He goes back to the time when he was two or three-years-old. Living in a haveli built on high-grounds, with his family in Patiala, he remembers how he would use the charcoal meant for fuel to draw figures on the walls and ground. Right now, artist Ranbir Kaleka, whose works are part of the exhibition ‘The Conference of The Birds’ presented by Ojas Art and Yuva Ekta Foundation in the capital is in his home in Sarvapriya Vihar in New Delhi, but only physically.
“It was not a very large family. There were times when I would be alone in one part of the haveli, just drawing and looking at the dust rising from one of the huge windows. My father, grandmother and my two uncles would always appreciate what I was doing and encourage me. In fact, when I was four-years-old, my father declared that I would be sent to an art school,” says the artist who completed his Master’s degree in painting from the Royal College of Art in London.
Talking about his work ‘Conference of Birds and Beasts’ (a digital collage archival inks and oil on canvas), which is part of the exhibition, made during the Commonwealth Games, which besides birds and animals also shows the bridge that collapsed — a kind of post human city, Kaleka, whose work often centers around themes of animals, sexuality and tradition, says, “It’s also about creating a world where the man is not at the centre of the world.”
The artist, who first combined video and painting with ‘Man Threading a Needle’ that was exhibited in 1998, and also co-founded the Patiala Film Society recalls that his love for the moving image can be traced back to childhood, when one of his uncles would wrap towels around his belly, wear different colored turbans and carry a lantern. “He would cast a shadow on one of the large walls of the haveli and do a kind of shadow play, which was quite wonderful. One day, from the balcony I saw a moving image and asked my uncle what it was. When we went there, a public message film on malaria was being screened. I was too stunned to speak. When at last when the projector went off, I saw just a van and a piece of cloth. And of course, in the later years, I had a mentor like Lali, who had an amazing library and introduced me to many great authors,” says the artist, who initially trained as a painter, and over the years one has seen animated two-dimensional canvases within experimental film narrative sequences in his works.
Kaleka stresses that when it comes to producing art, it is very difficult to tell what comes from where. “From one’s personal life experiences and even art history. Sadly, in India, we study Indian art much later… And of course things that touch you deeply become the source of whatever you are making. Painting is a material object when you are looking at it, its image falls on your retina in an instant, but the real image comes with time, when you have closed your eyes, when you are away from the artwork. It continues to live in you and grow on you. Then it connects with some of your own personal experiences in life. So whatever enters an artist meaningfully or as an emotion visually, or through words, forms whatever you are creating be it a painting, sculpture or cinema,” says the artist who showed at the 51st Venice Biennale in 2005.
Stressing that it is high time that Indian art schools updated their syllabus and approach, Kaleka says that art is not just confined to painting and sculpture – there is Performance Art, Sound Art, and creating anything, an event which is meaningful in any way to human life. “Art is not just a business, it is not meant to be. Students must be encouraged to open their minds to art’s huge possibilities. They should be free to create their own sense of art and not just follow what is contained in books. Everything should not be too idea based.”
Lamenting that there is very little painting happening in the contemporary world, the artist feels that the eye does not get sensitised enough if we do not look at paintings close enough. “If people feel that paintings are outdated, then you are losing to what the civilization has to offer. Even art critics I have seen cannot tell why a painting is good. Why is a certain painting good or better — they like to hear from others. With different ages, diverse art forms get prioritized, but this loss of de-sensitised eyes to visual beauty or the nuances in a work of art is really sad.”
Kaleka, who recently finished some commissioned works, feels there is no rule that teaches you when a painting or an artwork is finished, and it just feels right or wrong, or just doesn’t quite feel right yet while you are working on it. “Whether you are moving away from it or coming back, some sense tells you, ‘why don’t you tweak this a little’, and then it suddenly falls right in place. It feels that a peculiar tension has evaporated from the body.”