RS: But, of course, you’re aware of the excess baggage of this colonial legacy! I am reminded of the little ditty by Kipling in which Adam sitting under a tree draws something on the ground. It gives great joy to his heart till the Devil swinging on the branches whispers, “It is pretty. But is it art?” What is important is who decides to define art.
Jagannath Panda, Manjunath Kamath, Pankaj Saroj, among several artists, are effectively incorporating hand-crafted interventions in their work. Computer-aided conceptual art is becoming ubiquitous. I feel, however, that emotional intelligence will be difficult to substitute. A good artist will use it to outpace machines with a renewed sensibility.
AS: I was looking at the Nasreen Mohamedi collection which is part of your Jiyo initiative. Isn’t getting a group of craftspersons to respond to an artist a way of buttressing the binary?
Rajeev Sethi, Tree of Life. Installation. Barcelona. 2004. Images courtesy of Rajeev Sethi.
RS: No, it is a way of stretching their practice. They are turning the lines. They do not know who Nasreen is. They are responding to a design and pushing their own. We have to understand this in a spirit of ‘co-creation’.
AS: I am not entirely convinced but let’s leave this for the moment. I want to take you back a little. One of my earliest memories as a newspaper-reading schoolboy is seeing a photograph of Pupul Jayakar and you at the inauguration of a Festival of India sometime in the mid-1980s. You cut quite a figure as the smart and natty curatorial presence of this trans-national initiative.
The Festivals of India and the Apna Utsavs put an accent on the intermingling of disparate worlds; they enabled the give-and-take of people, ideas and image-systems, at a scale never attempted. In a way, these initiatives pre-figured globalization and its insistence on what one may call, cross-civilizational infotainment and spectacularization of culture. One of the maneouvres that drew criticism and praise in equal measure was the collaboration you enabled between Indian craftspersons and Western designers. How do you look back at this moment? What promise did it hold and how uneven were these partnerships?
RS: To be honest, I don’t quite like the word ‘infotainment’. I can live with ‘spectacular’, though! These projects had a deep emotional connect and were not merely about mental or visual titillation. As they say, “Basti basna khel nahi hai; Baste, baste, basti hai.”
When I look back, I realise there was an organic way in which these visual manifestations came together. The idea of the process was critical and I wanted our roadmap of benefit to reach the doorsteps of all the stakeholders. The third of the shows at the Smithsonian, The Golden Eye, at the Cooper-Hewitt National Museum of Design in New York, brought the finest Western architects and designers together with Indian craftspeople to produce something very different. Of course, some people asked: Why should people from outside come and tell us what we should do? But what was amazing was that this experience changed these world-famous foreigners as much as it influenced our skilled communities.
It was a cathartic experience. Mario Bellini, for instance, came for three weeks. I remember what he said. “We’re used to playing on Moog Synthesisers. You’ve given us a Stradivarius”. Ettore Sotsass helped us create tableware with a permutation of materials and skills the West had forgotten. Frei Otto made tents and cutlery with young blacksmiths not interested in making antique daggers. There were around 250 prototypes conceived on napkins!
AS: The Home and the World. This seems to be one of the driving forces steering your projects. Let’s jump back into the 1950s. Growing up in Delhi just after Independence and studying with Stanley William Hayter, getting mentored by Ray and Charles Eames and working with Pierre Cardin in the 1960s, when did you decide to come back and what was the cultural scene in India at the time?
Rajeev Sethi, Ramnivas Sharma and stone carvers from Rajasthan. Tribute to Indian Maritime History.
Jaya He GVK New Museum at the Mumbai airport. 2014.
RS: After getting a French Government scholarship in 1968, I went to Hayter’s Atelier 17 and formed a laboratoire d’idées with Pierre Cardin in Paris. It was a hyper-professional world and one learnt how to adapt to different contexts.
Cardin sent me to India in 1971 to put together a festival celebrating the spirit of ‘India Modern’. I met Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay who personified a compassionate concern for the living arts and travelled with her around the country. Looking for the contemporary meant finding a quality of life everywhere, especially in our villages. One simply had to come back! One gave up the four-bedroom comfort of Paris and began exploring our art and crafts traditions with a less jaundiced lens. My great guru, Pupul Jayakar, was responsible for my going to Paris. Kamalaji brought me back. If Pupulji helped expand my intellect, Kamalaji helped open the heart.
I was a prolific painter and won prizes from age 4 to 16 at Shankar’s On-The-Spot and International Children’s Competition. In fact, while graduating from St. Stephens’, I did a show of paintings that was noticed by Charles Fabri, Richard Bartholomew and Keshav Malik. Incidentally, we recently found my old batiks and paintings locked in trunks! Theatre was my life! I worked as an advisor to avant-garde theatre gurus like Peter Brook and Ariane Mnouchkine. “The Mother of Modern Theatre” Joan Littlewood was a true mentor – I was the art director of her film Bison which never got released. I also acted in the film! One could spend quality time with Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg and John Cage at Stony Point and Andy Warhol at the Factory. Some of these geniuses came to India but I did not quite know how great they were when I first met them. The learning curve, therefore, was very steep.
A life lesson I learnt from Pupulji and Kamalaji was about recognizing the importance of reinventing without unnecessary gravity. I learnt how agility and tacticality scored over pomposity and arrogance. As the space for art shrinks, I realise how important it is to be generous – to give more than you take. The other thing I realized was that everything connects – as the Vishnudharmottara Purana tells us, poetry and mathematics, architecture and dance, are all inter-related.
AS: Talking about inter-connections, you have explored art, design, performance and the crafts, like few other people in South Asia. From the gigantic Basic Needs Pavilion at EXPO 2000 in Hanover and the Silk Route Festival in Washington (2002) to the art display at the Grand Hyatt in Mumbai (2003) and the Sky of Aspirations, Tree of Life installation in Barcelona (2004), you have followed the ‘scenographic’ model of curating events. This puts an accent on a holistic display environment where the larger plotting, marshalling and organising of artworks is privileged. Why do you so distrust the word ‘curator’?
Installation at Basic Needs Pavilion. Expo 2000. Hanover. Project conceptualized by Rajeev Sethi.
RS: I must tell you this. I had to use the word ‘scenographer’ to register my company that could function across countries without much bureaucratic trouble. The irony was that I got a notice from the Tax Department saying I was exporting manpower – ‘scenography’ had been read as ‘stenography’! The matter went up to the Supreme Court to be resolved! As far as the word ‘curator’ is concerned, I am deeply suspicious of any term in English or French that cannot be translated adequately in Hindi. I believe in srujana, shilp, rasa, anubhuti and jugalbandi. I believe in upaj, not in labels.
AS: Do you feel that the model of crafts development in the country places a half-hearted emphasis on economic growth even as community progress is seen as a complementary by-product?
RS: This is a crucial question. I feel we are destined to lose many of our critical livelihoods. Where is the relevant pedagogy that makes sense of our crafts traditions? The hand is being marginalized; skills are being displaced. Bapu’s ‘Buniyaadi Shiksha’ is being disregarded; the ‘Nai Taleem’ is devoid of context.
The younger generation needs to be fully involved. Unfortunately, we only look at the artefacts, the objects; we do not see the process or the people who create them. My Bhule Bisare Kalakar project staked a claim to an integrated arts neighbourhood in Delhi, where ‘traditional’ artists could flourish. But, of course, the real estate considerations of the slumland were more pressing. For 40 years, I persisted in setting up this unique trans-disciplinary habitat. Politics can’t do what culture can: it is one way in which we can address the problems of our beleaguered neighbourhood. My Asian Heritage Foundation presented a ‘Sasian Journey’ leading up to the proposal for a South Asian Art Design Technology Kendra. Our capital cities need a cross-cultural clutch of facilities that are non-existent in the sub-continent. On both counts, I failed to achieve results. That hurts. Honestly, we must understand this: Art will survive only if the artist survives. We should stop being interested in hollow, pretty things or crafted knickknacks. From the world’s most skilled place let us not get reduced to a jobless, rootless, ruthless, faceless, spiritless land.