Regarding the COVID pandemic, Bose Krishnamachari advises, “We should not be perturbed by this temporary phase. Artists should continue their work.” A personal yet charming conversation with Bose delighted me with his down to earth demeanour. Although we spoke on the phone, the warmth of his college days narrative informs me how certain attributes are missing today and the need for a solid pedagogical revival. Apart from the teeming urgency of including contemporaneity, it was a learning experience to know his calibre, sensitive approach, and consistency of accepting the time and life as allocated.
Although he was trained in art academics before arriving at Bombay in 1985, he enrolled in Sir JJ School of Art for finishing a five-year program, graduating in 1991. We asked him to share his memories of JJ and some more revoking past experiences as a way to enlighten the present student community. Also, he shares his valid reasoning for opting out the digital platform to stage Kochi Muziris Biennale’s (KMB) present edition.
AA: Could you share about JJ memories with us?
Bose: I studied at JJ from 1986 to 1991. Having stood first, I was awarded a gold medal along with a fellowship to teach at JJ. However, because I critiqued the existing redundancy of teaching and limited exposure to modern and contemporary art, I was suspended in April 1992. Then, JJ did not have a photography studio, the latest art magazines, and books. But I tried my best by organizing art symposiums.
During my college years, I worked at a restaurant in Worli between 1986-89. After having returned from work to my hostel in Kalanagar, Bandra, I would spend time with friends or draw or paint and sleep around 3 am. Amusingly, I would be the first person to leave for college, too. JJ is an interesting site with different institutes of architecture, printing technology, and applied art, apart from fine art. I was involved with all the department students. Sunil Padwal, Sameera Rathore, Geetanjali, and many others were brilliant. I would visit the Jehangir gallery after college along with my friends. That time, three private galleries in Fort, Pundole, Chemould, and Gallery 7, were prominent. And, we would visit the Cymroza gallery in Breach Candy regularly, too.
AA: Would you meet artists and creative people there?
Bose: I have had a great time with Akbar Padamsee, Ram Kumar, and many artists from different parts of India. I would meet Anupa Mehta, Girish Shahane, Abhay Sardesai, and Ranjit Hoskote who were all brilliant and young writers and editors then. I was always enthusiastic about meeting them. Conversing with filmmakers, musicians, and architects like Nuru Karim, among many others, was absolutely a learning experience. Samovar Cafe inside Jehangir, NCPA’s Mohile Parikh Centre (MPCVA) were meeting and discussing locations. MPCVA, now independent, was founded by Shaila Parikh. Shaila and her brother invited international speakers for their programs and workshops in the 80s and 90s. They actively triggered art conversations through MPCVA. That time, liberalization in the economy had begun causing a tangible change in the Indian cultural context, especially in music. MTV and V channels were growing popular. Spending time with creative people had become a daily routine.
AA: From your experiences and vivid exposure, could you tell us when exactly did the outlook towards art in India witnessed a shift?
Bose: Historically, 1988-89 were crucial years in the history of art in India. The Times of India celebrated their 150th anniversary in 1988, conducting an exhibition by Rajeev Sethi and Pritish Nandy. Then, there was no such thing as curation. They had arranged the Timeless Art of Victoria Terminus exhibition, hanging large canvases, installations, etc. from high ceilings and at the station, including works of many known artists, and witnessing great public involvement. Also, MF Hussain painting was sold at 10 lakhs in an auction. And, at this time, with people writing about art, respect also increased. I witnessed a real change in that year.
“I don't agree with the consistency of one style. Rather understanding extremities and its coexistence in the juxtaposition of vivid elements is crucial to your art practice. For eg., there exists chaos and order in Mumbai simultaneously; a kind of serenity that germinates from the chaos. Extreme minimalism reflects in my artworks.”
AA: How do you think art education was then? What kind of change we urgently need?
Bose: Our educational system was established by the British and mentioned Bauhaus principles. However, nobody taught us Bauhaus and our theory was weak. While we read and grasped from Herbert Read and Immanuel Kant, nobody taught us about contemporary philosophers. The traditional way of looking at art needs to be replaced by contemporary art learning. For JJ, we did have a few meetings to change the curriculum, 18 years ago, but nothing was implemented. We need to have varied scholarship programs and not just the basic cash, which I used to receive during my formative years. A century-old educational pattern still rules one of the oldest institutes of art in India. JJ was known as an abstract school with teachers and artists like Shankar Palshikar, Vasudeo Gaitonde, and Prabhakar Kolte. And skilled artists, too. But this could make it more difficult. However, artists who have ventured out have absorbed new things. Sudarshan Shetty, Atul Dodiya, among many others are a few examples to look at.
Besides, no one practised narratives in JJ. It was not looked at with appreciation. We begin to unlearn after we learn. I had already practised portraiture before joining JJ, and so I was more interested in developing intellectual and social consciousness and depicting political awareness. I believe this is where Baroda school plays a significant role. I do not believe in the romantic notion or studio painter idea. You build your practice through collective experiences. Meeting artists and living with them provides the essential trigger for the learning of art. I had spent a lot of time with modern and contemporary artists. Before FN Souza passed away, I was fortunate to spend a good time with him. Students should watch films, enjoy music, and theatre to absorb and inculcate varied art forms.
AA: How do you summarise an approach to art practice?
Bose: I don't agree with the consistency of one style. Rather understanding extremities and its coexistence in the juxtaposition of vivid elements is crucial to your art practice. For eg., there exists chaos and order in Mumbai simultaneously; a kind of serenity that germinates from the chaos. Extreme minimalism reflects in my artworks. Also, I feel Vishwanathan, an artist based in Paris is the best abstractionist at present with an original style of art-making. Moreover, we never document our work or archive our stuff. Therefore, in 2005, I termed my exhibition Exist at Jehangir gallery as a fake retrospective, which I organized after returning from the UK.
“Earlier the narrative of stories inspired students to create. Today, technology has taken hold of our imagination. But I am not against technology. Rather we as artists should continue to create in any conjecture of space and time. An intelligent creator could make anything out of nothing. We should not be perturbed by such temporary phases of the pandemic.”
According to Bose, KMB is a kind of temporary museum, which is an interesting perspective. KMB’s first digital walkthrough was held on Google Arts and Culture platform. The biennale plays a very important role in the lives of common and local communities. Therefore, its physicality has a greater impact than digital. Therefore, Bose confirms that this edition will not happen digitally.
AA: How do you feel that exhibitions are shifting online?
Bose: This is the time we should look at with a historical perspective. Things have kept and will keep on changing, which does not imply that the past is gone. For example, in 1840 when the camera was invented, ushering photography, French artists exclaimed that painting is dead. With the advent of the computer, the internet, and social media channels, new mediums have realised new avenues for art-making. I observe this pandemic as normal, except the health issues are concerning. Relatively, I recall, students were really worried that they could not do video art back in the early 2000s because they felt they would be thought of as outdated. So, even if you're doing drawing or sculpture, it could be contemporary depending on its content.
And, the biennale is about physicality for me. For eg., Rose is a flower because of its fragrance and physical presence. And, mirage is like a dogmatic reality and sort of compulsive magic, which is only a temporal surprise and nothing else. However, more than magic we should be expecting a surprise of newness. Earlier the narrative of stories inspired students to create. Today, technology has taken hold of our imagination. But I am not against technology. Rather we as artists should continue to create in any conjecture of space and time. An intelligent creator could make anything out of nothing. We should not be perturbed by such temporary phases of the pandemic.
AA: Are you creating something new in this pandemic? Has the pandemic, in any way, affected you personally?
Bose: I cannot separate myself from society. Although we are following distancing, social togetherness is observed through webinars, conferences,s and video calls. We can see people through technology. And, I did get to spend a lot of time with my family. Assistants for my project have got limited and other than that I don't see much difference. Commercially, all auction houses are doing well. I had an interview on NDTV along with Kiran Nadar and somebody from the gallery. Yes, we cannot visit galleries for exhibitions. However, we need to see it optimistically rather than cribbing about the situation. Some people are falling victim to depression. I guess we need to keep in touch with people regularly. Keep our mind creative by watching TV, listening to music, or writing, among many other things. I enjoy my time because of calls and conversations for work.
Repeating his ideology of extremism and minimalism, I reminisce that we hardly remain stable on one thing and that is why our art also cannot have one style for a long period. Bose’s repository of styles and conversation feel like a deep space that may take a lifetime to explore. Nevertheless, a tiny glimpse reinstates us on the right track of art thinking.