Concept Name: Putting the Mull in Malleshwaram
Concept Note: With each passing week, across a four week process, the artist will respond to Malleswaram, it’s presence, stories and sense of life with a palimpsest of images woven across the walls, in a nook that is a time warp within the time warp that is Malleshwaram. The images won’t be of a representational register and will be evolving across the shifting mood, contested histories and public participation with both the artwork and the artist in Malleswaram.
Geechugalu: Amitabh, your interventions as a muralist have been well known; as we know from our very first gathering through a mural making initiative at Dhanvanthri Road, near Majestic in Bengaluru. Your work also spans out in the world of comics, event making, as a faculty of creative processes at Srishti, whilst being an ever evolving researcher on cultural ethos of various locales. What are some of the pinnacles of your art experiences?
Amitabh: The fact that I can work in situations that are largely not following art of a representative nature in an indigenous resolution, in a way that, you know, you can work for five days in one spot and just paint giant hands, or like a rice field, which was what I did in Thanjavur, or this giant picture of a boy eating Ganna, which is something that I’ve painted in Lucknow.
So there is that process of art, with a focus lying on your surroundings and a complete focus on an inner schedule. In Malleshwaram it was more about trying to read into a place, and then everything was planned, in the sense that everything I’ve done is a part of a structure. Structure is evolving, I am able to control that line to still be able to have a tight piece. It’s not finished yet, but I think it will be a very tight piece.
For me to have a tight line and not get it trapped in an auto-drawing mode, or not just getting caught up in the process of making it on or in the performance of making it, which is how I used to really get. The idea for it, is to not be very self indulgent but indulgent towards the place and the primary stakeholders, or towards the idea of something that’s outside of you which is an atmosphere that you want to create, so I think of those things.
It’s been nearly ten years now that I’ve been painting and I’m really happy with the opportunity that Geechugalus and Yash have given me. I must commend him for taking that risk with me, because he could have easily asked me to make something representative. But again, you know, it’s like being with your own people. I really, deeply appreciate Yash indulging me in this manner and I don’t think I’ve been self-indulgent; I got to be indulgent towards place, indulgent towards atmosphere in a manner that is very precise, yes, so I’m quite happy.
Geechugalu: Having given pedagogical direction to Geechugalu and witnessing it at its conception, what were some of the worthwhile experiences with the site projects undertaken in the past and how have your recent experiences been with the collective on the Malleshwaram Hogona project in partnership with Bengaluru Moving?
Amitabh: With Geechugalus, I think there is this tremendous possibility of having a live curatorial module. Within the current system, there is a cost to art and public images. I feel that Geechugalus is a space which can continue to create, and it has always sort of been a rough space, a rigorous space, it’s been a space of not knowing, of taking adventures, which is how I feel artists/talent such as Vyas or Param or other core members of the team have really given it direction. Geechugalu has the potential to become a very compelling curatorial agency and for us to truly explore this idea of place based curation, or place based arts, in that sense. I think Geechugalus is really holding the torch up high not just in the way that it allowed my project to shape, but the way it has allowed for all projects to shape up. I think the variations in enquiry, the rigour in the variances, really makes it a very compelling tool, I wouldn’t call Geechugalus a collective, I would look at it in a way of a tool, like a weapon, it’s a cultural force. And I hope it keeps on growing.
Geechugalu: Having had an Illustrious past of mural making with Khirki festival, St+art india, Kochi biennale, KHOJ and having been engaged in other various platforms in Abu Dhabi, the Facebook office, what have been some of the takeaways from an engagement with a set of young artists who are newly establishing themselves in the public art arena?
Amitabh: It would naturally be the pleasure of working with young minds. I myself am pretty young, not that old. I think the fact that there is no fear of failure, there is no framework through which you’re judging success or failure and so on and so forth. The focus for a Geechugalus project is always place, it’s not commerce, not that they’re mutually exclusive. Even in the partnerships that Geechugalus had for this project, like Malleshwaram Social and Gowri’s initiative with Bengaluru Moving, just by lieu of partnerships, and how on-ground the movement that we were a part of was, I felt that it really works well for a group of people to come together, all young, all being pumped by their collective vision of working in public spaces, and allows for artists like me to come in and really jump into the collective’s possibility and excitement. And you know, of course, the on ground production was immaculate, the care that I got. I don’t have objectivity in Geechugalus, in the sense that I’m so proud and so happy that the collective is evolving in the way that it is evolving. And I think Yash and the other members know how it needs to evolve. I think it just augurs well for the play of the arts in public spaces, let’s see where it goes.
Geechugalu: As a mentor in creative processes and illustration, what do you think are the dialogues that should be adopted by a conscientious street art team for a perfect equation with the stakeholders of a place?
Amitabh: Well I think it all comes down to agency and motivation. What is your motivation for doing what you’re doing, and within that what is the agency that you seek to create within the larger public, and how do you do it? I think that is basically what defines the personality of any collective working in public spaces, and it’s no different for Geechugalus. I like the fact that the idea of agency is not a settled idea. It’s always a very contested idea, it’s an idea that leads to various debates, fights, frictions within the group itself, about why we are doing this. As long as it can have a successful churning of young minds and becomes a platform, where everyone can come and deliberate on how the arts engage in public spaces. And I guess the point of a rich deliberation is to let each other person present the best version of what they envisioned in public spaces. I feel it’s getting to that point and I think you’d agree that a lot of it is just personality management.
It was lovely watching Yash watch Spandana’s process, in the sense that she was painting her first mural when she started, he was like how it’s going to be, but then his own agency became a positive one as opposed to one that’s always trying to critique. I felt it was beautiful to see.
Geechugalu: How well should the system of critique be incorporated within a public art collective when we’re going at narrative building in an informed and conscientious way?
Amitabh: That obviously depends upon who is trying to critique and who is being critiqued, I guess when it comes to the relationship between the stakeholders and the curators/organisers, there needs to be a healthy platform for discussion, debate and critique. Believe me, I have seen many collective moments peel because this space for critique was fractured. It works at various levels – between the artist and the producer, between the stakeholders and the producer, and when I say stakeholders I include government bodies, I include neighbourhoods, you know it’s a large mapping of the idea of a stakeholder in public spaces.
There have been traumatic experiences that we’ve had, such as in Dhanvantri, which was a particular relationship with the state or the stakeholders, you know, and then slowly there was a tug of war. I guess that’s what I enjoy about public spaces or art in public spaces. Art in public spaces, for me, is not just decorative. It is also a site for dialogue and war, it’s a site for discussion, it’s a catalyst that allows various stakeholders to come together and talk, otherwise what’s the reason for even the MLA of an area to come and talk to me. Or why would I care what the district collector thinks. I wouldn’t even engage with that level of government workmanship if I’m just an illustrator working in my studio, but when my own art becomes a tool, when I become a weapon, we come to talk. So I really see art in public spaces more as a platform than as a mere representational or beautifying idea. Although the government loves to call it beautification, I think it’s very political, I think it allows for a political movement to exist.
Geechugalu: Had there been any challenges that you encountered in your previous public art experiences, in terms of logistics, acquiring funding, or having partnerships with government authorities?
Amitabh: Malleshwaram was a smooth process, it was a thorough party. I loved the process, I loved being around the people, I made friends there. It was completely energising, in fact at times I used to just go there and paint for three hours because I needed to do it. It was cathartic and beautiful.
However, I think in the past there have been complete fractures and really ugly moments that have happened while working with the State because of the State’s preconceived sense of power, their own idea of what an artistic agency is, and their own sense of aesthetics. I had some really comedic moments, but that’s where I see the role of art. I mean whatever we’re doing, this mural making, it’s not just as naïve as creating a beautiful image. I mean I’ve been doing it for close to a decade now, so it’s going to have to be about something more than that for me to want to do it. The point is when you create, you can convert people, you can convert a state, you can create a moment where they see something that they did not see before because they see something massive unfurl in front of their eyes.
And I’ve seen a sea change in administration officers, in government officers, in district collectors, in commissioners, about how they saw the process before and after. What finally happened was something that was unexpected, it moved them, and they have become converts thereafter.
So I do think that in the larger discourse of a culture of art, where we’re always talking about the absence of any state owned agency or a minimal interest of the state within the arts, I feel working in public spaces, with bureaucracy, with people, like basically what you guys started doing in Dhanvantri you know, it’s a huge victory. It’s a huge victory, and I feel the images are a catalyst in that. So, I don’t see my own agency and the agency of the image in public spaces as being merely beautifying. It really has the potential of creating a larger consensus, a state run consensus towards the arts which is massive.
Geechugalu: What do you think can be the strategies to combat a situational public condemnation from occurring in a public art space?
Amitabh: You rework, man. I mean there is only one strategy and that is public consensus. It pays with public consensus, it can be born then, but for it to not be defaced, to have a life of years to come, you need to build public consensus. I think different artists might have different views on it, I’m sure Anpu has a totally different view on this, because we’re completely different artists.
Geechugalu: When we see vandalism in street art, we may encounter purposeful vandalism as well, as a manifestation of a certain politicality. What are your views on it?
Amitabh: I see where it comes from, although I don’t see the political edge of it in a place like India, because public spaces aren’t as sacrosanct and surveilled by the state, as they are in the context where Graffiti has originated. I don’t understand quite frankly; my name is Amitabh Kumar, I don’t even sign my work, people know me as Amitabh Kumar, there are no guessing games happening with my name, there is no guess who, guess what, guess when.
I don’t understand anonymity for that reason, I don’t get it. I can understand for Daku to be anonymous, because Daku is vandalising. But I don’t understand street names and all that. Maybe it’s because I’m older, and I don’t get street culture.
But, I think I see and I respect the graffiti movement. I have friends within the graffiti movement who are graffiti artists, I might not agree with a lot of them, obviously I mean I don’t do it myself so, I’m not in harmony with it, but it’s not like I disagree with anything that they do. I have massive respect for their sense of politics, I have massive respect for a lot of people who are very earnest about what they’re doing. It’s childish, it makes me laugh, but they’re earnest about it, so it’s fine.
Geechugalu: Being an artist in the street art movement, what are some of the precursors to mural making in regards to a cultural zeitgeist that you would like to share with an aspiring artist community?
Amitabh: So basically mural making in public spaces, especially large public spaces, it’s all about planning, creating systems, creating a schedule, it’s about knowing yourself, in the sense your workflow, and your strengths, your interests, your resilience, stamina etc., but it’s a very technical space. If you don’t think that you are naturally inclined to draw, it is still a space where you can very easily exist in, because of the virtue of it being so technical in nature.
You need to be very clear about at least where you’re coming from. I like to spend a lot of time on the projects that I do, like there is one that I’m working on right now, where we’ve really spent about a year just researching, reading, arguing, creating arguments, etc. Once you do that, there are the technical details of how many days it will take for you to make it, how you start, what you do on Day 1, what you do on Day 2, Day 3, Day 4. I like to enter a process, totally planned, down to the detail of a lunch break. And that was the difference in the Malleshwaram process. I guess one general advice to people who are painting murals is that you will get better with time, like you will be drawing much better on your third day than you did on your first day.
And the first day, no matter if it’s your hundredth mural, or if it’s your first mural, it’s going to be a shitty day. So the first day, you have to be a bit kind to yourself, like me on the first day, I’m totally relaxed, I forgive everything, I’m the nicest person to work with. Towards the ending of my mural process, I’m a monster. I’m the opposite, because by then you’re in a flow, you’re in a rhythm. It’s like the concept of ‘second wind’ when you’re running, the idea that you stop feeling the physical rigours of the tasks, there is no pain, there are no aches, and you’re just running at a rhythm. It’s like flying a kite, you get a spar and the kite flies on its own. And that’s why I love long processes, and that’s why with Malleshwaram I wanted to come back and paint. With Harshvardhan, we speak about that a lot, he gets the same phenomena. The first day, you’re slow, you build up rhythm, you may work for six hours a day, second day you work for 8 hours a day, third day you work for 10 hours a day, and by the fourth day, you should be able to hold down 14 hour schedules.
Geechugalu: Are there any changes you have witnessed personally in the locale of Malleshwaram, and if any, what are the changes you would wish to see through your art intervention in the space?
Amitabh: It was under lockdown, the palpable changes were far and few, but yeah I did see, I do hope they light up the space, I do hope they can put some public seating in that space, because I think that, I would like to sit and read a book maybe. It’s a great background for various kinds of activities. My neighbour next to my site was Kumar, and he is a theatre veteran. With Kumar, we got talking about the possibility of it being like a rehearsal space for theatre and theatre enthusiasts. So definitely if it becomes a symbol that the neighbours feel ownership of, I would be ecstatic if it becomes a functional space.
Geechugalu: Do you carry any personal connections with Malleshwaram? If yes, what were some of your fondest memories?
Amitabh: No, I don’t carry any personal connections, in fact I don’t ever, I try not to visit a piece ever after I’m done with it. There’s a clean cut, there’s no personal connection to that piece or space or place at all. Nothing personal. Like I said, I make myself invisible right, technically there should be as less of me as possible and as much of the place as possible. So I really don’t care if a graffiti artist chooses to paint over that piece, it’s fine man, it’s cool.
Geechugalu: How did the idea and process of incorporating the light in your piece and working around the outlines of the shadow and light, sort of come about?
Amitabh: It came about almost impulsively, that’s the first thing that hit me about that place. And I really struggled to address it. I like to do a little bit of research and try and see what is the best response. In my gut I really knew I wanted to create a piece that is constantly transforming with time. I wanted to create a temporal sort of artwork. I think that struck me. That’s the first thing that strikes anyone, when they go to that place. It’s the light or the absence of it. So the fact that it was that, it was the atmosphere, was always very clear, but I think the way I chose to respond happened only when I chose to respond. It was literally only when I made that first mark, on that light, which made me go like, Ah! That works, and then tak tak tak tak tak.
Geechugalu: Was there any significant event that occurred in terms of the community around and people getting involved in the dialogue in the scene?
Amitabh: There was a little girl who became my boss and was really waiting for me every day, because I think she just liked to call me a lazy bum.
So she was like, ‘hey lazy bum, you’re not working hard enough’ and she was raw right, she had this very Peppa pig sort of an accent, so imagine Peppa pig getting really angry with you, so it was really funny. But the other time, something which really touched me was when I had been chatting with Kumar’s sister and her husband. It was about 7 o’ clock in the evening, and it was dark, and I was waiting for my cab to come. And I see these old people with torches coming to see the artwork, in pitch dark. And I’m like what’s going on, and they had brought their friends and sons and stuff to see what’s happening in the neighbourhood, in complete darkness with torchlight.
I was like wow, you know, I instantly remembered that Ullas Hydoor had done something for Scratch the surface. He had created something and he wanted to shoot it in light, with shadows happening. So I never thought of my work in darkness being seen with torchlight. Moments like these make you really expand your own ideas. Maybe I’ll just do a piece meant for a dark lane, I’ll just make something you can only see with a torchlight. So stuff like that, it was fun, it was quite lovely.
There was also this one time where there was this piece that I had done in Shahpur Jat, which was a very dark period. And like Anpu really helped me, she saw this happening to me. It was a little like a hardcore Jatt colony and I was painting something that nobody could recognise. Every day I came down, there were these five to ten hulking men waiting for me to come down just so that they could surround me and tell me what a waste of time this artwork is. Basically they’d been trying to incite me, and I felt disintegrated. I was perplexed, those were tough times but I Iearnt quickly.
I think other than that, I mean like this Thanjavur experience that I had right now with St+art, was also really funny, but I really don’t see it as something that made me feel vulnerable, in fact, it made me feel empowered.
Geechugalu: Although we can really pin down every bit of the process and narrative, and have everything well meaning, certain experiences can be unprecedented. How do you think one should go about certain unforeseeable experiences in a public space?
Amitabh: Each process, at most times, is never smooth. And nobody wants to waste time bickering. So I take total responsibility for any crew that I work with, in the sense that even if I’m working with Geechugalus or with St+art or with Curves and Colours, or with any different company; even if it’s a commercial project, the human resource, well being of that project is my job. That’s why it’s important for the stakeholders to be happy, the cops to be happy, it’s important for Yash to be happy, not just with everything else, but with other people in the team.
If I behave in a certain manner and just have some positive traction movement, to be able to create a positive project, then I’ve done my role.
All in all, nothing goes fully as planned. So many times, I’ve gone to paint a huge big piece where I’ve worked for months altogether and then overnight, the night before I’m supposed to paint, I’ve been told that the client or the district commissioner wants something else. And I’ve done it. And I have made those changes overnight. I am transparent, my only role there is for all these guys to be happy with whatever that’s there on the wall after I’m done. Simple.
Geechugalu: So is there a complete elimination of the self in that dynamic as a public artist?
Amitabh: There has to be, not just for myself but, this would be my one piece of advice to those who are trying to work in public street art. Please don’t just jump into it thinking it’s a lot of money, or of the thrill of working on it. Because you have to eliminate your needs and wants from this piece, it’s quite frankly not about what you want, it’s not about what you need.
Ideally, in a good process, in a good project, I am transparent, like I’m not even there. Also, murals are not the only creative practice that I have. I have cast my net wide, so I make comics as well, I make drawings, I would like to do merchandise, I’m drawing specifically for t- shirts. Comics are the space where I just pour myself out, it’s a very satisfying, satiating space. Mural making isn’t an overtly expressive space for me. It’s a political space, it’s a managerial space, it’s systematic and technical. But I would bring in my skill, my chalks and my craft to the table, and bring in a good temperament and a good attitude as well.
I’m very clear about this, both as an artist and as someone who has and will, in the future produce events. As a producer, I don’t want to work with a diva.
In this dynamic, everybody was doing this for the right reasons. There was no creative insecurity involved. And I feel that was the most wonderful thing about Geechugalus.
Geechugalu: Are there any expectations or visions you foresee in a street art intervention?
Amitabh: No, absolutely not. That’s my secret to happiness, no expectations. But I take what I get at face value, I’m a bit obsessed in terms of what the dynamics of particular projects are, and because I am fortunate to work with a large network of people with different dynamics, I’ve seen different set ups in the way they work, and I appreciate them and respect them for what they are. I’m not being politically correct here, that is the only way to function. Otherwise, it’d become very difficult.
Geechugalu: How was your experience with Bengaluru Moving x Geechugalu at Malleshwaram?
Amitabh: It was fantastic, I hope Yash and these people invite me again and give me an opportunity to do something totally different. I feel humbled at being given the opportunity to take a risk, with the way I was reading the place and allow for that reading to manifest as a very specific Graphic atmosphere. So for me to be able to do this at this point of my career, it means a lot. Because usually people want representative stuff, everybody wants things they can see and understand, again maybe it just comes down to my relationship with Yash and you and others, for having the confidence in my ability to do it.
But beyond that, I feel what I find the most endearing about this emerging collective, is that there is a sense of adventure, a sense of honest risk taking and having your heart in the right place. And pun intended. In fact, Geechugalus should do that live – ‘Geechugalus, we have our heart in the right place’.