But this artist loves it since introspection is not always bright and cheery and uses tar as it both covers what’s inside and eats up light but gives it back in another way.
There’s a wide-eyedness about Chittrovanu Mazumdar that has nothing to do with our surroundings at the Taj Mahal’s House of Ming restaurant and everything to do with the huge success of the India Art Summit in New Delhi. “The buzz of last week,” says the only Indian artist to have shown solo at the country’s largest art fair, “the pulse, it’s extraordinary. I could not have imagined it if I had not seen it.” And yet, in the midst of the hosannas and applause, he slipped back to Kolkata for a day because his wife wanted to come to the capital to see the shows, and there is no one else he trusts enough to take care of his “three rescued dogs”.
It’s a little like the artist’s world that he inhabits. “This recognition,” he says, “it’s so temporary. For one week in a year you come out, then you’re back to being a hermit in your studio.” He’s enjoying his outing — the recognition and fuss and being managed and photographed, even his lunch decided for him by Dubai-based gallerist Malini Gulrajani who declares that he likes seafood, so we’re up for squid and shrimp and fish and even a seafood broth that, when it turns up, alas, has more vegetables than things meaty in the soup.
By then, of course, we’re in the midst of our discourse. Mazumdar is well-read, if ‘self-taught’, reclusive with his thoughts but generous with his words. As one of the foremost artists of his generation, now in his 50s, he’s transgressed the space of the romantic idyll of art of the Government College of Art and Crafts that he topped in 1981, to his recent, morbidly dark works interred in tar, which he labels as “progress towards new directions”. Fiercely protective of his privacy, he does, over soup and starters, hesitantly, but lucidly, share why he opted to stay in Kolkata when he returned to India after his stint at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, Paris.
“It’s a comfort zone,” says the artist who was born in Paris but grew up in Calcutta, “I needed a place when I was returning, a city that offered me shelter, and the only city I could afford was Calcutta.” His reputation had been made by the mid ’80s, but back then, there was very little money to be made, the market was still nascent, and Mazumdar, who works from several spaces — his studio, foundries, furnaces — is clear: “Wherever you are, you can do your work.”
His reticence made it easier for him to settle in. “The making of art is a totally private act,” he uses chopsticks for his calamari, “you aren’t confronted by any other eye but your own when you’re in the studio. Then you break the walls to share a bit of your private moments, and that is extremely traumatic.”
Mazumdar looks the role — his long hair is hurriedly pushed into a ponytail, his shirt is crumpled — but there was a time, a couple of years ago, when he was accused of being more corporate than artist, arraigned for manipulating his prices. “In Calcutta, with no connections…” he drifts off, still hurt at the allegations, which Gulrajani hastily clears up. “There were auction houses and galleries playing with his prices,” she concedes, “when his price was Rs six lakh, they were selling him for Rs 30 lakh.” “One had no control over it,” Mazumdar admits quietly, “but on the flip side, working in Calcutta, I didn’t know what was happening. As an artist, I must have the liberty to conceive my work without any connection to the market.”
He seems to enjoy his food, even pronouncing the sliced fish “very good”, but Mazumdar seems fonder of reading, fonder still of music “from Bach to heavy metal to hard rock”, having played the electric guitar for a while, and now arranging the music, composing and recording it for his own work, some of it as background for his installations, others for his videos. “Earlier,” he qualifies, “you were known as a painter, a sculptor, but now you have the freedom to be anything, you have the license to take up another medium, there is a great sense of liberty. To that extent, the viewer also has to take that journey with the artist, to commit himself.”
Till recently, a slice of Mazumdar’s artistic journey was simpler to assimilate: Most of his work was in acrylic, there were collage-like snapshots of ‘memory’, bright splashes of colour, an abstract, slightly lonely, but poetic quality to the canvases. Now, there’s a video of a dead calf on a forest floor slowly disintegrating into the earth, interred as a violently-cast memory that needs burial. He’s entered a dark patch with newer mediums with memories deliberately buried under layers of hot tar, just the mounds of their corpses reminding you of bittersweet yesterdays. Some of this sombre phase has to do with his “extreme passion for black”, some with the fact that “introspection is not always bright and cheerful”, but mostly, he says, the plasticity of tar “has a quality of magic as it melts, becomes another state, eats up light and then gives it back in another way”. In this, he agrees, he’s “covering, submerging what is inside” as he tackles “the probability and improbability” of the likely result. “There are days when you just have to call it off,” he explains.
The restaurant has slowly filled up with families, out for a Sunday lunch, conversations and cutlery make happy sounds, children giggle, or wail, but Mazumdar is oblivious to them all, having finished his main course, settled for a cup of Chinese tea. Is he, I ask, a disciplined artist? “I work day and night,” he mulls, “I have friends in Paris who work from 10 in the morning till the evening. I’m not disciplined like that, but I’m organised.”
He could give up Kolkata, he could even grow out of his morbidly black phase “to something electric in colour”, he smiles, he could learn to take more breaks to visit different cities to revel in their energies and art, but of one thing he’s sure: His work, he insists, will always be referenced to India. “Just as you want to go to Mexico to see sombreros, and taste Mexican food, so the West wants to see Indian art with an element of Indianness. The moment the artist transgresses that territory…” his voice trails off.
Yet, he elaborates, “The artist does not seek boundaries, he must have the licence to navigate and choose” even if it results in a “conflict of viewing” for the buyer. “The stamp of the artist,” he says, “should not get trapped”— unlike the memories he has deliberately set out to erase — “in this” — his recent work. Equally, displacement from skin and city are important “to go out and feel the pace of different cities”. Delhi has surprised him, and he’s already planning his next solo here, en route to a fair in Mumbai, planning more collaborations with the Dubai-based 1x1 gallery where, he exults, “suddenly you’re opening doors to an audience of different taste, reading and culture”.
We’ve run out of food even for thought by now and Mazumdar must go where “you can create your own fuel”, he says, “your own work”. And I have a Sunday siesta to catch up on.