New visual idiom

From photography to painting to sculpture to video works, new-generation artist Reena Saini Kallat likes to work in different mediums, writes Nonika Singh

Tribune photos: Manas Ranjan Bhui

“Even I wonder why am I preoccupied with the theme of the Partition. Perhaps, because I am a Punjabi. Or perhaps, I grew up in a secular environment, and over the years, I have seen the erosion of secular values”

She is the quintessential new-generation artist. Young, stylish and pretty, she loves to work in unconventional mediums in a dynamic language of contemporary art that defies stereotypes. Yet Mumbai-based artist Reena Saini Kallat often enough harks back to the past. More so to the Partition. Even though she may have been born decades after India was split into two, the cataclysmic moment that divided India continues to define her works time and again.

So in the sculpture "Light Leaks, Winds Meet Where the Waters Spill Deceit", she creates Wagah’s ceremonial gates and uses the sacred red thread often used as a symbol of wish fulfilment. In "Penumbra Passage" that was part of the prominent exhibition "The Empire Strikes Back" at the Saatchi Gallery, London, comprising a series of portraits of ordinary civilians from both India and Pakistan with their faces blemished by what is referred to as Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, once again the two nations figured. In her more recent work titled "Silt of Seasons," a video projection on sand is shaped in the form of the disputed territory that lies between India and Pakistan.

Says Reena, "Even I wonder why am I preoccupied with the theme of the Partition. Perhaps, because I am a Punjabi. Or perhaps I grew up in a secular environment, and over the years, I have seen the erosion of secular values and that takes me back to the year of the divide to reinforce the common civilisation and the shared past." But can art change mindsets?

Surely, replies she, who feels art has the capacity to transform viewers’ perceptions. She reasons, "Even though we are living in a world where we are constantly deluged with a torrent of images, visuals continue to make a strong impact on our minds." For wasn’t it the sight of Line of Actual Control while flying over it in 2001 that left a chilling imprint on her mind. It’s not just the images of the conflict-ridden region that recur time and again in her works. History by itself is another constant motif in her series. So be it "Falling Fables" depicting architectural disintegration or "Colostrum" series in which she alludes to the colonial legacy, there is a constant desire to go back to history for, "We have such a rich past." Tangible and intangible, loss and regeneration, fragility and optimism come together in her artscape. Absence as a presence is yet another dominant thread. In "Synonym," she uses names of real people actually gone missing. She reasons, "I lost my mother at a very young age and have not been able to come to terms with it, perhaps that’s why loss is almost immanent in most of what I produce."

"An artist", she avers, "cannot ignore the I. Yet he or she is equally perceptive to the stimulus around him or her. But it is not as if the artist carries the weight of the societal burden or sets out on a mission to change things."

She adds that all artists are compelled to respond to what is happening around them but then, the whole process has to be organic.

"An idea engages you and you investigate it," she quips.

Working in a host of mediums, she believes, allows flexibility and the freedom to explore new concepts. Ever since she did her first solo show in 1998, she has been foraying into different mediums from photography to painting to sculpture to video works. Bonded marble in which she casts many of her sculptures is a good medium, "for it sits somewhere between high art and kitsch and also is reminiscent of the fact that in India many monuments have been made out of marble." As she loves to title her works, often giving them long-winding ones as well, titles, she insists, provide entry point to the viewer.

The other half of equally well-known and gifted artist Jitish Kallat, do they enter each other’s creative circle? "Yes, we do critique each other but not all the time." As for the international acclaim that has come their way, she says, "As an artist, I am happy to be working in times when art world is robust and thriving. For this, I am grateful to the whole generation of artists before us who have been extremely generous in sharing their knowledge."

On the prestigious platforms such as Goteborg International Biennale, Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Israel and ARKEN Museum of Modern Art, Copenhagen, Denmark, where she has exhibited and will be doing so in near future, all she would say is, "It feels good. But at the end of the day, more than recognition, it is the opportunity to be able to delve deep into concerns that one feels strongly about through these projects that matters."

So success may rest lightly on her narrow shoulders, her understanding of the world around is certainly not light-hearted or superficial. Like a river, another one of her muses, it flows, gathers momentum and gets enriched with each passing moment. ‘Silt of seasons’ is not just another name of her work`85in her creative journey she collects facts, dwells and mulls over it, turns it around with her visual idiom and deposits it firm and square on a viewer’s mind.