'Santa FE International Art Fair'

Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Artist as Witness

- Giridhar Khasnis

Trained as a painter (BFA / College of Fine Arts, Bangalore / 1988) and printmaker (MFA, M S University, Baroda / 1990) Ravi Kumar Kashi (b.1968) has established himself firmly in the Indian contemporary art scene working and holding a series of solo exhibitions since early 1990s.

Interestingly, Kashi has had a distinctly 'non-linear' artistic career. In the catalogue piece for Kashi's exhibition 'City Without End' (ArtsIndia West, Palo Alto, CA in collaboration with Gallery Sumukha, Bangalore / February 24– April 01, 2007 / Palo Alto, CA), well-known art critic Ranjit Hoskote observed that how in the course of his artistic career Kashi had proceeded by a breathtaking series of disconnects, as though no single medium or approach to image-making could hold his restless energy.

""Kashi has worked in graphics, painted on glass and on canvas, addressed the figure and explored abstraction,"" wrote Hoskote. ""He has cherished the collage principle, devoted to moulded-paper sculpture, mobilized assemblages, extended the painterly mandate to the social signaling devices of the T-shirt and the mask; he has engaged in photography and made digital art-works as well as art-works that are inspired by digital-media processes.""

Kashi shares his views on art and his own development as an artist with Bangalore-.based art writer, Giridhar Khasnis. Excerpts from the conversation:

GK: Ravi, can you tell something about your constant pursuit of different mediums.

RKK: As an artist, I see myself as a witness of my times, to the ways it is being re-presented in the media and as a witness to the visual culture around me. The experience of an urban artist like me is seldom purely visual. It is almost always mixed with textual messages. I am accosted by messages whether at home or outside. So, if my experience has to be translated authentically into my work, it has to necessarily be a mingling of images and text; each affecting the meaning of the other. In my career I have never believed in sticking to one rule, one medium, one language. I have always had this curiosity to understand and represent the dynamic life around me through multiple perspectives and mediums. It is also an outcome of a spirit of enquiry I have carefully nurtured since childhood. If anything, I am mortally scared of getting stuck to one medium or one set of images. I have seen several artists particularly from the previous generation repeating themselves endlessly. Some of them have become successful and made a name for themselves but their work is recognized more by the signatures rather than a wholesome understanding of art and life. I respect some of them for their energy and effort but speaking for myself the very idea of becoming repetitive is really terrifying. Recently one of my friends made an interesting remark about my dalliance with several mediums. He said that each time I shifted from a medium, I revealed a new avatar. He also added that while doing so, I carried the essence of my earlier work and medium. So there is a disconnect (in terms of medium) and yet a subtle connection in my trajectory of work. His observation was a revelation to me. And I hope he is right!

GK: I have always wondered how artists think and develop their artwork. What are the challenges they face while creating their work.

RKK: I think in any good work of art the meaning is not fixed; the structure and content may lead the viewer in a particular direction but then they also open up possibilities of deeper understanding at different levels. For instance, let us take a picture of a girl and a boy in close proximity. It will convey different meanings to different people. For some it could be love, for others courtship or something else. This ability of a picture to mean different things to different people excites me. Communication is one continuous theme I have always explored in my works. I am intrigued about the way we can or cannot communicate; how we translate our thoughts and intentions into words. I also observe how others communicate, or don't communicate or mis-communicate. And how all these affect relationships. How can I, in my art, convert all these visually? How can I convey my observations and make them evocative or poetic? These are the challenges I pose to myself constantly.

GK: Tell us about your interest in paper works. How did it all start?

RKK: My interest in 'paper' dates back to over two decades. Even as a teenager, I would collect a set of old newspapers, soak them in water, make a sort of pulp (""rather crudely"") and create paper sculptures and artworks from it. Later, as I grew up and had occasion to view the works of many masters, I was particularly overwhelmed by the 'Wounds' series of Somenath Hore (1921-2006) who created paper pulp prints to poignantly portray themes on human condition and tragedy of the Great Bengal famine.

GK: Your were awarded the Charles Wallace Scholarship in 2001. How did it help?

RKK: Yes, I was awarded this scholarship to study handmade papermaking at Glasgow School of Art. I was fortunate to have a guide and teacher like J Parry, who is an authority on printmaking and papermaking in Europe. Technically, I learnt a lot at Glasgow - pulp making, casting, watermarking, glazing, pulp painting, metal stenciling and embossing. Parry exposed me to many concepts, techniques and ideas which I couldn't have possibly learnt in India. My stay in Glasgow honed up my skills and brought firmness to my ideas. As importantly, it became an enquiry into the whole process rather than following a spoon-fed curriculum. At the end of my residency, I had a show of my works on a weekend which was attended by an encouraging group of faculty members, students and other visitors.

GK: How was this learning experience carried from Glasgow to Bangalore?

RKK: Obviously I worked on it vigorously on my return. In September 2002 I exhibited a series of handmade paper works titled 'Made in Glasgow' at two venues: the British Council, Chennai (Sept. 23-28, 2002) and Gallery Sumukha, Bangalore (October 14-19, 2002). In these works I tried to relive several of my experiences in Glasgow; how living out of a suitcase in a foreign land had made me acutely aware of the few objects in my spartan room; how these objects had actually revealed my identity; how objects had several lives from the time they were produced, sold over, used by the 'owner' before getting discarded as useless. Metaphorically speaking, the little suitcase I carried around not only contained my physical belongings but my entire history. This was delicately conveyed in my work. My next exhibition of paper works titled 'Pause' came three years later. There I tried to reach a higher level of sophistication and creative maturity. Critics recognized that my series of human torsos (pulp made from cotton and jute fibre) on which I painted in acrylic colours worked at different levels and carried a subtle social and political commentary. When I planned this exhibition, my motivation came from watching a video. It struck me that Pause was a simple button through which I could control the motion and action on the screen instantaneously. I could stop all mayhem and murder (on screen) with a simple feather touch. It was amazing! But could I do the same thing in real life? No! Increasing aggression and violence surrounding us are seldom in control of an individual. As an artist I might be incapable of directly changing the ground reality around me. But I can still ponder and paint

GK: Your recent works on paper dwell on two themes: armour and books.

RKK: The armour as an image and a three-dimensional object provides multiple meanings for me. At a very physical level, it stands out as a symbol of protection, a metaphor for authority. But when I cast this object in paper, the whole meaning changes drastically. Paper is a very fragile medium which directly contrasts to the strength of armour which is supposed to be robust and normally made of metal. This interplay of so-called powerful objects becoming delicate through used material stands as an allegory of many things around us. That is why I have called this work as ""What If …?""

I have always been a keen student of both Kannada (my mother tongue) and English literature. Understandably, my interest in books has been strong since childhood. I have tried to carry this interest to my current set of works titled ""Up Close"". Here I have cumulated a set of thirty 'books' made of paper pulp. Cast in different sizes and contours, each piece has its own 'story' to narrate, but the narrative is non-linear, unstructured and at times even abstract. The core of the work is in the experiencing and dialoguing with the images and 'reading' of the text.

I've called this work ""Up Close"" because it draws the viewer physically to it and then engages him/her in a silent dialogue. My idea is to synergize as well as contrast the text with the image. Many of them seem to reveal something but when seen in conjunction with another image or text, they can alter the perception. In these works, I have not worked with any fixed notion but have allowed things to evolve. There are no editions; each is a unique piece.

I have to mention that many of these themes and images are derived from different forms and cultures. I have used cartoons, folk tales, political struggles, newspaper reports, advertisement enticements – anything and everything which has come to my notice at the time of creating these books. As a follower of myths and spiritual practices, I have not allowed my atheist beliefs to interfere. For me they are all part of my reality; the potent words, visuals, stories and poems are all intrinsically linked to me and my culture.

I hope for the viewer too it can become a process of reaching himself/herself through the work. Of 'reading' the text, and understanding the visual. Of connecting with both.