The Bose Archives is pleased to launch a new interview series called In Focus, which showcases in-depth features and essays on documentation and research projects that are currently taking place in the field of South Asian contemporary art.
Kathryn Myers has been teaching painting and drawing at the University of Connecticut since 1984. She received an MFA in painting from the University of Wisconsin, Madison and a BA in art from St. Xavier College in Chicago. For the past decade her work has been informed by her immersion in the art and culture of India. She has been the recipient of two Fulbright Fellowships to India in 2002 and 2011, other awards include The Marie Walsh Sharpe Foundation, and The Connecticut Commission on the Arts. She has exhibited her paintings widely in the United States and India. Her recent video interview series can be viewed at www.regardingindia.com .
Arpita Singh / Regarding India: Conversations with Artists
1) You recently participated in a symposium, Goddess, Lion, Peasant, Priest: Modern and Contemporary Art from the Shelley and Donald Rubin Private Collection where you presented Regarding India: Video Interviews with Contemporary Artists. Can you talk about your presentation for this symposium about the Rubin Private Collection which was held at the College of New Jersey?
I presented three fifteen-minute videos from my new series of videotaped interviews, Regarding India, Conversations With Artists. Two of the artists I interviewed, Arpita Singh and Arpana Caur are in the exhibition so that was a nice coincidence, but I also included an additional video on the photographer and environmental activist, Ravi Agarwal. Since his career is more recent than either Arpita or Arpana who have been exhibiting their work for decades, and he is not a figurative painter like so many in the exhibition, I thought that including him would give some insight regarding the diversity of mediums in the contemporary Indian art scene now which in prior times was privileged by painting. It also introduces the topic of environmentalism which many artists seem to be very interested in.
The Rubin collection encompasses an important range of work from modern masters to some of the most celebrated contemporary artists working in India. It also includes artists of the Indian diaspora such as Bari Kumar who lives in Los Angeles. It’s a great opportunity for Americans who may not have much opportunity to see art from India to view a significant collection of work. It was an honor to have an opportunity to show works from my new project to a diverse audience of scholars in South Asian Art, and students and administrators from the college. I was very encouraged by the reception.
Arpana Caur / Regarding India : Conversation with Artists
2) In 2011, you received a Fulbright Fellowship to conduct research on contemporary art practice in India, which culminated in an interview project. What was the impetus behind this research project? Can you describe how it came together?
It goes back to my first Fulbright in 2002 where I was based at the Government College of Art in Chennai. At that time I had made two prior visits to India in 1999 and 2001 where I attended artist residencies in Ahmedabad, New Delhi and Kerala. I wanted to come back to India not as a tourist, but in a way that would enable me to have greater access to artists, which the Fulbright fellowship provided as well as an extended amount of time. In addition to the art college in Chennai, I spent a lot of time at Dakshinachitra which is about 20 miles south of Chennai, run by Deborah Thiagarajen, a recognized scholar on Indian folk art and crafts. Through Deborah and the beautiful setting of Dakshinachitra, I learned a great deal about folk and popular art in India. I also visited Cholamandal, one of the most important early art colonies in India. I returned there on my 2011 Fulbright where I recently stayed for about 2 weeks and interviewed some of Cholamandal’s founding members.
During my 2002 Fulbright I had time to travel to many other art colleges, and many of my current connections with artists were initiated at that time. Through these artists I came to know more about contemporary art in not just Delhi or Mumbai, but all over India. Thus on those first visits I was getting to know about many different types of art in India from folk and popular through modern and contemporary. I continued to return to India nearly every year through research grants from the University of Connecticut where I teach painting, this enabled me to keep my contacts in India and to continue to develop my knowledge of Indian art.
My 2011 Fulbright project was primarily inspired by a course I developed on Indian art for the University of Connecticut’s new India studies program which started in 2004. Although in India there is a “cannon” of modern and contemporary artists whose work is included in many national and international exhibitions, I realized that like in the US, there are many layers to the art scene, and a huge amount of work being created that I would not see in those galleries or large national or international group exhibitions, but in smaller places, studios and galleries outside of the major urban areas. I valued my access to these more complex layers of what constitutes contemporary Indian art.
The sources for all of the work I presented in my class had been “secondary”, information I put together from many sources, which was also good for the students because in my class lectures I’m constantly quoting from curators and critics, so they start to see who is writing about Indian art. It took a long time for me to become comfortable enough with Indian art so that I could find my own voice, my own interpretations and ideas. There were often questions I wanted answers to, maybe specific things about a painting or something that I could not find in any of the written sources I had, or that I wanted broader ideas of what about India might have informed a particular work of art. My class is often the only exposure my students have to India, so I felt the need to show work that might also teach them about India. And even more I wanted to create a sense of immediacy, a sense of connection with the artists whose work I was engaged with, akin to the studio visits that I was enjoying as a practicing artist visiting another artist’s studio.
I initially chose artists based on regional diversity but found in the end, that not only have many artists from various regions in India moved to Delhi or Mumbai, but that the work rarely was focused on the particular region they were from. Still, structuring my interviews this way resulted in meeting with artists from diverse regions of India.
My interview project started with artists I was already familiar with and had been teaching about for a long time. Susan Bean, curator of South Asian Art at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA, and Peter Nagy, the Director of Nature Morte gallery in New Delhi were very generous in providing contact information. In south India, Suresh Jayaram and B.O. Shailesh were a great help in meeting artists. Although I started with artists I was already familiar with and had already done a lot of research on, while I was in India I also came to know the work of artists such as Ravi Agarwal, Sarnath Banerjee and Paula Sengupta, whose work I did not know of before. There were a lot of suggestions given to me by artists and gallery directors, some of which I was able to interview this time and others, that I can save for another visit, in all, I interviewed 54 artists.
Each interview required substantial commitment and preparation, to know the work well enough to have an interview that would generate appropriate questions and responses, not only to specific bodies of work, but to broader ideas about Indian art and culture and day-to-day life. Because of the advance time needed to prepare, I had to be careful about my schedule and also importantly, how many artists I could reasonably interview in a sequence of days I might be in particular city. Scheduling was an issue, for instance I traveled to Mumbai three times to meet with the artists I wanted to interview there as not everyone was available at the same time.
Krishnaraj Chonat / Regarding India: Conversations with Artists
3) Were artists in India and the art community receptive to your research project? Did you encounter any specific challenges and how were you able to address those?
All of the artists I contacted were very receptive, only two said that they could not meet with me, due to other obligations. Most were very appreciative that I knew so much about their work. Krishnaraj Chonat from Bangalore, I remember, told me that I knew more about his work than he did. I wanted to make it very clear that I was not a curator or critic, but that it was an educational project, and would not be used for commercial purposes. For me it was an amazing way to spend several months in India, and to learn an enormous amount about the art world artist by artist, even if nothing ever happens to the videos, it was time very well spent.
I learned to be more realistic about my schedule because each meeting often started with an hour of chai, which made sense as I was often meeting each artist for the first time, it broke the ice as chai always does. Then often I was invited to stay for a meal, and I would feel terrible if I had to run to anther interview. After an initial email, which I sent as an introduction because I have learned my American accent is hard to understand and because I don’t get great reception with my cell phone, I would follow-up by phone to have “real” contact before I met each artist.
I sometimes had challenges in trying to figure out how to get to each artist’s house, to find my way around each place in the short amount of time I was there. I had a lot of equipment including my laptop in my backpack, but I knew if I took a taxi everywhere, it would cost a fortune. So in Mumbai for instance, I learned how to use the metro, which made me feel very good and I was back and forth on it all the time. I loved being in the women’s car, I was always very well taken care of. Figuring out how to get there was part of the challenge.
A big challenge were technical aspects of the project as this was the first time I was ever making videos. I had to set up the laptop so that the artist and myself could see the work I had organized in folders to talk about, so I had to then position the camera and myself so they could look at the laptop and not be looking too far away from the camera. If I didn’t get it right, they would be looking too far away from the camera. I was using a remote microphone with two switches, and was concerned if I neglected to turn one on, I would have a “silent” interview as a result. During my first interview with Amit Ambalal, the battery ran out and I didn’t realize it and I had to re-record quite a bit but he was very kind about it. On two occasions a friend came with me who could be the one to keep track of these things so I could focus on talking with the artist, but most of the time I was on my own. I also felt the conversation might be different if I was not alone with the artist.
4) What were some of the highlights of your interview process? You mentioned earlier that the need for primary source material and more direct sources for information on Indian art is what prompted you to initiate your interview project. What were some theoretical “questions you wanted answers to” in the classroom environment?
Highlights were the “high” I got when I knew an interview went well, when it became something other than what I expected, when I actually would run out of all of my batteries and memory cards, nobody ever made me feel like I was taking up too much time, I often had a hard time knowing when to stop. Even though the finished edited interviews are only 15 minutes, I have in some cases well over an hour of material and its valuable to have, but editing it is hard, to make choices about what to include and how to order it, I’m often cutting and pasting audio from different parts of the interview to create a meaningful sequence of thoughts and ideas, sometimes with the artist talking about specific bodies of work and at other times about related issues. I had prepared questions but the best interviews where when it took on a life of its own.
There was a kind of magic when it went well, not only what the artist said, but the manner in which they spoke, points of emphasis, pauses, reflection, excitement, the cadence or tone of a voice. At times it was so moving it gave me chills and I’d have to walk away from the computer and at other times I found myself laughing out loud. I never got tired of hearing anyone in the hours I listened, I felt as if they were living in my studio, I felt an intense sense of connection. Mayur Gupta for instance was so nervous he asked if I minded if he smoked, but he also told me that I made him feel very comfortable talking about his work and his excitement is palpably present. Because of the amount of time I predicted I would spend on each interview and the editing process, I only met with artists whose work I had a strong personal response to, but even so everyone knows a conversation can “click” or not. There was only so much control I knew I would have, and I hoped for the best and I am amazed by what I have to work with, even if it takes years to finish. I look forward to those years.
Sarnath Banerjee / Regarding India: Interviews with Artists
I loved it when an artist would get carried away by a description or idea, sometimes as if they forgot I was there, for instance the way Sarnath Banerjee is at often in short sequence, humorous, irritated, upset or responds with a sense of affection to the issues in his work. I was filming in closer proximity to him than the normal polite distance I had with everyone else because the lapel microphone was broken by then (it was my last interview) and I had to use the in-camera microphone. Though the video resolution is a little digitized as a result, the kind of intensity Sarnath embodies is more effective filmed this way so this was a bit serendipitous even if the sound suffers from a bit of echo.
In terms of questions, I was always thinking of what would be most useful for my students. That might be why for instance, I asked Sarnath about both the structure and content of his graphic novels, to include a balance of formal and conceptual aspects of the work and working process. I tried to keep the same balance with most of the artists. I asked Sudhir Patwardhan, a painter whose work I talk about in my Indian art as well as my painting courses, quite a bit about how he selects color, structures his compositions, about his use of paint. It might be tempting to just talk about the content of his work because it illuminates many important social, political and cultural aspects of India, but the medium through which he speaks so effectively is paint, and I felt it was important to acknowledge and discuss this as well. It’s why for instance I appreciate how Ravi Agarwal can be as passionate in the way he talks about the environmental issues he deals with as well as the aesthetic pleasures of being present in the moment of taking the photos. I wanted to make sure I was capturing that kind of balance as I am an artist myself so the making of works of art, the process and use of materials is an integral part of how works of art resonate.
Ravi Agarwal / Regarding India: Conversations with Artists
With Anupum Sud we were talking about a print she made of people drinking chai and she suddenly jumped up and realized that she had forgotten to serve me chai when I came. I hope that is on the video, it would be an interesting moment and give the feeling of what it was like to be there. As in most, I have edited out my voice so it might be hard to understand that I was in a conversation with each artist and their response is implied by my question. Because I’m not on camera my voice is a bit jarring when it comes in, so in all cases so far, I’ve edited out my part of the conversation.
I didn’t have any consistent set of questions, they were tailored to each artists work. I decided to focus on the work itself and not to ask any general questions about the art scene in India, for instance. I had an idea that if I asked about specific works of art, larger issues would grow from that discussion, for instance with the Delhi printmaker Savi Sawakar who is a dalit, many stories arose that are very important for my students to understand and they came from a question about a single print. Savi understood that the interview was for American students who knew little about India (which I always stressed in how they might talk about their work) and he talked about these issues with great clarity and with this in mind.
Likewise Ravi Agarwal discusses so many interesting ideas about the personal, social, scientific and of course artistic aspects of his work that there is a constant flow of rich ideas, but on several occasions he is self-reflective, about how he is uncertain, about how the work is about this uncertainty and that this is what makes him human. For my students, this is what is appealing and accessible about such an impressive artist and thinker, a sense of vulnerability that they were able to relate to. When I work on the videos, particularly in the editing process, I get totally immersed in the world of each artist.
Kathryn Myers in Arpana Caur’s studio / Regarding India: Conversations with Artists
5) Can you talk about your background and how you developed an interest in Indian contemporary art?
Growing up in Chicago and attending college (St. Xavier) and graduate school in the Midwest, (UW-Madison) I had no particular exposure to Indian art and had not traveled at all outside of the Midwest. My main focus was on the contemporary gallery scene in Chicago which was the closest one to me at the time, and then New York when I moved to the east coast to teach at the University of Connecticut in 1984. As I traveled to Europe on different artist residencies in the 90’s I came to know more about contemporary European art.
I went to India for the first time in 1999 on a sabbatical leave from my university and I stayed at two artist residencies, The Kanoria Centre in Ahmedabad and Sanskriti Kendra in New Delhi, each for a month and traveled for a month between. I did not know much about India at all, maybe a minimal amount about miniature painting, I had never seen any Indian art in person that I remember, so I was very naïve and uninformed and thus probably also very open to wherever the experience might take me. Everything from activity on the streets, the regional diversity of Indian geography, food, popular culture, religion, architecture and national and local politics was a revelation. I veered between moments of ecstasy and despair and many feelings in-between, nothing had ever in my life produced such strong and constantly shifting emotions. I came to love the old city of Ahmedabad in particular and have visited many times since to visit close friends. From Delhi I traveled all over Rajasthan and also to Khajuraho and Varanasi. (Varanasi remains my favorite city in India). I loved seeing art in all of the museums. Aside from Folk art I was drawn to miniature painting and work that I will describe as “diagrammatic or ritual” from Jain traditions as well as tantric cosmology diagrams etc.
However, it was my visit to the Crafts museum in Delhi that had at that time, the greatest impact. I always say that it was the first day of the rest of my visits to India. I felt powerfully drawn to work I saw there and when I came back I threw myself into research, relying on friends with more knowledge of India than I did who guided my research and eventually encouraged me to apply for a Fulbright. I was starting from scratch because I wanted to know everything at once, about religion and philosophy and art. (I now have a very substantial library of books on all of these subjects that started then.)
I also had in 2002 an amazing opportunity to curate what turned out to be a very large exhibition of Indian art, titled Masala, Diversity and Democracy in South Asian Art at our university museum, the Benton Museum of Art, I worked on that for several years and it opened in 2004. It was as someone described a “crash course in Indian art” and was reviewed by Holland Cotter in the NY Times and in Art India magazine. It introduced me to many artists in the Diaspora, including two artists who co-curated two sections of the show, photography, Annu Matthew and art of the Diaspora, Siona Benjamin. Bose Pacia loaned most of the contemporary work and it was through Bose Pacia that I really came to know and appreciate contemporary Indian art.
To continue the sense of synergy at that time, UConn also started a new India studies program for which I served on the board. It was then that I created my new course Indian Art and Popular Culture. This course allowed me to organize what I had been learning on my own in a form and structure that would allow me to share my love of Indian art with my students.
My interest in contemporary art came later. When I first came to India, aside from hearing about and then meeting with Peter Nagy, from Nature Morte Gallery in Delhi, there was not much that was accessible to me about contemporary art and I was much more interested in miniature painting and folk art, types of art that many artists who travel to India are initially drawn to. My interest in contemporary art started during my Fulbright in 2002 when I was meeting art professors and students and it was through these personal connections that I developed an interest in researching Indian contemporary art.