As Director, Museum of Goa, Subodh Kerkar is taking art out of intimidating settings and making it more accessible to a greater number of people
How did ‘Museum of Goa’ come about?
I realized that in a country with a population of 135 crore, not more than a 100,000 people connect with contemporary art. The rest feel that contemporary art is not for them, especially since most of the exhibitions take place in five star premises. Some years ago I sold the first house I constructed for a substantial amount of money. All my friends advised me that at the age of 55 I should just keep the money in the bank and live happily ever after, but I wanted to create a museum! Everybody wanted to know the business plan, but I had none. I used all that money to create Museum of Goa (MOG), with the intention of bridging the cultural gap that exists in this country. And I must confess that I didn’t live happily ever after; instead I live in a perpetual bliss.
For 90% of those who visit MOG, this is their first visit to any contemporary art space.Yet they connect with it and they enjoy it. I believe that you do not need any formal or informal training to connect with good art. If you give people bad art, they will feel this is all that exists, and if you give them good art they will know the difference. I also believe that if a person does not connect with the work of art, the fault lies equally with the work of art as with the viewer.
How did your tryst with art begin?
My father was an artist who became a school teacher because he could not make a living from art. He, however, painted in his spare time, and my brother, sister and I were always connected with painting. Our job was to clean his palette and to squeeze colors.
By the time I was five years old I could distinguish aquamarine blue from cobalt and cerulean. By the time I was ten, I could paint fairly professional water color landscapes. Art was my hobby and I never thought I would take it as a profession. When I was 16, I wanted to become anything but a priest, soldier, mafia don and shopkeeper!
What made you give up your stethoscope for the paintbrush?
Becoming a doctor was an accident, from which I recovered very fast! I ran a hospital for eight years, and for the last 27 years I am a full time artist. I did like the medical profession but I found it a bit too routine to satisfy my adventurous nature. The idea of treating coughs, colds and typhoid all my life was scary. I was a doctor for most of the five star hotels that had sprung up in Goa. I presented my first works in the conference halls of these hotels, and people started buying my works, which made me realize I could make a living selling my art. So I plunged into it, fully aware that there was always my medical degree to fall back on.
What inspires you?
Art is a very personal expression of your own experiences. Inspiration for art has to come from your own life and your own living. I love life in totality, and my inspirations spring from my varied encounters. From the age of six till I was 16, I had long walks on the beach with my father every day. This consolidated my relationship both with my father and with the ocean. The ocean has been a great inspiration to me. The ocean is my master and my muse, inside and outside my work. I love to create works on the seashore using shells given to me by the sea on the canvas of sand. When I create these works, the inspiration, the theme, the medium and the canvas, are all given to me by the ocean.
Which materials do you enjoy working with?
I love working with all kinds of materials. I am an explorer of materials. Sometimes the materials inspire a work, and sometimes the work seeks materials. I have worked with sand, shells, truck tires, coconut shells, boats, bones, palm leaves, laterite stones, discarded plastic bottles, as well as the traditional canvas, and bronze. Just yesterday, passing by a beef shop (which are still allowed to exist in Goa), I discovered dried transparent intestines of bulls. These are normally used for making the famous Goan chorizo, but I hope to make them into an artwork.
What is the story behind the ‘Pepper Cross’ installation.
I got seriously involved in studying history, and unknowingly history
became a footnote to my work. I studied a number of books on Portuguese
history and an anecdote from a paper by historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam caught my attention. When the ships arrived at Calicut on 20th May 1498, Vasco da Gama sent an ex-convict to the shore in a small boat to check out what kind of a reception was awaiting them. The convict met two Tunisians on the shores of Calicut who asked him in Spanish ‘What the devil brings you here?’ He replied ‘We come for pepper and we come for Christ’. This story is the inspiration for my work ‘Pepper Cross’. I created a cross using the hull of a boat. I started making small niches in the wood with a drill machine with the intention of fixing pepper corns inside them. But the niches themselves appeared themselves like peppercorns, so I no longer needed to do it.
Tell us about ‘Death’ as a muse.
India is a country of great disparities, in life and in death. The funeral of Mahatma Gandhi was attended by over two million people and every day we have 50 unclaimed dead bodies in Delhi alone. I started studying the subject of unclaimed dead bodies around the world and discovered many shocking as well as fascinating stories. Being a doctor myself, I had a lot of colleagues working in the forensic department of hospitals in Goa. I wanted to draw the attention of the authorities to this problem because I believe that everyone deserves dignity in life and death. A colleague and I made death masks of a few unclaimed bodies in the morgue. These masks were displayed along with one of my sculptures as a memorial to the unclaimed dead. We called it ‘Unsung in life, unclaimed in death’.
How do you balance life and art?
For me, there is no boundary between them: life is art and art is life. I breathe, eat, sleep and dream art. Art is a whisper of an era of life. Life can only be balanced when it is connected with art. Life without art is definitely imbalanced. The history of human civilization is essentially the history of arts; it is the arts which differentiate us from animals. Imagine life without literature, music, theater, cinema, paintings and sculptures.
What makes art a commercial success?
In my artistic endeavor I have always considered money to be the byproduct of my art and not the objective. Sometimes one has to make compromises when you create art for sale but not really answering your call. I am not an authority on art as commerce, because for me it is too precious to be thought of in pure money. I have often tried to think of two graphs – a graph of art for art’s sake, and a graph of art as commerce. As long as the two graphs overlap, it’s good for art. Art as commerce is important, but that is not the area of my specialization.
What, in your opinion, is the state of public art in India today?
The state of public art in India is very comparable to the state of our politics. It won’t be an exaggeration to say that the last public art of substance was created in this country more than 200 years ago (there might be some exceptions). The reasons for this are manifold, such as colonial intervention. This country lacks any art policy. Art cannot be purchased without a tendering process. Sculptures in Ajanta and Ellora have stood the test of time for centuries. This is because they were commissioned and created by professionals who understood art. Today’s Members of Parliament and bureaucrats are not particularly connected with the arts,
but it is up to them to participate in the selection process.
How do you see Indian art changing?
Art has to change, like life itself. It is dynamic and has to evolve, grow, and find new shores. The British decided that Indian paintings and stylized sculptures were bad art because they did not conform to the European ideas of art at that time. They started four art colleges in Lahore, Calcutta, Bombay and Madras in order to teach Indians how to pursue art. This led to a total transformation of what India considered art. Traditional artists were sidelined, and the Indians started doing mediocre imitations of the West. They started creating their own Rembrandts and Vermeers. Centuries were wasted. Today, the situation is different. Art has shed boundaries. Contemporary art is the universal language of mankind. At the same time, one must remember that art has to be rooted in your own experiences, cultures and traditions. Indian contemporary art must establish a dialogue with India’s past.
This story was originally published in POOL 96.
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