was aware of art—grew up on art, really, but it was only after I was 18 or 19 that I started to make art. I was fascinated with the idea of making objects—I wanted to achieve the skill of making human bodies. Later I realized that this really isn’t art.
SP: Were your parents and your grandfather sculptors?
SR: No, they were painters. But they were a tremendous influence because I grew up in such a background.
SP: I can certainly identify with that. My father is a sculptor, and as a kid he took me to museums all the time, which is probably why I’m here today interviewing you.
SR: That’s very interesting, because here, you know it’s a big problem. You can’t learn from museums in India, you can only learn from books, and this is a totally different thing.
SP: How do you feel about the art education in India?
SR: Actually the way I see it there’s a major crisis in the art education today. Art school curriculums don’t address any of the problems of our history with art. We are lacking a rooted education.
SP: Do you think you learned anything from your days as a teacher that is now visible in your art practice?
SR: Of course. It was a very prominent school, and only the elite of Delhi went there, which gave me the chance to interact with a very specific layer of society. This definitely influenced my work.
SP: Earlier you mentioned that like most large-scale sculpture artists, you work with a team of assistants. One thing I’ve always wondered in the Indian context is how these assistants understand the work that they are helping you to realize? What does it mean to them, and what sort of conversations do you have about it?
SR: It’s true that I depend on a team of skilled laborers, like leather workers, for instance. Without help how could I produce the sort of pieces I have in my head? They have their own world, but they definitely have a love of what they are doing. Their idea of art might be very different but when they are working with me they help excavate how it is that my mind works.
SP: At the Art Summit this last week, there was a lot of talk about whether work should be accessible or not, both physically and conceptually. How do you feel about this question? Do you think the sort of sculpture you make can connect to the lives of everyday people, or would you agree with Peter Nagy’s quote about the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “The Met is an elitist organization, so come join the elite.”
SR: The “common man” is interacting with art every day, but at a different level. If you buy a bouquet to give to some one, there is an aesthetics to that choice. But it’s true that museums and galleries don’t succeed in opening up to the “common man.” Engaging with art is like reading a book—not like popular music. You must take the time and you must have a willingness to try to understand. You need to make room for contemplation. So, making art open to more people is a good idea—a very democratic idea—but it will not be possible in a situation where people are still struggling to get food every day.
SP: Can you tell me about a turning point in your career? Have you ever had a sort of an “a-ha” moment?
SR: Every day is a turning point! Every day I break myself and then have to put the pieces together again. There are some points where you take a giant leap, but it’s difficult to say after the fact when exactly that took place. There was a time—around 1993, when I became very disappointed with being an artist and actually stopped making works.
SP: What happened in 1993?
SR: Well, in 1989 I joined art school, and there was such an energy then! There was no market for art at all, but such a passion to be an artist. In those days we read about European artists—the German Expressionists, Giacometti—I loved Giacometti. In those days we didn’t have many examples from home. But then we graduated and life came, and there are enough things to get depressed about in life…so I stopped working for a while.
SP: What changed? Why did you start making work again?
SR: When you understand the value of living—when you feel like you are meeting death and you come back—then you think it is a beautiful world, and you find new possibilities. When you reach a certain age you begin to understand what you need as a person, and then you can really begin to search for spiritual happiness.
ArtSlant would like to thank Sumedh Rajendran for his assistance in making this interview possible.