Ranjani Shettar is a young Indian artist currently working in Bangalore, India. Her artwork has been exhibited at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, MA; Ninth Lyon Biennale in Lyon, France; and the XV Sydney Biennale in Sydney, Australia. Currently, her work can be seen at “Life on Mars: 55th Carnegie International” in Pittsburgh, PA.
You were born in Bangalore, India, and you continue to work there?
SHETTAR: Yes, I do.
You were trained as a sculptor in Bangalore?
And you’re represented by Talwar Gallery in New York?
SHETTAR: That’s right.
Do you primarily live and work in Bangalore now?
SHETTAR: For the moment, yes. But, I’m in the process of shifting to the countryside, so I also work from there.
What is it like being an artist in Bangalore? I know there are quite rural areas in India and Bangalore is more of a high‐tech area. Is the environment positive for you as an artist? Does the rural landscape lend itself to you with regards to your materials and other choices you make?
SHETTAR: Bangalore used to be a fairly pretty small city. But in the past couple of years, it has grown exponentially. There is a lot of technological development here, and a lot of young people moving into the city. The city is becoming bigger and the infrastructure doesn’t support that many people, and whenever you have that kind of expansion of city, it’s too much traffic. To make space for the cars, you widen the road and cut down the trees… and I’m not very impressed with that. And yes, I used to love my city. So that’s why I want to move out and work some in the countryside. There are art schools here— I moved to Bangalore for my art education. I’ve lived here for the past 12 years now. It’s a small artist community, and everybody knows everybody. And it’s a close‐knit artist society.
Do you have a group of artists that you collaborate with, or discuss work with on a regular basis?
SHETTAR: Not formally, but yes, of course. We do interact. Earlier, there used to be more shows in town, but now artists are getting busy, and are doing more shows abroad. Today artists are traveling more, but we keep our conversations going. We keep our discussions going. We share what we see outside and we’re in our own studios and there’s construction.
The development of technology, the high‐tech activity is predominant in Bangalore at this point?
SHETTAR: Yes, very much, because most young people go into technology. There are, in this one city, over 125 engineering colleges. It’s the center point. Every software company has its office in India and in Bangalore. So technology is the most prominent picture. But I’m not really connected to that world.
I’ve read that your work draws from some beliefs in Indian culture and traditions. Can you elaborate on that?
SHETTAR: I mean that is something others read into my work. It’s not essential that I look at it like that because I am an Indian. I’m born here, so that’s why my work might be Indian, but otherwise, I feel that important things are working with ideas that are more of yourself, which have nothing to do with the region as such. To me it’s not the culture. It’s the life that keeps my work going. It has nothing to do with religion or culture.
Tell me about your piece “Just a Bit More” in Carnegie International. It’s made of thread, hand‐molded beeswax, yes?
SHETTAR: That’s right. ‘Just a Bit More’ is a piece made of beeswax and cotton threads dyed in tea decoction. It is in seven segments. This happens to be the fourth in a series of four beeswax pieces. After every piece, there was more to explore with the language and express more, so they all happened. I started out with a simple piece ‘Thillana’ which was about music, rhythmic music and was trying to capture the movement of melody. I had not quite explored color with beeswax and so ‘Vasanta’ happened which also had music as part of it and formally, color was an addition. It was a free-falling piece like ‘Thillana’ or ‘Just a Bit More.’ I decided to do a piece that would have more colors in beeswax as well as threads connecting them, along with some sculptural qualities, which I achieved by fixing it on the ceiling as well as floor, thus I was able to twist and bend forms. So ‘Hoomalae’ happened, the title means shower of flowers when literally translated, it actually means shower of blessings. After these three pieces, I still had more to do with this material and language. At that point ‘Just a Bit More’ happened. Here I am dealing with organization, connections, formal aspects of space, color, form, line.
What would you want a viewer to walk away with after seeing your work in the International? What impression would you want them to learn or understand, or maybe think about later as they recalled your work?
SHETTAR: I don’t think in that manner. I do something and then, now it’s up to the viewer– these works, they’re up over a long period of time. So I’ve gone through periods of sorting ideas in my mind, and it all solidifies in one work. Somebody might sense how somebody might be able to see an arrangement of another thing. Somebody might want to know the theory behind these. So it’s all good for me.
Your work combines natural materials, fibers, cotton, wax, but you also produce works that have high‐tech themes. Can you tell me about that? These are dissimilar properties that meet in your work, I believe, and can you talk about that at all?
SHETTAR: I am constantly observing materials around me and looking at possibilities. For me my materials do not have to always come from an art supply store, they could be from anywhere. I often look at craft material and also use craft techniques as they are generations old and refined. I use materials that can convey and add to my idea. I am open to using any sort of materials. I like to use my hands to make my sculptures, so they are very tactile. Sometimes I do use high‐tech materials like silicone rubber, stainless steel, etc. Every material has uses and associations that are particular to each one of them and so they bring in their own meaning into works. From an idea to a tangible sculpture is a long journey, sometimes very labor-intensive.
Can you put me inside your thought process from when you begin to conceptualize a piece of work to your material sourcing, to the creation of your work? For instance, do you create a study or a work‐up beforehand, and then work to realize it? Or do you create as you go?
SHETTAR: Each work is different. I come up with an idea and find a suitable process and material to work with or sometimes it is the other way round where a material triggers an imagination. I go through long research. Sometimes it takes a very long time to develop a work. Sometimes it is very spontaneous and happens without much experimentation, preparation or any sketches. My imagination is triggered and sparked by life around me and nature. From an idea to a tangible sculpture is a long journey, sometimes very labor-intensive. I like that process because I can drown myself in my work completely.
Can we talk for a bit about some of your other work? There’s a piece, which is called ‘Me. No, Not Me, Buy Me. Eat Me. Wear Me. Have Me.’ Me, you know, not me, which I found to be just great. It’s a three‐dimensional series of sculptures?
SHETTAR: I made this piece for Sharjah Biennial. I had a chance to visit the site before I could start on anything. Whenever there is an opportunity like that, I like to make use of it. Places and people are inspiring and stimulating. I looked at various things while I was there, heritage houses, people, street markets, industrial areas, gold souks, malls, etc. One image stuck with me, a huge pile of car bumpers, rather than a wall of bumpers. A month later we figured that it had come all of the way to India to be recycled, probably raw material that came from here originally! I had seen heritage housed in Sharjah that belonged to rich businessmen of that area in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They were big, but not really luxurious. Walls were all made of coral, just because that was the only solid material available and suitable for construction. Objects displayed in these houses– that are museums today– are humble, practical, purposeful and beautiful because of their simplicity. Today it is so different, even a small family has thousands of possessions. Buildings around the heritage houses were in contrast to them in every way. Another thing that struck my mind was the excessive consumer trend of today, which is not exceptional to Sharjah, it is a trend all over in every country. Cars, especially junked cars, represented the peak of consumerism to me. I decided to go into my own city’s junkyard and pick up car bodies to put this piece together for the show. In some cultures recycling comes naturally, in some it is an elite habit. In a country like India objects live many lives, they do not retire fast, there is always a use for an old object, although it is fast changing, after all, it is a fast-changing society. It was an awakening going into these junkyards. There is a huge economy out there, many lives are supported by the economy of junkyards. It was a huge learning experience for me. I had to always have a male escort with me not because I needed protection or help to buy old car bodies, just because I wanted the men there to take me seriously and know that I really wanted to buy those old car bodies. They were always skeptical about me and my intention of buying old car bodies, they wondered what would I do with them. Sometimes they did not want to sell them to me. I collected junked car bodies which ranged from cars that had served their lifetime to new accident cars junked. I wanted to make sculptures and place them in the old heritage house in the vicinity of other functional objects. My sculptures looked like objects that could have some function, however had no function other than being art. I look at the ancient craft of basketry as a reference to start with, as baskets and pottery are the most essential things in any household if you went back in time by a couple of hundred of years in any culture. By doing so, I was weaving stories of these many cars together. I have chosen to keep the original colors of the cars here.
So I went to my own junkyard to where they ripped apart old cars. It was an interesting journey for me. I went there and then I started buying all these old car bodies and then putting them together in this form. So there are cars which are really, really old, which have served their term. It’s done, so you have to break it apart. But there are the cars which are junk because it was an accident car or just an old car. Every car has its own history, and it brings the story of its owners, so I cut them into strips and made them into these organic‐looking forms. I was trying to make something that looks very organic, but at the same time had all this– which represents continual and recycling.
So is the title a request from the car parts? Somewhat calling out?
SHETTAR: It may not be the cars, cars are only a metaphor here for consumerism. It is about smart packaging of goods and marketing. Every object is crying out and saying buy me, eat me, wear me, have me, it is about that.
There’s another work that I looked at, entitled “I Am No One to Tell You What Not to Do.” I found that to be very interesting. That, too, is a sculpture installation?
SHETTAR: Yes. I made this sculpture in San Antonio at Artpace, residency. Here again, I had a chance to visit the site much before my residency. I looked at various things while I was there. I went to a wood dump that was like a city dump. They had huge tree logs out there that were from the roadside, fallen, road widening, trees cut for several other reasons. I went back home with this image. I was looking at the possibility of using local material. I figured mesquite is a very hard local wood. It is considered a pest as it grows deep roots and draws a lot of groundwater. It is hard, grainy, and polishes very well, however it does not grow straight and is infested with worms. So, it has no other use than barbecuing, due to its fragrance, and flooring. I have already worked with the idea of pests in my earlier work ‘Red breeze, green breeze.’ I took it further in this work by addressing the relationship between pest and host in various symbiotic relationships. I was looking at algae and fungus coming together in lichens – one produces food while the other brings moisture, it is a mutual dependency there. I was also questioning the difference between were pesticide, herbicide, and genocide.
I used two contrasting materials here, mesquite a natural material to make forms that looked like mushrooms– a form of fungus and silicone rubber a man‐made material to make algae-like structures. Basically, I got the forms of wood by cutting and throwing away worm-infested portions. My forms were guided by what was left untouched by worms. By taking the idea of symbiosis I was not trying to preach anything, so I called it ‘I am no one to tell you what not to do.’
I did want to ask you about your travels as well. You’ve exhibited in various places of the world and traveled extensively. Tell me what is your impression of the U.S.— its people, government, and its standing in the world?
SHETTAR: My interactions have always been with artists, museum people, and generally people connected with the art world. My interaction with the general public has been very minimal. I felt like connecting with people in general, people who are the majority. While in San Antonio, I chose to work with teenage moms, who were all half my age and had kids.
I wanted to engage with them, learn about them, share my experiences. It was really interesting. We all made some traditional drawings together, it was fun. At the same time, I got to know them. They were not much different from people I know from other places. Human feelings are all the same. Everyone wants a better living, all are vulnerable.
Where in the U.S. was this?
SHETTAR: In San Antonio.
How would you describe India’s presence in the world? How do you think it’s viewed by other countries and the U.S.?
SHETTAR: I think it is a growing economy a place for big businesses to flourish. I think it is looked upon as an interesting and important place. It is looked upon as a destination for new ventures. However, it is uncomfortable when people look at it as exotic. Sometimes there is an expectation to see Indian qualities in the artworks coming from India. I think it is unfair; one does not expect to see German qualities in a German artist’s work, one does not look for Canadian qualities in a Canadian artist’s work, why is Indian art expected to look Indian? Every culture is different I agree, there are things that are universal too. Human feelings are the same all over, expressions could be a little different. A culture is exotic to a foreigner, not to one who belongs.
What are you working on now? And what has influenced that?
SHETTAR: Right now I am wrapping up some of my old projects. I am doing a piece which I have called ‘Touch Me Not 2.’ After that, I am going to be starting with some new works and that is exciting for me.