Adip Dutta & Oindrilla Maity Surai

An interview with Adip Dutta



Oindrilla Maity Surai (OMS): You belong to a generation that marks its inception in the early 1970s; thrived in a climate of national emergency; witnessed several decades of the Communist regime when finance and public sector art flourished in their own conservative way and saw the coming of age of the financial deregulation. There also occurred two major incidents: the Gulf War and 9/11 that affected us however vicariously. How do you think the period post- 9/11 impacted artists of your generation? Did it make it any easier for you to access international platforms?

Adip Dutta (AD): In 2002 I got three scholarships – the Charles Wallace, Paul Foundation­ and the J.N. Tata Endowment Loan Scholarship. Goldsmith’s was in London and it would be expensive as post-9/11 there was a resource crunch all the world over. I was therefore requested if I would opt for other possibilities such as in Cardiff, in Wales. I chose Cardiff but finally couldn’t make it to any of these places as I was offered the job of a permanent faculty in my alma mater (the Rabindra Bharati University in Kolkata). However, I had been to Germany to attend the Documenta through the Goethe Institute’s support and travelled to Frankfurt, Kassel and Berlin. Everywhere I went I heard of the subsequences of 9/11. Many of the young girls who showed us around shared stories about how they were refused jobs in the last moment due to the incident. Before that, I was sent to Scotland and London by the university. A number of foreign magazines we subscribed to (Span, Ajker GermanyGerman News and others) suddenly were reduced to a smaller size. The cost was curtailed in every accord. Education was spared somehow, and therefore, quite a few of us travelled abroad despite the difficult time. Sanchayan (Ghosh), too, had received Charles Wallace the following year as did several others.

OMS: What were the major changes brought about by the open door policies in about the same time? 

AD:  The work of senior artists begun to be sold at a remarkable velocity and at surprisingly higher prices. There was suddenly a bubble after the introduction of newer policies.  But ‘India Shining’ lost its glory soon enough. In 2006 I signed with the Aicon gallery in London. I had my solo with them the following year when I learned that a global recession was inevitable.  Returning from a trip to Ladakh in 2008, what I witnessed was a terrible situation. The lull affected us more severely than did 9/11.

OMS: How did these convulsive times reflect in your work? 

AD: I responded to major political and social upheavals as a fresher or University pass-out would. The Gulf War or the Buddha Smile in Pokhran; or the demolition of the Babri Masjid impacted us deeply and academically resulted into a tendency toward decoding of history by many scholars and Cultural Theorists such as Geeta Kapur.

OMSThe Eastern zone, has for many years remained conspicuously segregated from the main art cities and centres of the country. The reasons are several. However, I see the lack of industrialization and infrastructure as subsequences of the thirty-four year-long Communist regime, making it immensely difficult for young and mid-carrier artists in West Bengal who have had to jostle not only with regional problems but national as well, while finding a niche in the global platform, given that there are nearly four international biennales in the country now. How do you cope with the challenges of the global-local-national continuum?

AD:  When I entered the university as a student in 1993 the practice was different. So were values. Art was valued differently. There was a gradual graph in the process of making of an artist, who’d create art and exhibited in a gallery and an Art Historian or Critic would review it. Academy of Fine Arts was a public art space or say the Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai – a potent cultural milieu in which the artist would be recognized gradually. I was acquainted with this organic process. I was aware of what could be unethical but not any further. However, globalization generated this art market with an artificial buoyancy. After globalization, around 2000 and the succeeding years a number of commercial galleries began to emerge in Kolkata like everywhere else. Gallerists began to pour into Kolkata upon returning from their trips to Santiniketan. I came to know of several Bombay and New York based gallerists this way but was not aware of certain facts – that the gallery system exerted an exclusive right on it’s artist or what was meant by signing up with a gallery (like a soccer player does with the camps) and hence ended up with a bitter note with one. On the other hand there were now international art workshops such as Khoj Kolkata began to emerge. I grew aware of several things – how the gallery system operates: an exhibition is created not for a fixed number of local audience but for a worldwide intelligentsia; how the public space loses its importance and how the private gallery gradually emerges as powerful, replacing the former or how certain values get wasted and become redundant as new ones are produced.

OMS: How did you as a student feel about the limitations of your alma mater, which was perhaps the only post-colonial institution in Kolkata during your time but not without its moorings which were only too modernistic? How did you try to challenge the institution’s position when you became a teacher in the same faculty?

AD: Rabindra Bharati, in the 1990s exhibited a certain degree of flexibility. Partha-da’s (Partha Pratim Deb) uninhibited and indefatigable ventures were influential not only to the Painting department but extended well beyond it. It was a major influence in the Sculpture department as well since his recruitment during the 1970s. Partha-da’s practice brought about a cultural transformation. On the other hand, internal clashes between the Faculties were few. I don’t quite think I could work in the same way if I were to work at the Govt. College of Art and Crafts or in similar institutions.

For instance, Debanjan (Roy) and I worked on an ambitious scale, which was different from the usual sculptures on pedestals and their sizes. (This way) Globalization perhaps impacted us quietly, silently. We wanted to create and inhabit a large theatrical space in which Debanjan’s wooden animals, which were necessarily folk in nature and contained many other elements were displayed. Mine were socio-political in nature. It was in the year 2000. We felt that we became self-contained…

OMSThat started a new trend in the history of the University… 

AD: … Well, one might say that, for many of our immediate successors, our juniors, followed that model of displaying in a theatrical space and at an ambitious scale and we were fortunate that the University supported such ambitious ventures and individuality. My challenge to the institutional practice materialized through my production of the body of work. The very structure of the University absorbed such a practice, for, had it not been so, I wouldn’t have been considered or offered a job as soon as I graduated.

OMS:  Your work during 2000 and the following years included numerous elements. What were your concerns exactly during your solo exhibition at the Aicon Gallery, London, in 2007? You were more concerned with the transposition of objects then and tried to incorporate numerous elements. How has that changed over the years? What interest you most, now?

AD:  I had worked on gender politics prominently for Project ’88.  There was an international public forum which largely addressed the issue and it was prominently felt that India was growing more responsive to such identity-crises then….

OMSYou and Jehangir Jani were often mentioned together…

AD: Aicon’s choice of venues where they showcased – Singapore Art Fair, Istanbul Art Fair, and Hong Kong Art Fair – where Chinese art was gaining prominence, there was a huge clientele for Chinese art which made me aware of certain facts and there was a growing tendency among us to simulate those concerns. My teachers in the Sculpture department were prone to ‘manual finish’ of the objects but Chinese art taught me the idea of giving an ‘industrial finish’ to my work. It had also impacted several of my contemporaries.

OMSWhat happened to the course of that journey?

AD:  I started with object making since 2004-’5 and was also part of my Aicon show in 2007. They even showcased some of the objects such as the [life-sized] mummies which I made during my Master degree programme and flew them to London and Istanbul. They acquired them later. When I was no longer comfortable working in that direction I shifted and chose to experiment differently. During the same time I got to know Prateek and Experimenter and thus took a different avenue.

OMSWhere have you finally arrived today?

AD:  You also wanted to know about my concept. My training was in Sculpture and I’ve responded to my objects, my materials, and my practice as a Sculptor. You’ll notice – if there is a psycho-analysis – that there is a filter, which is whimsical enough and which originates in every artist due to many reasons. What passes through it is vital to the artist. During my experiments with the objects, I have become a collector of objects collected a vast range of them which I might show if I continue to work as an artist for the next two decades. These are banal objects but they have passed through my ‘sculptural’ or a ‘drawing’ filter while I rendered them. Some of these were contraptions and cages which I showed in the second solo show in London (2013). I’ve also included other objects along with the contraptions which coalesced spontaneously. And people responded saying that it is ‘a relation between the trap and the trapped’. The ‘trapped’ took the shape of the ‘trap’. I also began to realize that the animal who’s caged begins to feel the cage as its natural environment, its reality and remains insulated in it. This is how examining cages and pain came about. A large part of the objects I’ve collected also comprises of handmade tools made for manual usage, dating back to the 1960s and ‘70s. I became interested in who makes these and where are these applied. This particular interest in the tools led me to the exploration of construction sites. There are nuances, though. Any dugout space triggers one to imagine a primitive site and instantaneously and psychologically associates one with archaeology. I believe that the object and space are part of the same process. One sculpts an object. One sculpts a space, too. It would be nice to see someone sensing the same even after twenty years. And I can go to my grave happily if I find that I’ve been able to generate a new meaning, however faint it may be.

Initially, the objects that I drew were segregated from each other. They used to be floating in the picture plane without a ground. Observing the construction site and the dugout spaces made me ground my objects on a solid plane. I see space more consciously now. A couple of years ago, I exhibited a blown up hair-clutch in the dug-up space at Experimenter and placed soil underneath it, [projecting it] as a pseudo archaeological, archival object.  I did not consciously try to talk about archaeology, but in a certain sense, it remained implied. I can see space much more clearly now.

OMS: From your associations with personal possessions and objects of intimacy which reflected themselves so much in your work in the preceding decade you now seem to be more interested in a world which is external, impersonal and public. I see this journey as a dissociation from the private and more outwardly.  How’d you like to account for this change?

AD: Someone once mentioned that I had created a niche for myself with the objects in my earlier works. But those objects, such as the snake, the archival photograph, etc. had a visual register with I have tried to simulate in my present set of work. There was a certain theatricality in those objects. The theatrical elements, however differently, are also present in my recent work. A set of drawings of a construction site which I produced in 2014 were numbered with the Roman numerals, as ‘ plates’ I, II, III, IV and so on like the documentation of the colonial city of Calcutta by Danielle. I saw them exactly the same way as archival objects as I would see the photograph in my earlier work. But these selections are not abrupt or impersonal. There is a linear process. I’ve seen houses getting reconstructed. Identities change. So do our ideas about them.

There was a time when sexuality and sensuality had different meanings to me.  Once you cross a certain age, you start considering other things. The way I experienced pleasure and disturbance, the degree in which I experienced dejection, the way these were relevant to me have changed. Today I’ve no compulsion to be vocal about my identity. With age, you somehow grow comfortable with yourself. I no more feel threatened. There is nothing to conceal anything either. Identity changes when you feel threatened. I’m completely at ease with myself now. This allowed me to look into other things in life. I cannot accept things that are completely detached from me. They come through a channel and are allied. They have a history. An archaeology. And even pseudo archaeological positioning. Through these an object is transformed. I chose the specific objects because they have a history. The handmade tools were imported from Germany in the 1960s which stopped coming after the 1980s. They were once used largely in the factories of Bombay and Delhi where they no longer were needed now and the market shifted to Kolkata. They were bought back as discarded objects. I’ve responded to their discarded identity as a Sculptor and built up a narration this way. Back in 2011, I had tried to camouflage identity by placing banal objects in hierarchical positions.

OMS: There is now a lot of shift in positions – you distance yourself from immediate issues, topical, and journey to a detached, transcendental plane, where your work becomes almost stoic and meditative. Do you think it is, in one way, a reconciliation with yourself? 

AD: My practice and my technicality even in those early years forced me to remain meditative, and though I’ve not addressed the world around me, I’ve tried to address my immediate being. But now the horizon has broadened for me, or my immediate being. I’ve come out of the concern for my identity. I used to see certain things very passionately but that led to a certain narrowness. Projecting the ‘self’ was a concern for me in those times. Now that I’m more comfortable with myself that I can say there is a transposition of the self into so many other things. So many have said that there is a melancholy in my work. And in fact, when I finally sit down to draw, it’s a very solitary, meditative dialogue. Let me also tell you – I have always had a sense of loss. It was with me in the formative years as it is now. Now I think of people who are no more. I’m reliving their experience in an uncanny and eerie way as I age. The spaces they once inhabited also perished with them. There is a loss of people and thereby loss of spaces and this somehow is reflects in my last exhibition (By Darkling Ground). With these realizations I enter into my mid-life. But I don’t have a crisis because I’ve emerged. I’ve worked addictively which helped me sustain. There’s probably a filter that I too have developed, which helped me transform myself.

Image courtesy: Experimenter, Kolkata. All images are from Adip Dutta’s latest solo exhibition, By Darkling Ground.

Adip Dutta is a sculptor based in Kolkata and also an assistant professor at the Department of Sculpture, Faculty of Visual Arts, Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata.

Oindrilla Maity Surai is an independent curator and research scholar pursuing her PhD in Cultural Studies at Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, West Bengal.

2 comments on “An interview with Adip Dutta: Oindrilla Maity

  1. Ina Bharadwaj

    It has been interesting to understand how RBU changed and influenced the perspective of Installation Art so as to say of the present time in Kolkata!

    • Oindrila Maity

      Many thanks, Ina. In addition to your observation, the Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata also happens to be a post-colonial institute and therefore, is devoid of much of the regimentation and the myopics that characterize others institutions founded by the European rulers for the production of craft and draftsmen in the city.


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