Ranjani Shettar’s interviewers are fixated with the materials she uses. In “Sun Sneezers Blow Light Bubbles” which was part of Dewdrops and Sunshine exhibited at NGV International in Melbourne in 2011, delicate, thready structures that appeared to be bouquets and soap bubbles, floated in mid-air. The sculpture was unequivocally beautiful, but, if such a thing was possible, the shadows it threw on the walls were even lovelier. The sculpture’s gossamer quality came sharply into focus when you learned that it was fashioned out of solid steel, with a special appearance by muslin cloth.
It’s a game Shettar often plays – challenging herself with the materials she employs and gamboling with the viewer’s comprehension.
Her ingredients have ranged from traditional concoctions like tamarind kernel paste and kasimi to rigid mediums like rosewood and steel. In a critique of Shettar’s exhibition Present Continuous, in the July- August 2011 issue of Art Asia Pacific, curator Deeksha Nath spoke about her tendency of “…subverting and forcing the material to acquire a property alien to its essence.” At the Bhau Daji Lad Museum, where Shettar has just returned from a stint at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, ten sturdy, yet fine, sculptures will similarly be coaxed into submission at High Tide for a Blue Moon.
Shettar’s exhibition – like past shows at the museum such as the recently-concluded Social Fabric, and those by celebrated artists like Sudarshan Shetty and Jitish Kallat (whose Fieldnotes: Tomorrow was here Yesterday, was also shortlisted for the 2012 Skoda Prize for Indian Contemporary Art) – will also speak to the museum’s collection. But where Kallat’s vitrine figures and gargoyles were a nod to the display areas and the museum’s architecture, the connections in Shettar’s exhibition are slightly tenuous. For instance, one of the exhibits at High Tide… is Varsha, the artist book that MoMA produced. The cover of the book, which includes an essay by author Anita Desai, is rendered in Bidri style, a metal inlay technique in stone and wood from Karnataka.
The MoMA launched a run of 150 artist signed copies. “I wanted to take something that was inspired by my geographical location,” Shettar told Time Out when we met her at the museum, “so I borrowed from the concept of the panchang [local almanac based on solar and lunar movements] and tried to interpret the monsoon visually.” The 16 prints in the book take their titles from an equal number of nakshatras: “Ashwini” is a solar etching and laser-cut; “Bharani” is a solar etching, silkscreen, and laser cut; while “Mrigashira” is a woodcut and laser cut. Most of the book is visual: even the title is inscribed only on the book box and the Desai essay comes in an insert. “I wanted someone like her to do the text,” said Shettar. “I was reading The Artist of Disappearance and thought it would be great to have an essay independent of the artwork, but about the monsoon. The essay and the book are parallel; they don’t intersect or try to interpret each other.”
Varsha isn’t the first time Shettar has focused on a natural phenomenon. In a 2011 interview with the American luxury magazine Robb Report, Shettar had said, “Sunshine plays a critical role in my work as it is a life-nurturing element. All my works are inspired by nature.” Clearly, the artist extends that engagement to her mediums as well. The eponymous sculpture of the present exhibition, for instance, is a complex, floor-mounted grid made from dried coffee stem – offset by the striking blue automobile paint it is rendered in. The sculpture is a throwback to her childhood: Shettar, whose mother is from Coorg, grew up seeing the coffee plant being used decoratively. “It has a beautiful character, and I saw how it was pruned,” she said. “I have lived with that imagery for so long, but had never considered using it [before].”
In the wall- and ceiling-mounted “Scent of a Sound”, Shettar evokes the experience of walking through a forest. The sculpture is sparse, but immersive at the same time; it is fashioned from stainless steel, muslin, lacquer, and tamarind kernel powder paste. As a student at the Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath, Shettar felt constrained by the pedestal-mounted wood or stone-carved pieces that the training demanded.
“There were things in my mind that I needed to translate that I couldn’t using traditional materials. So I had to cross the boundary,” she said. She started using fabric and rope, and gradually moved towards sculptures that could float and be suspended in the air. “Now I dig into my memory, growing up in little places, and the way people around us worked with such materials.”
The Hoysala sculptures at Belur are another distant influence. “I must have been six, but I kept wondering, ‘How does stone turn into something like this?’” she said. “I came back home and tried the same thing with another stone and nothing came out of it.” But in the current exhibition, Shettar is showing kinetics, achieved through the traditional craft of blacksmithy. There are times when Shettar allows her medium to dictate her pieces. She came upon a log of rosewood, that later turned into “Stretch” (2010) – the smooth bar looks like a literal version of the integral symbol. “I am guided by the wood form,” she said. “It is something that already exists, and I take that into consideration.”
“Stretch” lies on the floor, but with Shettar’s suspended sculptures, interviewers are quick to draw connections with her father, an engineer, who’d guide her during her student days on the mechanical dynamics of a piece. “He appreciates what I do, but he doesn’t always get what I do,” said Shettar. “But when I was a student and working in his garage, he’d tell me straight out, ‘This is not going to work.’” Almost a decade later as Shettar has made the journey back home from New York and Seattle, no one, not even her father, will be able to say that.