Rajesh Pullarwar, Mumbai (India)

(Click on image for title)

Our first stop on our trip was Mumbai, India. My head kept wanting to compare what we were seeing with familiar experiences of my past. Because of this, I had flashes of my time living in New York. The busy subways, the people on the sidewalks just trying to get to work, and the feeling of life or death while simply crossing the street. However, I couldn’t under-estimate, just how different Mumbai is from anywhere I had been; the sheer volume of people left you with no other choice but to go with the flow, jump on a moving train if half your entourage has already embarked and you were to be left behind in an unknown station, and also the type of visual exhaustion and stimulation you feel when closing your eyes at night. I wanted to get out and see what the contemporary art scene had to offer. We visited many galleries, some commercial, others non-profits, and I’ll cover some of these on this blog.

We started our studios visits with Rajesh Pullarwar, who also happened to be our gracious host. Rajesh received a BFA from the Sir JJ School of Art in Mumbai, India, in 2000, as well as an MFA in 2002. He has presented solo exhibitions at Chatterjee & Lal, ARTIndia Gallery, and Phillips Contemporary, in Mumbai, as well as group exhibitions at Tao Art Gallery, Mumbai and bCA gallery, Milan.  He is represented by Chatterjee & Lal, and if you spend any time in The Pierre, a Taj Hotel located in New York City, you will find a whopping commission of 450 editioned prints of 13 works throughout its suites made by Rajesh.

Rajesh has a dynamic personality, believes no one goes hungry in Mumbai no matter how poor they are because people are so kind and generous with what they have. He is also a visionary in his print making fostering a practice in alternative processes to create masks for his printing. In the installation Organized Orgasm, and many of his serigraphs such as the ones seen below, Rajesh replicates the act of masturbation in his studio by eliciting extreme sexual feelings and releasing a tube filled with polyvinyl-alcohol mix at the moment of mental climax. The design is then used as a block for the silk-screening process. The moment of release is important to his practice, where there is a momentary lack of inhibition of experiencing happiness, love, and the letting go of sadness all in one moment.

Rajesh Pullawar, DON'T WORRY b HAPPY, performance, 2009

Rajesh Pullawar, DON’T WORRY b HAPPY, performance, 2009

In his work “Don’t Worry b Happy”, created for the 2009 Sowing Seed International workshop at Sar village in Jodhpur,  a masked Rajesh approached strangers in the street with small mud pots filled with color powder (known as Holi, different colors of powder is released into crowds of thousands dying them in multicolored splashes for the color festival)  and invited them to imagine their anger, manifest their emotions into the pot and to throw the pot onto the ground as a release of their destructive emotions. Only when the pots broke, did the participant see the unique patterns of their anger in the colorful swirls on the ground.

Releasing of anything gives satisfaction. Release of the sadness is crying too, happiness is always released by laughter, dance. But anger turns into violence. We always keep anger inside which comes to destroy…They were happy to break the pots of colours with their anger. Releasing urine, stool, cough, sperm, sweat from our body always gives us happiness. So it is in the release of our anger, that I wanted us all to be happy…

“26/11” is a commonly spoken date in Mumbai, much like “9/11” in America. It is the first day of three in 2008, when terrorists came through the city killing 163 people and taking over the historical Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai. The Taj, opened in the early 1900s, and has housed artworks of the most revered Indian artists (Vasudeo S. Gaitonde and Jehangir Sabavala for example), and because of gunfire, bombings, and fires during the attack, the artworks were very badly damaged. After the attack the Taj started a restoration of its historical architecture, which also included a restoration of the Taj’s art collection, facilitated by Mortimer Chatterjee of Chatterjee & Lal. When the hotel reopened, Rajesh Pullarwar was commissioned to create a painting for the hotel lobby. I’m not sure how art can repair such a senseless attack, I’ve mostly ever known it to critique, or as a protestation of things to come, but certainly empowerment is present in installing an artwork after such an act. I noticed in my time in India that a lot of artistic practices revolved around these very positive actions of restoration, healing, and cultural empowerment.

Vasudeo S. Gaitonde Homi Bhabha Study Oil on canvas 1959

Vasudeo S. Gaitonde
Homi Bhabha Study
Oil on canvas

I have worked with many artists, who have challenged their political state through artistic measures. Using the guerrilla act to mimic social unrest, scarring their bodies and using blood in performances, even going as far as body manipulation to critique authoritative systems. I was curious to know just how important social politics would come into play for an artist living in the densest city in India, seeing poverty on a daily basis, and considering Mumbai is subjected to the most terrorist attacks and bombings in their country. What does art look like in this context?

Mireille Bourgeois (MB): Can you tell me your thoughts on whether social politics is a priority in your work? In our further discussions on art, you maintained that though art should be in some way based on beauty and should make the viewer emote, it should also have purpose and a reason for being, can you elaborate?

Rajesh Pullarwar (RP): My works question the human behavior, sometimes it makes fun at certain mental status and orthodox culture. When works question the human being, then it concerns itself with social politics, but it’s not the priority in my work as such. I believe  art should be in some way based on beauty and should make the viewer emote with the purpose and a reason of being.

MB: What is the most difficult challenge or most pertinent topic being discussed of being an independent artist based in India?

RP: Money! HAHAHA, Its true! ‘Indian contemporary art’ has only 100 years of history. It is only just now adopted by Western culture. So its not established yet – many emerging artists are still struggling for their survival.

MB: I want to ask you, especially after our previous conversation on politics and art, how it felt to be asked to make an artwork for the restored Taj, after such an attack in your city? (Artwork is the first image on this NY Times link)

RP: I had talked with Taj authorities before creating the work and I asked them about whether the terrorist attack on Taj should be focused. They told me that Mr. Ratan Tata didn’t want people to remember the nightmare of the attack. I too believe that people should get pleasure from art without fear.

MB: Do you feel art can repair, heal, and restore faith in your everyday environment?

RP: I believe that if you start forgetting bad things, then you can live peacefully. “Wound doesn’t get cure, if you scratch everyday.” Violence is never the solution for anything.

MB: I do not live in a place where I need to fear violence in the same way: how do you go about your day to day, after such attacks have taken place in your city?

RP: The place we are staying is not horrible as is thought. We are very calm and peaceful people, since India doesn’t believe in violence.

Our nation is built on the philosophy of Budhha and Gandhi. Whatever terrorist activities happened was from neighboring countries. Even first world countries are under the fear of terror of inhumane activities. So I don’t think we are under any fear. I have seen people go to their offices the next day of an attack.

MB: What’s next?

There will be Tsunami and earthquake .. HAHAHA. Never planned for future. I never imagine the aim. I keep doing my work without much expectation from the future so whatever I get in my time will surprise me.
There is a saying “Bhagvdgeeta (gita) Karm karo, Fal ki chinta mat karo” which means Do your work honestly, don’t think about return.
 I always find it really interesting, even if unsurprising how universal the challenges of art are. The debate between craft and art, the renunciation of certain elements of tradition, yet the association of philosophy and religion in the critical eye of the artist, which is in full swing in Mumbai. Below you will find a gallery of Rajesh’s past works. Click on image to view title and year.

Rajesh is the founder of the International Print Exchange Program, a printmaker network where dozens of print-makers from various parts of the world send their work in response to an annual thematic. The prints are grouped together and an exhibition package is sent back to the artists. The exhibit is shown by Rajesh in a premier but then any of the artists can take it upon themselves to exhibit the works after that point. Works from this exchange has been shown around the world and takes on a life of its own. This year’s thematic is Fear described as:

A universal experience that haunts humanity in its multitudes in as an effect of differences. The world is filled with these notions as an individual or as a community, country, race, caste or creed. The differences arising from sociopolitical agendas, difference of faiths, gender, economic interests. Thus fears exist about war, terrorism, of uncertainty and the fears which are politically and culturally manipulated either through violence or dogmas.

After many passionate debates and discussions about religion, family, art, and spirituality, I’m very happy to count on Rajesh as a new friend and collaborator. I’m also quite honoured to be writing a text on the topic of Fear for the Print Exchange, joining artist and writer Nikhil Purohit  who will also write a text for the official catalogue launch Fall of 2015. I will add the free downloadable catalogue to the “shop” section as soon as it is ready.

Me, Rajesh, and Joe at the Kanheri Caves, Mumbai (India), Feb. 2015

Rajesh, Joe and I at the Kanheri Caves, Mumbai (India), Feb. 2015


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