Every day in 2021, Jitish Kallat woke up and drew something. The pandemic was raging, and on the page, he wrote three numbers: deaths that day, births, and the world population. The resultant drawing filled up one wall, like a huge wallpaper, at Chemould Prescott Road in Mumbai as part of Kallat’s solo exhibition, Otherwhile, which ran from December 4, 2022, to January 4, 2023. On December 4, 1997, the gallery had opened its doors to a young Kallat for his debut solo exhibition. Otherwhile, which opened on the same day 25 years later, was a commemoration of his journey as one of India’s foremost contemporary artists.
Kallat’s oeuvre lies at the confluence of history, mathematics, science, philosophy, and geometry. As a commemorative exhibition, Otherwhile—consisting of painting, sculpture, photography, multimedia, installation, and collage—reflected on the key themes of Kallat’s art: birth, death, evolution, time, and transience. Some of his new works hark back to those he created in the 1990s. Through them, he explores important existential questions that can also talk about climate catastrophe and ecology in the mind of the viewer. Edited excerpts from a Zoom interview with Kallat from Mumbai:
What has changed in the 25 years of your practice and what has remained the same?
Nothing remains the same, ever, right? You and I have changed in the course of these three minutes of conversation. My work mirrors the changing self, and hence, there isn’t a commitment to consistency for the sake of consistency. Several works begin to make sense in relationship to each other, sometimes after five years or a decade. For instance, it took 10 years for the “Public Notice” trilogy to come into being in its entirety. Similarly, there are smaller bodies of work where an utterance finds better articulation, meaning and purpose and feeds into further inquiry into another set of works in three- or four-year cycles. There’s a cyclical rhythm to my work.
At the same time, a few elements have remained consistent, not because of me or the work but because they are fundamental to existence, such as questions about time, birth, death, mortality, transience, evolution, entropy, that preoccupy us all. PTO, my debut solo exhibition opened on the same date [December 4] in 1997, when I was in my early 20s. The essay in the catalogue points to themes which are central to Otherwhile.
How do you conceptualise time as a visual artist?
Time, in and of itself, would not be available to us as experience. If nothing changes, there is no time. Without biological, physiological, cognitive experience, there will be no time. We’ve set up a watch to govern time. If you didn’t have a watch, you’d have to hold on to your heartbeat or to feel that you’re breathing. Time, in a way, manifests as change. That’s the only way we see time.
There are works of mine where sometimes time is allowed to be felt because there is no other way. Say, I make a drawing where a fire erupts. In the absence of another force, wind will talk to fire, leave a mark. The drawing then becomes a residual experience of flux in the studio backyard and also a transcript of an invisible, inaudible conversation between wind and fire.
You have said that the city street is your university. But you create works of epic proportion and scale. So how do you explain that?
I said this very early in my artistic life to mean that the campus doesn’t end within the boundary of the art school. As early as 1997, there are works of mine such as “Evidence from the evaporite” and “He followed the sun and died” where there is this figure facing the sun and the shadow keeps moving. The sundial is actually made by the human body. You can step out on the street, look at traffic headlights, look up, see the stars and then look back at the street again. After you have looked at the stars, the street does not feel the same. It is a momentary change of focal length.
And that, I think, is a persistent condition in the studio. I create situations where I am forced to look at the sky. These nights I am keeping a full ledger of the moon, which has been mapped alongside an ongoing work for a year. We are studying the moon very, very closely for the last year and checking each of our calculations. I have to look at the moon because it’s a condition, part of a set-up.
You use a wide variety of disciplines in your art—mathematics, science, philosophy, geometry. Is the multidisciplinary approach central to your work?
Yes. For me, geometry is important. I don’t have access to the tools that a career mathematician has, but I do look for what you call “syzygies”, for alignments. Syzygy is a word which is functional both in astronomy and mathematics. You look for alignments: for instance, a date can align and produce a beautiful syzygy of meaning, metaphor, and poetry.
Just as you project the future in your work, you also look back at history. How important is this shift in time to your practice?
I figured this out many years ago, in two particular moments. One is when I curated the second edition of the Kochi Biennale: there I started reflecting on my curatorial work from the outside and asking, what am I actually doing? The second time was when I had a retrospective curated by Kathleen David, the Deputy Director of Centre Pompidou in Paris, showcasing works from 1992 to 2016. I realised while working on the retrospective that my work frequently does something we do every day—looking back and forth.
It could include the scope of the last hour or the last week, or the days leading up to Christmas. Whatever is the focal length of that moment, we make meaning, narrative, story, to localise ourselves and act. We look close to see if the pen we are holding is going to leak, or we look far to see if there is a car coming towards us and if we can cross the road. We are looking beyond the scope of our bodies in space and time all the time. My work exaggerates it. It tries to look at our cellular death by looking at a dying star. Trillions of cells have died in all our bodies just as several thousand people have died. Change is happening at cellular and celestial levels. These optics, focal lengths, are simply a way to make meaning beyond the restricted space-time boundaries of my own perception.
Tell us something about your experience as a curator.
I curate as an extension of a very strong, fundamental inquiry that I pursue. So Tangled Hierarchy [latest show curated by Kallat] is a delicate interplay of conceptual signs and pointers. It is, at some level, a thought experiment in the form of an exhibition, challenging any kind of media reading. It’s got historical artefacts, scientific artefacts, and artworks, all interacting with one another. That possibility drives me.
For instance, in 2021, I curated an online project called I Draw, Therefore I Think, which reflected on what it means to curate online. We had a virtual opening where on a Miro board, a planetary drawing was being produced both by participating artists and audiences. As they drew, their cursor would say their name. Say, somebody logged in from Germany, you could see their name and drawing. It was a little gathering of cursors. For me, it was a question of what it means to draw. What does it mean to think?
There is a drawing by Charles Darwin, where he writes, “I think”, and he’s starting to think about genetics and the phylogenetic tree but has no words beyond “I think”—a bit like how I run out of words in the studio. He writes these two words and then draws a tree and its branches. The drawing is the starting point of the exhibition. It involves the bigger question about evolution in a virtual project with multiple countries, several artists. This is the kind of experiment that forms the basis of my work.
Sukhada Tatke is a writer and reporter based in Edinburgh. She writes on books, culture, immigration, and history.