“Never blame anything on destiny. I have worked hard to attain what I have. A combination of many factors contributes to success. Luck plays a very small part.“
Brinda Miller is amongst a handful of female contemporary artists, based in India, to have achieved recognition internationally. Brought up in a family that was traditional, her journey as an artist has seen her step out of the norm to explore and stretch the possibilities of abstract expressionism. In her career which started with landscapes, her art evolved as she worked through many different processes including mixed media, focussing on three-dimensional elements, to meshing her deep interest in architecture in her latest paintings.
Married to eminent architect, Alfaz Miller, both their daughters are also architects. So it would seem natural for her paintings and mixed media work to have strong influences of structure and line. I caught up with Brinda for an afternoon interview over the phone. Articulate, intelligent and down-to-earth you sense the same methodical attention to detail in her paintings which are intricate and bursting with colour and form.
Her interest in textiles is evident in the patterning and symbolism which contributes to her style. I discovered that we both share a love of adventure after both being brought up in traditional Indian families. A known multi-tasker, Brinda, has been an important member of the Kala Ghoda festival as their Director for many years. A respected jurist, an advisory member of many prestigious art committees and art educational institutes and museums in addition to being an artist, Brinda Miller, represents every woman of India. She shares with me many anecdotes about her life and her career that have been the turning points on her path to success.
AA: What memories do you have at the time spent at JJ and how do you think art education has evolved in India since the 1970s and 80s? How is the method of teaching different between India and the US as you studied painting and drawing at the prestigious Parsons School of Design as well in New York in 1989?
BM: I have great memories of JJ because you know there have been many milestones in my life and JJ was like a big stepping stone from the school where I lead a very sheltered life. And of course, JJ was also a very sheltered life but the kind of academics and teachers we had back in shortly was in the late seventies, which was a long time ago and had a kind of grounding that was amazing and fantastic. I recently went back to JJ a couple of years back for a jury and I found that nothing has changed. That is the big drawback of JJ: it has not moved with the times. Now there are so many other mediums. There is so much digital work. It should come into especially design, if not fine art, at least into graphic design. It needs a different kind of approach to art. I feel this has not happened. Having said we do not have too many schools. Yes, we have many Polytechnic colleges which I won't say are bad, having said that, a school of art is a school of art and that is, you know, what one wants.
When I went to New York it was another milestone because it was a culture shock. Even though I had been exposed to a lot of the art world before then. I was there alone because I was away from my parents. It was like a new rebirth of sorts where I was absolutely on my own. I was taking my own decision whether it was what to cook for the day, where to go today, where to buy my art materials. New friends. Meeting new people. And their approach was so different. Their teaching was so different.
And you could go and work at night and it didn't matter if you ruined the floor or ruined your table and it didn't matter if paint splattered all over. JJ was not like that. JJ was very particular about which way you held the paper and held the pencil. There were differences between both but no regrets at all. I enjoyed both of them thoroughly in different ways. I mean both moulded me to do the kind of work I am doing now. So I believe it is this combination that has made me the artist I am today.
AA: As the mentor of the AVID Programme what do you give for emphasis as important learning concepts in an art programme. advising art students.
BM: With AVID, I began my role as a mentor. I have moved on since the last few years, as Advisor and Education Consultant at the children's museum and the education program for adults at the CSMVS Museum. Definitely education outside the colleges is also important. Lately, I see a lot of panel discussions and talks. Important to look for other resources for art education. Suddenly there is a real spate of online courses that were not there before. It is a good thing of course but on the other hand, there is nothing like actually going and being on-site and listening to people, being amongst a real audience. I hope we can go back to that shortly.
AA: What major changes in your opinion in the art scene in India since your first art exhibition at the Urjaa Art Gallery in 1982.
BM: There are so many new different mediums artists are now working with. Very interesting mediums. But for someone like me, I find them intimidating to understand but when you see it in a museum space it is fantastic. You wonder how artists survive because to sell art in my day one had to look at many other aspects of art outside of just creative passion.
It wasn't so much art would appreciate after ten or twenty years it was more about ok I like this I want to hang it on the wall and that was it and it wasn't so much about you know how much the price was per square inch or square centimetre now it has become all of that. For all of us, it came as a big shock. Although this happened gradually it's very hard to digest that part of it but on the other hand, there is more exposure and it has become a serious career option than it ever was. Before nobody thought of going to study art and make it a full-time profession it was always on the side. Art was always a side profession which now is not the case.
AA: How has it been you have been married to an architect and you're a director of your firm? How has that influenced your art in any way the structure, the use of colour?
BM: My last show was called "Vanishing Point" which is an architectural term. Both my husband and daughters are architects. I work in a studio in my husband's office so there are a lot of drawings and conversations happening around art and painting. Thus, there is a lot of influence. I use a lot of architectural forms, straight lines, perspectives. I think the 3-dimensional in my work is also very architectural. There is a combination of influences. I am also influenced by textiles. All of that is influencing me.
AA: Can you talk a little bit more about "Vanishing Point" from your previous landscape themes. Now it's been more about principles of architecture and urban scape abstraction, your angles, arches and eclipses.
BM: There is a similarity between architecture and nature. When I started I did a lot of landscapes or I would call them now archiscapes. At the same time, there is a lot of nature. Everything is made up of a basic form whether, square, circle, triangle or rectangle. Architecture is also like that. Architectures also like that it's about going three dimensional going deeper into it. If you look at the horizon which is a slightly curved line; if you look at the sun which could be an ellipsis or the moon it could be crescent. So everything has a basic shape involved so that is how I combined both these elements of architecture with nature in my work.
“Needless to say, my art imitates my life.”
AA: You have said that in a linear perspective drawing the point of convergence is a spot on the horizon line where the receding parallel lines appear to meet. You also said the lines remind me about the kind of life I have a lead which has converged at various points the diverse career options I have had and the things I do. Can you talk about this and the converging points that have shaped your career and life?
BM: I am also a multi-tasker you could say not only in my career but in my life. They say art imitates life and life imitates art. There is also an eclectic and mixed media side to me. All my life is mixed media. I eat fusion food. It is not fully continental or Indian. The clothes I wear are eclectic and mix and match. My paintings are like that. It has to do with my upbringing. My parents come from different communities. Their thinking is different and their backgrounds are different. Our entire family is cosmopolitan. I am a Hindu married to a Muslim. I enjoy it also and I have gotten used to mixing and matching. I can't see my life in any other way. There are so many diverse elements in my life. I go by instincts and in my paintings, I go by my instincts. Even in my painting, I go by instincts. Architecture is a very planned thing and my paintings are not planned at all. A little mix of all those things. Very similar to my life; some things are planned and some things that are not. I call it organized chaos.
AA: Your daughters are also architects and following in your footsteps so what is the advice you would give them? And what is something you share?
BM: I don't give anyone any advice. I feel they should find their own space, they should find their own life and they should decide what they want to do. For that reason, both of them are extremely different from each other. And though they both are architects I thought one would become an artist and one an architect. That's what we always thought. I don't know life takes you where you decide you want to take it or it goes in different directions. Both said, "no, no, no... we want to be architects. We are going to join dad." Now all of a sudden, after they finish their education. My older daughter has joined dad, but my younger one has said she wants to work for someone else. So she is working for another architect.
AA: You have been the driving force as Festival Director at the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival. So what major achievements and factors have been instrumental in bringing this festival to popularity today in your opinion?
BM: So this year we are doing a digital festival because of the situation (as much as I hate it) but we have to keep the flag flying. It is such a hugely popular festival. I don't know how it became so popular but there is energy. There is something behind the space that is driven to what it is. And every year we used to think; next year we don't know if we will be able to do it. There is always a problem with the funds or whatever. But it has become iconic. It has become fun. A lot of young people hang out. We feel very encouraged and work very hard. So it's a lot of hard work and passionate people behind this who don't do it for the money. So if you have this combination, I think it is a great thing.
AA: You have done many murals for the City of Mumbai. I would like to know if doing a mural is different from your artwork that is made for collectors or galleries? Is inspiration different? Is the method or process different?
BM: As an artist, we can do anything we want to do. Of course, the subject is different, the process is different, everything is different.
If you are a creative person. Let’s say if I want to weave a sari or I want to make a pot. I want to do ceramics. The medium is different, the entire work will be different. But if you have the talent you can create different types of arts in different zones. Why do I do these projects? I feel people should do public art. You see this abroad. That's why in Kala Ghoda we have this public space for artist installations... In a crowded place by Mumbai where an artist displays their art. Of course, I would like to do much more. I am talking to the authorities. So I am planning to bring more public art to the city.
My husband and I were the first people to bring art to the airport. When we did we realised how successful it was. When the airport got renovated they gave it to some other curators. I am an artist and my husband is an architect. We are not curators, so the airport gave it to a professional curatorial team. My husband and I engineered art at the airport. The work I have at the airport, more people have seen than elsewhere. It has become a museum without having the intention of becoming a museum.
AA: Of all the exhibitions which one is memorable and important to you and why?
BM: My first show was the most memorable. It was in Baroda. And it was after that exhibition one had to work hard to keep up one's name but it was like a big surprise for me. And it was a big launch for me. OK, I never expected I would be so successful. This was very happy and satisfying for me. Before that, I had a job in a textile mill, and I was extremely fed up. This exhibition changed my life. And soon I realized I am a good artist after all.
AA: Any other shows that stand out in your memory?
BM: My last show has always been important to me throughout my career because it is the big leap as I grow as an artist. I try to change my work for each new exhibition. And I think to myself this is the one. But one has to continue to evolve in their art. To answer your question today I would have to say "Vanishing Point." which was my last. A lot of people told me what a change. I found the reaction to my work satisfying. Even if one is 90 years old one is to grow so it's a great feeling to be a growing artist.
AA: So how has the experience been participating in exhibitions internationally? How has the experience been different from exhibiting your works here in India showing in galleries and interacting with people?
BM: I have been a part of a lot of group shows internationally. But strangely enough, I have never been to any of them. But it’s very prestigious to be a part of an international show. When you go to smaller places people have a lot of respect for you. There was an exhibition in Zimbabwe, Africa where we were all invited, international artists. But, I had to leave before the exhibition started. But it was amazing the kind of interaction I had because so many people wanted to see the show. After all, people don't get this opportunity. In the west, there is a lot of appreciation, especially in smaller places. Even in India when you go out of Mumbai.
People are starved from seeing great works of art beyond Mumbai, Delhi, Calcutta, Bangalore, Chennai whatever. When you go to smaller places people have great respect for you. It’s amazing to think about how many people think you are famous and somebody famous has come to their city. That's heartening to interact with people outside your comfort zone.
AA: Do you think women artists are disadvantaged as compared to male colleagues in terms of opportunity and income? You can talk about this from an Indian or international perspective.
BM: I don't think they are disadvantaged from a talent perspective. I don't think Indian women artists have the drive maybe. It is just part of one’s upbringing. I'm generalizing here; I am not talking about my upbringing. But I think it's more like, o.k., you want to take art. That should be fine. You can always work from home. You would be able to raise your family. You would have your own time. I don't think they concentrate so much on their careers as they do on their families or equally on both. Men look at something as they have to earn money, we have to be famous. We have to do all of that.
AA: Please name 3 artists you admire.
BM: I like Zarina Hashmi's work. She was based in New York and you can see the fusion of east and west in her art. Her work is also very architectural. It's very sparse and different from what I do. But at the same time, I admire it a lot. Anju Dodiya; because there is a certain emotion in her work that I react to. When it comes to male artists... I like a lot of abstract artists like Prabhakar Barwe and Swiss-born German abstract painter Paul Klee who is known for exploring colour theory amongst many other attributes that display the range of emotion and music in art.
Barwe's work was a little bit Bauhaus and yet abstract and structured. Again very different from my work. He also had a background in textiles which I identify with because I also have a background in textiles.
AA: Since we are talking about this. I am curious to know what you think about the art and photography of Nasreen Mohamedi. Her work is also lines and angles and geometric shapes.
BM: Beautiful work. I can make you a list of ten artists list and she would be in that. If we are talking about women artists I even like Arpita Singh's work. The woman artists are so
undermined and not given their due as they should be. Of course, my friend Jayasri Burman. I love her work.
AA: Which places have you travelled to in your life that has left a lasting impression on you or has impacted your work?
BM: Every place I have been to, has impressed me. Though my choices for the top three places in the world that left an indelible and lasting impression would be Japan, Morocco and Turkey. I also like Spain a lot. All of these have been inspirational for their architecture and art. Morocco and Turkey are very traditional. But there is something very very inspiring about these places even if it is an ordinary fort wall or doorways or jalis. Japan is also very beautiful and everything is very aesthetic in Japan.
AA: You are also a part of many NGOs. Can you share what you do with them? How you give back to society. Can you share what role you play there?
BM: When I say I am part of NGOs I don't necessarily play a direct role. I use my creative
abilities to organize workshops for them. I work with Art organizations which are NGOs. I help them with the running of their office or with art education. I do a lot of all this. Another way I help NGOs is by contributing paintings for their organizations which will be auctioned to benefit the organization. Someone like from the Cancer Society might want me to contribute a painting. I can't refuse. I want to help in any way possible. You feel good that your work is exhibited. The organization feels good that you contributed. Everybody benefits. Nobody is at a loss when you do that.
AA: I am the Vice-President of the NGO NariSamajSantiniketan Organization. Recently we had Amisha Patel and Mahima Choudary and all these celebrities donated sanitary napkins and food items during the lockdown. My brother, Abeer, and I distributed items for the labour class people. I know exactly what you are talking about. You give back to society and you feel happy.
BM: Even Kala Ghoda Association is an NGO. I always worked for it honorarily. I started as a volunteer and I am still a volunteer. I don't take money for organizing it. It takes quite a lot of my time though I enjoy working with the Kala Ghoda Festival even though it takes three months of my one year to organize the festival.
AA: Last question: What are your thoughts on the current situation at the NGMA
(National Gallery of Modern Art) Mumbai? They have not purchased any paintings in the last ten years. What are your thoughts?
BM: I agree, I used to advise at the NGMA. It was for more an advisory for the kind of
programmes that we had there. We did a lot of good work. We had a very good committee there at the time. It is a three- year short-term. I am talking about Mumbai. We did a lot of good programming and shows. It was nice to be working for it. After we left they had a new committee. I don't know how they work. They are all good people, of course. It is a government-run organization and everything depends on the people running the committees. If they say we want to do this and do not want to do this, there is nothing you can do about it. And Corona has completely shut-it-down. Thus, things have become slow. Not sure after corona if they have a programme ready. It seems that nothing is moving.
“Today, education is the best gift we can give our kids. I get a lot of young artists
wanting my advice. I do advise them that an art career isn’t as easy as it appears... I have worked hard to attain what I have.”
A woman of creativity and determination, Brinda Miller truly is an important force as an artist, a thinker and an important art advisor to both government and industry on how to celebrate and preserve India’s art heritage.